Who is the First Superhero: Doc Savage!

by Patrick Bain

The-Phantom-1-209x300 Who is the First Superhero: Doc Savage!Who is the first superhero?  As a comic BOOK guy, I would have always gone with Superman.  He had the costume, the powers, and eventually, the catch phrase.  Of course, Superman busted onto the scene in Action Comics 1, 1939.  But Superman wasn’t the first character to wear a costume, fight evil, and star in a visual storytelling format.  That honor appears to go to Lee Falk’s Phantom.  His comic STRIP debuted in 1936, three years before the “strange visitor from another planet”.  The “Ghost who walks” certainly deserves some love–he fought evil AND had a costume.  However, for the sake of this series of articles, I prefer to go back a little farther to another medium.  I assert the first superhero is Doc Savage.

Phantom 1 from 1962 (Gold Key)

Can Doc Savage Claim to be the First Superhero?

Scarlet-Pimpernel-1934-Film-300x248 Who is the First Superhero: Doc Savage!Many probably realize Doc Savage did not originate as a comic book OR comic strip character.  His lineage traces to those short novels printed on low quality paper called “the pulps”.  So, since I’m changing the media once again, could D’Artagnan from the Three Musketeers or the Scarlet Pimpernel qualify as the first superhero?

Alexandre Dumas created D’Artagnan.   His heroics as a swashbuckling fencer won him a place among the Three Musketeers.  The Dumas book was published in 1844.  D’Artagnan’s derring-do could be compared to any modern superhero.

Doc-Savage-Magazine-1933-The-First-Superhero-212x300 Who is the First Superhero: Doc Savage!Now, let’s consider the Scarlet Pimpernel.  Many modern superheroes conceal their secret identities, not unlike the Baroness Orczy’s hero the Scarlet Pimpernel.  In her 1905 play, Sir Percy acted the wealthy playboy by day concealing his skills as a master of disguise and escape after dark.  Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon starred in the 1934 film.

Besides these heroes, surely Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan are nothing short of superheroes as well.

Doc-Savage-Comics-1-210x300 Who is the First Superhero: Doc Savage!Doc Savage Magazine 1933 – 1st appearance of Doc Savage sold for $22,800 through Heritage Auctions in December 2020.

Doc Savage Comics 1 – 1st appearance in comics, only 25 CGC graded copies in all grades.

Man of Bronze Origins

Clearly, my thesis that Doc Savage is the first superhero is about as put-together as one of Doc’s oft-torn shirts.  After all, Doc Savage as the brainchild of Street and Smith honchos Henry W. Ralston and John L. Nanovic wasn’t published until 1933.  Nonetheless, the character brought to life by Lester Dent and others under the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson enjoys an enduring place in my heart.  Credited with inspiring facets of the Superman mythos, Doc Savage is no slouch in the battle against evil, either.  So, I will declare his merits as “the first superhero” and reflect on some amazing Man of Bronze collectibles along the way.

Collectibles Worth their Weight in Flake Gold

Walter-Baumhofer-Painting-for-Red-Snow-1935-201x300 Who is the First Superhero: Doc Savage!Doctor Clark Savage, Jr can be identified by his bronze skin, giant frame, and flake gold eyes.  And you may need some of each if you plan to buy an original pulp cover painting by famed artist Walter Baumhofer.  Cover art from Red Snow (1935) measured roughly 30 inches by 20 inches and sold for $84K in 2019.  Baumhofer reportedly painted about 550 pulp magazine covers including many early Doc Savage works.

Doc-Savage-Magazine-1934-The-Monsters-211x300 Who is the First Superhero: Doc Savage!Doc Savage art, pulps, and comics from the 1930s and early 1940s typically can’t be found in the dollar bins of your LCS.  However, a high quality collection recently sold through HA.com.  As an example, a FN+ copy of Doc Savage The Monsters fetched $1,260.  The Bookery’s Guide to Pulps list value is $900 in VF condition.  Because of the poor quality materials used in creating pulps and wartime recycling efforts, relatively few high grade copies exist.

With a Little Help from His Friends

Except in my own mind, no one is convinced that Doc Savage is the first superhero.  I’ll close by citing some of his super heroic qualities.  First, he is a mental and physical workout warrior spending two hours a day on exercises to hone his body and mind.  Next, he is a genius and expert in almost every field, including the medical profession.  Doc is a team player, as well.  Like Superman, he has a team of competent heroes he associates with, even though he doesn’t really need their help.  And finally, his tattered shirts are a signature look, practically a costume.

With little media presence, Doc needs some help to stay in the frontal lobe of today’s superhero connoisseurs.  For that reason, I’ll write some additional Man of Bronze articles, each focusing on a different generation of Doc’s exploits.  Certainly, the Doc collectibles of the period will be highlighted

For those who like old heroes, check out my article on Dick Tracy.


FOOTER_Comic3-scaled Who is the First Superhero: Doc Savage!

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algonwolf December 24, 2020 - 9:27 am

A fun, intellectual exercise. What about Zorro (All-Story Weekly August 1919), or, if we are switching media, the Lone Ranger (Radio WXYZ January 1933) and Green Hornet (Radio January 1936) – It is hard to not see the similarity between these 3 and Batman (secret identity, rich, masks, and 2 have sidekicks).

But if you really want to make arguments about “first” superheroes, how do you not bring characters like Hercules, Achilles, Perseus, Jason, Beowulf, King Arthur, 47 Ronin. Every culture throughout history has their own super heroes.

It was a fun exercise considering “who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Patrick Bain knows! (insert scary laugh) (Radio Detective Story Hour July 1930 or Print The Living Shadow April 1931)

Patrick Bain December 24, 2020 - 2:10 pm

I agree algonwolf. I’m not sure if you are part of the Doc Savage Club Facebook page, but there’s been considerable conversation there about the different heroes who might qualify. (No one went back quite as far as you, though!) Then the question became, how do you define superhero? Even presidents and war heroes were nominated. I like all three of your first choices and the Shadow was the first name that came out as preceding Doc Savage!

Patrick Bain December 24, 2020 - 11:12 am

I’ll welcome ALL comments, even IF you want to remind me that Superman debuted in the summer of 1938, (yes, I messed up the debut date)! By the way, my first superhero, my Dad, was born in January 1939, hence my gaffe! 🙂

Dave Stevens December 25, 2020 - 3:23 pm

I was going to mention the date but your answer may well be Dr. Occult. Esoterica aside, Superman should still be considered first. Most of your examples don’t include the super aspects that make them superheroes. There have been heroes and gods before but not some mix of both, like Superman. The rest are basically overperforming men.

Patrick Bain December 26, 2020 - 10:17 am

I like your thinking Dave. One commenter on Facebook said a definition of ‘superhero’ needed to be the starting point for the discussion. I would agree with that and it seems like you are thinking along the same lines. I think someone could write a fascinating book on the topic of superhero history (or even a doctoral thesis)!

Lloyd Cooke December 24, 2020 - 10:54 pm

Doc Savage is not a superhero. Neither is the Scarlet Pimpernel. Nor is D’Artagnan. Can you guess why? You got it right when you mentioned the Phantom. Yes, it’s the costume. Plus, he uses an alias and fights crime. Obviously, powers are not necessary which you validated when you nominated Phantom, S.P. and D’artagn as superheroes: no powers. Just having a costume alone won’t make you a superhero. Also, if we all know and acknowledge that Doc Savage influenced superheroes, how can he be a superhero? Need more? Watch “Kickass” — superheroes, no powers. But they have costumes, they fight crime and operate under aliases.

Patrick Bain December 26, 2020 - 10:26 am

Well put Lloyd! I think the combination of costume, powers, and secret identity are all attributes we associate with ‘super’heroes. Of course, we’ve seen about every possible variation on those themes in comic books. I would argue that extraordinary courage, daring, intelligence, etc. that “powers” a hero could be enough to merit the term ‘superhero’. (Even if the hero does not wear a colorful costume or hide his or her identity.) Thanks for jumping into the conversation!

Koschei December 25, 2020 - 2:29 am

How about an article about the first Super Heroines. Black Cat, Miss Victory, Phantom Lady & Miss Fury come to mind.

Patrick Bain December 26, 2020 - 10:20 am

Excellent idea Koschei! I don’t know much about any of those characters so a little research would be necessary. Do you have a thesis for this essay of early super heroines that you feel needs to be explored?

Lloyd Cooke December 26, 2020 - 11:03 am

” extraordinary courage, daring, intelligence” –not necessary. Other characters have those. Secret identity is not either. Don’t you watch “The Avengers” movies? Also, secret identity would leave out your nomination of Doc Savage. I’ve thought this out. We don’t have to revert to a scattershot approach to define what makes a superhero.

Patrick Bain December 26, 2020 - 2:17 pm

Just to clarify, I was making the point that those attributes may be at “superhuman” levels in some characters making that their power. And to your point about the Avengers movies and modern heroes in general, I agree that secret identity is certainly not closely guarded among heroes as it was in say the sixties when countless stories focused on that element of a superhero’s life.

Lloyd Cooke December 26, 2020 - 4:54 pm

There are superheroes who don’t have secret identities.


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