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.
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 …
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
Posted on March 26, 2015, in Storytalk, The 70s me, The great ultravillains and tagged 'Verse, canon, Diablo, Doctor Doom, Goodman Publications, Jack Kirby, Jerry SIegel, Larry LIeber, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Marvel Super Heroes!, Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, Roy Thomas, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Valeria. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.