Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. We’re up to issue #5, the debut of the book’s biggest, baddest bad guy.
The first page illustrates (heh) everything we need to know about Dr. Doom, and what makes him such a memorable villain. There he is with his metal mask and green robes, surrounded by books about demons and sorcery, and with a vulture perched in the background. He looks like he might be some kind of Dungeons and Dragons-type wizard, but then he hops into a slick-looking helicopter and takes off for action. This speaks to the duality of the character. He lives in an ancient stone castle, but one filled with technological wonders. His cloak and metal mask hides high tech body armor. As we’ll come to see, he’s “old world” and “futuristic” all at once.
The story proper begins with the requisite two pages of the characters showing off their powers, this time as Johnny and Ben fight after Johnny shows Ben an Incredible Hulk comic (cross-promotion!) and compares Ben to ol’ Greenskin. This is interrupted by Doom, whose helicopter appears over their skyscraper headquarters (Not the Baxter Building. It’s still referred to only as “headquarters”), dropping a huge net over the whole building. It’s super-strong and electrified, so the four can’t escape. Doom demands that they surrender themselves to him.
Reed reveals that he knows Doom, and that they went to college together. In a mere five panels, we get Doom’s origin. He was a brilliant science student who was also fascinated with the mystic arts. He built a device to try to contact the “nether world.” The experiment goes badly, exploding and ruining Doom’s face. He’s expelled from school, and was last seen exploring the Himalayas, in search of more secrets of black magic. What’s interesting about this origin is how much of it isn’t here. There’s no mention of his rivalry with Reed, the real reason he wants to contact the nether world, or the fictional country of Latveria. Those gaps will be filled in future comics.
Sue surrenders to Doom. He takes her captive and then whisks the entire team to his castle stronghold. There, he spells out what he wants from them. He’s created a time machine and wants Reed, Ben, and Johnny to go back in time and steal the legendary treasure of Blackbeard the pirate. (No one asks why Doom can’t just do this himself.) The treasure, Doom says, has great magic powers. After debating this among his pals, Reed finally agrees to Doom’s terms. The time machine is delightfully simple, a plain yellow square our heroes stand on. It rises up over them, and, just like that, they’re back in pirate times.
First things first: Ben scares some pirates, who run off leaving a bag of clothes behind, making convenient costumes for the three, including an eyepatch and fake beard for Ben. (Why did the pirates have a fake beard in their bag?) A few scallywags knock out the three with some spiked blog, and they wake up in a ship’s hold, forced to serve as crew on a pirate ship. That won’t fly, and a fight breaks out. FF versus pirates, oh yeah! Our heroes clean up, only to have their ship attacked by a rival pirate crew. Ben of all people leads the charge and captures the other ship. There, they find Blackbeard’s treasure, only to realize that Ben is the Blackbeard history remembers! The word “paradox” is of never used.
Reed knows that Doom can’t get his hands on the treasure, so he dumps the jewls and gold, replacing them with heavy chains. Ben has other ideas, though. He wants to stay, and live the life of a pirate, going so far as to order his new crew to take Reed and Johnny captive. Oddly, a whirlwind comes out of nowhere, sinking the ship and spreading the treasure all over the bottom of the ocean. After washing up on shore, Ben apologizes to Reed for getting carried away, saying, “I lost my dumb head for a while.”
Doom presses a button, and the time machine returns everyone to the present. After discovering the chains, a fight breaks out, and Ben smashes Doom, only to discover it’s a robot duplicate (better known as a Doombot) in disguise. The real Dr. Doom is in another room, and cuts off the oxygen. He’s conveniently forgotten about Sue, who, invisible, throws a switch that causes Doom’s oxygen-sucking machine to explode. Hey, Doom, perhaps you should rethink inventing machines that so easily explode.
Escaping the castle is quite a production. First, Reed and Ben work together to take out a wall, and then Johnny uses his flame to create a path through the moat. Doom escapes, of course, thanks to a flying jetpack. Don’t worry — he’ll be back next issue.
Unstable Molecule: Reed gets into the action during the pirate battles by stretching up a ship’s crow’s nest and then stretching from one ship to another. His powers come in handy again at the end, where he and Ben work together to escape from Doom’s castle.
Fade Out: Sue saves the day, after Doom underestimates her. She frees her three teammates while invisible, with both hands tied behind her back no less.
Clobberin’ Time: The whole issue is a showcase for Ben. He becomes a pirate king back in the old days, which drives him a little power-mad. He then regrets his actions, and pleads forgiveness from his friends. Look at that, genuine character development.
Flame On: Johnny also has some fun fighting the pirates, melting swords and stirring up steam around the enemy ships.
Trivia Time: It’s the first appearance of Dr. Doom, but not of Dr. Doom’s cape. Instead, he’s hearing this wimpy little half-cape thing that just barely covers his shoulders. This look won’t last beyond this issue, except for the occasional flashback, when he gets his cloak next issue. Still, he makes an impression, with his distinctive look, pompous demeanor, and overall menace. Artist Jack Kirby allegedly modeled Doom after the classic image of the Grim Reaper, except with a metal mask in place of a skull. How cool is that?
Doom’s time machine has a long history in Marvel Comics, as it’ll later be established that he built a bunch of these and hid them in various spots around the world. They travel not just through time but into alternate dimensions as well. Every couple of years, one costumed adventurer or another stumbles across yet another of Doom’s time machines. It’s kind of a Marvel tradition at this point.
This issue is also the first appearance of a Doombot, robot duplicates of himself Doom uses to get him out of trouble. They’ve provided an “easy out” for a lot of FF writers over the years, with a countless list of “It was a really a Doombot” scenes across the decades.
Blackbeard, of course, was a real person, Captain Edward Teach, whose fame as a pirate spread throughout the early 1700s. That hasn’t stopped various writers from putting all kinds of crazy spins on his life, though. Ben’s short-lived stint as Blackbeard has got to be up there with the weirdest. Even this would be revisited in a recent issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, shortly after Spidey joined the FF (long story).
Fantastic or Frightful: Pulp adventure goodness! Jack Kirby clearly had fun in this issue with all the pirate battles. Stan’s over-the-top dialogue works wonders with Dr. Doom. Sure, there are plot holes galore and more than one deus ex machine (where’d that whirlwind at sea come from?) but it doesn’t diminish the pure fun on display here.
Next week: Super-villain team-up… in space!
Like to read? Check out my book, CINE HIGH, now available for the Kindle and the free Kindle app.