Fantastic Four #5

OMG

Don’t bother, Doom, Johnny here is going to do it for you.

July of 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Meet Doctor Doom! I am a huge Doom fan, on account of being a person. His armor is oddly green on the cover there, but not on the interior, which makes me wonder if there was some miscommunication with the colorist at some point that wasn’t noticed before press time. Trivia: My favorite Doctor Doom story is the prologue of “Unthinkable” in Volume 3, Issue 67, by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo. Don’t let anyone spoil the ending for you.

So how does Doom stack up in his first appearance? This is a classic issue that informs a lot of Doom stories for a long time to come. Let’s dive in!

Uh, disgusting. I mean, look at those club fingers.
Uh, disgusting. I mean, look at those club fingers.

Hooboy. No beating around the bush with this chap. He’s straight-up evil. Books on demons! Chess! Diabolical machinations concerning our heroes! A surely unsanitary bird on his desk!

Historical flub: the first set of Marvel chess pieces will not be released until like the ’90s. Those pieces are clearly too large for that board anyway. Maybe he made these himself, and that’s super creepy.

It’s fascinating that they introduced Doom’s preoccupation with the occult this early. I had always thought that it came later (if you’ve never read the classic Dr. Strange & Dr. Doom: Triumph and Torment graphic novel that came out in the ’80s you should track it down, it’s fantastic). But there it is, on the very first page. It doesn’t come up again except as part of his origin, but they clearly wanted to immediately steep Doom in this world of the dark arts. Maybe they did it as much to  establish his villainy as anything else. Even this early version of his costume makes him look more like some evil wizard than a man of science who dabbles in magic.

Doom monologues to himself a bit about how he’s the only guy in the world with the power to defeat the FF, and then takes off in a helicopter. Cut to New York, where we find the Fantastic Four relaxing among themselves.

On sale today, kids!

I’m sure it’s a total coincidence that there were a ton of letters asking for Thing to have the ability to go back and forth from human to monster! Actually, I have to give Stan and company some credit for spinning that idea out into a whole new character rather than compromise on what they wanted Ben Grimm to be. This opens Ben up to some softening – he doesn’t have to be the angry bitter dude anymore, because we have this Hulk book for that character. There’s still plenty of angst and tension to be had here, but they can start giving Thing some more likable moments.

They have special table insurance for this stuff now.
They have special table insurance for this stuff now.

Here, we have Johnny harassing Ben and it does feel a little more friendly, even if Thing does almost start bashing things around in an effort to get to the teasing Johnny. The situation quickly degenerates into the usual, Reed restraining Ben, Sue spraying her brother with a convenient fire extinguisher, and then argument about why they have to fight all the time. Still, the fact that it took more than a single panel for Thing to get violent is some pretty significant character growth.

This family together time gets interrupted, though, when Doom shows up and cuts power to the building. He drops a net over the building. No problem, though, right? I mean, a net?

His plan is to give them all cancer.
His plan is to give them all cancer, the long con.

Some of our younger readers may not remember asbestos, but it has a pretty fascinating history. It’s been used throughout history. It’s a mineral, so you can easily throw countless slaves and other poor workers at it to produce as much as you want, and it could be broken down and used for anything from cooking utensils to armor to blankets. And Johnny’s right, it was flame retardant.

Early in the 20th century someone finally noticed it was killing people, but much of the early research into it was quashed by the companies producing it in a completely not stunning example of industry self regulation. In the ’40s, independent doctors (using the health records from unionized workers) were able to conduct more extensive studies on the stuff, and confirmed that asbestos fibers were getting into workers lungs and just totally fucking them up. About 40 years later the EPA managed to overcome industry resistance and started initiating bans. The various types of asbestos have been gradually facing bans across the world over the past couple decades, though it’s still pretty widely used in places that I’m now realizing I don’t particularly want to visit.

It would be like if, years from now, we figured out that the mass production and distribution of plastics were slowly destroying the world. *slowly turns to stare into camera*

Anyway, Reed recognizes the voice and name, and we get a super quick origin story flashback to Reed’s college days (in which Reed doesn’t actually appear).

He's mastered the ability to throw his shadow on the other side of the light source from where he's standing.
He’s mastered the ability to throw his shadow on the other side of the light source from where he’s standing.

Looking at this now, there’s a massive Chekov’s Gun sort of moment in this origin. That second panel strongly implies that Doom has a specific purpose for all this beyond the academic. But what that purpose might be is never mentioned. He’s driven to this, but by what we’re never told. We find out later, of course, but it’s left completely dangling in this book.

I like how he’s just a student of “science” and not of any particular field, considerably ahead of the contemporary trend of just adding an exclamation point to science and thinking that means something. Also, he didn’t graduate, sooo…he’s not actually a doctor.

It’s irritating sometimes what these old comics choose to spend their time on. The next few pages are wasted in this laborious process of Doom insisting that he be allowed to take Sue hostage, then using that leverage to force the rest of the team to surrender. I would have much rather had a couple more pages of Doom origin.

The FF give up without a struggle, and Doom’s chopper speeds them away to his castle stronghold “within minutes” (and earlier New York was described as just “miles away”).  There’s never any mention of Latveria in this issue, so I have to assume this is Doom’s summer home in the Hamptons. Lee was a big fan of inserting these “minutes later” and “in a distant town” type cues as transitions, but didn’t put much thought into the actual measurements.

That rug really ties the room together.
That rug really ties the room together.

Okay. Doom has a pet tiger. That’s fucking amazing. But really. Doom evidently wasn’t watching the news last month, when the Fantastic Four used a damn nuclear bomb to destroy a monster the size of Manhattan, while it was standing over Manhattan (the city seems to have been fully repaired, by the way, in case you were worried). Why would anyone fuck with these four lunatics at all much less expect them to hold back because of a pet tiger?

Under threat of impending tiger mauling, the team hears out Doom’s plan.

Victor, really, it's hard enough to understand you in that mask without you covering the mouth slit, too.
Victor, really, it’s hard enough to understand you in that mask without you covering the mouth slit, too.

Reed insists that Doom isn’t a liar, which is pretty well contradicted in lots of later appearances of the character. In fact, just a couple panels later, after the boys disappear into the time machine, he suggests that there’s more to Blackbeard’s gems than they know. The guy is clearly not trustworthy. Reed pulls through again with the brain smarts.

And AGAIN Sue uses everyone's proper name except Ben.
And AGAIN Sue uses everyone’s proper name except Ben.

Doom’s time travel platform will go on to make lots of appearances throughout Marvel history, including the classic Iron Man/Doctor Doom story from the ’80s (for a moment I was going to say that it was one of the few Iron Man stories not about someone stealing his technology, but no, no, then I remember it was basically about someone stealing his technology). Here at least, there is a built-in limitation in that someone has to stay behind to operate it and pull back the time travelers. It’s a nicely believable bit of plot device, especially for someone like Doom who would never trust anyone else to operate it on his behalf. I have to assume that the machine can only pull back people who’ve been sent – otherwise he could just pluck Blackbeard himself from the time stream and get the treasure that way.

The Fantastic [Three] have their mission: Doom has sent them back in time to steal Blackbeard’s treasure. They have 48 hours before he will pull them back to the future. Assuming they have the gems, Sue and the rest of them will be free to go [forth into the world that Doom is about to conquer, I assume].

 

Nobody questions why Reed carries a fake beard around.
Nobody questions why Reed carries a fake beard around.

We’re not told exactly when or where Doom sends them, but based on the general lawlessness into which our heroes find themselves thrust, it’s likely that he sent them to New Providence, what is now the capital of the Bahamas. In the early 1700s it was largely uninhabited and a haven for pirates, totally unlike the tourist trap/offshore bank haven it is today. Blackbeard was known to operate in the area circa 1716 or so.

The team has no trouble finding some clothes to blend in, pirating some stolen clothes from some pirates. Maybe they blend in too well, though.

Nice gloves, pal, who are you...somebody silly who wears white gloves listen it's been a long short week.
Nice gloves, pal, who are you…somebody silly who wears white gloves listen it’s been a long short week.

Well, our ever-vigilant heroes don’t notice this conversation taking place two tables over and blithely drink the poisoned grog (or is all grog poisoned?).

First: this reminds me of that great scene in Army of Darkness.

Second: Thing has eyes this issue! This is a pretty significant advancement for the character. Prior to this, the only time Ben really got eyes was when he was human. The rest of the time they were just these rocky squints, or obscured completely in disguise. But this issue they’ve really started their push to make him more personable and friendly, and it starts with the eyes.

Third: His eyes are brown here! What the what? I wonder when they’ll switch over to the baby blues he has now?

Well, our heroes awake and promptly beat the hell out of a few of this pirate crew, and the rest quickly hand over control of the ship. I’m not an expert on pirates, but I’m not sure how common it was for crews to kidnap people to serve as crew. Why saddle yourself with potentially unwilling crew when you could probably easily find volunteers? I may be totally off base with this, though, and someone should feel free to enlighten me in the comments. And in general I was under the impression that the crew of an average pirate ship was a fairly democratic scene – if the captain wasn’t serving the needs of the crew they could ask him to step aside for someone else (which is actually how Blackbeard reportedly gained control of the Queen Anne’s Revenge in the first place). I’m sure there were plenty of violent mutinies, though, so violent takeovers aren’t out of the question. I suppose.

What other possible use would my fire powers be in a fight?
What other possible use would my fire powers be in a fight?

The ship, now captained by Thing, comes under attack by another pirate ship. Reed suspects the attacker, whom he can somehow tell is loaded with treasure, could be Blackbeard! As Ben rallies the crew, Johnny and Reed spring into action. Johhny naturally starts strafing the enemy pirate ship, setting off the gunpowder on deck and dives into the water.

Reed takes advantage of Johnny’s cover/ignoble sacrifice by stretching across to grab the other ship, creating a bridge for Thing and the crew to follow. Ben leads the charge, grabbing, naturally, a piece of his own ship to use as a weapon.

Your back is breaking? Do you even have bones anymore, Reed?
Your back is breaking? Do you even have bones anymore, Reed?

Now, setting aside that it’s short-sighted (you’ll need that if you want to sail home, doofus) and is a complete overkill to use such a giant weapon against ordinary humans (not super out of character for a guy who’s tried to kill his unrequited love’s brother in every issue of the series so far), this seems like a moment where the crew should maybe step back and take stock of who exactly is running their ship right now. They carried him aboard, they can probably figure out a way to carry him off.

Thing and his freshly acquired crew of thugs make short work of the attacking pirates, and we are treated to a shock!

"Like demons possessed!" is a favorite Marvel-ism of mine, though is sounds like something they may have stolen from Robert E. Howard.
“…like demons possessed!” is a favorite Marvel-ism of mine, though is sounds like something they may have stolen from Robert E. Howard.
If Johnny ever says "totes" I'm out.
If Johnny ever says “totes” I’m out.

Why, THING is Blackbeard! Holy paradox! This is actually one of those fun ideas that pops up in homage every now and then. The Fantastic Four’s role in 1602 was probably inspired by this, and there was a Ms Marvel annual out a few years ago that had a similar tale. In general there are lots of stories about the FF traveling through time, basically as an excuse to have Thing dress up in ridiculous get-ups and talk in accents, all probably sourcing this original issue as inspiration.

They quickly locate a chest of jewels that they assume is what Doom is looking for. Since he gave no particular description, and since the ship was reportedly “loaded with treasure” I’m not sure how they narrowed it down but whatever. Reed isn’t so dumb as we initially assumed earlier, and comes up with a clever plan.

But Reed what about the tiger?
But Reed what about the tiger?

Even Thing is cool with this plan…but doesn’t want any further part of it.

I can’t blame Ben for his change of heart here. We haven’t seen anyone give him much reason to want to be around. Among these pirates he has a place, comrades in arms — even if maybe they think he’s a demon, they’ve accepted him. He’s so caught up in the moment here that he’s forgotten that Doom gives exactly zero shits about what Thing wants and is going to yank him back to the future regardless. He even goes as far as to start putting Reed and Johnny overboard when a freak waterspout appears and wrecks the ship. Luckily, in the Marvel Universe men made of rocks and chests full of chains float quite well, and everyone manages to make it ashore. Thing apologizes for being an idiot, which is the first time he’s shown any remorse for acting like an asshole. I’m starting to feel for the big lug.

I just thought this was a cool page. Big vertical panels like this are new for the Fantastic Four, and they give you a better idea of how the time platform works than the more standard panels did earlier.

That mask is smirking and it's creeping me out.
That mask is smirking and it’s creeping me out.

Well, Reed and company present Doom with the chest, probably snickering like middle-school kids trying to pull one over on their teacher. Doom reveals the terrible truth of the gems! Crafted by Merlin of Arthurian legend fame, they’re magic will make him invincible! I enjoy Doom’s creepy rubbing his hands together thing he’s doing, and you can just imagine the shit-eating grin he’s got on under that mask. He really does think the heroes have just handed him his victory. Upon hearing of the gems’ power, Johnny has some disturbing, but not really relevant right now, thoughts.

Foreshadowing!

What I find funny here is that there’s no indication that Johnny and Reed are whispering. Eventually there would be lettering tricks to indicate that – either a smaller font, or dialogue balloons that are made up of dashed lines instead of solid ones. Either they didn’t think to use those conventions here or they hadn’t been invented yet, I’m not sure. But guys, Doom is standing right there. Maybe keep it down.

Well, maybe Doom does hear them. He opens the chest and, of course, immediately sees that instead of precious, all-powerful jewels, the Fantastic Hucksters have brought him worthless chains. It’s cool, though, Thing does what he should have done on like page 8.

A Doombot! Classic. Doombots will go on to have a long and illustrious history in the Marvel Universe. A captured and enslaved Doombot was on the Avengers AI team just this past year and it was totally awesome.

But there are so many problems here. Did Reed think Doom was just going to let them drop off the chest and walk out before he looked inside? Why even bother looking for the chest? They could have just hung out in the 18th century for a couple days, maybe have Reed cobble together an anti-tiger ray out of coconuts, and then come back ready to fight. For that matter, why didn’t Doom just send a Doombot to the past instead of relying on superheroes to do his villainy for him?

Well, Sue is still in the castle, and she finally gets her moment to shine.

I would have gladly given up some pirate time for just a page of Sue and Doom sitting around making awkward conversation.
I badly wanted even just one page of Sue and Doom sitting around making awkward conversation while they waited for the others to get back.

I love so much in these three panels. Doom’s arrogance and monologue-ing leading to his defeat. I love the little wavy lines on his vid screen, like something out of an old movie that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have a field day with. And then the way Sue ducks away from that explosion that engulfs doom. Good stuff from the master of comic book storytelling.

Sue manages to free the others, but they’re too late. Doom, apparently only mildly annoyed by the machinery blowing up in his face, straps on a sweet jet pack and escapes.

So this issue is pretty all over the place. The story is ludicrous all around, but it was damned fun to read Thing running around as a pirate. The idea that he was actually the historical Blackbeard is cute, but I’m not sure how far the “legend” would have spread, considering that the only people who knew about him went down with those ships in the waterspout.

But really, who cares? DOOM! Everything essential to Doctor Doom is set up in this issue. The scarred face. The arrogance. The constant game of wits between him and his chosen foes, his basic goal of world domination and thirst for power. An intriguing mix of science and magic. There’s a personal connection in his history with Reed. The speaking in third person, it’s all there. I would say this is the first villain the FF have faced who is just an unapologetic, unsympathetic, batshit-crazy megalomaniac, and who will go on to be the guy most people consider the greatest Marvel villain of all time. That’s really all you can ask for with this issue.

NEXT TIME: Our first super-villain team up!

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