I recently read Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, the first in the Doc Savage series. I thought it was pretty bad. In fact, I’ve never been a fan of the Doc Savage books. I’ve read maybe a dozen or so and while they often have interesting beginnings, and some rather cool concepts, I’m usually pretty bored before the end. So I started to wonder why, and I believe I’ve figured out a major reason.
I just don’t like the character of Doc Savage, mainly because he’s just too damn perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I like for my heroes to be heroic. I like to root for the main character in a story, and I don’t root for true anti-heroes, such as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. But I like my characters to have complexity and at least some areas of gray.
Conan the Cimmerian, created by Robert E. Howard, is a good example of the kind of hero I like. Some call him anti-hero but I disagree. He certainly doesn’t always follow the rules of societies he finds himself in, but he clearly has an internal moral compass. He doesn’t betray a friend. And when he becomes king he indeed rules for the betterment of his people. He’s far from perfect, though. He was a thief when young. He’s ambitious, not above drunkenness, and has a weakness for women. These things make him far more human than Doc Savage and far more real. They also mean that he isn’t 100 percent predictable, as Doc Savage is.
There is one character who is pretty close to a true anti-hero that I do like, and that is Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane. But even Kane isn’t “quite” out for just himself. He has respect and liking for some people. He’s not just a vicious psychopath, which is how Hannibal Lecter was drawn in Red Dragon and through Silence of the Lambs.
I’d like Doc Savage a lot more if he ever had a lazy moment, or drank too much once in a while. Or, for goodness sake, what’s up with this “no women” thing? As I was reading this last volume there were several places where it talked about how Doc couldn’t allow himself to be weak toward women because he had such lofty goals. Reading it with today’s eye, I immediately thought, is he gay? Of course, many of these books were written in the 1930s and 1940s so they are dated in this way. But Howard wrote about Conan in the 1930s too and the character doesn’t seem nearly as dated.
A too perfect hero just doesn’t work for me. Give me a Conan type every time.