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Essentially Doomed
A Review of
Essential Super-Villain Team-Up
jriddle
Comics Comments
24 July, 2005

Since the birth of superhero comics (and throughout the history of their predecessors, the pulps), the megalomaniac who wants to rule the world has been a standard villain archetype. He's brilliant, often a mad scientist or a dabbler in arcane arts. He's ruthless, passionately hates his enemies, and is forever devising some grand (often outlandish) scheme to accomplish his goals. He has a high opinion of his own abilities, and is frequently prone to monologues wherein he shares the view. In creating Dr. Doom, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and a slew of subsequent creators took this generic template, and, over time, forged, from it, a complex and fascinating character, one, in my view, of Marvel's best.

Way back in 2001, I decided Dr. Doom deserved his own Essential book, and I began agitating for one on the Marvel Universe usenet group. My suggestion as to contents--the Doom solo stories from "Astonishing Tales" and the run of "Super-Villain Team-Up"--was, oddly enough, exactly what ended up in the present Essential volume. I'd be happy to take credit for it, but I doubt my infrequent suggestions had anything to do with the book finally being published. You never know, though...

As it turned out, most of the "Astonishing Tales" weren't particularly astonishing (I'd never read them before the Essential, which, of course had nothing at all to do with my desire to see them included). In the first seven issues, there are some good Doom moments, but they're mostly small moments,[1] and they occur in the midst of stories that are otherwise entirely forgettable. Among other things, the run is crippled by the space restrictions. These being Doom stories, their scale always verges on the epic, but, crammed into a book with another feature, they're only allowed 10 pages in which to play out. Events that should have taken place over several pages are stuffed into two or three panels; there's an exceptionally hurried atmosphere about the whole thing. I'd recommend any of these first seven "Astonishing Tales" to those who so frequently complain about today's "decompressed" storytelling: there are worse things in comics than are dreampt of in your philosophy.

Roy Thomas and Larry Lieber author the first six "Astonishing Tales," with Wally Wood (#1-4) and George Tuska (#5-6) handling art chores. With #7, Gerry Conway assumes the writers' chair, finishing off the storyline from the previous issue, with the wonderful Gene Colan--one of my personal favorites--coming in as the new artist. Conway is one of the better Doom writers, and he immediately infuses a rather dull story with some interesting characterization. Doom, impressed with the Black Panther's courage, nobility, and tenacity, intentionally allows the Panther to foil one of his schemes, reasoning that he may one day make a better ally than he ever would a slave.

With "Astonishing Tales" #8, however, Conway and Colan turn in a genuine masterpiece--one of the best Doom stories ever published, perhaps THE best. "Though Some Call It Magic" tells the story of how, every year on the night of Midsummer's Eve, Doom seals himself in the cellar of his castle and conjures demons, challenging them to battle for his mother's lost soul. The story offers a very rare glimpse of Doom stripped of his trademark self-confidence. As it begins, he's preparing himself for the ordeal to come. A momentary tremor in his voice unnerves his faithful servant Boris, who has been with him since childhood. Doom is clearly tense, perhaps even afraid, but he puts on a brave face, affects a coldness of manner, and continues on, for the sake of honor and the love he bears his mother. The contest itself is brutal, and Doom, though managing a stalemate, takes a shellacking, as he has, we're told, every time he's initiated this contest in the past. "We'll continue our yearly struggle," says the demon, mocking a battered Doom. "It amuses me, as all the petty plans of humans do. So... plan, my friend--plan. There is next year--and the year following that--and the year after that..." Doom picks himself up, brushes himself off, staggers to his mother's crypt to apologize for his failure. "Perhaps next year, when I'm stronger." Many years later, Roger Stern and Mike Mignola would team up to produce the graphic novel "Triumph & Torment," a sequel to this story, and one of the only serious contenders for the title of greatest Doom story.

Next, we're into Super-Villain Team-Up. The regular series is prefaced by two "Giant Size" issues, laying out the premise of the book, the efforts of Doom and Namor the Sub Mariner to get past their distrust of one another and forge a mutually beneficial alliance. The first Giant Size issue has Namor recovering Doom after the Latverian monarch had nearly died in a sattelite explosion in Fantastic Four #144. Reviving him with the aid of Atlantean technology, Namor suggests a partnership. "Together, we could rule that world which has rejected us both."

"There is food for thought in your words, amphibian," Doom replies. "But my mind is still sluggish. Let me consider for a moment..."

And this becomes the excuse Roy Thomas uses to fill the bulk of the issue with flashback sequences, reprinting, as Doom's reminiscenses, a pair of earlier stories. The first of these reprints is a mostly forgettable Doom/Namor encounter from "Sub Mariner" #20. The second, however, is one of the key Doom stories. "This Man... This Demon!" from "Marvel Super-Heroes" #20 retells Doom's origin, introducing the gypsy Valeria, whom Larry Lieber and Roy Thomas establish as a key character in Doom's mythos. Many years earlier, in Latveria, before Doom had become an armor-encased megalomaniacal conqueror, she'd been his childhood friend, and, later, his lover. She'd watched as the dreams of their life together were replaced in his heart by a cold thirst for power, and even as he left her to pursue it, she still loved him. Lieber and Thomas make her the living symbol of the life Doom could have had, and, for the first time, we see Doom tormented by thoughts of what he lost by choosing the path upon which he now walks. Or, he wonders, did it choose him? In the end, Valeria offers him a new choice. "Tell me you would renounce your towering ambition for the girl you once loved." She's met with silence, which is answer enough. "I must leave you now... my love. We will never meet again." The final page of the story--a brooding Doom, seen from a distance, standing alone--is, for my money, one of the greatest images of Doom ever committed to paper.[2]

The first Giant Size issue ends with Doom rejecting Namor's offer of an alliance. The next begins with Doom, having reconsidered the matter, reapproaching Namor in a more agreeable state of mind, and the series is off and running. I'd read the early issues before, and they're quite good. Under Roy Thomas, the two begin to set aside their mutual distrust to at least a sufficient enough degree to seriously consider an alliance. Under the always-capable Tony Isabella, the book features a very introspective Doom, seriously reevaluating his goals, his methods, pretty much everything. He sees the benefit to making an ally of Namor, and seriously embarks upon making of him a friend, instead of merely a useful pawn. Under Jim Shooter, he tries to show Namor the foolishness in always allowing his momentary passions to dictate his actions. He puts the resources of Latveria to the task of avenging Namor's murdered love Betty Dean Prentiss. Great stuff. It looks like we're seeing the begining of an alliance that could cause the world a good deal of trouble.

Unfortunately, the book, like so many Marvel floated in those years, lacks any sort of overriding creative vision. There doesn't seem to have been much thought given to what the book is actually supposed to be about, beyond the initial gimmick of a villain team-up book. An "editorial plea" written by Roy Thomas in the first Giant Size volume (a plea not reprinted in the Essential book) asks "where do we go from here?" It makes it very clear that they had no idea where they should take the project. "You tell us, okay?" Not exactly confidence-inspiring. Nevertheless, Thomas, Isabella, and Shooter manage, through the course of the first five books--the two Giant Sizeds, and the first three issues of the regular title--to lay the groundwork for what could have been--and should have been--a monstrously good book.

It just wasn't to be, though. With #4, Marvel, seemingly unsure of where to go with the project, gives the job of changing its direction to Bill Mantlo, who, in one page, blows the carefully constructed scenario of the first five issues all to hell and sets Doom and Namor to fighting again. STVU #5 included some comments on the letters page, presumably by Marv Wolfman (who was editing the book at the time) about this abrupt change of direction:

"The main problem with the series so far, as we see it, is that we couldn't decide who the lead characters were. Dr. Doom was a bad guy acting almost like a good guy. Namor was a long-time good guy trying to act like a bad guy. And very few people that we've talked to could get themselves to buy it."

Reading something like that makes you wonder why Marvel ever decided to launch the series in the first place. The fact that there was this sort of bewilderment resulting from a book's defiance of the simplistic is a rather unflattering comment on the creative state of the House of Ideas at that particular point in history. The first five issues of SVTU have, intentionally or not, a definite direction, and quite a good one. There's no reason a great series couldn't have been built upon them.

With very few exceptions, SVTU is all down hill from the moment they decide to abandon that course. After Mantlo's single issue dismantling of the book, we get Steve Englehart assigned as the new writer, a telling sign of the shocking degree of cluelessness at Marvel regarding the book. Englehart is a solid craftsman, and very good at what he does, but what he does is straightforward good guy/bad guy stuff. His rendition of Dr. Doom is, to put it bluntly, startlingly incompetent, and has remained so in the decades since SVTU. It's a character on which he's just never been able to get a handle. It would, in other words, have been difficult to intentionally choose a worse writer for this series.

Englehart lasts four very painful issues. In his first, a godawful character called the Shroud is introduced. He's a straightforward ripoff of Batman and the Shadow. His origin is a blend of the two, and, when he gets around to telling it in SVTU #7, the first page of it is a panel-by-panel reproduction of the original Batman origin from Detective Comics #33. Englehart and artist Herb Trimpe give no indication that this is intended as satire--it appears, rather, to be straightforward theft.[3] The characterization from the early issues is ignored. There's no longer any effort at a meaningful Doom/Namor alliance. Their continued relationship is, instead, reduced to an oath, by Namor, to be Doom's virtual slave, an oath Doom extracts by blasting to pieces ancient structures in Atlantis until a weakened Namor agrees to swear it.[4] The run's one potentially great idea--a U.S. alliance with Latveria--is introduced, then just as quickly discarded in favor of a lot of mindless mayhem, like a battle between a reluctant Namor and the Fantastic Four, and a Namor/Shroud tag-team against the Circus of Crime (!!!). Englehart's lowest point, however, came in SVTU #7, where he makes Dr. Doom a practitioner of droit de seigneur, the right of a feudal lord to the company of any woman of his lands. He has Doom go to the home of some of his subjects and demand the company of what looks to be a very young girl. He calls her "my child," and the reader is given the distinct impression that he means to instruct her in the ways of the world, if you will. Thankfully, the Shroud shows up before he gets down to business (the only time an appearance by the Shroud is a good thing).

Englehart's departure, after #8, puts the book in Bill Mantlo's hands, and is immediately followed by a multi-part crossover with the Avengers. Readable, and with a well-done Doom (courtesy, once again, of Gerry Conway), the story is hampered by the inherent idiocy of almost any Avengers story. Once again, we have the Avengers' trademark plot at work: some bad guy just shows up and wants to do something bad to the Avengers for no reason at all.[5] Attuma has created a powerful being called Tyrak, and is working on a whole army of them to aid him in his dreams of conquest. This Tyrak guy is such a Billy Badboy that he squashes the Avengers as though they were bugs. Attuma then kidnaps them, puts them under his control, and sends them out to beat up Namor. That immediately raises the question, "why didn't he just send Tyrak to beat up Namor?" The Vision even points out the idiocy of this to Doom. The explanation the Vision provides for this is one that would only make sense to an Avenger. Attuma, he says, didn't want Namor to know he was responsible for Tyrak. Of course, Tyrak would, presumably, have killed Namor in such an encounter, so what difference would it make? At the same time, why would the Avengers, whom Tyrak defeats, have a better chance against Namor than Tyrak himself? To the Vision, however (and, once suspects, to the average Avengers fan), this makes perfect sense. A little later, Tyrak puts a finer point on it by effortlessly pounding Namor to a pulp. The great George Perez artwork in the regular "Avengers" portion of the cross-over certainly argues that he deserved better than the Avengers. This story, however, only made my prejudice against them stronger. The high point: they attack Doom and he chews them up and spits them out with very little effort.

Next, the book, under Mantlo's direction, kicks into high gear again, when Doom teams up with Captain America for an epic three-part clash with the Red Skull. It's a classic Marvel free-for-all, and Mantlo and artist Bob Hall outdo themselves.[6] It concludes with Doom rocketing to the moon to dish out a royal ass-kicking to the Skull. He leaves the defeated Nazi stranded on the surface, screaming ineffectually into his damaged, leaking spacesuit. Doom: "...soon, even the Skull will realize his screams waste what little air he has left. And then he will be quite silent."

SVTU #13 should have been SVTU #4. Reading them, in fact, they seem as though they are, with a few cosmetic changes, direct sequels. Early in the run, Doom wanted to make a friend of Namor, rather than merely using him as a pawn. He promised to help free Namor's people from their state of suspended animation (a result of events prior to SVTU). By the end of SVTU #3, it looked as though they were about to become a serious problem for mankind. In issue #13, Doom finally gets around to curing what ails the inhabitants of Atlantis, and, along the way, delivers a brutal clock-cleaning to Krang the Warlord, who was trying to take over the city. There was no reason for Doom to do this, except as a token of friendship--Krang was, by that point, broken and fleeing. And Doom doesn't kill Krang, choosing to allow him to live in order that he may face Namor, again something that can only be read as a token of friendship. The issue brings the book's early storyline full-circle, offering a hint at what it could have been if Marvel had stuck with, rather than abandoning, the opportunity it originally presented. Read it and imagine it as SVTU #4, with an ending wherein Namor commits to an alliance with Doom, rather than kicking him to the curb.

Brings a smile, doesn't it?

That thought is the great book SVTU could have been, rather than the uneven mess it was.[7]

---

[1] Doom teleporting an object to the moon in advance of the U.S. space mission there in order to demonstrate his scientific superiority, for example. The astronauts find the object when they land. Nice!

[2] "This Man... This Demon!" and "Though Some Call It Magic" are particularly recommended to fans of Mark Waid's recent inane butchery of Dr. Doom. There was a time when this characters' writers didn't confuse a lot of empty shock-effects for a "good story."

[3] Though Namor's reaction to his story is funny--when the Shroud finishes his origin and tells him he intends to kill Dr. Doom, Namor lays back in his tub: "Oh. I see... you're insane. For a moment there I thought you might be of some help to me."

[4] Doom describes Atlantis as "the sole surviving link with a past so ancient, most surface-dwellers refuse to believe it existed. I propose to destroy it!" Englehart seems aware that he's assigning Doom a rather un-Doom-like task, here, and covers it over with a few additional remarks: "It pains me deeply to do so--I, too, love history." Brack.

[5] The real reason, of course, is to provide the Avengers with an "adventure" because they lack a point. Being about nothing, they don't have a premise to provide them with stories, and this sort of thing is usually the best they can do.

[6] Cap and Doom make for an interesting and entertaining team. I love the way Doom regards Cap throughout the story; appropriately contemptuous but respectful of his abilities. Great sparring dialogue between the two.

"Doom! But I thought..."

"Did you, Captain? How interesting. When last we chatted, I detected no such predilection in you."

[7] Speaking of uneven, the next issue plunges the title into the abyss that would be its final downfall; a positively awful two-part crossover with the Champions about Doom releasing a gas that makes everyone on earth subservient to him. A great Byrne/Austin cover on #14 can't save this turkey. The more you read of it, the worse it gets. The worst, however, is yet to come. Doom is then cut from the title entirely, sounding its death knell, and under yet another writer (Peter Gillis). The last two utterly forgettable issues make the Red Skull the central character, after which the title is mercifully dragged behind the storage sheds and shot.


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