Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Gene Colan's Dr. Doom: Who Shall Possess The Dream Stone?

While some of us may remember writer Gerry Conway's treatment of Dr. Doom from his run on Fantastic Four, his first crack at the character appears to have taken place in the pages of Astonishing Tales in 1971, before moving on to feature him in a more expanded story nearly a year later in Sub-Mariner, where Namor had lapsed into amnesia following the death of his father. Turning the page on a Conway story often translates to seeing its characters in a perpetually dour frame of mind; but Conway's take on Doom is often a pleasure to see, given that the character fits so well into that mold--with Doom's mania carefully held in check, leaving us with a man who is both cultured and deadly, a model of control and calculation.

Yet a scripter is also generally obliged to take his cue from the artist in regard to setting the mood for his or her characters.  In this case, artist Gene Colan--who pencilled the Sub-Mariner when the character returned as a feature in Tales To Astonish in 1965 and also worked his magic with both Daredevil and Doom in early 1968--turns out to be an exquisite fit for Doom in appearance and temperament, with Conway's style, in turn, fitting Doom like a glove.

As time went on, Namor and Doom would repeatedly flirt with the idea of becoming allies, with one often trying to convince the other that not only would they make "natural" allies but that they also pursue similar goals. Our featured story, which continues the PPC's look this week at Colan's work with Doom, is somewhat different in that Doom seeks no formal alliance with Namor; in addition, Namor's amnesia, a plot device which was already in danger of being overused even at this early point in the character's history, would presumably complicate things for Doom since Namor has even less reason than usual to side with Doom in any endeavor. Yet as we'll see, Conway manages to deftly work his way around both concerns--and this three-part story, while being more Doom's show than Namor's, helps to raise the profile of the Sub-Mariner book considerably, as both men face the power-hungry creation of A.I.M. known as M.O.D.O.K. in a desperate play to take possession of nothing less than the Cosmic Cube!

Since we do have a three-part story here, we have the good fortune of Conway and Colan providing a good deal of backstory and subsequent interaction that help to set the stage for not only Doom's entrance and his business with Namor but the later appearance of MODOK and the strange circumstances involving the Cube. In the case of Namor, that first means picking things up from the prior issue--his quest for his father ending in tragedy, with Namor ending up in a railway freight car headed for Chicago. An altercation with a couple of fellow "passengers" provides Namor with his name, as well as the fact that his strength is well beyond that of an ordinary man--but upon his impromptu arrival in the rail yard, it's clear there are others who know much more about him.

(And if you're in the dark as to the identity of our figure in the shadows, you probably need to hand over your M.M.M.S. card.)

With Namor having aggravated a wound on his arm he suffered during his earlier battle with Tiger Shark, he's fortunate to run into good samaritan Cindy Jones, a stranger who offers to take him in and dress his wound.

At the moment, the introduction of Cindy is serving to pave the way for the story's imposing guest-star, though it does no harm to reveal that she's here for the duration of this tale. Ordinarily, her involvement beyond her initial assistance to Namor wouldn't really be needed--but with Namor in the dark as to his background, she's a useful third party in Conway's story that softens Namor a bit and makes him a little more relatable to the reader, in addition to her presence helping to inject a different dynamic to the interaction between Namor and Doom that would otherwise devolve to the same posturing we've seen before.

And speaking of Doom, Conway and Colan realize that he's not a man to be kept waiting. But his sudden entrance has the effect of jogging Namor's memories, though only partially, like jagged pieces of a puzzle--in particular, the death of the lady Dorma, thoughts which cause him to lash out at the one whose presence brought them to the fore.

Doom is hurled through the wall and into the apartment of an older couple, and the fracas continues; but since we've learned that Doom is in need of Namor in order to obtain something he covets, he'll likely seek to end their brawl without causing Namor serious injury. Yet his temper is still held in abeyance only barely, and Conway handles the balancing act masterfully. Doom isn't a character whose villainy I'd want to see taken for granted by a writer; and where someone else might simply provide a few Doom-trademarked catchphrases to move this fight along, Conway allows the character to flourish in this otherwise reckless dance between himself and Namor, even as he takes steps to bring it to an end.

From here, Doom returns to a civil mood and attempts to convince Namor of their history together as allies in battling the Fantastic Four, "the most vicious enemies of monarchy the world has ever seen!" Given the proof of Doom's status as a king, and the fact that the latter part of their conversation takes place at the Latverian embassy, it's not difficult for him to sway Namor in his current befuddled state; but while Namor in his normal frame of mind might have many more questions for Doom concerning what it is that he seeks and why exactly he needs his help, Doom's entreaties are enough to win his cooperation, at least for the time being.

Consequently, we find Doom's jet soaring over the coast of New Orleans, where it comes under almost immediate attack by A.I.M.'s hidden base, one which Doom deals with in short order. Doom, however, is under the impression that he's dealing with the base's automated defenses, since his reports have indicated that MODOK is dead--and you know what those who turn out to be alive tend to say about reports of their death.

As plans are made to approach the base, there is some remaining friction between Doom and Namor to be dealt with, regarding Namor objecting to Cindy being left behind during the mission--a disagreement that eventually results in Doom taking Cindy as a hostage in order to ensure that he and Namor act alone, without her interference. The aftermath of that decision leaves a bitter taste in both of these men.

On his approach, Namor is detected and downed by a hidden mechanism--while Doom, on the other hand, uses his aircraft's weaponry to destroy similar devices and move within the defensive perimeter. And still neither Namor nor Doom is aware that there is a mind at work in guiding these attacks--a most unique and powerful mind, to be sure.

Finally, Doom penetrates the base and plans his next move while docked in one of its bays--but it's Namor, following his recovery, who has the dubious honor of being received by MODOK, along with an android army that has taken the place of his A.I.M. minions who have long since abandoned the facility. Yet it's a strange command indeed that MODOK issues to have Namor conducted to what is presumably his doom.

Obviously there's something strange and dangerous at work regarding the Cube that prevents MODOK from wielding it, which he surely would be under normal circumstances. And if you wield the Cosmic Cube, the last thing you'd want to do is to bring an enemy within arm's reach of it.

Regardless, Namor, of course, resists...

...but MODOK prevails with a powerful mind blast, only to then set his sights on Doom--whose own resistance is as fueled by arrogance as it is by sheer power.

Elsewhere, in restraints, Namor learns that MODOK wishes to use the Cube's power to perform a mind transferral between MODOK's body and his own--which you'll probably agree is enough of an incentive to make anyone break free of their confinement. But though he's possessed the Cube himself at one point, Namor now has no memory of it--and so it's curiosity that prods Namor to investigate this prize that body MODOK and Doom battle for, though he soon enough wishes he hadn't dared.

In another part of the installation, we see that Colan continues to give Doom a generous amount of story panels--exposure which Conway puts to good use in the dialogue that's bandied back and forth, now that Doom finds himself facing off against MODOK. Usually it's Doom who will come to be in a position where he can leer at a foe he believes to be helpless--so we can imagine how galling it is for him to find that leer on the face of his deformed opponent, instead.

Yet what no one involved in this drama realizes is that there is a mole of sorts at large on the premises--placed aboard Doom's ship under false pretenses, with the sole purpose of killing the Sub-Mariner, along with anyone who stands in his way. And with Doom preoccupied with obtaining the Cube, he becomes the first unwitting victim of this man--who goes on to become a victim himself, of something far more deadly and terrifying.

We never do learn in this story exactly what is going on with the Cube (which Conway romanticizes as the "Dream Stone," "...that bane of men and maker of dreams..."), but clearly it presents a danger to just about everyone in its present, uncontained form. It's fair to even go so far as to speculate that Colan might have drawn this tale without the Cube having been settled on as the threat, instead working out the story on the premise of MODOK developing a new source of power only to see its destructive nature defy any means of control.  There doesn't otherwise seem to be a reason to promote this story to be about the Cosmic Cube when the cube itself is missing from its panels.

Fortunately for Doom, Cindy is willing to play good samaritan again, even to benefit the man who only recently held her hostage--yet Doom is adamant about remaining and risking his life to make contact with the Cube.

As for MODOK, he finds his plans for the Cube are in shambles with the return of the Sub-Mariner, who has battled his way past MODOK's androids and now again faces their master. This time, however, Namor is lucky to be fighting Round Two with MODOK in this story's closing pages--which, as any comics reader knows, allows the hero to weather the same kind of attack he did before but resist this time around. You wouldn't think Conway would give the hero such a pass*--but he manages to pull it off believably enough, regardless.

*Steve Englehart, for example, takes a different approach in an issue of The Defenders, in a scene where the Black Knight is primed to triumph, but must face facts.

Doom's plans, as well, fail to materialize, as the Cube by this point proves to be beyond even his control--a development for which Namor appears to be responsible, realizing that it would have been no less dangerous in Doom's possession than in MODOK's. It's an odd leap that Conway makes to establish that reasoning on the Sub-Mariner's part, given that Namor's sole motivation for releasing the Cube was to learn more about it. In addition, we learn that Doom's interest in the Cube, like MODOK's, was mainly personal (though presumably Namor was looking down the road, taking into account the ambitions of both of these men).

With Doom resolving to abandon his plans, Namor and Cindy return with him to his craft, which barely escapes the base in one piece before the Cube explodes and destroys it.

In the story's epilogue, Conway scripts an excellent scene that speaks a great deal to how Doom views and accepts his own nature, a conversation that acknowledges what readers have no doubt already picked up on--the fact that Doom should be furious with Namor for his actions on this mission, but has instead let the matter drop. And beneath a simple street lamp on Bourbon Street, Colan provides Conway with a setting that allows the character to close the story making that very point, with reasoning that is wholly Doom's. And who's to say there isn't some merit to his "insight."


Sub-Mariner #s 47-49

Script: Gerry Conway
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Mike Esposito and Frank Giacoia
Letterers: Sam Rosen, Artie Simek and John Costanza (as Jon Costa)


Anonymous said...

This is great! I didn't appreciate Gene Colan when I was younger, but looking at it with new eyes, the things he doesn't define totally, and the things he sort of devolves, give it a great character. The ending with Doom gives him a lot of strength in what otherwise might be a defeat and ends on a high note for the villain.

Comicsfan said...

I'm glad you mentioned that particular scene, Anon, because I actually came close to not including it, even though I feel much the same way about it as you do. As I was looking over the final draft of the post, I wasn't particularly pleased with how I was wrapping things up coherently or meaningfully; and that was the one scene that kept pulling me back, because it was how Colan thought to conclude the story. As you note, it's a strong statement on Doom as both a villain and a character in general, as well as a model of simplicity from an artist's perspective: two of the most powerful beings in the world, exchanging parting words while standing under a lamp post on a New Orleans street late at night. Conway adapts to the moment perfectly, leaving Doom departing no less the monarch, and no less himself. I'm gratified that I decided to include it, because it bookended their mission's end (and that of the story itself) wonderfully.

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