In December, 1968 — about a year and a half after my first sampling of Marvel Comics’ wares, and a year after I’d begun buying the company’s books on a regular basis — I finally got to read a story featuring their number one super-villain. Of course, I’m talking about Doctor Doom.
And by this time, I was more than ready to make the not-so-good Doctor’s better acquaintance. After all, not only had I caught him on several episodes of the Fantastic Four’s Saturday morning TV cartoon show (one of which, “The Way It All Began”, had even provided a stripped-down version of his origin story), but I’d also encountered him in flashback or other cameo appearances in several comics, including Silver Surfer #1 and Not Brand Echh #9 (though the latter was technically not the “real” Victor von D., but rather the “Marble Comics” parody version, “Doctor Bloom”.
And then there was this letter from Lamar Blaylock in Atlanta, GA, which had appeared in the very first issue of Fantastic Four I ever bought, #78:
I’m not sure that younger fans can appreciate what a godsend a letter like this was for a new Marvel fan like me, anxious to learn all about this exciting and colorful, but complex, new universe he’d recently stumbled into. Fifty years ago, the dawn of Wikipedia and its online reference ilk was still some four decades distant, even Marvel’s first edition of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe lay fourteen years in the future. Back then, if you hadn’t been around to read a comic book when it came out, you’d probably never know what had happened in it — unless someone told you. So, here’s a somewhat belated “thank you” to Lamar Blaylock, and other fans like him, who helped me out as I was beginning to piece together the history of Marvel’s fictional continuity, way back in the day.
I can remember being fascinated by the account of Doom’s exploits that Blaylock provided here — and tantalized. Dr. Doom had once fought my (then) favorite hero, Spider-Man? Daredevil had aided the FF in a struggle against Doom, after they’d lost their powers? Doom was somehow behind the Yellow Claw and his battles with S.H.I.E.L.D.? Dang, I wanted to read all those stories, even though I realized it would probably take me forever to track them down as back issues — or to wait for them to be reprinted, in Marvel Collector’s Item Classics or wherever. After all, in 1968, the idea that Marvel would one day have virtually its entire classic library available in hardcover or paperback book collections (not to mention in digital editions) was about as unimaginable as Wikipedia.
In any event, I was delighted to at last have the chance to read a complete, full-fledged Doctor Doom story, as presented over a quartet of Fantastic Four issues, beginning with #84:
The story opens with our heroes making their way home after their adventure in the Inhumans’ Great Refuge, chronicled in the previous two issues. But they haven’t even cleared the peaks of the Himalayan mountain range when they’re intercepted by a squadron of fighter planes — which, thankfully, turn out to be under the command of their friend and ally Nick Fury, agent (and director) of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
Over the next page, we follow the mysterious figure introduced in the second panel above, as he desperately attempts to elude his pursuers:
What an entrance, right? Doom’s dialogue here, in which he declares that everything he does is for his subjects’ own good (a theme he’ll return to frequently over the course of the storyline), is chillingly creepy — and made even more so by the fact that it’s hard to tell whether or not he actually believes what he’s saying, at least on some level. “How ungrateful are those who will not accept the rule of Doctor Doom!” the armor-clad monarch goes on to lament to his robot soldiers — right after felling the hapless would-be escapee with a blast from his ray-pistol. “Do I not give them shelter… provide them with food? And all that I ask is total, blind obedience!”
Fury answers the FF’s leader, Reed Richards, by saying the secret army in question isn’t actually all that big — however, “it could be the deadliest army of all time!” By way of explanation, he opens a wall safe and pulls out a box, which he opens to reveal a disconnected robotic forearm. And then…
The arm evades both the FF’s and S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel’s attempts to grab it. Finally, after it’s grabbed a gun, Johnny Storm unleashes the power of the Human Torch and melts the thing to slag. This aggravates Fury, who grouses that it was their only specimen, and they “were bringin’ it to Tony Stark — for analysis!” Hey, Nick — maybe next time you could try to secure the flying death machine a little better before showing it off, if you really don’t want any of the nearby superpeople destroying it in self-defense. Just a thought.
Soon thereafter, our foursome is crossing the border from some unnamed country in “Communist-occupied Central Europe” into Latveria, the country ruled by Victor von Doom. S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t actually traced the robotic tech to that specific location, but as Reed Richard explains to the group. “nobody is the equal of Dr. Doom at building deadly robots!” Well, that sounds like a good enough reason to infiltrate a hostile foreign nation to me.
Reed’s plan has been for the FF to allow themselves to be captured without resistance — but once Johnny sees his beloved Crystal in danger, that notion quickly goes south. But when they do fight back, both the Torch and Mister Fantastic are quickly subdued by the robots’ weaponry, specifically designed by Doom to counter each member’s powers.
Ben Grimm, the Thing, gets in some good licks, at least…
…before ultimately succumbing to a gas attack.
Once all of his foes have been rendered helpless, the robots’ master finally arrives upon the scene:
It sure doesn’t make sense, Reed — though it might, if you’d ever seen a certain British television series that aired in the U.S. in the summer of 1968. But more of that anon.
Re-reading this story again for the first time in years, I’m struck anew by the level of human expression that penciler Jack Kirby (aided by inker Joe Sinnott) was able to bring to the iron mask of Doctor Doom — the mock concern evident on Doom’s “face” in the last panel of page 18 being a great example.
Having verified (back on page 17) that Johnny is also ensconced at the same lodging establishment as themselves, Reed and Ben are relieved to discover that Crystal, too, is safe and well, though in another building — and, as she tells Johnny by videophone, surrounded by friendly, but extremely jumpy locals. The guys arrange to meet Crys in the public square, and then they finally hit the streets:
And with that final scene of FF #84, anyone familiar with that aforementioned British TV program who hadn’t already recognized the parallels between its premise and that of our present tale would surely have caught on by now.
My then eleven-year-old self was not one of them, alas. I have no idea whether or not The Prisoner aired in my particular television market (Jackson, MS) in its original American run, but if it did, I missed it. (Though I do remember watching some episodes of the Patrick McGoohan spy series which preceded it, Danger Man — or as we had it in the U.S., Secret Agent — a couple of years earlier.) So I was unfamiliar with the soon-to-be-cult show, which starred McGoohan as a British intelligence operative who, after having angrily resigned his position, finds himself in a mysterious seaside village where he’s free to move about as he likes, but can’t leave. While the masters of the Village seek to extract intel from him, the prisoner — identified only as “Number Six” — attempts to thwart them, to escape, and to maintain his integrity as an individual human being.
We’ll have more to say about the influence of The Prisoner on this FF four-parter before the end of this post, but for now, let’s move on to part two — Fantastic Four #85’s “Within This Tortured Land”.
The story picks up right where issue #84 left off, as Doom, still speaking through his automatic sentry device, explains to his captured foes that he’s suppressed their powers. “But though we have been deadly foes in the past — I harbor no malice — I bear no grudge!” he continues. “Now that you are totally powerless — you shall be treated the same as all my beloved subjects! You will obey every order — and be punished for every infraction — for the rest of your natural lives!” Yeesh.
After Doom signs off, Ben takes a lunge at some nearby robot guards, only to discover that, yup, his strength is gone. Wotta revoltin’ development.
With little else to do at the moment, the FF head to a sidewalk café for an al fresco lunch. (Wait, didn’t they just have breakfast? Never mind.)
Meanwhile, Doom gloats over his success with his number one underling — a onetime Nazi, named Hauptmann:
The next phase of the arch-villain’s scheme involves a field test of one of his new, much more powerful robot soldiers — the basis of the very secret army that the FF have come to Latveria to shut down. A couple of prisoners are allowed to “steal” an armored vehicle and “escape” — but before they can get very far…
The new-model robot shrugs off a “point-blank rocket blast” from the tank’s guns, and then smashes the vehicle itself (though without harming its two inhabitants, as Stan Lee’s script is careful to note). Success!
Yep, Vic is preparing to sacrifice an entire village full of Latverians to test his new robots as a group. So much for all that “welfare of my people” jazz, I guess.
Meanwhile, our heroes are finding that their oh-so-tasty (and free!) lunch isn’t exactly agreeing with them…
The recordings deliver individualized messages to each hero, along the line of “your-strength-is-gone” (for the Thing), and the FF members helplessly echo these messages back. Only Reed puts up much resistance — all driven by his love for his wife, whose name he calls out in his artificially-induced sleep. Awww, that’s sweet.
But regardless of such nice character bits, it’s hard to see how either this scene, or the one of Doom’s robot test that immediately precedes it, do very much to advance the storyline. Rather, one gets the sense of the story being padded somewhat to fill four complete issues.
When we next see Doctor Doom, he’s having the portrait sitting (or should that be standing?) alluded to a couple of pages earlier:
I can remember how striking I found this full-page splash when I first read FF #85 back in January, 1969 — a reaction that I think had several distinct instigators. One was simply the pure opulence of the scene, which included the room’s fixtures and furnishings as well as Doom’s regalia. Another was the fact that we were seeing Doom out of “costume” — something I’d never seen before, if you didn’t count the simplified version of his origin presented on the TV cartoon. And lastly, there was the sense of witnessing a key moment in the character development of the Marvel Universe’s number one villain — the moment in which he’s finally able to stand the sight of his own disfigured face. (Being a rather squeamish lad, I suspect I was perfectly OK with Kirby’s obscuring of said visage.)
On the next page, Doom wearies of the painting session, and cuts it short. Right after that, he receives an urgent message from one of his purple-model robots — all of the new, more deadly soldier-robots have broken out of containment:
FF #85’s ominously-titled “The Victims” begins with the team attempting to keep the people of the village from panicking. Assembling everyone in the public square, Reed directs them to return to their homes, and gather any kind of weapon they can find — “pitchforks… clubs… even rocks you can throw!” — but then to keep off the streets, while the still-powerless FF serve as their first line of defense.
The FF assume that the robots have been directed by Doom to attack the village at this moment, but as Doom soon reveals via a monologue, such is not actually the case. “So warlike have I made them… they could not await my signal… to launch their awesome attack!”
Hmm, a “weakness“? Good to know; as is another bit of info Doom lets slip to us readers while talking to himself — namely, that “the hypnotic effect” keeping the FF powerless will be wearing off soon — though, by that time, Doom is certain that “they’ll be at the mercy of my invincible, omnipurpose robots!” Hmmm… sounding maybe just a little bit overconfident there, Vic.
As it turns out, the FF’s powers begin to return just as the marauding robots arrive on the village’s now empty streets. What great timing! The Thing is elated that he’s able to smash one into pieces with a single mighty blow. Unfortunately, as we’ve already seen, these robots are pretty tough customers even when in pieces:
“Sing it again, Tiny Tim!” For some reason, Lee was keen to have Ben do a fair bit of celebrity name-dropping in this storyline; this is just one instance.
Ben and Johnny move on to rendezvous with Reed, who’s just finished helping the village men fine-tune some high-tech weaponry they discovered, and is now searching for something that, knowing Doom’s mind as he does, he’s sure must exist. “He’d never create such destructive robots… without a fail safe means of control!” And then, just in case we haven’t gotten the message yet, the story jumps back to Doom’s castle, where the villain and Hauptmann are discussing the possibility of Richards discovering the “one weakness… one Achilles heel” that Doom has given his creations. OK, Stan, I think we’ve got it now.
“…I didn’t think ya wuz Spiro Agnew!” More circa-1969 celebrity name-dropping from ol’ bashful Benjamin.
With the mysterious “control unit” now in hand, the three men head for the other side of the village, where the women and girls are holed up under the protection of Crystal. What our heroes don’t know, however, that Dr. Doom has a contingency plan ready to implement, should the FF triumph over his robot army — as he confides to Hauptmann, he’s secretly planted tons of nitroglycerine under the village, which he can detonate at the touch of a button. When Hauptmann asks if he’s really willing to destroy the whole village, Doom declares: “I would shatter half a planet to defeat the Fantastic Four!” Ulp.
Doom’s sudden dismay at his realization that blowing up the village means killing everyone inside it is a little surprising, considering that he seemed just fine with the prospect of his robots killing everyone in the village just a short while before. One could consider this an inconsistency of characterization, as though Lee and Kirby were themselves uncertain regarding the genuineness of Doom’s professed love for his subjects. On the other hand, the seeming discrepancy might have been intentional — meant to demonstrate that the villain, himself, is inconsistent in his sentiments, capable of careening from contempt for the people of the village in one moment, to concern for them in the next.
I’m pretty certain that the ending to part three came as a big surprise to at least one reader in February, 1969 — namely, my younger self. After all, Crystal had “replaced” the Invisible Girl on the FF’s active roster a mere five issues (and only one complete storyline) before this one. It’s been hardly any time at all, and yet here’s Sue, suiting up again.
The resolution also seems to have been, shall we say, drawn out rather abruptly from someone’s posterior orifice, considering that it seemed a lot harder for the other four FFers to get into Latveria than it appears to have been for Mrs. Richards, whom we’re given the impression just got dropped off at the village gates by S.H.I.E.L.D., no big deal. Oh, well.
But even though we’ve reached a happy ending for the villagers (sort of — they all still have to live under Doom’s autocratic rule, right?), the story’s not quite over yet. Our heroes remain stuck in Latveria, and Dr. Doom isn’t going to just, y’know, concede defeat and send them on their merry way.
In the opening pages of the next issue’s finale, “The Power and the Pride!”, the FF begin to make their way towards Doom’s castle — where we readers find there’s at least one other person besides our heroes who’s ready to get the hell out of Latveria. The portrait painter from issue #85 — remember him? — encourages Hauptmann to join him in making a break for it. But the former Nazi scoffs at the suggestion, and sneeringly tells the artist that he’ll report him for his treachery, thereby proving his own loyalty to Doctor Doom.
Checking in with Doom to let him know the Fantastic Five are not just still alive, but are also on their way, Hauptmann gets a royal earful: “Silence, you snivelling jackanape!! Am I not aware of all that occurs??” The Doc goes on to explain that he wants the FF to come, because he’s prepared a very special welcome for them upon their arrival:
Sue and Crystal find themselves whisked along a subterranean passage on a cushion of air, which will ultimately take them all the way into the castle. Meanwhile, the three guys have to fight their way past Doom’s robot sentries and other defenses, including an electrified door that wallops the Thing with a huge shock when he ties to punch his way through. Mister Fantastic manages to pick the lock by making his arm super-thin, and then…
Maybe there’s been another time in his 57-year-long existence that the Thing has made like the Big Bad Wolf and blown a door down, but I can’t think of one. Can anybody else?
Now within the castle, Crys and Sue also have to fight their way past some robots — but finally, they arrive just where Doom wants them:
Vic’s addressing the two female members of the FF as “my pretties” hasn’t aged very well; on the other hand, I guess we could give him the benefit of the doubt, and imagine that he’s channeling the Wicket Witch of the West rather than being sexist.
While Sue and Crys tuck in, Reed, Ben, and Johnny continue fighting their way into the castle. Eventually, they find themselves in Doom’s art gallery (where Ben gets to drop one last celebrity name):
Hey, yeah — remember that missing S.H.I.E.L.D. agent that Nick Fury mentioned back in issue #84? I’m not sure the revelation that he’s Doom’s portrait painter completely tracks — to wit, Fury said then that they’d lost track of their agent, and S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t seem to know for sure at that time that Latveria was the source of the robot army — so we have to assume that the agent infiltrated Doom’s castle staff all on his own. Which would mean that the secret operative Fury sent to Central Europe to get the goods on a mysterious robot army just happened to also be an elderly, white-haired master of portraiture! Yeah, I’m not buying that, either. My best guess is that neither Lee nor Kirby originally knew that the artist introduced in #85 would turn out to be the missing agent mentioned in #84, and had to tie things up the best they could once they got to the closing scenes of #87. That’s the way things go, sometimes.
And that’s how our story ends — with the malevolent monarch of Latveria proving that there are some things he values over the destruction of his mortal enenies (although human life obviously isn’t one of them). It is definitely an “off-beat” ending, as promised by this issue’s cover — though whether it was in fact “the most off-beat ending of the year”, I’ll leave for others to judge.
As noted at the top of this post, this was my very first Doctor Doom story. It was also the very last such story that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would deliver in the pages of Fantastic Four; and while Lee would write several more tales of Doom in collaboration with other artists (in Thor as well as in FF), this was essentially Jack Kirby’s swan song on the character. So how does it stack up against all those other, earlier stories — you know, the ones that Lamar Blaylock cataloged in his letter back in FF #78?
I suspect that for many if not most fans and scholars of the Lee-Kirby FF oeuvre, the answer is, “not all that well”. That’s in spite of it being (among other things) one of only two four-parters featuring Dr. Doom that those two creators ever produced. Of course, the first such tetralogy did set an admittedly high bar, it being the tale that, in issues #57 through #60, chronicled Doom’s theft of the Silver Surfer’s “power cosmic”. That story is a stone classic which probably ranks second on the list of the all-time greatest FF stories, right after the “Galactus Trilogy”; it does on my list, anyway. (On a personal note, those comics also have the distinction of being the first back issues I ever purchased from a dealer [one of those who regularly advertised in Marvel’s classifieds in the late ’60s — probably Howard Rogofsky, though it could have been Robert Bell].) The stakes in that story (the fate of the world, basically) are as high as in any FF adventure up to that time, so it’s got that all over the later tale we’ve been reviewing here — where, notwithstanding the immediate danger to the lives of the heroes and the hapless villagers, the menace comes down to an “army” consisting of a whole twelve robots (and not very interesting robots, at that). FF #57 – 60 have something else going for them as well — a compelling subplot (actually more of a second major storyline) involving the efforts of the Inhumans to break free of the “Great Barrier” that has imprisoned them in their Himalayan homeland (a storyline that actually bumps the Doom-Surfer one off the cover of issue #59). On the other hand, save for a couple of brief scenes that help set up the story that will follow the present one (the return of the Mole Man, in issues #88 – 89), FF #84 – 87 are about the titular heroes’ struggle against Dr. Doom, and nothing else.
That’s a problem — because, setting aside the vaunted “robot army”, the only thing that distinguishes this Doom story from all the ones that have come before is Lee and Kirby’s riffing on The Prisoner — and at the end of the day, there’s just not that much “there”, there.
It’s well known that Jack Kirby was becoming increasingly unhappy in the last couple of years before he left Marvel, and that he pretty much stopped coming up with new characters and concepts for Fantastic Four at the time; instead, he brought back old adversaries (such as the Mole Man), or built stories around ideas from TV shows, or old movies shown on TV (such as issue #97‘s take on the 1954 monster movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon). In issue #85 – 87, he managed to do both, including in the storyline both an established villain (Dr. Doom) and something he’d seen on TV (The Prisoner).
Some writers have imagined the Jack Kirby of this era sitting in his studio at home, making up his stories as he drew them, and bringing in interesting stuff that was playing on his television set in the background while he worked. And, indeed, the elements of The Prisoner that can be discerned in this FF storyline are the kind of thing that could easily be picked up by someone half-watching the show as it aired over the summer months of 1968: The hero trapped in a small, isolated, seemingly benign community, where nothing is quite what it seems, and all the residents are under constant surveillance; the attempt by that community’s hidden masters to manipulate the hero psychologically, through artificial techniques; the bizarre technology that helps keep the hero and other residents confined in the community.
But, of course, those elements merely make up the surface of The Prisoner, as any of its many fans could tell you. This was a series that had a lot on its mind — individualism versus collectivism, the nature of reality, the meaning of freedom, and more. It was an allegory, in the guise of a science-fictional spy thriller, open to varied interpretations. Little of any of that intellectual substance is evident in Kirby and Lee’s FF opus, in which the only real point of the Latverian village seems to be to keep the heroes imprisoned until they can be killed by the villain’s robots.
Indeed, it’s not even really clear how the community of the village relates to, or is distinct from, the rest of the nation in which it’s situated. Doom’s castle isn’t part of the village, but it overlooks it, and the people we see serving him within its walls seem (with the exceptions of Hauptmann and the never-named S.H.I.E.L.D. agent/artist) every bit as terrified-but-don’t-dare-show-it as the denizens of the village. And although Ben Grimm assures us on issue #87’s opening splash page that “the poor shnooks who wuz trapped in this crummy town all managed to split“, where could they have split to? As noted earlier, they’re presumably all still dwelling within the borders of Doom’s domain, and thus are still subject to his autocratic rule. The fact is, neither Lee and Kirby nor any other Marvel creator had done much in the way of exploring (and explaining) Latverian society up to this point — that would ultimately come from other creators, in the years and decades to follow — and so, they may not have thought through all the implications of the villagers’ supposed “escape”. Nevertheless, what’s left is something of a muddle.
The irony is, Kirby probably could have produced a more thoughtful and sophisticated take on The Prisoner in 1968 — because he would in fact go on to do just that, though almost a decade later. Following his return to Marvel in 1975. Kirby was enlisted to write and draw an adaptation of the TV series for Marvel. The project never came to fruition at the time, but Kirby did script and pencil seventeen pages retelling the first half of the pilot episode, “Arrival”, before the plug was pulled — and that material (finally published in 2018 by Titan Comics) shows that the creator who’d earlier explored the conflict between freedom and control in his “Fourth World” comics for DC, through such concepts as the Anti-Life Equation, would have been well suited to chronicle the whole story of (to quote Kirby’s script) “one man’s battle against insidious power” — if he’d only had the chance.
In the paragraphs above, I’ve presented a critique of Fantastic Four #84 – 87 from the perspective of half a century later. But what did my eleven-year-old self make of these issues, when I first read them back in late ’68 and early ’69?
I suspect that the regular readers of this blog will hardly be surprised by the answer to that question, which is: I loved them, of course.
Remember, I’d never read a Doctor Doom story before. For that matter, I’d never read a comic book story that continued over four consecutive issues before. I was used to waiting one month to find out how a storyline would be resolved, or maybe two — but three? Honestly, I think I was enthralled by the length of this saga as much as by its content. And what seems like obvious padding now to my adult sensibilities — a perception aided by the fact that of course I now know how the story ends, and so can more easily pick out the scenes that ultimately don’t contribute much to advancing the plot — wasn’t at all evident to me at the time. Rather, I hung on every page, every panel, and every word.
So, yeah, I loved this story. And I still have a lot of affection for it, despite its flaws. A large part of that is unquestionably based in nostalgia (for which I feel no need to apologize, frankly), but not all of it. Because, at the end of the day, it’s Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — and even “lesser” Lee – Kirby FF is still great stuff.
And, of course, these four issues aren’t just Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four — they’re Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four fighting Doctor Doom.
Really, what more could you ask for, for forty-eight cents?