My Doom

There are no paltry "heroes" in this comic book.

There are no paltry “heroes” in this comic book.

In digging around the internet to find out what those pictures in my memory are, I initially thought that my most cherished issue of my original hoard must have been one of the Astonishing Tales stories, by Roy Thomas and Wally Wood, 1971. But no! It was the one-shot prequel to that series, published in Marvel Superheroes! #20, 1969, also by Thomas and with extremely of-the-moment art credits: Frank Giacoia (artist), Larry Lieber (pencils), Vince Colletta (inks).

Those exact artists indicate that the issue is beta-Marvel, after the initial rush, now heralding but not yet the psychedelic explosive across-titles Marvel. It’s at the exact point when Goodman sold his whole magillah to the Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, when Lee considered maybe letting Thomas write on top titles but not quite yet, when the audience had clearly shifted such that college profs (let alone the students) were trippin’ balls and quoting Dr. Strange, when Ditko was gone and Kirby was grimly isolated in a couple of titles,  new staff were desperately needed, and – paradoxically – when a real Bullpen was forming. This time seems to take a low place in Comics Geek Regard, compared either to 1963-67 or to the early 80s, but me? I think differently.

I’ve learned from Marvel Comics: The Untold Story that 1969 Marvel as a publishing concern was overflowing with work, but also almost total chaos, with no direction in ownership, purpose, business plan, or even artistic motives. Lee wanted just as much as Goodman to get out of these damned trashy comics and move into visual media with viable properties. So I’m not idealizing it as a Glowing Artistic Vision, especially in light of the unpleasant realities of creator recognition and compensation, but I do think there’s something to the comics made in this chaos that pop culture has both forgotten and lost.

So here I am, eight or nine, reading this comic.

Whoa! Back-story, comin' up!

Whoa! Back-story, comin’ up!

The story is called “This Man … This Demon!” It is not subtle. The polite description would be “broad,” as opposed to loud, obvious, blunt, two-by-four.

Doom broods, then fights a bunch of foes which turn out to be his own “memory tapes” malfunctioning. Diablo appears, a grinning magician-type, admits his monkeying with the tapes, and offers a deal: use of Doom’s time machine for No Good Purpose in exchange for returning his lost love Valeria to him. Diablo wants to rule the world by changing the past.

Doom flashes back to a heartrending romance in his youth, and agrees. Diablo makes the critical error of gloating over his offer that couldn’t be refused.

Doom “lets” Diablo use the time machine, but gimmicks it to strand him in the far future, in which it is demonstrated that the Earth of the future is a lifeless, war-torn, ruined hell (oh now there’s a charming bit of casual-mention material, thanks Roy!). On the plus side Diablo’s plan was really shitty, so Doom is technically kind of heroic here.

Valeria is initially overjoyed to be reunited with Victor, but …

And you thought his face was a problem.

And you thought his face was a problem.

My God did I love it. I even used Mom’s new electric typewriter to compose a prose version, all the way through. Armed with Bring on the Bad Guys which reprinted the 1964 Annual, I knew this was Marvel’s beating heart. The heroes suffered and whined, but none of them compared to this. I understood him and would never again refer to him merely as “Doctor Doom,” but as Victor. I cared about what happened to him in any story, now. He didn’t merely entertain me – I respected him.

When I started studying literature and the teacher carefully outlined alienation, angst, anti-heroes, the Absurd, and other such things on the board, I smiled slightly. I’d already read it in four-color newsprint. Thomas’ long-gone brief tenure as an English teacher had already filtered through to me, and into me, in symbols and plot-events which existential lit could never match. Clunky, heavy-handed, unsubtle? Sure. What’s your point?

Still, I concede that someone else’s 1960s FF nostalgia is not special. Maybe more interesting: I think this isn’t Marvel Universe continuity we’re looking at, but instead, something earlier and better, the first really strong demonstration of practical Marvel availability for adding content.

Cross-title guest shots were common already, but seriously: so what if Iron Man shows up in an issue of the Fantastic Four? So what if a character refers to events in a past issue? I set aside the basic observation that doing this is better writing than not doing it. That’s not the point. Consider instead: yes, there’s small-c continuity there, and yes, it was more present in 1960s Marvel Comics than in other superhero comics past or contemporary, but beware the confirmation bias which whispers, “Look, there’s a shared worrrld …” For one thing, just as often, stuff happened and vanished, undeveloped, the “fact” lost, the connection never confirmed. For another, much of these guy-in-other-guy’s-book moments was in service to very little consequence or impact. It served admirably as advertisement, this is true.

Here, in 1969, during the sale of Goodman Publications to the Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, Thomas in his editorial lack-of-process was doing something new. He took a non-title character which had received some development already in a single title or shared titles under a single author, and gave him a title, or rather a trial as a title … and both prior stories’ content and new content are included. The operating principle is, “If you’re paying attention to what’s been published so far, you can do something with things you find in it.” With “something” including at least the attempt to make past content and present content a story of its own.

Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko had already been treating a few titles (Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, maybe Doctor Strange) as linear, within-title stories, or if more than one title, then titles the same authors controlled, and Thomas had joined that very small list with his run on The Avengers, at this time for less than two years. Now, with no one at all paying any attention because frankly, Lee barely cares at this point and no one senior to him even fathoms how to care … and with many characters previously confined to anthology books like Tales to Astonish or Strange Tales now moving into their own titles, this little creative act moves across titles and authors, specifically that you can take XYZ from someone else’s title and not only use it, but alter it, add things, and make new things happen. This story directly calls back to the prior story, the origin in FF Annual #2 (which incidentally was one of Thomas’ first scutwork minor-editing/cleanup jobs at Marvel), and made it possible for someone to pick up Valeria as a character – no one did, unfortunately, but they could have – or to utilize this new content for Doom as a jumping-off point for some other story.

I’m still not talking about a Marvel Universe, in modern geekspeak, a ‘Verse; that wouldn’t arrive until 1981. It’s not policy or negotiated or organized beforehand at all. I’m talking about a state of affairs on the other end of the scale, just ad lib, per author, whenever, or not, not because it was mandated but because they could get away with it. It’s not a shared universe, but rather shared material. It was potentially mind-blowing, opening up a cornucopia of opportunity to any writer who felt like reading and … shock, actually writing something. This catch-as-catch-can, spilled-fruit-everwhere situation would be handled well or badly in a hundred instances, what am I saying, easily a thousand. Efforts to pre-coordinate among titles would start up soon, but would not manage to catch up or to enforce yea or nay very successfully for a long time.

It’s also different from what Thomas had been doing so profusely already, using the Avengers as a kind of Black Cauldron for resurrecting old Timely and other Goodman-owned characters (Captain America, obviously, and more recently the android Human Torch and the Vision [to be even more mashed-up further later]). But before you curl your fanboy toes about that, doing this always included the underlying sting that (i) the company was maintaining usage to hold onto copyrights and (ii) Thomas was too aware of past heartbreaks to create new characters he wouldn’t own (fuck man, Jerry Siegel was a proofreader at Marvel at this very moment, at 63, with no rights to Superman at all). This Doctor Doom story was a little different – there was literally no real-world advantage being gained or maintained, it’s pure “hey, there’s this character, and I’m gonna write him up some more.”

It’s not that he could do this because there was a shared setting or a canonical Universe. He could do this because there wasn’t.

I’m not surprised this transition occurred using Doom. After all, who else?

This is only the beginning: keep an eye on that ‘Verse tag.

Linking a bit (every so often I’ll include links I’ve run across): The five best Doctor Doom writers

Next: The Silver Surfer is ridiculous

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on March 26, 2015, in Storytalk, The 70s me, The great ultravillains and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Curious as to how you interpret the Kree-Skrull war in the context of a “shared/not shared setting”, particularly the cows bit calling back to events in Fantastic Four a decade earlier.

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  2. (disclosure: I goaded James into posting that) Hi James! OK, nothing like starting with context.
    1. Perfect Chemical & Film is now Cadence Industries, and not only that, has shifted management to Sheldon Feinberg in Joisey. An uncharitable observer would say that Marvel is now mobbed up … which also means that Martin Goodman isn’t even looking over the covers any more. The Joisey boys wanna sell paper, not look at it – the people who color stuff on the paper are completely off the leash.
    2. This is in 1971-1972, three years after the issue I’m talking about, and well into Thomas’ stint as editor-in-chief. He is definitely not just “that fan we brought in to help fill space” any more – Steve and Jack are actually gone from Marvel altogether, and Stan is probably discovering what “snow” means in southern California. So Thomas’ whole situation of doing it because no one’s looking has changed into because I say so.
    3. Although Friedrich, Goodwin, and Conway are doing the bread-and-butter work on books like Spider-Man now, there’s also crazy motherfuckers like Englehart, McGregor, and Starlin in the game too, goin’ like gangbusters adding Who Knows What while stoned on God Knows What. It’s not just Thomas now -for the first time, there’s an actual Bullpen like Stan pretended there was a decade previously. And the Comics Code just got knocked off its pedestal.

    To conclude, it’s already at least a year into the four-year period when consequential and politicized writing both mine past material and create a profusion of new stuff, Marvel on ‘roids and acid at the same time. As I like to say, wide-open cosmic, which is grab what you want and write what you want, not yet official-canon universe, which is checked out first and cross-referenced with character descriptions and planned events.

    Now, that specific story: we’re talking about ten whole issues of a single title, way less, way more limited than it gets talked up about. It reached back into older FF issues for material, but it didn’t jump around across current issues in a read-this-then-that-now-this way that characterized the 80s. It added way more than it mined.

    So I’m saying, the Kree-Skrull War is a much more ramped-up and skilled version of the Doom-Valeria technique. In this case, it’s a regular book being mined for material on another regular book, and it’s having impact on the make-up and events of the current book as well as retroactively providing weight to the older material in the first book.

    In 1969, that wasn’t happening – although as I said in the post, yes, certain titles were being written with a wonderful eye for character development and other good storytelling things, but this title-jumping, past-mining consequence wasn’t usual. Thomas stepped into those waters with the Doom story – now, three years later, he and the other writers are making the pool the primary creative engine, especially on titles that Stan isn’t hawking 3,500 miles away.

    But please see my point: they aren’t using a fixed setting, instead, they are mining old stuff and doing what they want with it, more-or-less by accident creating setting. Past issues aren’t canon, they’re raw material. I’ll be developing this idea, or actually a bigger one, through several posts over the next month or so.

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  3. Mmm… two observations:
    1) I am not sure I would characterize that story as “the first time”. In the same series, the year before, was the debut of Captain Mar-Vell. The character was tied to past issues of the fantastic four (where they had meet the Kree sentry), but a lot was added as background to these stories

    Even before, the Sub-mariner stories in Tales to Astonish featured a Fantastic Foyr villain, using both backstory a new material to flesh his undersea domain.

    2) The “marvel universe” post-1980 iron-clad continuity is a myth. Something that Shooter and Gruenwald were good at selling (as Stan was with the whole talk about “the bullpen”) but continuity still works the same way it worked in 1967. If a writer (or an editor) want to use a bit of “history”, he use it, but really a lot gets ignored, even if somebody will refer to it, maybe, thirty years later.
    The books continuity was probably even more complete pre-1968, with a less titles to follow, with a single editor, and without that monstrous backlog of stories that nobody in the world has read totally. At the time at most Stan did forget that Doom had no need of a machine to exchange minds. But in the years after 1981, practically every writer has ignored that the marvel characters are all clones and the original are dead, they had “forgotten” that Tony Stark was a murdered brain-shaved by Kang, and that Aunt May was the herald of Galactus… there are literally thousands of stories that are ignored, and practically no one can write these character without ignoring more than half of their “history” all the time…

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  4. Ron, I meant to respond to this earlier.

    I get your main point here: that Thomas is like the proverbial kid in a candy store, whereas later guys like Gruenwald were the candy store’s owner, carefully arranging things for display, writing little comments about each one. Both love candy, but in very different ways and for very different purposes.

    To some extent, what Gruenwald & Co. were trying to do was to create a series bible for the whole shebang–this is what these characters did, and what they’re basically capable of, because no single human can possibly channel decades of material.

    But also, meta-comics like OHOTMU or Marvel Age were, if you please, a map of the candy store. I knew I liked candy, but I didn’t know what was out there. WTF, there’s a character called “Arnim Zola”?? What the hell is the deal with this dude? Why does he look so messed up? What adventures has he had? Etc.

    These comics had the downside of arguably constraining creativity (as Moreno says, I’m not sure anyone ever got a script back from the editor that says, “No, sorry, this contradicts the Official Handbook, try again”), but if you were the right age, it was like discovering an entire dimension of zany, joyful, ridiculous-in-the-best-way lore to memorize and devour.

    Now, you might say the candy store has already been mapped out by someone who came before you.

    But I’m not 100% sure Roy Thomas would see that as a problem. He had a map too, just a really sketchy one, assembled from his own collection of primary, rather than secondary, sources, because (a) there were no secondary sources and (b) there wasn’t quite so much primary material back then. The distinguishing factor of Thomas’s super hero work, I think, has to be his fascination with earlier work. When he’s not bringing back losers like Plant-Man, Porcupine, Unicorn, and the Scarecrow in his earliest X-Men work, he’s interrupting Quicksilver’s wonderful heel-turn to throw in a dumb-ass story about the goddam Red Raven. Of course Thomas’s Avengers run pretty quickly dips back 40 issues to talk about the death of Wonder Man, as a way to introduce Thomas’s most memorable creation, the ol’ Turkey Baster himself. And, a couple years later on, of course Thomas kicks off the Kree-Skrull War by dipping back 100 issues of Fantastic Four to find the Skrull-Cows, and ends said War by having Rick Jones dredge up losers like the Fin and the Blazing Skull (even though Rick almost certainly is too young to have read them).

    Also, i haven’t read this story but it sounds a lot like Smith’s The Last Incantation.

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