Bare-chested villainy

svtu1BONUS 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.

Guys? The plot's over this way.

Guys? The plot’s over this way.

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.

You remember who's wearing the hood, right?

You remember who’s wearing that hood, right?

[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.

Left your gold chain at home?

Left your gold chain at home?

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.)

batmanbarebackThere’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.

Whoa. Personal orientation left at the door.

Whoa. Personal orientation left at the door.

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

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About Ron Edwards

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

Posted on May 19, 2015, in Storytalk, The 70s me, The great ultravillains and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I completely missed SVTU, probably because I started collecting in the late 80s and my back issue searches were focused on storylines, or issues of Marvel Team-Up or Marvel 2-in-1 that had heroes I liked. But reading this, I realized that one of my favorite stories, the Emperor Doom graphic novel, is essentially a continuation or a retelling of this series. Complete with its ham-handed “Doom victorious is Doom bored enough to sow the seeds of his own destruction.”

    I suppose some of it comes back to the problem of setting: The villains want to fundamentally change it. If the setting is too much changed, the stories lose their “world outside your window” appeal, and their accessibility.

    Plus, I’d say that desire to show villainy unraveled by its own excesses is a great goal in storytelling, but that the short cuts required to do so in the space of 22 pages inevitably turns it dumb.

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  2. Wow… this brings back memories. In my usual way of “grab whatever looks cool on the spinner rack at the drug store,” I had Giant-Size SVTU #1, which was a pretty creepy-cool story I remember well despite having not read it for decades. Somewhere along the line I picked up another issue, I think, in which Doom has to rescue Namor from Tiger Shark and Attuma (“Octo-Meks… how droll”).

    Even as a kid, though, the concept never quite made sense to me. How are these guys going to get along and work together? I have to agree, though, that with good writing and editorial oversight this could’ve been a story we’d still talk about today as one of the highlights of the Bronze Age. I see the two of them carefully plotting, making logical moves, marshalling their resources, marginalizing or defeating their most dangerous foes, and coming close, oh so close, to that world rulership they covet — only to have it slip through their grasp at the last minute when the differences in their goals and personalities become too much to tolerate any longer. Not exactly an original plot, but I don’t think genre fiction is necessarily all about originality. 😉

    Surprised to find they’ve collected these into an “Essential” volume… a copy of which is now on its way to me thanx to Amazon. 😉 Thanx for the walk down memory lane!

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  3. I remember loving the concept at first… and then losing interest seeing a string of stories that went nowhere. (I could not stop buying it because in Italian reprints there was more than a single american series in a single issue, so to read, for example, the X-Men, you had to buy the reprint that contained them together with other 2 different series)

    The problem is obvious, in hindsight, and I could see it even as a teenager after reading the first issues: how can you write an interesting continued series about guys who will always lose? The very scale of their “villainy”, the entire Earth, make them too dangerous to the status quo to ever succeed (and I imagine is for this reason that Doom’s triumph with the gas happen literally between issues and is never cited again)

    There are solutions, that other series (independent or not American mostly, but lately even Marvel did pull something readable of the concept – Superior Spider-Man for example, even if it was marred by the endless crossovers). You can have the villain protagonists fight even worse villains (like in Doom 2099, Dracula, some Thanos series, or even in Supervillains Team Up in the Attuma/Dorcas/Sharks Tony Isabella issues etc.), you can have the villains fight for the status quo (like in Wanted), you can have the story set in an alternate realyty and reset everything at the end, but in this series they seems to ignore any of these solutions (even if they used some of them a few years before for the first issues of The Hulk and the Astonishing Tales Doom stories), and go for a the “they don’t do anything to the world because they always fights each other” way.

    Tony Isabella seems the only one to try any of the working methods (with the Attuma / Dorcas / Tiger Shark invasion I cited above) but he lasts a couple of issues before being replaced and the art goes downhill issue after issue.

    This mess was even more embarrassing compared to the list of Italian titles published at the time that starred villains (Diabolik and all his clones, for example). With no access to the original books and informations about the american publishing situation, it seemed like Marvel wanted to cash on the “villain craze” (that was happening in Italy, not in the USA) but didn’t know how.

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    • I fear to ask you anything you can interpret as an archival request, but if you could supply a brief list or summary of the Italian titles starring villains in the 70s, I would be very excited to pursue them.

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      • Eh, it’s difficult to be brief, there were lots of them. I will cite only the most important ignoring the most pornographic ones.
        First: they are not “super-villains” in the American super-hero comics sense. Even when they have a costume, they don’t want to rule the world, they don’t fight superheroes, they don’t have superpowers: they are mostly glorified thieves or killers and have simple desires (cash, sex, etc.), but there are exceptions…

        The first one, [b]Diabolik[/b] the one who started it all in 1962, is still published these days and has an almost iconic status. You can find more information in his wikipedia page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diabolik (ignore the stuff about the very watered down cartoon).
        This character, a thief and murderer that always wins, had an unbelievable success in a still very puritan Italy, and caused even a political uproar. In a few months, probably scared from the reactions, the authors lessened the violence and did tone down the character’s cruelty. He stopped murdering innocents and these days he rob and kill only criminals or very bad people. (the character even star in educational pages against violence against animals!)

        But even if the first one bowed under the pressures and toned down the violence, this only did leave a niche for more extreme material… a horde of imitators published a lot of comics starring criminals ( collectively called “fumetti neri” (“black comics”), in the same exact format (that no comic book ever used before Diabolik. That same format was later used for all the erotic and porno comics, becoming associated with “Adult” titles in public perception).
        The italian wikipedia page for this entire category of comics list only the more important titles, and still list 16 of them (and yes, one was called “Spiderman”…)
        https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumetto_nero_italiano
        These were mostly drawn by mediocre and forgettable artists, with a single exception: a guy whose works you already know because he did draw a certain comic about Beirut in the 70s, Roberto Raviola, better known as “Magnus” (“the great”). With writer Stefano Secchi he did create the two most successful “fumetti Neri” in history (but they were so tied to him that when he did leave they quickly closed down), Kriminal and Satanik.
        Kriminal ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kriminal ) was a clear Diabolik rip-off, with the same premise (a thief and murderer with the ability to create perfect masks and assume any face), but he was not “the genius of crime” that Diabolik was: he was a common circus acrobat turned to crime, he was not a scientist, he did steal the secret of the masks and even the costume. He didn’t always win, he had tragedies (his son was kidnapped and murdered by one of his enemies), setbacks, and even if his adventures were toned back in time as Diabolik was, he started much more violent, with sexual overtones (in one of the very first adventures he rapes the fiancée of the police officer who chases him, making that officer a lifetime enemy. (the character stopped raping after a few issues, probably the authors realized that it was really too much).
        The most interesting part of Kriminal was the world: Kriminal, murderer and rapist, was still the hero of the story. Because everyone else was worse. In Kriminal’s world every authority is corrupt, every value is false, everybody lie, every fortune is based on crime and the suffering of others. Kriminal was not only a “black comics”, it was a ferocious social commentary too. like Diabolik, after a while he did murder only very bad people. But while Diabolik’s “bad people” were gangsters, Kriminal’s “bad people” were “good, upstanding citizens” that were much worse than him.

        The other character created by Secchi and Raviola is probably more similar to what you are searching for: Satanik was a supercriminal!
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satanik
        Satanik was a female scientist, disfigured and ugly and so she was treated as less than human in her own family (as a reverse-cinderella she was the victim of her two sisters and her father) and by her co-workers. Taking from “Dr Jekill” as much that from Cinderella, she creates a potion that turn her into a stunning beautiful redhead. And remove any residue moral she had, turning her in a stunning beautiful Mr. Hide.
        The underside of the potion, is that if she stop using it, she doesn’t turn back into her old disfigured-but-normal self: she turns in a monsters, a weak walking corpse, and then she would die in a few minutes.
        The very first thing she does is murder her entire family, of course, after humiliating her sisters by “stealing” their men right in front of them. Then she proceed to use science and sex (and magic, because she even get a lovercraftian book of evil spells a few issues later), she has a costume, she had a portable laser ray, and she often fucked her prey before killing them
        Satanik was really too much for Italian censors, she was not only a menace to the moral fibre of the nation but she was a woman who had casual sex and murdered men, and always won! There were issues seized by the police for obscenity, and if Kriminal and Diabolik had to tone down the violence, her fate was much worse: she had to go “legit” and became a hunter of criminals for the police! (illegally and still using methods that would scare the Punisher, at least…)

        But the cats was already out of the bag, there was no stopping the tide, “black comics” sprung up everywhere, sometimes starring old familiar characters…
        http://www.salimbeti.com/paperinik/origini.htm
        Yes, that’s Donald Duck. With a mask. Stealing from Uncle Scrooge. It’s not a imaginary story, it’s not a dream and it was never retconned, it’s in continuity: Donald starred in stories in the early 70s where he did became a masked thief (“Paperinik”, from “paperino” – donald italian name, literally “little duck”, and “Diabolik”) to get “revenge” on the people who oppressed him (usually Scrooge or Gladstone).
        He quickly turned into a sort of super-hero (and the character is still published today as a superhero), but the very fact that even in Disney comics this happened, even for a few stories, should show the massive impact these comics had in Italy.

        After that, there was no counting. The “porno comics” that followed the black comics, in the same format, counted literally hundreds of villains as protagonists, from history (there were comic books about Lucrezia Borgia, Messalina, Marquis De Sade, Bonnie (without Clyde), Teodora, etc.), from literature (a lot of vampires with various names, monsters of every kind, etc), from children’s fables, or from other genres (western, sf, historical, etc.)

        With the demise of the porno Comics (killed by the VHS, like they had killed the more tamed black comics before), the number of villains as protagonist of comic book was much lower, but they never really disappeared: Diabolik is still published these days (even if he is the pale shadow of the old King of Terror), Kriminal and Satanik were reprinted a lot of times and there is talks of a reboot very soon, but they never regained the cultural impact and diffusion they had in the 60s.

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        • Next time I’ll impose a word count … but joking aside, that is extremely interesting. Thanks!

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        • I just remembered that one Italian super-villain WAS published legally in the USA, in the 90s by Catalan.

          It’s a later one (1980s) so it’s more pornographic than “black” and very explicit (it’s not only NSFW, it’s not safe for anything)

          It was written by a “unassuming old lady” – said the few people who met her – who wrote a lot of porno comics under pseudonym “Ilaria Volpe”, and whose real identity was made public only after her dearth) and it was drawn by Magnus (it’s not that he did draw lots of them, but he was clearly the best artist that ever worked for these publishers so his works are the best regarded and most reprinted. His publisher was so proud of having a big-name artist like him drawing some of his comics that in exchange he did publish Raviola’s most “political” material, like “lo sconosciuto”, even if it meant losing money)

          The title is Necron, and what’s about… the English Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necron ) is more concise than me, so I will quote: “The comic, a sexy-parody of Frankenstein, features the adventures of the nymphomaniac and necrophiliac mad doctor Frieda Boher and of her slave-lover Necron, a strong, well endowed and cannibal humanoid assembled with fragments of corpses”

          The “villain” is not the minion Necron (a bumbling stupid monster more interested in sex and food that villainy), but the “Mad Doctor”, Freda Boher, that has everything a good super-villain need: evil plans, a super-villain dress with a cape and cowl (but with exposed tits), and a tendency to soliloquy. And her plans are evil indeed (she turns people into monsters and has no qualms with indiscriminate murder, for example)

          The most particular aspect of this comic book is that it’s FUNNY as hell. (legend says that the script were, at least at the beginning, more “serious”, but that Magnus made a lot of changes because he was bored with the silly premise. No confirmation exist about this, though, and both authors are now dead). I don’t know if the humour translated well in English, though, because it was really based on the way the characters did speak and Necron’s particular way of following the wording of the orders of Dr Boher.

          Another funny thing: Freda Boher’s face (and maybe more than the face) was based on the face of a friend of Magnus… that at the time was the editor in chief of one of the biggest comics magazines for children in Italy!

          Necron was published in a lot of places, among them France, this (german?) youtube video shows the interior of one of the French edition collected books (again: this is very, very NSFW)


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  4. James Nostack

    Lordy, let’s see if the Blog Gods let me comment today.

    Heroes have Misunderstanding Fights; villains have Understand-All-Too-Well Fights. Both are incredibly dull cliches past the mid-1960’s, but apparently we cannot ever abandon this sort of page-filler material–I guess because the rare instances when these things really succeed are worth the 99% boredom rate. But yeah, if you’re doing Super Villain Team-Up, with the same dang super villains, they ought to get their act on the same page.

    One thing prevents better coordination: the Marvel concept of villainy. One of the defining features of super villains is that they’re simply unable to have healthy social relationships: you participate with *everyone* in bad faith, on the assumption that they will treat you in bad faith. It’s this never-ending Prisoner’s Dilemma of mutual reflexive betrayal. They’re sociopaths.

    And that’s why, for me, Doctor Doom conquering the world is his least interesting motivation: to me, it’s obvious that Doctor Doom isn’t conquering the world “for” any particular purpose or policy goal. I mean, sure, he’ll fix the environment, end unemployment, cure cancer and the rest of it–but only on the condition that he’s the only being with meaningful free will left on earth. The mere existence of other minds, with divergent desires, offends his solipsism, none more offensively than Richards’.

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