Master of Menace: The Life and Times of Dr. Doom
Posted by Tony Ingram on Apr 23, 2008
He is perhaps the most infamous comic book villain ever, certainly as famous as his arch foes the Fantastic Four, but Victor Von Doom has never had a real solo success. So, why is that, we ask?
From the moment he first, appeared in Fantastic Four #5 back in 1961, Doctor Doom has fascinated readers. His origin story in Fantastic Four Annual #2 expanded an already intriguing character, giving him his own country to rule – Latveria – and making the egocentric but tortured scientist into one of the first comic book villains the readers could relate to as more than just a two-dimensional device to drive the plot. But it still took until August 1970 before Marvel first tried launching the demonic Doctor into a strip of his own!
Astonishing Tales #1 was not the first time a villain had headlined a feature, by any means. Marvel themselves, as Atlas Comics, had previously published four issues of The Yellow Claw in the mid 1950s. But the Claw (basically a fairly generic Fu Manchu rip-off) had not been the star of the book; that dubious honor went to his nemesis, FBI man Jimmy Woo. The Doctor Doom strip which took up half the space in Astonishing Tales (the other half being given over to jungle loon Ka-Zar) was different. Here, Doom was not only the headline character, he was the main character! In the very first issue, Doom proves his superiority over the plodding US space program by leaving a message on the moon for astronauts Buzz and Neil, just to prove he got there first – now that’s style!
Naturally, star of the book or not, the not so good Doctor could not be allowed to have things all his own way. The first three issues of the series pit Doom against, at one time or another, his own android creation the Doomsman (in a rather nice homage to Frankenstein), Latveria’s exiled rightful ruler Prince Rudolfo, and the sinister alien schemer called the Faceless One. The Faceless One, in fact, is one of Marvel’s more interesting and unappreciated creations, and would crop up occasionally throughout the ‘70s – though issue #3’s cover blurb ‘revealed at last! The secret of the Faceless One!’ is overstating his case a bit, given that he’d only been introduced in the previous issue (for the record, he was a small, globular alien with spider-like legs who sat atop a humanoid robot body pretending to be its head).
The fourth issue sees Doom in an almost playful mood, lying around on the Riviera (the only time he has ever been seen to take a vacation) and toying with a hapless would-be thief before returning home to effortlessly foil the Red Skull’s invasion of Latveria in the next issue. Interestingly, while regarded as a villain by the world at large, it is clear that Doom’s own people respect him even if they do also fear him. Subsequent writers have built on this.
The Doctor Doom strip saw quite a few changes in creative personnel. Initially by Roy Thomas and Wally Wood, Larry Lieber succeeded Thomas as writer in #s 3-6, followed by Gerry Conway in #s 7-8, with George Tuska penciling #s 5-6 and the wonderful Gene Colan #s 7-8. Though Doom’s conflict with the Black Panther in #6-7 is interesting, the high point of the run is undoubtedly issue #8, in which Doom fights the forces of Hell on Midsummer’s Eve for the unfairly damned soul of his mother…as, we are told, he does every year. The revelation of Doom’s secret anguish over his mother’s fate and his continuing inability to free her show us Doom in a new light-just in time for his series’ cancellation. Ka-Zar was granted the whole book with #9. The readers weren’t ready for a villain as a lead character.
A good villain is never beaten for long, though. In 1974, Doom returned to something approaching solo stardom-though now partnered with mixed up anti-hero the Sub-Mariner-in Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1, again by Roy Thomas and Larry Lieber, with art by John Buscema. The two issues of GS SVTU (the first picked up some trailing plot threads from the Sub-Mariner’s series, the second was a rematch with the long lost Doomsman) did well enough that, with the collapse of Marvel’s quarterly Giant-Size line, it was re-launched as a regular bi-monthly in August 1975.
Super-Villain Team-Up #s 1-3 started the series promisingly enough, with Doom and the Sub-Mariner taking on Atlantean warlord Attuma and his cohorts, Dr Dorcas and Tiger Shark. Unfortunately, even at this early stage the book was plagued by inconsistency, writer Tony Isabella jumping ship after #2 to be replaced by Jim Shooter, who was himself replaced by Bill Mantlo with #4. The art team likewise changed continually throughout the book’s run, though a full listing would take forever.
SVTU #4, in which the two constantly bickering leads take on a rogue US Naval officer named Ryker (modern day counterpart of the villain in the then current Deathlok series) is effectively the last in which Doom and Subby are a ‘team’, with new writer Steve Englehart dissolving their partnership the next issue. This, of course, was always going to happen. The problem with SVTU as a concept is that villains do not work well with other villains and in any case, Sub Mariner was not by this time a villain anymore.
The next ten issues, while entertaining enough, therefore go pretty much nowhere except round in circles as Doom tries to control the unwilling Sub-Mariner and the pair take on the Fantastic Four, the Red Skull and various others, and become involved in a several issue crossover with The Avengers. Doom also gains what was to have been a new nemesis in The Shroud, a black cloaked vigilante clearly patterned on DC’s Batman, but he was never fully developed as a character and was as a result just not very interesting. Later writers did better by the self styled ‘master of darkness’ in other books, fortunately.
With Sub-Mariner having finally departed in the previous issue, #14 took the book in a new direction as Doom finally conquered the world…only to lose it again and end up a mental wreck in the next month’s issue of The Champions. As, of course, he had to. The series had run its course – although an all reprint issue #15 (material from Doom’s Astonishing Tales series) was published in 1978, and SVTU was revived minus Doom but with the Red Skull and Hate Monger headlining issue #16 in May 1979. The conclusion of that two part tale finally saw print a year later in June 1980, the final issue.
Doom, of course, resumed his role as the Marvel Universe’s premiere recurring bad guy, but despite having had a couple of Marvel Graphic Novels to his name (Emperor Doom, in which he conquers the world and loses it yet again, and Dr Doom/Dr Strange, in which he finally releases his mother from Hell) he has rarely climbed the heights of solo stardom since. In 1993, Doom 2099 transplanted the metal masked maniac to the far future for a surprisingly lengthy 44-issue run (though it was never definitely confirmed that this was the original Doom) and he has starred in a number of limited series in recent years. For the most part, though, Doctor Doom these days is back where he belongs – forever bedeviling the good guys, free of the responsibilities of his own title and the limitations of being a lead character who can never be allowed to conclusively win. What more could a career villain ask for?
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