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Prisoners of Doctor Doom

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Superhero stories are different from other stories. In the conventional, Western, three-act structure story the protagonist, or hero, is somebody who causes change, who leaves home, has adventures, and comes back different. In a superhero story, as Richard Reynolds and others have pointed out, change comes from the outside and the hero's job is the status quo. No less a person than Umberto Eco identified superhero comics as an "iterative scheme", where a similar story keeps on happening, outside of normal time, with everything set back at the end of an instalment to how it was at the start.

I hate to disagree with Umberto Eco, what with his gigantic brain and all, but I do think he could have read a few more comics before coming to that conclusion. True, there are plenty of resets, reboots and returns to how things were (look at the constant churn of Captain America, for instance, as different characters take over the role before always returning to Steve Rogers) but there is a very gradual development over time and a knowledge, in the fans and writers if not necessarily the characters, of all that has gone before.

Still, Umberto's got a point - superheroes do tend to react to trouble, and generally need somebody else to come into the story to shake things up, and these somebody elses are known as "supervillains". As Stan Lee says, "if not for the villains the good guys would either have to apply for welfare or be reduced to battling each other" . In recent times this is pretty much what has happened, with Civil Wars and all sorts, but right back at the start of The Marvel Age there weren't really any other superheroes for the Fantastic Four to fight, so Lee and Kirby had to come up with some interesting villains.

They did pretty well, creating The Mole Man in the first issue of The Fantastic Four, the Skrulls in the next, and reviving Namor The Submariner in the fourth. All right, they also came up with the entirely rubbish Miracle Man in issue three, but a 75% hit rate of classics isn't bad, and they raised this to 80% (MATHS) in their fifth when they came up with Doctor Doom. Doctor Doom is probably the greatest supervillain of them all. I know I would say that, as I'm writing a blog about him and also doing a PhD, but he's been a fan-favourite right since his first appearance and, as we'll see as this blog goes along, has continued to appear all over the Marvel Universe ever since, in comics and all their other transmedia outlets. I personally first encountered him in Peterborough WH Smiths back in the early 1980s, when he was right on the front page of this mighty tome:

This amazing book contained reprints of the first six issues of The Fantastic Four and, as you can see from both covers, it got read a lot! Doctor Doom's on the front cover too - he's clearly the big draw as far as villains go, and in the first issue he appears very nearly fully formed as the character we know today. In the original run of comics it would take a couple of years for his full origin to be revealed, in Fantastic Four Annual #2, although we do get an abbreviated version in this issue. Here we've already got the idea that he uses a deadly mixture of science and sorcery - he's even got a book labelled "Science And Sorcery" in the very first panel! We also get a glimpse of his personal rivalry with Reed Richards, as his plan to capture the Fantastic Four depends on him knowing that Mr Fantastic will be unable to resist a battle of wills. Doom's actual plan is (as they usually turn out to be) a bit nuts. He's built a time machine, but has not managed to devise a remote control or timer for it, so he needs to send somebody else back in time to carry out his errands for him. To this end he kidnaps the Fantastic Four and demands that the three men head back to the time of Blackbeard to find Merlin's Treasure, while he keeps the Invisible Girl hostage. Sue Storm gets taken hostage quite a lot in these early issues, though she does also tend to get away and, as we'll see in later issues, is often the one who ends up saving everybody else.

Here though the entire Fantastic Four are kept at bay by a tiger. In their very first issue they managed to fight a gigantic monster, but for some reason a big cat is enough to hold them in place on Doom's time machine, which he activates, sending them into history. When they arrive back in Ye Olden Times there's a lot of fun with them finding some clothes and then... well, then they go to the pub where they get mickey finned and end up shanghaied onto a pirate ship. I love this image - it looks, to me, like a storybook illustration rather than the Jack Kirby of thrusting limbs, forced perspective and dynamic action that I associate with his later Marvel work.

Anyway, what with one thing and another Reed, Ben and Johnny have a big fight with the pirates who've captured them and then get involved with fighting a whole other bunch of pirates. Doom has told them that they've got to capture Blackbeard's Treasure Chest so they think maye it's Blackbeard who's attacking them. However! In a very cunning bit of time travel storytelling, it turns out that Blackbeard has been amongst them all along! I distinctly remember having my tiny mind blown by this panel when I first read it. I love the fact that The Thing wants to stay in this time and be the famous Blackbeard - as he rightly says, there's nothing for him as a monster in his own time, so why shouldn't he stay in the past and be a hero?

Unfortunately for Ben, but fortunately for the next fifty years of comics, there's a storm which casts the three of them onto a desert island, just in time for Doctor Doom's time machine to find them and bring them back to the present day. Here they hand over the treasure chest to Doctor Doom, who reveals that the treasure within will give him power to take over the world. Luckily for the world, Reed Richards used his famous brain to dupe Doom, giving him the treasure chest he'd asked for but not the treasure within, which he'd cleverly dumped in the sea back in the past. Clever Reed! Um. Yes. Good point Johnny. Doctor Doom is understandably annoyed by Reed's pedantic lawyery and decides to have them all killed to death by suffocation. The Thing reacts angrily to this and discovers that... ... Doctor Doom is actually a robot! The real Doctor Doom is in a different room, watching them on a monitor screen. This is some classic Doctor Doom action, right here in his first appearance. He'll go on to use Doombots (as they get called) all the time, for fighting fights that are too dangerous for him to undertake in person, or for fulfilling tasks that he considers beneath him. For some reason though he doesn't seem to be able to use them to go back in time to carry out missions or operate time machines.

The three male members of the Fantastic Four find themselves trapped inside a reinforced airtight room from which they cannot escape, and it's up to Sue Storm to escape and liberate them all. They flee the castle, with the Human Torch using some powerful "science" to help them get across a moat full of crocodiles. I'm pretty sure that that's not how anything works? As we shall see as we go along, Stan and Jack have a rather shaky understanding of what you can do with fire and heat, leading to the Human Torch using flame for some bizarre purposes in the first few years of his existence. One thing fire definitely can do, however, is to burn things, and that's precisely what happens to Doctor Doom's castle. In credit to him, he makes the best of a bad deal by acknowledging that this will keep his secrets from the world, and then flying away using his jet pack, setting off to find "a new hidden site where I can plan for my conquest of earth!!" This is all well and good, but what happened to that Tiger? Did it manage to escape? And what about the crocodiles? This was none of their faults!

And on that note of animal cruelty Doctor Doom's first appearance ends. The Fantastic Four wonder where he's gone, but they only have a couple of months to wait. We, on the other hand, will be getting to his next appearance in just a week!

In the meantime, I'd be very interested in anyone else's thoughts about this issue, not just because I'll be nicking... sorry, sourcing critical consensus for the purposes of my PhD, but also because I reckon it'll be interesting - if you have anything to say, please use the comments!

link to information about this issue

posted 17/1/2018 by Mark Hibbett

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What I love about this story is how desperate it is for you to like it, showing that early FF isn't the slam dunk run forever hit we may think of it as. Yes we have superheroes with amazing powers fighting their arch-enemy, but just in case that doesn't grab the kids, lets throw PIRATES in too.
posted 17/1/2018 by

Thanks for the first comment! This is an excellent point, which (SPOILERS) will be proved more and more correct as the stories develop.
posted 17/1/2018 by Mark Hibbett

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DOOMBOT FILTER: an animal that says 'woof' (3)

(e.g. for an animal that says 'cluck' type 'hen')

A process blog about Doctor Doom in The Marvel Age written by Mark Hibbett