Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Face(s) of Doom

"...he's a good-looking guy, and he only has a tiny scar on his cheek, but because he's such a perfectionist, he can't bear to see that imperfection. He isn't hiding his face from the public, he's hiding it from himself." -- Artist Jack Kirby, on his original interpretation of the "disfigured" face of Dr. Doom (quoted from 1994's Jack Kirby's Heroes and Villains)

What Victor Von Doom's face looks like under his famous metal mask remains one of the most talked-about subjects in comics. The only thing that most fans can agree on is that it's a horrible sight indeed. How it got to be that way is what now seems to be a point of contention.

By now, most of us are familiar with the original story of Doom's accident which presumably maimed his face:

From the beginning, it's apparent that Kirby's version of the damage to Doom's face was overruled. Given that Doom's entire face after the accident is bandaged (which certainly wouldn't have been necessary if the damage only amounted to a tiny wound under one eye)--and that the story's copy, not Doom, tells us that his face is "hopelessly disfigured"--the reader can only assume one thing: that Doom's face was completely maimed. Doom then travels to Tibet in order to "hide from the sight of mankind," and is taken in by an order of monks who later assist him in casting his armor and infamous mask:

Yet Kirby's idea is intriguing. It certainly would have added an interesting facet to the character--that his mind had become so twisted that he would regard such a minor flaw in his face as an all-consuming hindrance to the image of superiority that he wished to project. Sadly, we'll never be treated to the magnificent art that Kirby would have rendered had he finally presented us with Doom's face as written, nor has any other artist to my knowledge attempted it. However, in an unpublished sketch, Kirby presents us with this image of Doom as conceived by the artist:

Now, consider: there have been several instances where Doom attempts to look upon his face, only to recoil in horror. (He wouldn't be successful until he commissioned a likeness of himself in Fantastic Four #85.) But had Kirby's idea been the predominant one regarding the "damage" to his face, wouldn't scenes like this one take on a fascinating twist:

(It's no wonder that people tended to avoid proximity to Doom, if it took him "years" to getting around to removing that mask. He must have been one ripe monarch to be around.)

Unfortunately, stories featuring Doom had moved well beyond that point. Others were shown to be shocked beyond belief at the sight of Doom's face, notably Dr. Donald Blake:

By the way, Dr. Blake? Worst. professional. conduct. EVER. You'd better stick to throwing hammers, because no patient in their right mind is going to want you as their surgeon, you big terrified weenie.

It wasn't until Fantastic Four #278 that serial revisionist artist John Byrne latched on to Kirby's original concept and attempted to let readers have their cake and eat it too, in this respect. In other words, Doom still gets to be the kind of character who is enraged by a small imperfection--and then completely and knowingly disfigures his face when the monks cast his mask, perhaps thinking that the damage had already been done by that point. It's really not a bad overall solution:

Except for the fact that it provides no explanation for the copy written in the first origin story--nor the fact that Doom's entire face is still being bandaged, both originally and in this new version. But you know John Byrne when he sets his mind to overhauling a character's established origin story.

To be honest, I'm really satisfied with the circumstances of Doom's origin as writer Stan Lee portrayed them. Doom is just as tortured a character, his thinking just as twisted, his redemption just as hopeless--and I see no good reason for making the effort to add this alteration to his origin. In the excellent six-issue series Books Of Doom, writer Ed Brubaker muddies these waters even further by making a netherworld demon responsible for Doom's facial injuries, rather than the force of the explosion. Both Brubaker's and Byrne's ideas have merit--it's just that there's no real need for them. In just a few panels, Lee tells us the bulk of what we need to know about Doom's character, a villain who I'm sure you'll agree is still just as memorable and compelling a figure as he ever was. There are many demons which drive Doom, a man both brilliant and terribly flawed, with a twisted worldview and self-serving ambition. In that respect at least, perhaps there's nothing broken here that really needs fixing.

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