Doc Savage’s Hair: The Coiffe of Bronze

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Recently someone in a Doc Savage Facebook group asked a question, and it was a good one.

The question was: How did we go from the Doc Savage as depicted on the covers of the magazine, the man in his thirties with normal hair, to the grizzled looking man with the weird crew cut and widow’s peak that we see on the covers of the Bantam paperback?

The short answer to that is art direction.

Let me see if I can give you the long answer to this question once and for all.

Doc-Savage-March-1933

As most Doc Savage fans know, Doc Savage was first published by Street & Smith Publications, Inc., a New York City publisher specializing in pulp magazines. Meant to capitalize on the success of The ShadowDoc Savage was first published in 1933. The first issue, titled The Man of Bronze, had a cover illustration painted by pulp magazine stalwart artist Walter M. Baumhofer. Bauhmhofer’s Doc is lean and rugged, looks to be in his 30’s and has a hairstyle which would not look out of place on most men at the time. It’s a hairstyle that you would find on the head of most of Hollywood’s leading men of the time, actors like Robert Taylor, Buster Crabbe or Gary Cooper.

Pulp-Covers-Summer-1949

It’s a look that Doc kept as he was depicted on the covers of subsequent issues over the years, all 181 of them, right up until his last appearance in 1949’s Up From Earth’s Center before the magazine folded and Street & Smith stopped publishing.

The company and all its properties was bought by Condé Nast. In the mid 1960’s Condé Nast offered the rights to re-publish the 181 Doc Savage adventures to Bantam Books. Mark Jaffee was the editorial director at Bantam. The Art Director (and vice president) was Len Leone.

Leone was a huge Doc Savage fan and encouraged Jafee to buy the property. Once Bantam had them, Leone could only think of one artist he wanted to paint the covers for the paperbacks and that was James Bama.

Young James Bama at Cooper Studios in 1952-8x6

Bama was a New York artist who had been working steadily as an illustrator through the 1950’s. His work appeared in advertisements, on paperback covers and in the pages of various men’s magazines. He had a solid reputation as a hyper-realistic painter. As such he photographed models to use as references for his paintings. One such model was Bama’s favourite, an actor named Steve Holland.

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Holland had limited success as an actor. He had played Flash Gordon in a 1954 television series that only ran ran 39 episodes. He had a cameo appearance in the 1953 movie, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. Holland had more success as an artist’s model. Holland had been the model for Fawcett Comics’ fictitious B-Western cowboy Bob Colt, that ran for ten issues in the early 1950s. He was also a favourite of the illustrators of the men’s magazines because of his rugged looks.

So, when Len Leone hired James Bama to paint the covers for the Bantam Doc Savage reprints, Bama naturally decided that only one man could model for Doc Savage, and that was Steve Holland.

Holland was in his 40’s and had a craggy, hyper-masculine look that Bama felt was perfectly suited for Doc Savage. Bama photographed Holland in the iconic Doc Savage pose that we all know today. He had him wearing a deliberately torn shirt in order to emphasize Doc’s developed physique.

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Bama’s first try at Doc depicted him much as he would end up, except for the hair. Holland’s hair was black, but Doc’s was described as a bronze colour. No problem. Bama simply painted Holland’s own hair as bronze, but gave him the widow’s peak that he is described as having in the adventures. Aside from that, Doc’s hair would not look out of place in the mid 1960’s.

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But that look didn’t quite work well enough for Len Leone. “I wanted to convey to the reader that this man was not just another mortal man, but something far more visually spectacular.” Leone said back in 2008 for an interview in The Bronze Gazette. He told Bama to paint him “…with a strange looking widow’s peak, that might have been made of bronze.”

Bama went back and changed the hair to emphasize the widow’s peak and to try to make it look like it might be made of metal, like some sort of helmet. This description of Doc’s hair does appear in the original texts, though illustrators at the time generally ignored it. Leone wanted that emphasized. It gave the character a weird, unusual look that suggested a more “sci-fi” adventure waiting within the pages of the paperbacks.

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Bama went on to paint 62 of the first 67 paperbacks. Other artists followed Bama’s lead. Soon the look was solidified. When Doc was adapted into the comic books by Gold Key in 1966 and later by Marvel Comics in 1971 the look had stuck. Despite the 1975 film adaptation by George Pal in which actor Ron Ely sported a typical 1930’s/1970’s hybrid hairstyle, Doc Savage with the helmet hair and the widow’s peak and the rugged features are how he is usually depicted.

And that, my friends, is how Doc Savage went from his 1930’s look to the look we all know and love today.

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