Monday, July 7, 2014

Still Is Mine The Power Cosmic

Fantastic Four #258 is one of the high points of writer/artist John Byrne's run on the book, both in story and art. To describe its essence in a nutshell, it makes apparent Byrne's appreciation for the character of Doctor Doom, with its story a virtual profile of the Fantastic Four's deadliest enemy--an approach never before taken in the comic to this extent, aside from his origin tale. Byrne once did an FF cover which mimicked a stunt used on a cover of Strange Tales, where Doom was effectively used to help sell the book even though the character didn't appear in the story; here, the stunt is reversed, with the Fantastic Four logo naturally present on the cover but the FF are nowhere to be seen within. But if you find, as I did, that you didn't really notice the team's absence, then the credit can be laid at Byrne's doorstep.

As for Doom, this story serves as both a follow-up to his removal of Zorba from power, as well as a prelude to his latest planned assault on the Fantastic Four. Yet also, page by page, we come to understand in greater depth Doom's style as ruler of Latveria, beyond the perspective of his subjects living in fear of him; and though the man still undeniably exudes madness as well as a lust for power, he is a capable ruler who, as opposed to earlier times, now seems to regard his subjects as less of a nuisance and more as a reflection of his status and achievements. It's a change that gives Doom much greater dimension, and in turn makes him a much greater threat.

In terms of the look of the story, Byrne is at his peak here. I can't say I'm the greatest fan of Byrne's inks on his own pencils, but I must say he outdoes himself here. Consider also that for almost all of this story, he's depicting Doom from panel to panel--a monarch not only whose body language is scrutinized, but whose metal mask affords little opportunity for displaying changes in mood or temperament--and for a man whose mood and temperament can change in an unexpected instant, I would imagine that poses quite a challenge to an artist. So often, an artist will resort to inserting creases in the metal near the eyes or forehead, or expanding the mask's mouthpiece in moments of rage--and while Byrne unfortunately isn't exempt from the use of such alterations, for the most part he manages to shift Doom's expressions with a simple use of shadow and reflection, or eye movement, or posture, or even a simple tilt of the head. Annoyance at being disturbed during a meal; contentment with his young ward; contemplative surveyance of a situation. These pencils and inks have Doom's mask speaking volumes.

And so, welcome to an outstanding issue of Fantastic Four--where the title characters are only to be found in a small corner box on the cover, replaced on page one by an imposing figure who seems pleased that he's taken over their book for the month.

What Doom seems truly pleased with in reality is what he sees of the progress of the restoration of Latveria's prosperity and stability since he regained his rule after deposing Zorba. (No, I don't know why he refers to his predecessor as "Sorba" in his reflections. Are you going to be the one to correct him?) In a splendid double-page spread that astonishes in its attention to detail, Doom makes clear not only his approval of Latveria's turnaround, but also the unfortunate fact that his subjects are once more "happy" mostly because they are following a dictate to be so.

Before getting down to the business of Doom's master plan against the FF, Byrne presents several scenes that show Doom in a variety of different lights. The first, "borrowed" from an earlier story in Doctor Strange #57, offers a tantalizing prospect of a meeting that would rival any Doom/FF conflict:

(Strange and Doom would meet to liberate the soul of Doom's mother from Mephisto in the 1989 TPB "Triumph and Torment.")

From there, Doom pays a visit to his ward--the boy, Kristoff, orphaned when his mother was killed by Zorba's forces at the time of Doom's return. In hindsight, we know what awaits Kristoff in his association with Doom; but at this stage, it's reasonable to assume that Doom is grooming him to be his protégé, if not a possible heir.

Byrne then treats us to a little of Doom's typical day, with all the perks you'd expect a monarch to benefit from. (Though I doubt even Elizabeth rises to be dressed in armor by a staff of robots.) Which brings us to that annoying interruption at breakfast, from none other than Hauptmann, Doom's chief scientist, who has news of his progess on a special project assigned to him by his master:

But, given what we know of Hauptmann's character and history, all is not as it seems here. And Doom is nothing if not a fair judge of character, particularly when it goes hand-in-hand with deception.

And so Doom continues his search for the proper receptacle for the artificial energies supplied by his device--and that takes us to the end of Doom's day, where we're reminded that the fragile nature of his sanity makes no allowances for the innocent.

(The raised "eyebrow"--the gaping "mouth"--as we see, Doom has revealed that he's capable of imposing his will even on his artist.)

As for his search, we discover that Doom's efforts have borne fruit, when he locates and retrieves Terrax, the former herald of Galactus, whose body had been severely injured after failing to overcome his master. But now, with his memories of being Terrax also lost, he only knows himself as:

Doom, hardly intimidated, nevertheless reveals to Tyros all that has occurred in his dealings with Galactus, as well as the involvement of the Fantastic Four in the loss of his powers. And Tyros finds himself sufficiently intrigued to offer no resistance at what Doom next proposes:

Once the experiment concludes, it's obvious that Tyros has avoided the fate that Hauptmann suffered. But while he doesn't achieve the same level of power that the Surfer wields, Tyros does recover one more thing:

With Tyros now enraged and gunning for the FF, it takes only a push from Doom to set him on his path of destruction. Once Tyros is out of earshot, though, Doom discloses that his catspaw will be suffering the same fate as those he races to destroy:

This revealing "interlude" now over, the following issue begins an all-out battle which will end up involving Doom as well as the Silver Surfer. And with the Fantastic Four facing a foe wielding even a fraction of the power cosmic, what a time for Reed Richards to be M.I.A.! Whatever happens, it looks like Kristoff can look forward to one heck of a bedtime story.

Fantastic Four #258

Script, Pencils and Inks: John Byrne
Letterer: Jim Novak


Anonymous said...

It was around this time that I stopped reading comics (until 2007) so I don't remember this story but it's interesting to see Byrne's re-imagining of Doom. I feel Zorba was rather badly treated though as I'm sure he was meant to be somebody who genuinely wanted the best for his people but Byrne turned him into a demented madman simply to justify Doom's return to power. Doom could have just seized back the throne by force but Byrne wanted the reader to sympathise with him and make him look like a caring ruler which was never apparent before. I can't imagine the Doom of Lee & Kirby being a father figure to a little kid ! In the double splash page Doom describes Latveria as "one of the most powerful nations on Earth" - what?!! A tiny country full of peasants? I can't decide whether that's meant to be Doom's delusion or whether in the Marvel universe Latveria really is meant to be such a country.

Murray said...

CJ - I've always wondered where Latveria and Doom get the cashola to fund all these staggering super science projects. Somehow, it happens. Maybe Doom uses his time machine to tap raw materials from the early Triassic or something. Latveria, the world's biggest supplier of rare earth elements.

In sheer force of numbers and size, Latveria is a bug on the windshield. But, it's obviously the dark, dark, evil twin of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (The Mouse that Roared. Fenwick had the continental cracking super bomb that allowed it to sit at the big boy table in world affairs. Similarly, Doom's arsenal of super villainy weapons would give world leaders a certain ulcer-inducing wariness.

("Mr. Premier. You saw in the news how I sent the Baxter Building to low Earth orbit? Shame if the Kremlin had the same joy ride. It's such lovely architecture.")

I confess to not following how this Byrne story is a "reinventing" of Dr. Doom. By coincidence, my first two exposures to Marvel Comics came from random back issues of Fantastic Four #57 and Thor #182. In both cases, Doom was pouring on the schmooze and oil as long as it suited his schemes. Mercurial, plots within plots, regal aristocratic psychopath. I don't see any difference in this story.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Colin. It seemed pretty weird that Zorba became a lunatic all of a sudden. Also, it didn't make any sense that he gave Latverians freedom to do as they wish, commit crime, while acting like a fascist dictator.
The two don't really jive.
Kind of crappy writing on Byrne's part.
Byrne portrayed Doom as a super villain who would blow up one of his robots for not killing Arcade, which makes no sense, since he programmed the robot in the first place, and physically hurt a child, which I doubt Stan Lee would have written him as doing. I don't think Byrne understood the character.
On the other hand, the art was great.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, you raise a valid point about Zorba being reduced to a "demented madman" to garner sympathy for Doom (with Byrne stacking the deck by having, of all people, the Thing reconsider his view of Doom's monarchy)--but I think part of it was to expedite Doom's reinstatement in order to avoid a drawn-out story that would otherwise need to establish Doom's merits over Zorba. It would be almost inconceivable for Latveria's population to throw their support to Doom and accept him again as their ruler--but that's made much more likely if Zorba becomes an insulated madman who tightens his grip on the country day by day and whose policies have driven it to near-ruin. As for the "power" of Latveria, Murray touches on the fact that, to coin a phrase, Doom's reputation precedes him. He need not have an army or a stockpile of weapons to have himself viewed as a credible and powerful player on the world stage (much like, for example, Wakanda); and since Doom is Latveria for all intents and purposes, that status applies to his country, as well.

Murray, you'd need to look beyond Doom's machinations to understand Byrne's take on the character, the subtle differences which he's introduced. Gone is the man whose ravings startle his staff when matters slip beyond his control, his twisted thoughts still directing his actions to an extent but less overtly displayed. Doom now has less instances of smashing furniture or otherwise revealing his furious state of mind like an open book; instead, Doom assesses what has gone wrong. If his mood should darken, he is angry, not livid (though as we saw with Kristoff, the latter erupts on occasion); and often, whatever frustration and/or anger he may feel is internalized in a thought balloon. Doom now also balances a half-dozen projects at a time (often "projects" now, rather than "plans"), rather than putting all of his resources into one bold scheme--while adjusting details accordingly depending on any potential complications which arise, where once he would rave at any annoyance. And note how he responds to Hauptmann's breakfast interruption call (not pictured here)--not with a loud, all-caps declaration of irritation, but in a tone which instead implies that the interruption had best justify the risk the caller has taken to make it. As the story with Tyros plays out, you may see several of these factors become more apparent.

mp, that's a good observation about the Doom-bot not acting in accordance with its programmer. It's almost gratifying to know that even Doom has to deal with the occasional glitch, eh? :)

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