|Doc Savage and the five useful goofballs he called his aides|
The superman, as an ongoing protagonist in a periodical publication, presents certain problems.
If he can’t easily overwhelm most obstacles and overawe most adversaries, he isn’t much of a superman. And if he can, you haven’t got much of a plot.
Among the first writers to face this dilemma was Walter Gibson (“Maxwell Grant”), who in 1931 was assigned the task of turning a disembodied radio narrator into the crime-busting Shadow. Gibson knew that a man of mystery worth his salt couldn’t appear on every page, but must strike decisively with breathtaking speed at key dramatic moments. So Gibson let the Shadow’s agents, people like Harry Vincent, handle the more mundane aspects of the plot, while getting themselves into fixes only the Shadow could fix. A little later, Gibson had the Shadow muscle the real Lamont Cranston into exile so he could adopt that millionaire’s identity as a disguise.
The considerable success of the approach prompted Gibson’s publisher, Street & Smith, to launch a second superhero title in 1933. Clark Savage Jr., trained from birth to human perfection in physical prowess, scientific knowledge and moral awareness, had five goofball aides to carry the load. It was almost as if Einstein had chosen the Three Stooges as lab assistants, but Doc Savage was also immensely popular.
In 1938, the focus of superhero adventure shifted to the comic books. Superman and Batman, like the earlier Zorro, solved the problem by maintaining secret identities as ordinary people. The secret IDs gave them freedom of movement, yes, but they also imposed limitations that could be useful in developing suspenseful plots. In their civilian guises, they could not afford to be seen to act with extraordinary power and ability.
Beyond the comics and the pulps, the problem applies generally to any continuing character who approaches superman status. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes needed his narrator Dr. John Watson to serve as a stand-in for the audience, as mystified as we are by Holmes’ lightning-like thought processes. And Rex Stout solved the problem handily by making his superman lazily obese. Wisecracking Archie Goodwin had to do the legwork for Nero Wolfe, and is an example of that rare instance in which a well-drawn sidekick becomes nearly as popular as the hero himself.