Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Name Is--Doom!

Sometime around early 1971 I remember walking into a small local bookstore that sold books and magazines, but in used condition--mostly a place where people traded in their old periodicals for some minor compensation. I was just starting to become interested in comic books, and it hadn't taken me long to reach the point where I began looking around for back issues of the books I'd been reading--so this store seemed like it might ideal for that purpose if their stock included comics, which it did. This particular store really didn't get much business, so most of the time there were large stacks of magazines and comic books waiting to be looked through--a virtual treasure trove for a kid who had been recently bitten by the collecting bug. Most of those back issues were in good to very good condition, though I wasn't yet thinking about things like grading or even bagging--it was enough to just find a fresh stack of books that would add to my stash and allow me to read backward and get a little more comics lore under my belt. A good thing, too, since the store owner had a habit of literally marking down his merchandise for resale, taking a marker right to the cover of the book or magazine--and just for good measure, stamping the store's name and address there, as well (free advertising, I suppose). A practice that today would have me wincing in visible mock pain.

One of the books that turned up in this store happened to be Fantastic Four #84, which began a four-issue arc that featured Doctor Doom in what would turn out to be the last Lee/Kirby/Sinnott story we would ever see the character appear in (if you're not counting his android stand-in from FF #100, that is). At this point I was reading the mag regularly, but I was more familiar with the book's then-current artists--John Romita and, following him, John Buscema--and was only still in the beginning stages of being exposed to Jack Kirby's artwork as I worked my way back. Believe it or not, I was finding Kirby's work on the book to be an acquired taste that was taking some getting used to; but then, I'd find myself approaching the work of Ditko, Severin, et al. in much the same way before becoming more appreciative of their styles. (Admittedly, I only warmed slightly to Severin and Don Heck, even though the latter's work seemed to be everywhere in the older stories I would discover.)

In about a year and a half after FF 84 saw publication, Kirby would announce his resignation from Marvel--which in a way sheds new light on this story, given how masterfully Kirby and Lee had transformed Doom over time into one of the FF's... one of Marvel's... most memorable and anticipated nemeses in the company's roster. This story isn't my favorite Doom tale--but it's a fine farewell to the character from his creator, so much so that Doom arguably has the lion's share of scenes while virtually elbowing aside the title characters. And you'll find abundant examples here of Lee's robust dialog for Doom, a sort of final tour de force with one of his most dynamic characters--leaving no doubt that if there's anyone who can chew the scenery, it's Doctor Doom.

This initial issue of the four-part story mostly (if not entirely) consists of build-up, and in that it does its job well, thanks to Kirby packing it with a variety of interesting visuals which demonstrate this artist's proficiency at pacing a story and moving it along while taking into account the events to come. To start things off, that means catching up with the FF as they return from their last adventure in the land of the Inhumans--traveling in yet another incomprehensible vehicle that's seemingly designed with the sole purpose of making us want one of our own.

It naturally doesn't take the Fantastic Four long to run into the unexpected, which in this case takes the form of fighter jets from S.H.I.E.L.D. And the very recognizable pilot and co-pilot in one of those planes appear to be in urgent need to meet with the FF.

Elsewhere, in a small European country, a man on the run frantically attempts to win his freedom. But despite the precautions he's taken--the knowledge he has of his escape route--he cannot evade the one who lies in wait for him. The one who continues to boast of a benevolent nature that doesn't exist.

And so in just a few pages, the key players of this drama have all been assembled (with the exception of one, but that person's role in the story will become apparent much later). We know that the Fantastic Four will in some way be engaged in conflict with Doom again, but why? And aside from his usual stance of holding his kingdom and his subjects in an iron grip, what new plot is Doom involved with that has the likes of SHIELD on edge?

(Maybe he just wants to get his hands on the FF's awesome new airship?)

Doom has kept a relatively low profile (for Doom, that is) since he was defeated in his attempt to usurp the Silver Surfer's cosmic power and use it to take over the world. When he returned, it was in the pages of Daredevil, where he once again enjoyed the privileges of diplomatic immunity--a free pass for the character that seems absolutely absurd in light of his global power play and intentions of conquest. Would any other national president or ruler be able to avoid arrest and imprisonment and allowed to simply return to their affairs if they'd attempted a world takeover by force? Doom appears to enjoy immunity on many levels, some of which appear to have little to do with diplomacy.

Since Doom will keep for now (though let's not let him get wind of that assessment), as he works his will on his new prisoner (in a manner of speaking--we'll learn the true meaning of that statement in time), let's get this story in gear by discovering why Nick Fury needs to consult with Reed Richards, and why he presumably needs the services of the entire FF. Could it have anything to do with the new "invincible robot army" Doom boasts of? We know that Doom would later routinely use robots to engage with his enemies--but in 1969, he appears to have only begun moving in that direction, settling on the design of the model and initiating production of the first units. Though the mission that Fury will send the FF on will end up uncovering much more.

It's odd that Reed will be able to put two and two together and connect the sophistication of the piece of the robotic arm--and the fact that this strange new "army" is hidden somewhere in Europe--with Latveria and Doom, while SHIELD, an international intelligence agency, can't connect those dots. At any rate, with their experience with Doom, the FF make the ideal investigative team for Fury--and so they accept his request for help, and soon they're making their way to the Latverian border with the intent of being taken into custody. It's a story transition that Kirby attends to with his usual impressive attention to detail. As for Lee, his narrative and dialog are on par with prior stories where Kirby has provided him with a good deal of shifting imagery that offers ample opportunity for a writer to add his or her own nice touches. Lee won't always hold up his end of the deal in this story--but in Part 1, his contributions are substantive and he holds his own well enough.

Once the FF cross the border, Doom strikes almost instantly--and the FF receive first-hand exposure to some of the robots that Doom has perfected. At first glance, they don't appear to be a match for the FF; Doom, on the other hand, is quite a different story, conveying instructions to these constructs that include tactics well known to one who has faced the FF often enough and is aware of their vulnerabilities. (It also doesn't hurt to have a love-sick Human Torch kick Reed's plan to the curb and recklessly put the entire team off-balance.)

What happens when the FF regain consciousness is hardly the wake-up call they were expecting. Rather than finding themselves trapped in one of Doom's dungeons or contained in custom-built traps of his devising, they all awaken in plush surroundings and are treated like guests by the attending staff. Yet their rousing is monitored--and when Doom is satisfied that his plan for the FF is progressing, we at last we learn how he has managed to nullify the FF's threat, a fact that they aren't even aware of yet.

In point of fact, Doom hasn't drained the FF of their powers; instead, he's subjected the four to hypnotic treatments that will make them subconsciously hesitant to use them. It's an important distinction that clarifies the doublespeak that Lee has given Doom on the subject, a blurring of words that's crucial to how Lee chooses to handle the remaining installments of the story.

As for the FF, things become almost surreal for them as they move out into the village and find further indications that Doom is toying with them, as the townspeople "spontaneously" decide to honor the FF with their own festivity day and "celebrate" with plenty of smiles and joy--all telltale signs of Doom's strict orders that his subjects are to be happy by royal command. But in a desperate gambit, Reed chooses to make a play to expose Doom's hand in the pretense--though of course it runs the risk of making a bad situation worse.  On the bright side, the scenes tie in with Kirby's excellent cover for the issue.

In our nonfictional world, Reed's "dash for the border" would naturally involve more than a sprint across this village's courtyard--rather, he'd have to embark on a steady jog covering roughly 50 kilometers or more. Doom should have let him try going the full distance and had a good laugh when Reed started wheezing at about his ninth steep hill. Regardless, the FF now realize that they're to be confined here like any other villager--and they'll soon realize there isn't anything they can do about it.

Latveria in crisis!  The FF, helpless!  And a newer, deadlier robot army is unleashed!

A look at that unfortunate marked-up cover. (Say it with me: "ARRGH!")

Fantastic Four #84

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience in the early '80's when I stumbled upon a used bookstore in Minnesota that had a huge stack of old Marvels from the '70's. Oddly, they were mostly reprints, like Marvel's Greatest Comics, Marvel Spectacular, Marvel Triple Action, and others. For cheap, too.
Still, it was a treasure trove and I spent months raiding that place, buying reprints of classic Marvel stories that I otherwise might never have read. Still got 'em.
Including the reprint of this one! Yeah, you never forget those magical finds when you're collecting. It's half the fun!