Wednesday, March 8, 2017

This Villainy Among Us!

When you're tossing around words like "fiendish" and "diabolical" to describe the Red Skull or Doctor Doom, it's a tough call to make as to which villain could lay the greater claim to those terms. It probably goes without saying that when you put these two men together in the same room, the sheer level of villainy would be off the scale; yet aside from each of them seeking power, Doom and the Skull would seem to have little in common with each other. Doom appears to hold the Skull in contempt, in both his character and the man's fanatical obsession with bringing about a Fourth Reich--while the Skull covets Doom's power base and resources, and would arguably be Doom's inferior in regard to a head-to-head contest with one another.

That said, we're all familiar enough with the character of each to know that it wouldn't be wise to count either of them out in such a face-off. And though they would each be loathe to admit it, they do share certain characteristics and traits. Both are masters of planning, as well as involving others in their machinations (with or without their knowledge); both are prone to blind rage and cruelty; both have a talent for manipulation; and, certainly, both feel entitled to grind the masses beneath their heel. On the flip side, each has failed in blatant power plays; each has experienced humiliating defeats; each has held ultimate power, only to lose it; and each has a particular enemy that they're unable to crush.

So what's their alternative? Would they ever join forces? Consolidate their strengths and present a united front against their enemies? It would seem an exercise in futility, given that neither would likely play the subordinate, and each would constantly suspect the other of betrayal given the opportunity. Doom and the Skull were mostly cool to one another during the Acts of Vengeance alliance, with the Skull instead coming into conflict with Magneto--and another alliance on a parallel world, which actually succeeded in wiping out the Earth's heroes, lasted only until their mutual goal had been reached. Each may want power, but they would have different expectations as to their reasons for seeking it out and how they would use it.

That would seem to leave them to battling one another, though it might be more sensible for each of them to mind their own business and not become involved in the other's affairs. The Skull really has nothing that Doom would want, and probably isn't even a blip on Doom's radar; but in the 1970s, we couldn't say the same for the Skull, who twice usurped Doom's throne in Latveria while Doom was occupied elsewhere. Suffice to say that in each case, Doom was going to make the Skull regret his arrogance.

In the meeting that takes place in Astonishing Tales, a title that has Doom sharing billing with the jungle lord Ka-Zar, there are only ten pages for his battle with the Skull to play out, which hardly gives writer Larry Lieber the time to flesh out these characters and supplement the fight with the bold challenges and threats that each is capable of delivering; in fact, we'll see the Skull fighting a mostly defensive battle on the run, which doesn't suit him at all. That type of posture is even more peculiar when you consider that it's the Skull who has stormed into Latveria with his compatriots, the Exiles, and deposed Doom without a hint of worry on his part of any reprisal that Doom might initiate. And when Doom does just that--arriving from the French Riviera and having no idea that his country had been invaded, yet proceeding to essentially overwhelm the Skull's forces that were prepared for him--you get the sense of an opportunity lost, a meeting between two of Marvel's ranking criminal, power-hungry minds that was wasted.

When Doom and the Skull encounter each other in Super-Villain Team-Up--bearing in mind that, whatever the style of the masthead, the "team-up" wording applies more to Doom and the Sub-Mariner, and not our two primary combatants--the battle has a generous amount of room to take place on a more level playing field. The Skull has been moving behind the scenes to anonymously purchase weaponry and material from Doom--and, when the time is right, again takes advantage of Doom's absence to seize the Latverian throne, constructing an orbiting hypno-ray from Doom's plans that, when activated, will allow him to control everyone on Earth.

When Doom arrives to retaliate, this time with Captain America in tow, the resistance he meets is more formidable--even getting a taste of his own medicine when the Skull fires a missile on Doom's approach that reduces both Doom and Cap to the size of mice on impact, with the difference that this time the effect is real. Fortunately, with Doom's knowledge of his castle, the two are able to persevere and make their way to the throne room, where the real struggle between Doom and the Skull begins.

(Obviously the Skull has his own interpretation of the outcome of his last battle with Doom.)

The battle is complicated somewhat by the presence of both the Shroud and Prince Rudolfo, who had joined forces to remove Doom from the throne but were taken by surprise when they discovered it was the Skull currently in power. With Doom's arrival, the Shroud again wants to end Doom's threat for good, forcing Captain America to come to Doom's defense since Cap believes Doom is their best chance for stopping the Skull's plan. (Really, Cap? Back in the day, that person used to be you.) In the confusion, Rudolfo uses one of the Skull's devices against him--but the move backfires, and the Skull is instead teleported to a base on the moon where he is free to take remote control of the hypno-ray satellite.

And so, with only a small window in which to stop the Skull, Doom heads to the moon by ship, first dropping the Shroud off on the orbiting hypno-ray in an attempt to sabotage it. Oddly, the Shroud is left to fend for himself, having no specific instructions from Doom on how to proceed or what safeguards to avoid triggering.  Consequently, despite his efforts, he doesn't succeed; in fact, he inadvertently causes it to start its firing sequence early.  You'd think the man who designed this satellite could have told him precisely how to disable it; for that matter, why wouldn't Doom handle it, and tend to the Skull afterward? It's a countdown that's a bit manufactured for the story's sake.

Unlike his last time at bat against Doom, we'll find the Skull in full villain mode, relishing his position of strength over his enemy and forcing Doom to go on the defensive, at least initially. But each of these men plans to be the one left standing when their battle has run its course.

(It's probably not a good idea to refer to the hireling who's adjusting your oxygen supply as "scum," Skull.)

For the moment, Doom and the Skull are evenly matched as far as mobility and weaponry, though Doom's armor of course has a variety of devices that let him adapt to whatever tactics the Skull might employ. But the Skull has also had time to prepare the area to give him an edge--and in the opening moments of their battle, he manages to nullify Doom's offensive capability with just a touch of a button.

With his enemy apparently helpless and at his mercy, you would think the Skull's next move would be to pick off Doom with his sled's blaster, particularly since Doom manages to rise to his feet--and the fact that Doom does so translates to the basic truth that, until proven otherwise, he remains a threat. It seems the height of hubris for the Skull to outfit an airborne sled with weaponry that allows him to attack from a distance, yet choosing instead to throw caution to the wind (er, void) and use it to bring himself close enough to try to ram his foe; yet from past confrontations with his enemies, it's in perfect character for the Skull, a man known to savor the moment by delivering the kill personally. It's a choice that leads to his downfall, both in terms of altitude and his waning chances of surviving a battle which a few moments ago he was on the verge of winning.

Thus far, writer Bill Mantlo and artist Bob Hall have choreographed a nicely-paced struggle between these two despots, giving each their moments but with the battle still continuing to seesaw. It's leaps and bounds above their prior meeting--the stakes are undeniably life and death, whereas in their skirmish in Latveria there was never any real sense of that.

And at last, the climax seems to be at hand, with the Skull the one who becomes helpless and faces Doom's advance--but this time, the Skull isn't at a loss as to how to respond, and he sneers at his armored enemy and arrogantly seeks to regain the momentum. And incredibly, he does just that.

With Doom at more of a disadvantage than ever, it doesn't take a genius to guess which way the tide will turn next. Snatching victory from near-defeat, Doom takes advantage of the Skull's energy weapon to prevail at last--and, just for good measure, he usurps the loyalty of the Skull's men in the process.

(A nice touch by Hall, having Doom use his cloak to conceal how his left hand was being forced to keep the breach in his armor sealed--a ploy that allowed Doom to deceive the men into thinking that he was still a threat.)

As for the Skull, it looks like his underlings have finally had it with being called "scum," leaving their former master to gasp his last breath on the moon. Yet before the Skull would meet his maker, he's retrieved by and subsequently forms an alliance with the Hate Monger, who provides him with the resources to return to battle Captain America once more.

Just what is it with Doom and the Shroud, anyway?


Anonymous said...

42 years and 4 months after discovering Marvel comics I still have things to learn - I didn't know the Red Skull had seized the Latverian throne even once, let alone twice !! That's because these particular stories never appeared in any of Marvel UK's weeklies. But my very first Marvel comic, Planet Of The Apes #5, featured the other half of Astonishing Tales - Ka_Zar !

Anonymous said...

Ka-Zar not Ka_Zar :D

Comicsfan said...

Ka-zar was one character I was never interested in, Colin, even though he goes back quite a way with Marvel. The company always seemed to be pushing him on readers; but I never saw what the big deal was about him, no matter how he was packaged or what guest-star was hanging with him.

Anonymous said...

Note to self: treat my minions with a little more respect in case I get buried under rubble and need their help to get out!
Always continue, however, to summarily execute bunglers, as is expected of any master super-villain. It wouldn't hurt, however, to send the rest a card on their birthday, and ask how the wife and kids are once in a while.
I always found it a bit of a stretch that the Red Skull could give Doc doom a run for his money; I always considered him a bit of a clown and never took him very seriously. This was a guy who lost the cosmic cube by dropping it in a lake, and built Sleeper robots that were mainly good for blowing up or going out of control. But maybe that was the intended message, that there always was a clownish, ridiculous aspect to Nazism (There sure is in this country). Both Charlie Chaplain and Mel Brooks seemed to think so. I think Lee and Kirby did too.
Mockery can be a potent political weapon.


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