Sunday, July 24, 2005

Essentially Doomed

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, the dream-team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and a slew of subsequent creators took this generic template and, over time, forged from it a complex and fascinating character--in my view, one of Marvel's best.

Way back in 2001, I decided Dr. Doom deserved his own Essential book and 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 this volume). In the first seven issues, there are some good Doom moments but they're mostly small ones[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; they're exceptionally rushed. I'd recommend any of these first few "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. "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 satellite 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 reminiscences, 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, approaching 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 beginning 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?" The "plea" makes it very clear that the Marvel gang 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 all to hell the carefully constructed scenario of the first five issues 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. Englehart is a talented writer but this is a character on which he was just never able to get a handle and it would 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--Mantlo in SVTU with Gerry Conway writing the Avengers portion of it--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 such creatures 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's judgment. 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]

--j.

---

[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.

Friday, July 8, 2005

The Non-FANTASTIC FOUR

Given its troubled production history and what I considered a very poor choice for director, I went into Fox's long-awaited film adaptation of "Fantastic Four" with the lowest expectations with which I've ever entered a film I paid to see in a theater. It seems reasonable to assume that such low expectations mean, in practice, that a movie has nowhere to go but up but even my low expectations couldn't help this one. As a movie, it's really bad. As a Fantastic Four movie, it's just short of a complete disaster.

Roger Ebert correctly described the film as all buildup. It sets up and sets up and sets up and never gets around to telling a story. Even with all this setting up though, it incredibly never even gets around to giving us an origin of the Fantastic Four. In the film, the "group" is a press creation. They're thrown together only because of their common condition, super powers developed as a result of being clobbered by cosmic rays during a mission to space. With the exception of Johnny Storm (the hot-headed "Human Torch"), they treat these powers as an affliction and spend the bulk of the film trying to undo their transformation. At no point do they ever actually decide to form a team or dedicate themselves to any common mission. The logical extension of the film's ending is that they all go back to living their normal lives.

Super-genius Reed Richards, "afflicted" with the ability to stretch his body to great lengths, succeeds in creating a machine which can return the four of them to normal. Ben Grimm spends the entire film angsting over having become the monstrous Thing, then, toward the end, is restored to human form by the machine, only to have to change himself back into the Thing again in order to save the others. The Reverso machine still exists though, but at the end of the film, Ben, in a move that boldly contradicts literally everything else we see regarding the character, doesn't want to use it again to become human. In the comics, Ben has a long relationship with blind sculptress Alicia Masters then, over time, begins to develop the idea that she's really in love with the Thing rather than Ben Grimm. This makes him reluctant to attempt any reversal of his transformation. In the film, the relationship with Alicia has only just begun and logically, this would only add to his very deeply held desire to return to normal. Instead, he wants to remain as the Thing.

Unfortunately, this isn't even remotely the only example of the film's lack of internal consistency. Throughout the movie, Ben anoints himself matchmaker between his pal Reed and Reed's would-be girlfriend Sue, then, merely because the filmmakers wanted to arbitrarily take the movie in a different direction, Ben allows "Doom," the movie's villain, to convince him that he's still the Thing only because Reed is spending too much time playing footsie with Sue and not enough working on a way to return Ben to normal. Ben is inexplicably sold on this notion, a completely ridiculous turn of events made even more absurd by the fact that Ben is the one who, throughout the movie, never likes "Doom" and is always warning Reed against trusting him (after "Doom's" defeat at the end, he even reminds Reed of this). Yet he takes "Doom's" comments so seriously that he returns to the Baxter building and physically attacks Reed.

In the film's favor, it can be said that, except for when the filmmakers arbitrarily (and crudely) impose this plot point on Ben, the characterization of both he and Johnny is quite good. Here, fidelity to the source material pays off. Their characters, as presented in the film, are drawn directly from the comics. Both individually and in their interactions with one another, they work, and for the same reason they've worked in the book for over 40 years.[1]

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the quartet's other half. Neither Reed nor Sue are remotely recognizable as their comic counterparts. Reed Richards is certainly not the clueless idiot and perpetual foul-up portrayed in the movie. He's a sharp, take-charge, think-on-his-toes leader of men who knows what he's about and doesn't take any guff from anyone. The film gives us, instead, Reed as an unemotional egg-head stereotype, a guy who has to have a constant boot in his ass from his best friend or from his domineering girlfriend in order to get anything done. And, of course, comic Sue isn't the domineering character we see in the movie either. One of her most significant characteristics over the years has, in fact, been an inferiority complex--it's something against which she's had to battle throughout the book's history. It's impossible to imagine the character in the movie having this problem. The filmmakers are presenting an exaggerated version of who Sue became in the book after decades of experience and development--a much older, more mature, less shy, more self-confident character--and imposing it on a much younger Sue. Through most of the film, she's much more level-headed, much more of a leader than Reed or anyone else. The result is a much stronger character but one with much less depth--a one-dimensional one-trick pony without much room for any real growth. She's far less connected to the source material and her strength comes at the expense of Reed's.

About "Doom," the less said the better. The movie's version of Marvel's greatest villain is an unrecognizable travesty in every particular (though one, I suspect, that will please fans of Mark Waid's idiotic single-dimensional take on the character). He's robbed of the comic characters' wonderful backstory, scientific genius, nobility. In its place, the film gives us a dull, cloned rehash of Norman Osbourne's story from the first "Spiderman" film; the book's mighty monarch of Latveria reduced to just another smarmy, self-obsessed businessman on his way down. He accompanies the four principals into space and, like them, is bombarded with cosmic rays, whereupon he begins to mutate into a living electrical conductor, his flesh becoming a sort of organic metal.[2] He's presented as obsessively vain throughout the film, to such an extent that it's his defining--and for the most part only--characteristic, but instead of employing Reed's machine to return himself to normal (after becoming a rather unattractive metal man), he chooses to disguise his disfigurement, the excuse he has for donning the movie's variation on the familiar mask of the comic character. Reed is determined to return everyone to normal but "Doom," rather than just letting him do so after Reed has perfected the means, chooses to confront them while they still have their powers. He wants revenge on Reed for ruining him and there's a single vague hint that he wants "power" but he's never given any larger goal. For all intents and purposes, he ceases to exist as a character and becomes, instead, an empty thing to serve the plot, a generic Insane Villain with no internal logic or consistency and present solely to provide a big fight scene at the end of the movie.[3]

I had a lot of other major problems with the film. There are a lot of relatively minor nitpicks as well. The reaction of Ben's wife to his condition--she sees him, screams, and runs away without further comment--is extremely silly and begs the question of why this character, which didn't exist in the comics, was even included at all. Her second appearance, on a bridge after Ben has just saved some firefighters, is one of a number of absurd coincidences that run through the film. Of all the places in all the world, she just happens to be there on the bridge so she can use the occasion of Ben proving himself a hero to very dramatically break up their marriage (she catches his eye, lays her wedding ring on the ground and walks away without comment). Also coincidentally on the bridge are Reed, Sue, and Johnny, who show up just in time to help Ben pull off the rescue. Then, there are the timing gaffs. Johnny appears at a motorcycle stunt show and, afterwards, talks to the press covering the event. Reed, Sue, and Ben, by another of those odd coincidences, happen to be watching the show, and, angered by Johnny's antics, set off to confront him. It apparently only takes them seconds to leave the Baxter building and get to the site of the show--they're there to meet Johnny as he comes out the door after talking to the press. Later, near the end of the film, "Doom" is battling Sue, and Reed notices the lights flickering at the Baxter building across town. This is Ben turning himself back into the Thing. He's clearly on the other side of town but only scant minutes later, he comes bursting through the door as the Thing to battle "Doom," no explanation.

And so on. Any movie is in trouble when its most endearing characteristic is a 20-second Stan Lee cameo. FANTASTIC FOUR is a horrible, wasted opportunity, saved from complete disaster only by the fact that it didn't so decimate the property that future sequels of, one would hope, far superior quality are rendered impossible.

--j.

---

[1] The only thing missing was a strong scene in which it's established that they are, in fact, pals. Without it, Johnny--much older than his comic counterpart, who can be somewhat excused for his behavior by virtue of being young and stupid--comes across as a bit of a prick.

[2] All, again, creations of the film. In the book, Doom is the only serious intellectual rival to Reed Richards, and has no superpowers beyond his scientific genius. Movie "Doom" is a smarmy corporate CEO cliche, and never even displays any scientific knowledge.

[3] As I said before, the logical extension of the film's story--the end toward which the entire film has built--is the group returning themselves to normal and returning to their regular lives. Were "Doom" an outside menace (as he was in the book) rather than one of the astronauts, he could have provided a rationale for the others to form a team. With "Doom" as one of them, though, his defeat simply amounts to a clearing up of the last bit of outstanding business from the space mission. The end of the story of the "Fantastic Four" rather than the beginning of it.