The Peculiar Truth about the First Superhero

  • Five years before Superman was created, and six years before Batman, the first American superhero appeared in pulp fiction. His name was Doc Savage.
  • Unlike Superman, Doc Savage wasn’t an alien with amazing powers. Part Batman and part Sherlock Holmes, he was a wealthy scientist, inventor, and adventurer with great physical acumen like Bruce Wayne. But Doc didn’t wear a suit, mask, or cape, and he didn’t disguise his identity. His key physical attributes were his muscular body and deeply tanned, or bronze, skin. Hence his title the Man of Bronze.
  • He lived in the penthouse suite of Manhattan’s tallest skyscraper and traveled the world on daring adventures in pursuit of evildoers with his team: Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom, Johnny, and occasionally his female cousin Pat.
  • Between 1933 and 1949, the hero appeared in the monthly Doc Savage Magazine — not a comic book but a short novel with a few illustrations.
  • Every issue was attributed to the author Kenneth Robeson.
  • Lester Dent was born in 1904 to a rancher and a school teacher. Throughout his youth, he lived in Wyoming, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
  • Dent loved reading pulp fiction, and he submitted his own writing for publication.
  • After his very first story appeared in print, a publisher offered him a job. Dent moved to New York City.
  • Then the Great Depression struck, and Dent moved back to the Midwest.
  • His luck changed in 1933 when he was offered a job writing about a new action-adventure hero the publisher concocted named Doc Savage. Back to New York he went.
  • For 16 years, Doc Savage Magazine hit newsstands every month. The character appeared in 181 issues.
  • The prolific Lester Dent wrote or co-wrote 155 of them.
  • But every story was attributed to Kenneth Robeson.
  • Collective names, or house names, were common in pulp fiction. One writer might create a series, like the Shadow, and then give way to ghost writers. Two writers often collaborated on one story. Kenneth Robeson was that publisher’s pseudonym for a collection of writers.
  • Yet Lester Dent wrote the vast majority of Doc Savage tales by himself, typically over 100 pages every month.
  • That’s roughly 1,200 pages per year, or the near equivalent of four 300-page novels. For 16 years.
  • Like his fictional hero, Dent went on to study science and electrical engineering, learned to mountain climb, sailed the Caribbean on his own vessel, became a licensed pilot, and traveled the world.
  • Dent later returned to the rural Midwest where he wrote crime novels — under his own name — until his death by heart attack in 1959.
  • Between 1964–1990, every original Doc Savage story was republished in paperback form.
  • The author of every book was listed as Kenneth Robeson. None were attributed to Lester Dent.

ALSO:

  • In the same year that the first Superman comic was published (1938), Lester Dent wrote The Fortress of Solitude for Issue #68 of Doc Savage Magazine, a story about the Man of Bronze’s secret hideaway in the Arctic. Twenty years later, the Superman writers stole that idea and put the Man of Steel in his own Arctic lair also called the Fortress of Solitude.

Dan is the author of over a dozen novels. His latest is Tight Five.

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