Friday, July 26, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #5

"Prisoners of Doctor Doom!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott
(July 1962)

Doctor Doom is the best villain in the Marvel Universe. Even here, in his first appearance, he's the first villain who gets the better of the FF and who you feel really might have a chance of just permanently defeating them. Forget the Mole Man or the Miracle Man; the real menaces of Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner make them pale in comparison. Now we're really working with some super villainy!

Doom's brief origin is that he was a college student in the same dorm as Reed. Victor Von Doom was fascinated by sorcery and "forbidden experiments," and disfigured his face when messing around with them. Doom was expelled and went off to Tibet seeking "forbidden secrets of black magic and sorcery." (It's interesting to note how similar his origin is to Doctor Strange, only with a different impetus and a different result.)

Doom is a genius, perhaps even more so than Reed Richards. Rather than build up to attacking the FF, he immediately ensnares the entire Baxter Building in an electrified netting, then demands (and gets) Sue Storm as a hostage. He then gets the others into a cage which he lifts by helicopter to his mountain fortress (the word Latveria is not yet spoken) and tells the men that he's going to go back in time so that they can recover the treasure of Blackbeard for him. As fiendish plans go, it's not the fiendish-est, but it does allow for a lot of great funnybook adventure!

The passage in the past, with Reed, Johnny and Ben in period costume and fighting alternately against and alongside pirates is wonderful! Some of the best fun in this series yet! And the twist in this issue is one of my favorites: we discover that the historical Blackbeard was actually the Thing all along, and his presence here is what started the legend. When Ben figures it out, he doesn't even want to go back to his own time.

Gee, can you blame him? Especially after the way Reed and Johnny treat him! They're horrified and try to convince him to come back, but he's not having any of it and only the presence of a water spout that destroys his ship stops Ben from just putting Reed and Johnny adrift and going off to the high seas without them. And then, of course, we get this...

God damn it, Kirby, you are killing me with these "Sad Ben" panels every issue.

So, why did Doctor Doom want the treasure of Blackbeard so badly? Why, because it originally belonged to Merlin, of course! And he imbued each object with mystical properties, as you do. But, of course, Reed's double-crossed Doom and brought back worthless heavy chains, because the water spout sank the ship and Blackbeard's treasure was lost in the ocean. (In a nice nod to continuity, Johnny wonders if there's a chance Namor might find these enchanted gems.)

What makes Doom so exciting is not this lame fixation on black magic, but the way he's always one or two steps ahead of everybody else, planning for almost every contingency possible. The Thing reaches his gettin' jerked around limit, and punches Doctor Doom into a million pieces. A million robot pieces. Seems they've been talking to a robot ever since they got back to 1962. Doom is actually in another room watching through a camera, and is even now draining the room the men are in of oxygen!

In a nice touch, it's Sue who saves the day, turning invisible while Doom is busy gloating and short-circuiting his control panel, then freeing the men from their airtight chamber so they can all escape. They try to smoke out Doom, but he merely reveals his jet pack (with thrust faster than the Torch's) and flies away, vowing his revenge. A revenge which is surely coming, because every time you think Doctor Doom is done for, Stan and Jack find some ingenious way to keep him alive.

I love it. Doctor Doom issues are the best issues of Fantastic Four.

Stray observations:

:: As the issue opens, Johnny is reading a copy of The Incredible Hulk #1. I wonder if Stan and Jack have yet decided whether or not the Hulk and the FF exist in the same universe, since they've already decided that the FF and Golden Age hero Namor do. Of course, the advertising push couldn't hurt, either. (Eventually, there's a neat explanation about why/how Marvel Comics exist within the Marvel Universe, but we'll get there.)

:: I'm getting a little tired now of the constant fighting between the men of the Fantastic Four. Ben and Johnny are destroying desks now in their rage, and it just kind of hurts to see Reed repeatedly having to restrain Ben and saying things like "THING! Knock it off, THING! Quit being aggressive about the way I've so dehumanized you that I barely call you by your own name, THING! I never yell at Johnny like this, THING!" I understand they need it here to show you why Ben would want to stay in the 1700s rather than come back to his own time, but that doesn't lessen it.

:: When Doom demands Sue act as hostage, she agrees to it to save everyone. Last issue, she was presented with the same choice and reluctantly agreed for the same reasons. It's not great characterization yet to be always presented with the choice of being a prisoner, but I do like that she agrees to the sacrifice because she knows it will save people, rather than always just getting captured.

:: Hey, look at that:
Not only will it, but you'll go on to write it, young man!

:: I like how, in the escape from Doom's fortress, each member of the FF gets to showcase their powers so that Stan and Jack can demonstrate once again everyone's equal contribution to the team. They also really delight in coming up with new, interesting ways for the Human Torch to use his combination of heat, flame and air pressure control. In this issue, he gets the others over a crocodile-infested river by turning up the heat to atomic levels and boiling part of the water, fusing it to glass so the others can simply walk away.

I can't wait for the next time the FF face off against Doctor Doom, and I certainly won't have to wait long.

But first, next time: the Hulk turns green!

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