Friday, January 6, 2017

Presenting: Doctor Doom!

If you're not counting his origin story in the 1964 Fantastic Four Annual, the first book to feature the character of Doctor Doom in his own story would have been an issue of Marvel Super-Heroes 4½ years later--a very generous 24 pages of material that in hindsight would have made a splendid issue of Super-Villain Team-Up, though that mag was still six years away. (What's Doom doing in a book called "Marvel Super-Heroes," anyway?) The story was a dual effort by both its writing and artist team; Larry Lieber (brother of Stan Lee) reportedly scripted and pencilled roughly the first half of the story, handing off the remaining pages to Roy Thomas while Frank Giacoia finished the pencilling work. Yet you might be surprised at how seamlessly it all reads.

And it was a rather surprising story to find on the shelves, given Doom's history as a guest-star in Fantastic Four and other titles--a story that, for the first time, would test Doom's star power with readers outside of the context of his being a menace to overcome. Yet "This Man... This Demon!" doesn't really come across as a tale meant to gauge reader interest in seeing the character branch out on his own--though all the stops appear to be pulled out for his appearance here, with both Lieber and Thomas sparing no effort in crafting an interesting and entertaining story that takes into account Doom's manner and complexities. By now Doom has made enough of an impact with readers that it would be a misstep to simply "phone in" a feature story for him that only sought to coast on his popularity; fortunately, the story in MS-H meets the high standards we've come to expect with a character of Doom's caliber. And with a tale that's actually starring a villain, there's arguably no better character that deserves a shot at a cover of his own.

As something of a bonus, the story also features Diablo, a villain whose history as a deadly menace dates back to well before Doom's own. Their conflict arises when Diablo attempts to forge an alliance between the two--and when Doom declines, Diablo provides incentive that has roots in Doom's very beginnings. What leverage could Diablo possibly possess that would force a man such as Doom to capitulate?

Still, as we can see, Lieber chooses to appease those readers who might have picked up the issue expecting to find a new Doom/FF story, even if at the time there was already such a story taking place in the regular FF mag. And since not even Doom can fight two battles with the FF at the same time, Lieber's story is likely picking up after the story in Fantastic Four comes to an end, where we find Doom apparently licking his wounds and reviewing past battles with the team.

While it might seem odd to find a man like Doom bitterly holed up in his castle and grumbling about past defeats, it's important to keep in mind how much the character has evolved since 1969, having more irons in the fire than he did at that point in time and growing to have other concerns than his enmity toward the FF, a feud that he eventually moved to the back burner rather than let it preoccupy his time. Here, however, with Doom starring in his own feature, it wouldn't fit the tone of the issue for him to appear at a loss as to how to hold his own in a fight against the FF; and so, in the opening pages of this story, we're treated to a sort of virtual match-up between the two forces, when Doom's images of the FF suddenly come to life and begin attacking him in earnest.

Doom, as we might expect, becomes incensed that his technology has been turned against him--and more importantly, to Lieber's credit, refuses to be defeated by a Fantastic Four team that isn't even real. And so we see a fine display of Doom countering the attacks of these simulacrums, successfully and masterfully holding them at bay if nothing else (he's outnumbered 4 to 1, after all), before they finally fade from view as mysteriously as they appeared. But Doom doesn't have long to wait before the instigator of this incident appears to confront him.

Diablo's mistake here was perhaps approaching Doom without displaying sufficient deference to Doom's position, his attitude bordering on pompous--to say nothing of presumptuous, seeming to treat Doom's acceptance of his proposal as a given. Diablo's "demonstration" of his power has also unfortunately played Doom for the fool, if unintentionally--an oversight that unfortunately has made Doom less receptive to any offer that Diablo might have approached him with. Yet Diablo, who's been a threat to mankind since the 19th century, has reason to believe that Doom will fall in line--and while he may treat Doom with caution, his attitude toward him is that of arrogance, not fear. Consequently, it comes as little surprise that these two men would initally clash before the details of Diablo's proposal are even aired, with Diablo's alchemy appearing to provide a perfect defense for Doom's technological might.

If Diablo's arrogance hasn't yet become evident, it stands fully revealed when he plays his trump card against Doom: the first appearance of the woman named Valeria, who was close to Doom in childhood and became much more to him as they grew into adulthood. Now a captive, she unwillingly serves as a pawn in Diablo's pursuit of Doom's cooperation. Diablo has obviously gone to great lengths in order to secure an alliance, so it seems clear that he either wants or needs something from Doom that he can't obtain or provide on his own. And for now, his strategy seems to be working, as Doom finds himself recalling his time with Valeria, as well as how the tragic events of his life forced them apart.

It's only natural for even a man such as Doom to wonder "what might have been" where Valeria is concerned--or even "what could still be," if circumstances were different. In his own words, "...paradise lost... of worlds that might have been... indeed, a world which yet might be... if I but grasp those long-dead dreams, and make of them the stuff of reality!" But in response, his mind calls forth a classic sequence that drives home the tragedy of Victor Von Doom, and which seemingly puts such dreams to rest for good.

It's a statement of power and affirmation that unquestionably belongs in a feature headlining Doom, arriving like thunder and resonating in the story from this point on. Diablo obviously realizes that it will work in his favor--but what he may not realize is that the tide may have turned in terms of who is now in control of this game.

You may have noticed a considerable amount of "stock footage" in this tale--panels that are reminiscent of scenes from other stories, though the concepts of "cloning" and "swiping" wouldn't gain notoriety for a few years. It's possible that some of these instances may have had to do with Lieber's pace as a penciller, which by his own admission was slower than other artists, necessitating a few minor variations of already existing work from Jack Kirby featuring scenes of Doom. (Perhaps the same circumstances were responsible for the involvement of Giacoia and Thomas on the project, since Lieber was also pulling double duty on story and art.) Such speculation depends on at what point Giacoia steps in--the panel with Doom's gyro-ship, for instance, is mimicked from a similar panel in FF #39, though we could simply assume that Doom departs his castle in the same way and manner every time and leave it at that.

At any rate, the time has come for this story to kick into high gear, as Doom prepares to discover just what Diablo is after in this so-called alliance. The meeting takes place at Doom's castle in America, though Doom is forced to enter the premises covertly since the castle is under heavy guard by the military. But in the presence of Valeria, he will not permit such an affront to his pride.

Another excellent scene that keeps the character in the forefront of the reader's interest, our sympathies for the poor soldiers outside bearing the brunt of his wrath notwithstanding. Even Diablo seems more mindful of Doom's threat potential, at least for the moment. But there are greater matters on Diablo's mind, involving a device used by Doom in this very castle--one which puts both of these men on the verge of altering history in their favor, should this alliance proceed.

Diablo has clearly thought this through--but how odd that Doom has not, since the creation of such of a machine by one obsessed with achieving power implies that they mean to use it to achieve their ends. (One normally doesn't invent a time machine as a lark.) All of the scenarios that Diablo is describing should have occurred to Doom long before now, even as his motivation for creation of the machine in the first place; yet this machine has had dust collecting on it ever since his defeat by the FF, after having used it only minimally to seek gems that once belonged to Merlin.

When the time comes for Doom to turn the tables on Diablo, it seems that he's again dismissed any thoughts on using his time machine in favor of playing along with his foe, his revenge on Diablo and his recovery of Valeria taking precedence (perhaps even in that order). Nor does Diablo suspect Doom's ruse until it's too late--and this time, Doom intends to take Diablo's full measure, though as part of a carefully conceived plan that will end Diablo's threat for *ahem* all time.

That Doom relishes his triumph as well as his foe's grim fate is the perfect cap to a story which spotlights this ruthless character who has often been called a madman and a despot (and no doubt other unflattering terms). But we've seen by now that there is more to Doom than such a two-dimensional portrayal--particularly with the introduction of Valeria, whose memory still resonates with him and who reaches him on a level that adds something new to his character. But with the choice that she now asks him to make, their reunion turns out to be a fleeting one.

Valeria's farewell turns out to be premature, since their paths cross once more just two years later, as well as other times on rare occasion.

As for Doom himself, it's interesting to note that his sister story taking place across the comics rack in Fantastic Four during the same month did handle the character rather two-dimensionally, with writer Stan Lee taking Doom from one extreme to the other in full villain mode and omitting the subtleties of thought that we've seen in play here. The more composed Doom in this story stands in contrast with the reckless fiend that Lee unleashed, and would arguably have been a more engaging character in that four-part story. The stand-alone story here made for a good follow-up to Lee's effort, bringing us back to the Doctor Doom who saw both his past and his future with a more realistic eye.

Marvel Super-Heroes #20

Script: Larry Lieber and Roy Thomas
Pencils: Larry Lieber and Frank Giacoia
Inks: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

I really dig that "intensified molecule increaser"! I wonder if Doom ever used that again.
That would be a lotta fun at parties!


Comicsfan said...

M.P., you can see that, er, handy device in use during the classic battle in the Baxter Building between Doom and the Thing. Given the limited success Doom had with it, he may have retired it after his encounter with Diablo.

Anonymous said...

Holy moley! How could I have forgotten about THAT epic clash! I've fallen woefully behind in my research!
Doc's Doom's patented Over the Shoulder Boulder Thrower.
Thanks for the link, C.F., and cheers.