Doom vs Hope (Dr. Doom, that is)

Dr. Doom was one of my favorite comic book villains almost from the very start.

I have forgotten whether Fantastic Four #200 was the first or second issue of the series that I acquired, but it was certainly among my earliest purchases, generally, when I began collecting comic books beyond the Transformers series. It was a splendid superhero book, and obviously I perceived greatness in its villain, and I still do. Many have written appreciations of Dr. Doom over his half-century existence, and I could happily reiterate the character’s established strengths. Instead, though, I want to focus on an aspect that I’m not sure I have seen highlighted before, at least not from this angle.

Cover of FF 200 by Kirby and Sinnott

I bought this as a back issue of course, probably around 1990

A couple of weeks ago, fellow alumnus of Fantastic Four fandom Sean argued that recent adaptations have mislaid the optimism which is as much a key to the concept as elemental superpowers or familial bickering. I thought it was a very valid observation about the Fantastic Four as characters and series. (I have not seen the films, though I suspect the analysis hits its target there as well.) More recently, this proposal inspired a sort of corollary involving the series’ premier villain: part of what makes Dr. Doom a great foil for the FF is a contrasting pessimism intrinsic to his own character.

Doom’s contrast with his nemeses’ aura of optimism functions on a number of levels, which of course range well into the obvious. His first-ever appearance presented him as the antithesis of the Fantastic Four’s rowdy, adventurous optimism; page one, panel one features a man in a death’s head iron mask flanked by a vulture, right beneath the story’s title, “Prisoners of Doctor Doom!” Neither Lee nor Kirby rank as the most subtle of storytellers, as a general rule, and they certainly were not in this instance. He’s called Dr. Doom. Is there more to add?

I think that there is, yes. Realistically, most supervillains represent “doom,” in contrast with the good guys, fighting to feed our hopes. Lots of bad guys have forbidding costumes and props to match, too. In the case of Dr. Doom, I think the name proved particularly appropriate, but most of the reasons special to this character only emerged as time went by.

Doom has in fact been something a blend of optimism and pessimism, from his first appearance through every generation since, in his individual story, actions and attitudes. In his basic origin, included in that first-appearance issue, Dr. Doom is established as a man who never, ever, ever gives up no matter how overwhelming the circumstances. This has remained part of the character since. (I know I’m not the only one who thinks of that harrowing scene from the original Secret Wars with a measure of awe.) This is probably more a determined character than one representing hope in any way, yet there’s a complexity here that has persisted.

Over the course of decades, Dr. Doom gradually evolved more and more into a man of bad means more than bad intentions, less like the inherently evil Red Skull and more like the would-be mutant liberator Magneto. When a villain like the Red Skull gains power, the result is always a horror; his end-goal is simply pain and misery for all but himself and perhaps a few equally sadistic allies. When Dr. Doom has power, though, the result has increasingly often been a paradise; a paternalistic paradise, but one of sufficient contrast with not only other bad guys, but the real world around us, that Doom has worked effectively in the role of hero on many occasions.

This “tough love” side to Doom is nonetheless informed by a pessimism that does place him opposite the Fantastic Four’s hopefulness. Dr. Doom is an irredeemable pessimist about humanity. He wants paradise for the world—but believes the only chance for this is by seizing power away from the inferior intellect and integrity of everyone else. Doom of course is a genius, but the Fantastic Four’s leader Reed Richards is his match and nonetheless adheres to a mid-century American belief in freedom and progress. Broader hopefulness like this, Dr. Doom has no time for. The Doomwar limited series of several years back illustrated this dichotomy of narrow, self-based hope and broad pessimism about all the rest of us particularly well, but it has really been implied since writers first began to develop Dr. Doom as more than a simple selfish tyrant.

I think, though, that pessimism is tied into one more aspect of Dr. Doom that lies even deeper in the concept, as well as the character’s history.

Regardless of his professed intent Dr. Doom mostly appeared as an oppressor to his people, feared and resented, up until John Byrne’s stories in the early 1980s. Yet long before Byrne introduced the pessimistic argument that Doom might represent the best possible outcome, at least for his own kingdom, the very fact that he had a people, had a kingdom, represented an ongoing intrusion of pessimism from The Fantastic Four‘s earliest years.

Lee and Kirby themselves first introduced Dr. Doom’s status as ruler of Latveria in Fantastic Four Annual #2, as far back as 1964. Back before the decline of our space program. Back before Vietnam, before Nixon; almost back into the optimistic Kennedy era which Sean notes as background to the series’ creation. All the way back then amid cheery Silver Age goofiness that mostly persisted, even after Kennedy’s assassination, at Marvel until the 1970s. Way way back then, Fantastic Four introduced a supervillain as absolute ruler of an entire nation… and left him in charge.

It never really struck me until recently how modern this seems. Latveria is a made-up nation, yes, and even within the Marvel Universe it was located somewhere in eastern Europe where Americans could, at the time, probably take for granted that things were “different” somehow. Even so, unlike the world’s real-life dictators Dr. Doom was by 1964 a regular character within the Fantastic Four’s own world, as he has remained since; I recall one or more analyses referring to him as the team’s “fifth member.” Yet he also held real political power over a whole nation of fictional, but otherwise “real,” people.

The king of the Skrulls was a rotter, but the same went for the Skrulls themselves, plus they were all space aliens. Likewise the Mole Man had vaguely intelligent “moloid” subjects, but these were mute drones, obviously a subhuman “other.”

When “real people” were involved, bad guys didn’t get to stay in power. In another of their early stories, Lee and Kirby introduced “The Hate Monger” as dictator of another made-up nation, but the Fantastic Four toppled him by the end of his first appearance. A few years later, the mad tyrant Maximus appeared in control of a hidden nation of superbeings; perhaps Maximus got an extension because his subjects were called “Inhumans,” although they mostly appeared as human as the rest of us and by his second appearance Maximus got the boot as well.

Dr. Doom broke this rule. Smashed it, even, Hulk-style. The Fantastic Four thwarted Doom’s dream of further conquest again and again, but Latveria remained perennially under his (literal) iron boot. I suspect that this mostly owed to novelty, more than thematic intention; we’ll never know for sure, but I recall Lee once enthusing about how the Fantastic Four couldn’t simply put Dr. Doom in jail because he could claim diplomatic immunity, suggesting a view of Doom’s status as mostly a clever gimmick. Later, by the time Lee and Kirby had both departed the title, it had become a convention. As I recall, Dr. Doom was not really replaced as head of state in Latveria—at least not for more than a single story or in favor of any kind of popular government—until the 1978 story with which I introduced this post.

Ignoring “Marvel time,” 14+ years is a pretty good run, and while Doom has been chased from power multiple times during my life, he always returns. Significantly, Byrne’s restoration of Doom after the 1978 coup set the pattern for most that have followed: for the most part, every government that replaces Dr. Doom tends to be just as bad and often worse.

In one sense, of course, this is a kind of literary convenience, especially after repeated use. It might also be seen as a kind of literary kludge for the fact that Dr. Doom ruling an entire nation of ordinary “real” human beings doesn’t seem to fit, thematically, with the optimistic spirit of the Fantastic Four. On the surface, the suggestion that—given a succession of horrible alternatives—those human beings in some sense choose absolute rule, by Doom, papers over this. Yeah, he’s mean and bossy, but people settle for him as the least bad option; hey, not all that different from voting in America, right? Close enough, at any rate, for government work, eh?

On a very deep level, though, I think the tradition of Latveria never having a genuinely good option from a liberal democratic perspective cannot be “smoothed over,” but does not need to be, either. That’s not really unrealistic. Along with Sean’s blog, part of my inspiration for this post comes from a recent read of Circling the Square, a book about the Egyptian revolution. A revolution, like many, where dictatorship fell… popular elections and representative assemblies even followed… and yet things didn’t seem to improve. Nor seem likely to improve, particularly when another autocratic government assumed power to restore “order” much like the old one. That’s not at all unrealistic, sadly, nor is it hopeful or optimistic.

In one sense, such discouraging realism is nonetheless out of place in The Fantastic Four. But I believe that its ongoing presence in one particular place—the series’ master villain throughout its history—adds a tension which makes for a more compelling antagonist, which makes for a more compelling concept as a whole.

(Though, of course, your mileage may vary. This is me we’re talking about; searching for a title today I liked “Doom vs. Hope” but then realized I had better qualify it, lest it very naturally appear to be yet another overt political jeremiad.)

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