BONUS POST: Thanks to Ed McW and his May pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon! It’s long past time for more Doom posting. I have the same thought now as I did when looking at this title on the racks forty years ago: what an excellent idea. The perfect thing for a kid whose favorite comics issue ever was Marvel Super Heroes #20, especially when initially helmed by the writer of that issue. I don’t remember if I bought every single issue of SVTU, but if not, I bought most of them, as well as the various cross-overs that characterized its final few months before cancellation.
Did it pay off? Kind of. In a late-70s editorial-kerfuffle Marvel way. In its hopes or possibilities. In spots. In the present, holding the published collection, I find that I was not alone in my frustrations about the results. From the editorial included in the final issue:
This issue marks the end of SUPERVILLAIN TEAM-UP … a demise that’s going to be felt most strongly by all who’ve participated in its brief but stormy history. SVTU (as we at the Bullpen were fond of calling it) began as an idea in the mind of Rascally Roy Thomas, lo, these many years past. Having scripted both the good Doctor Doom and the Savage Sub-Mariner in the wake of Stan Lee, Roy’d always wanted to put the two together – sure that Marvel’s two masters of menace could draw just as well in a book of their own as they could pitted against some of Marvel’s mightiest heroes and heroines.
Was Roy wrong? Can (or could) it be that villains just don’t sell?
We think the answer is an emphatic “NO!” SVTU was selling. Our letters had more than tripled. The readership was there. The interest was there.
If you read THE COMIC READER, you know the reason for cancellation – the Bullpen just didn’t have the people needed to put the book out every other month. Not the artist or writer or letterer or colorist – but the myriad other production people who take the pieces and put them into a publishable whole.
So what we’re saying is that we’re gonna miss SVTU – as we think all of you who’ve faithfully followed it will miss it as well.
But for Bob and Don and Keith and myself, I’d like to thank all of you in a more personal fashion than we are sometimes wont to.
Thanks, pilgrims! We’ll be back! Bill Mantlo [name in script]
Yikes, I thought I was bitter. That falls one thin hair short of an OMG FUCK YOU memo from Mantlo to the publisher’s desk.
Even speaking as one of those faithful readers he mentions, I can’t entirely condemn that decision. The title was not a clean miss like The Champions, but a bunch of things went sideways from the start. Just like that ill-starred mag, it saw at least four editors come and go and wasn’t written so much as sequentially pinch-hit (Thomas, Isabella, Englehart, Mantlo, Gillis), leading to innumerable false starts and conclusions, as well as continual dipping-into other titles, especially the Avengers (Shooter), Captain America, and the Fantastic Four – in fact, the nearly-final issue and the Champions‘ final one coincided in a crossover.
Mainly, and most unfortunately, the actual premise implied by the title never happens. If Namor and Doom ever did manage to agree, for real, and to enter into some project of mutual interest in good faith, then we’d have a story for the ages, a ground-breaking and setting-shaking rock-and-roll novel to see. Instead, the majority of the run features the two principals not managing a damn thing except to throw hissy-fits at each other and fall out again even though they didn’t get anything going at all. That leaves a void of agent-driven action to be
polluted filled by heroes, and by second-rate idiots brought in to be the “real” villains for those heroes to fight. Essentially, since Doom and Namor are not getting their team-up on, nor competing in any fashion that makes anything happen, we have to follow the subplots with their never-ending carousel of who’s shown up, who’s attacking whom, and who’s saying “Unnhhh!” or getting strapped into some apparatus or enclosed in some tank.
In the last few issues, after a truly bewildering title-spinning wrap-up of the Atlantis story, several short stories do get raised and concluded, but so rapidly that they do some injustice to the material. Doom conquers the world with neuro-gas that makes everyone obey him, then sets Magneto free because he’s bored? Wait … that’s kind of hard-core, isn’t it? That first bit? Can’t we see some more of that? No, we had to get a couple of years of being pissed at Namor first?
It almost works though! Bringing in a new hero, the Shroud, in the context of a villain-centric story was a good idea, but with all the other heroes around he only got lost. Several bits are great – the classic moment of Henry Kissinger ordering the FF out of Latveria, the no-holds-barred invective supervillains level at one another (yeesh!), the late-stage bit where Doom is disgusted by the Carter administration fawning all over him (with a nice dig at “nauseating self-interest”) as well as by the Secret Service hurling themselves on him when heroes show up (“We’ll protect you, Your Highness! We’re the Secret Service!” “Get off me, you blithering idiots!”). The final issues by Peter Gillis don’t feature Doom at all but are an enclosed, rather remarkable Red Skull + Hatemonger story, which does the single interesting thing with these characters that I’ve seen. Really, there was no failure of concept, just horrible pacing and a fair amount of lazy plotting, all of which are characteristic of these exact years.
[Peter B. Gillis is a considerable name in comics, especially to a First Comics reader-insider like me, but the names Strike Force Morituri and Micronauts ought to get a few respectful grunts out there. SVTU must have been among his first break-in assignments, which Wikipedia also tells me was wrapped up in sneaky legal boondoggles vs. DC.]
Doom is yet again the window to insight, in terms of what elements they chose to use: they invoke but do not quite validate his virtures. Here he’s the Potemkin despot, with his sheeple who reluctantly admit that they value the security but are also obviously terrified into compliance. There’s also the “ruuuule the world” rhetoric as his goal, which as I see it has always been a cheap distraction from Doom’s characterization and plot, always dodging the entirely relevant point of what he would rule the world for. Doom is most interesting when he’s the national leader of Latveria and means it, and when he’s happily plumbing the scientific + sorcerous depths of Man Was Not Meant to Know. Rule-the-world and arrghh-I-hate-you-Richards are distinct second place, bordering on cheap excuses to avoid the good stuff.
Namor’s the same: shouting “avenging son!” + punching out Tiger Shark is completely irrelevant to his potential to rearrange the entire ocean ecology and unleash what amounts to an alternate species of humanity already at a global scale. In this case, issue after issue goes by with him wavering back-and-forth with his silly “survive out of water” problem, with all manner of Atlanteans in suspended animations and a bunch of scientists converted to water-breathers, and way too many of those bubble-headed helmets filled with air or water depending. Getting Atlantis back into shape was the first order of business for this thing to work, and throwing in literal speedbumps like Attuma for the majority of the run is no way to do it. Mantlo and Englehart, in tandem, seem to be filling-in to the point of not-getting-anywhere to the point of stupefaction, as far as I was concerned.
The thing is, the whole story completely gets the idea that these guys operate at the scale of nations, and yet also keeps insisting that they’re spit-spraying emotional infants. It doesn’t manage to get out of the superhero head-space in which the villains must be so stupid, evil, whatever you want to call it, that they can’t get their act together for one single solid act of tandem advantage even without heroes around.
It ends as did so many stories during the mid-70s: as the title limps toward cancellation, the story gets distributed across other titles, especially the Avengers, and although it really doesn’t conclude, here and there, it takes on some grandeur. My younger self chewed his nails in suspense at the Avengers falling before the mighty Tyrak, who seems to be wearing classic mid-70s goggle-shades. I am still fairly agog at the idea of Doom successfully brain-gassing the entire planet to induce obedience to him, and as far as I can tell the effect is never reversed, only annulled because it eventually nails him too, so his willpower is paralyzed through recursive logic. In other words, we’re all Doom-minions now, only he’s not telling us to do anything, so no biggie. (I’m not sure if this was ever “solved” in story terms or simply ignored.)
There’s ample evidence of Doom the quick thinker and combat bad-ass, and he’s even bare-chested at one point, when his armor gets damaged and he has to strip down in the middle of a fight. Not long enough, though, and not far enough either. Hands up, everyone who wants to see Victor von D get a whole issue of the Adams Batman treatment, just wearing pants and mask, no cloak, not even the hood. Oh look, unanimity!
And that may actually be one of the avenues to success yet again just touched upon, but not developed and brought into plain old excess the way Marvel could do like no one else. This book is about men of power, with or without new costumes, with or without their trusty armor – in fact, shedding the latter when he has to doesn’t make Doom any less dangerous, and discarding the circus tights for the glorious scaly Speedo seems to unleash Namor in a fashion not seen since the 1940s. Even today you do not get better than Perez’s half-page Namor glamor shot, which I myself traced as a kid, and which the editor, at this point Gerry Conway, rightly cannot help but gawp at verbally.
We even get to see the Red Skull stripped to the waist and doing a variety of manly exercises, with mask of course, which is a remarkably disturbing sight, for over two pages. This borders on bizarre – despite the title’s insane lack of consistency in pacing, characterization, and little things like basic logic, something about it is absolutely about monstrously powerful villains (anti-villain, anti-hero, villain protagonist, whatever you want to call Namor) taking off their shirts.
Maybe …? Possibly, everyone knew that this was supposed to be about the guy, no matter how gaudy the mask or how operatic the rhetoric, and specifically in terms of the absolutely most menacing “bad guys” in the whole stable of Marvel content to date. Making that the central topic for a hero-less title arguably could have been the most revolutionary content-achievement since FF #1, and although it never happened, I must give everyone credit for wanting it to happen. And belatedly, one big reader thumbs-up to Mantlo’s editorial, and then another appropriate digit thrust up in agreement with his.
Next: The way underground
Posted on May 19, 2015, in Storytalk, The 70s me, The great ultravillains and tagged Adolf Hitler, Bill Mantlo, Doctor Doom, Namor the Sub-Mariner, nipples, Peter Gillis, Red Skull, Roy Thomas, Shroud, Steve Englehart, Supervillain Team-Up. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.