In the unbelievably awesome Fantastic Four Annual #2, when Victor von Doom puts on his mask for the first time, a minion protests, “But master, it has not completely cooled yet!” and in the from-behind panel when he’s putting it on, vapor rises from the contact point to remind us of how hot it was.
Apparently Kirby first voiced the concept that Doom’s face had only been scarred a tiny bit some time in the 1970s. Here’s a sketch he did, which has prompted astonishing loads of fanwank ever since it went on-line, about what Kirby thought was really under the mask, or what was really under the mask, and whether Stan thought something else was under the mask … To deal with the most trivial thing first, neither ever stated or implied anything about what is really there under the mask. Not even on-panel – the image leading this post is obviously a joke, which seems to be lost on fandom assembled, confirmed yet again as a humorless entity. I need to kick fandom assembled in its pimpled ass pretty hard to embed this next point: that “really under the mask” isn’t important. No, the sketch doesn’t show us what Kirby thought was under the mask. Nothing was “really” under the mask, there is no fucking mask, and no, I’m not being symbolic or PoMo – I’m talking about real live stuff. Doctor Doom’s face, under the mask, is whatever the writer and artist are doing with it, if anything, in whatever you happen to be reading. Nor does it obviate, cancel, retcon, or otherwise change what some previous writer and artist were doing. Consistency is or isn’t maintained, is or isn’t important, and is or isn’t a good thing – spin those dials per the moment.
“OMG it’s hideous” is what most comics ran with, the most straightforward reading of the origin story. Thomas’ story in Marvel Super Heroes! #20 did it – Doom peers at his naked face in the mirror, wondering if his lost love could stand to see it, and smashes the glass, with the strong implication of disfigurement. Thor 182 shows us a bit drawn by John Buscema, which I include because no one can do the Kubert-Kubrick under-brow glare like Big John …
Which brings us to the Byrne-ian sequence of FF #278-279: Doom gains a real but not literally horrifying scar from the accident, flips out about it because he’s obviously bent about his own “perfect” self-image, then inflicts extreme disfigurement upon himself with the hot mask. Long ago, a comics pro told me it was Marv Wolfman’s idea originally, but I haven’t run into any confirmation about that and probably, either they were wrong or I am mis-remembering. I encountered the sequence when reading John Byrne’s long run on the series in one long white heat, in the pile lent to me by a friend in the summer of 1985, soon after these issues were published.
Byrne scripted and redrew the 1964 origin story using a great deal of the original composition and consistently with his general work on the book, which had developed his own homage to Kirby’s techniques.
Byrne had also put some effort in the preceding issues, and whenever he drew Doom in close-up, to show the scarring on his eyelids, for which Kirby’s renditions had not been resolved enough to establish one way or the other. I’m not sure if any other artist had done that beforehand; many have run with it since.
Was Byrne’s story consistent with Stan and Jack’s? Yes. Was it consistent with the Thomas story and the Thor story and probably dozens of minor prior references to the hideousness of Doom’s face? Yes. Was it partly (not fully) consistent with the Kirby comment and sketch? Yes. Now for the hard one: does Byrne reconcile inconsistent visions of what was “really” under the mask, creating a “really really” we can finally, relievedly, hold close to our hearts? No, it does not.
Am I anti-Byrne? Am I saying he’s wrong. No. As it happens, I thought at the time, and still think, this is a brilliant piece of writing and – as pure catnip, nothing more – a great way to utilize and honor what was previously written. For my Doom in my little fan-head, it’s the way I like it. But I’m not going to tell you that it’s what’s really there, even if by “really” we’re talking about authors’ intentions. I can’t even fathom having that conversation with you about anything in this body of multi-authored, multi-generational fiction.
I say again, the ideas that fed into Byrne’s version were not created from a canon, so all talk of the canonical “really under the mask” is completely off my mind-scape. This isn’t about the ‘Verse. I don’t care what Doom’s face “is” or whether it “was,” or if this-or-that version is “true,” or whether it was “intended” and by whom. And neither did any of the people I’ve been talking about.
In fact, it’s time to say it proud: the very concept of official canon is broken.
Just because Byrne’s depiction is consistent with the prior published material establishes nothing. A later depiction might ignore Byrne’s, or it might clumsily revise the history further by saying it was all a dream. Or we might find some depiction in Marvel Premiere or any other damn forgotten alley of Marvel comics stories prior to Byrne’s, with which his depiction is inconsistent.
Historically, there came a change at Marvel, the fervent assertion that there is a “really,” among the writers and artists, to which their work is held consistent. This assertion entered the Marvel editorial offices in the very late 1970s, in the person of Mark Gruenwald and reinforced by Jim Shooter, and became textual in 1981, with the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and the key phrase, “the Marvel Universe.” I stress: this was an invented concoction of that very moment and in no way represented a prior standing, in-practice set of concepts.
That’s what I’m harping on: that before 1981, the pre-Universe Marvel creative culture, “shared setting” if you like although I think even that phrasing is too strong, was unregulated and unofficial. Whether Lee, Thomas, Gerber, Englehart, McGregor, or Starlin: it was nothing more nor less than a writer troubling to read earlier comics and deciding, without mandate, to use or extend what he saw there. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. Crucially, they ignored “established” stuff that didn’t interest them. Sometimes they organized it across very few titles by author agreement rather than editorial mandate, and sometimes they didn’t, and those “grand storylines” were very short – maybe eight issues! Sometimes it led to superior stories and sometimes it didn’t. It fostered an opportunistic, non-mandated, unplanned matching, which sometimes developed and assembled further and further power in the existing imagery and storylines. Certain fixed titles displayed a strong linear creative drive, but I’ll write about that later – it’s not relevant here because I’m talking now about crossing titles and authors.
Byrne’s especially strong assemblage in this case is unusual in coming as late as 1985, and it’s probably the very last great one, lifting from material before the 1981 transition from the pre-Universe, expressed after it. Consider the transition:
- Before: in which the various titles’ content affected one another or didn’t, were abandoned or utilized later, were consistent or inconsistent, based on whims – more often than previously seen in superhero comics, and no question, often used to superior effect, but that’s all.
- After: an explicit ‘Verse with its designated canon-codifier, official statements, and pre-publication continuity-checking.
I think that Byrne was able to get away with it as late as the mid-80s because he held more independent power over content than any other creator at Marvel at the time, especially in The Fantastic Four – which at the time was a beta level book, having been displaced by the X-titles. Such freewheeling content-creation and past-comics usage could get out of hand and swiftly did – I’d put Byrne’s work on this as his best moment with it, followed in not too many years by his worst, several in fact. But at this point in the history, it hit the sweet spot of raw creative engines firing hard, working from the uncertainty, the 60s-70s mutability of the material even as it’s created – the precise opposite of canon.
I suggest that this was the last moment, as well. The Marvel Universe ‘Verse eventually made it impossible for that sweet spot ever to happen in Marvel Comics again.
Pissed off? Good. Follow that ‘Verse tag.
Next: BONUS POST, April 7: Buddha on the road, Steve! Get’im!
Posted on April 5, 2015, in Storytalk, The great ultravillains and tagged 'Verse, canon, disfigurement, Doctor Doom, fanwank, Jack Kirby, Jim Shooter, John Buscema, John Byrne, Kubert-Kubrick under-brow glare, Mark Gruenwald, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.