The Thousand-Headed Man | Doc Savage #2
Kenneth Robeson | Bantam Books | 1975 | 150 pages
Proto-superhero Doc Savage, Man of Bronze, and his crew–Johnny, Renny, Long Tom, Ham, and Monk–return for more two-fisted action, groan-inducing racial stereotyping, and no-apologies plundering of indigenous cultural treasures.
On a stopover in London, Doc Savage comes to the aid of Lucile Copeland, daughter of an explorer lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia. A single survivor of her father’s fateful expedition provides Doc with a strange black stick, allegedly the key to a mythological abandoned city that houses a vast treasure. Somewhere in the unmapped jungles of the region, the city is reputedly guarded by a single occupant—the legendary Thousand-Headed Man.
Doc, however, is not the only interested party in the elder Copeland’s fate, and the treasure that may be unearthed in discovering his whereabouts. Sen Gat, a mercenary crime boss, is also on the trail, and makes an attempt on the lives of Doc and his men in order to steal away the treasure key in their possession. Gunfights, kidnapping, and murder all ensue, leading to an air race across the globe to find the lost city in the jungle, and the riches that await its discovery.
Except for the notoriously long-winded Johnny, Doc’s companions fail to live up to their reputations as super-geniuses in their respective fields, generally barking monosyllabic replies to their situations. However, Monk the chemical genius does enact an unusually creative solution to hiding the black key (he melts it down and soaks the resulting liquid in his undershirt).
Sen Gat is depicted as a colorful villain, with his curling fingernails covered in gold, but Doc’s foil also suffers from the inherent racism against Asians so pervasive in the popular culture of the era in which the book was written. Virtually every description of Sen Gat and his gang make reference to their slant-eyed appearance, inscrutable ways, and singsong English; “Velly solly.” This baked-in obstacle to enjoying the pulp action is in no way exclusive to the Doc Savage series, but is certainly a potential warning signal for those readers understandably unable to contextualize the offensive content. Even an intended altruistic finale, with Doc declaring his portion of looted treasure going to the construction of local hospitals, reinforces the racist notion of a white man’s burden—or bronze man, perhaps, in this case. Monk even attempts to justify their theft by arguing, “Their ancestors probably swiped it from the original owners.”
Once Doc and crew finally disembark their aircraft in the jungle, they are stalked by a strange entity and suffer inexplicable black-outs. Lucile Copeland even insists she gets a glimpse of a man with a thousand heads outside their camp. This enjoyable sense of suspense as they delve deeper into the jungle doesn’t last long enough, however, as explanations soon enough deflate the air of mystery. Seemingly recycling the finale of the first installment in the series, Doc and company eventually find themselves holed up in a temple, shooting it out with waves of incoming enemy fighters.
Still, there are enough menacing crocodiles, escapes from writhing snake pits, deadly encounters with cultists, and squealing escapades with Monk’s pet pig, Habeas Corpus, to keep turning the pages