The first time we heard the story, it was put straightforward enough.

 

"Years ago, in my college days, there was a student named Victor von Doom, who was fascinated by sorcery and black magic.  He was a brilliant science student, but he was only interested in forbidden experiments.  One night, the evil genius went too far, as he brought forth powers which even he could not control!  He managed to escape with his life, although his face was badly disfigured!"

 

That was the origin of Doctor Doom, as Reed Richards explained it to his teammates in "The Prisoners of Doctor Doom", from Fantastic Four # 5 (Jul., 1962).  A simple account designed to provide all the information on the villain that the reader would need, in as brief space as possible to keep the story moving.  That's how Stan Lee wrote them in the earliest days of Marvel Comics:  knock out the background fast, usually in just four or five panels, then move on to the action.

 

But Doctor Doom would go on to become the Fantastic Four's arch-enemy and a particular favourite of the Smilin' One.  Over time, the character of Doom was fleshed out.  Lee preferred to write Doom as treacherous and cruel, hiding behind a veneer of nobility.  Later writers turned that pose of honour into a genuine streak, albeit a thin one.  In some hands, Doom's one virtue was that he did not lie; in others, falsehood was his very nature.  There was one constant, though, no matter who was behind the typewriter:  Doctor Doom's arrogance.  The perspective of everything he viewed was down his nose.

 

Curiously, this inconsistency of writers' approaches extended to something which, early on, had been taken as a given.  But, by the end of the Silver Age, Marvel fans would be wondering what lied behind . . .

 

 

 

The first complete account of Doctor Doom's beginnings appeared in Fantastic Four Annual # 2 (1964).  Here we learn that Victor von Doom was the orphaned son of a Gypsy healer and a sorceress.  He grew into a handsome youth, glib of tongue and brilliant of mind.  In late adolescence, von Doom crossed central Europe, bilking wealthy noblemen, taking their money for worthless items disguised as miraculous gifts, thanks to his mechanical talents and knowledge of mystic arts.

 

Accounts of the young Gypsy rogue spread even to America, where the regents of State University cared more about the "scientific genius" part of his reputation than the "notorious swindler" part and offered him a full scholarship.  Von Doom accepted, for the opportunity to make use of the college's modern laboratory.  It was at State University where he made the acquaintance of science prodigy Reed Richards who, on one fateful day, discovered Victor's experiments in dimensional warps.  The arrogant von Doom practically burst a blood vessel when Reed told him that his equations were off by a few decimal places.  An hour later, von Doom inserted his head into a conduit designed to allow contact with the nether world and, unable to conceive of the possibility that he could make a mistake, programmed the device with his unchanged calculations.  Then, he ordered his assistant to throw the switch.

 

Ka---boom!!

 

The story informs us that, disfigured by the explosion and expelled from the university, von Doom returned to the Continent, travelling to the remote mountains of Tibet, where he was taken in by a mysterious order of monks.  And it was there, after learning their secrets, that he first donned the mantle---and the mask---of Doctor Doom!

 

 

 

Victor von Doom's ravaged face added pathos to the character.  No matter how successful the villain might ever prove to be in his evil ambitions, he would always have that scarred horror staring back at him in the mirror.  It was the one chink in Doom's psychological armour, and the readers were reminded of it often enough that one had to wonder if there were any unshattered mirrors left in Castle von Doom.

 

That's what Stan Lee was going for:  a multi-dimensional villain, despicable, yet marred by tragedy.  But the artist who created the visual depiction of Doom, Jack Kirby, had a different take.  In Jack Kirby's Heroes and Villains (Pure Imagination Publishing, 1994), he stated:

 

[Doom's] a good-looking guy, and he only has a tiny scar on his cheek, but because he's such a perfectionist, he can't bear to see that imperfection.  He isn't hiding his face from the public, he's hiding it from himself.

 

It's up in the air if that was Kirby's intention for the character from the start, or if he came to that conclusion sometime later.  The earliest reference I can find to Kirby's "small-scar" contention is anecdotal.  Kirby supposedly told a couple of boys who bicycled out to his Long Island home that he intended for the story contained in Fantastic Four # 85 (Apr., 1969) to reveal only a minor scar on Doctor Doom's face.  Some versions of the tale include the King showing the youngsters a page from the story.

 

Given the lead-in time typical for a comic book to be produced, this encounter would have taken place around December, 1968.  However, the four-part tale that was finally published in Fantastic Four # 84-7 makes no revelations about the face behind the mask of Doom.  If Kirby did intend to do so, he got overruled by Stan Lee.

 

In 1983, Kirby did a sketch of Doom removing his mask, to show a handsome face beneath, for comics archivist and publisher Greg Theakson.  Theakson video-recorded the session, during which Kirby repeated his claim that Doom had suffered only a minor injury to his features.

 

According to Kirby, Doom's mind was so warped by his belief in his own perfection that he viewed the tiny scar as "ruining" his well-formed looks.

 

That's quite a jump.  For one thing, it significantly shifts the characterisation of Doctor Doom.  A Reddit poster with the screen name of Dr. Hermes put it best:  "It weakens Doom's motivations; it reduces him from a tragic Byronic figure to a vain fool."  Under Lee's handling, Doom's anguish over his ruined face evokes sympathy from the reader, despite the villain's enormity.  If we go with Kirby's approach, it forces a different reaction; every time Doom recoils from the mirror, the reader just rolls his eyes and thinks, "What a nut case!"

 

In any event, Kirby's version is belied by the reactions of various story characters to Doom's unmasked features.  The first time we see this occurs in "The Return of Doctor Doom", from Fantastic Four # 10 (Jan., 1963), when Doom invades the offices of Marvel Comics, and Lee and Kirby respond in horror to his naked face.

 

One might write that sequence off as a metatextual in-joke, but there's no getting around the example that occurred in "The Prisoner, the Power, and Doctor Doom", from The Mighty Thor # 182 (Nov., 1970).  In this tale, the Thunder God seeks to infiltrate Doom's castle in Latervia in order to rescue a kidnapped French scientist.  He accomplishes this by planting a phoney news article claiming that his alter ego, Doctor Don Blake, has perfected a revolutionary method of plastic surgery that can restore any damaged face.  Doom takes the bait and abducts Blake to Latervia.

 

Once Dr. Blake is in his presence, Doom removes his iron mask . . .

 

John Buscema's art and Blake's horrified reaction kill any idea that Doom suffers from just a "tiny scar".

 

 

 

I know . . . I know . . . for the past few paragraphs, a lot of you have been thinking, "John Byrne took care of that."  I'll be getting to him in a minute.  First, I need to take a brief detour into one of everybody's favourite topics . . . O.K., one of my favourite topics:  terms and their definitions.

 

Retroactive continuity, or its contraction, "retcon", is a term first popularised by writer Roy Thomas' handling of the 1980's DC series All-Star Squadron.  Thomas applied the term---which, in the letter column of All-Star Squadron # 18 (Feb., 1983), he stated he first heard from a fan at a science-fiction convention---to his efforts to "fill in the gaps" left in the original adventures of his All-Star cast.  Things which had never been given an in-story explanation back in the Golden-Age, like why Doctor Fate started wearing a half-helmet, or why the Sandman switched to a skin-tight costume.  Thomas simply inserted events to explain the changes, but otherwise, the characters' continuities remained intact.  That was a retcon.

 

And that's the way comics fans employed the term until 1986, when the conclusion of the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series resulted in many of the historical details of the fictional DC universe being modified or completely changed.  When the facts of a character's continuity are altered with a wave of the hand, like that, then it's a revision.  But for the most part, the fans simply shifted the meaning of "retcon" from Roy Thomas' narrower definition to one that described any occasion when a character's background was changed outright.  (In grammatical terms, this expansion of a word's meaning is called semantic broadening.)

 

Now I know, just as with the expressions déjà vu and beg the question, the ship has already sailed on any chance for "retcon" to be used within its actual meaning.  But, for purposes of my remarks on John Byrne's contribution to what lies behind Doctor Doom's mask, knowing the distinction between "retcon" and "revision" will come in handy.

 

O.K., on to Mr. Byrne.

 

 

 

In 1981, John Byrne began a five-year run as writer and artist of the Fantastic Four title.  He masterfully blended a retro take on the F.F. with modern story developments.  It's considered by many, including myself, to exceed the gold standard set by Lee and Kirby on the series.  But, at least on one occasion, he tried a bit too hard to bring past and present together.

 

The plot of "True Lies", from Fantastic Four # 278 (May, 1985) sets Byrne up to retell the origin of Doctor Doom.  Outside of a few descriptive touches, he follows the events presented in F.F. Annual # 2 right up to the moment when the hospitalised Victor is expelled from the university following the explosion.  Once alone, von Doom removes the bandages from his face and, departing from the original tale, we see the face that he anguishes over.

 

It's pretty much the face he had before.  There is a scar, though, and not a small one.  It runs from beneath his left eye, down his cheek, and to his jawline.  It's bad enough that you'd want it fixed, but not so bad that a plastic surgeon couldn't make you look good as new.  So, von Doom's "What have I done?  My face is too horrible!" reaction comes a bit over the top.  Particularly since Byrne had not depicted the young Victor as being vain or narcissistic. 

 

As seen before, von Doom abandons society and makes his way to Tibet, where he is taken in by a lost order of monks.  And once he is hailed as their master, his armour is forged.  When he is ready to don his mask, Byrne tweaks the original story in that not only has the mask "not completely cooled yet", it is glowingly red hot.  Doom commands it to be placed over his face, anyway.  Pain, he insists, is for lesser men.

 

Well, maybe not.

 

In blinding agony, Doom hurls his burning face into the mountain snow.  The mask cools, and the features beneath it are a scorched and blistered horror.

 

Thus, John Byrne attempted to reconcile both Stan's and Jack's versions of how badly Doom's face was damaged into one unified account.  He covered the matter of folks such as Don Blake being repulsed by Doom's disfigurement just fine.  But he missed a few other details.

 

First, there is the caption on page 10, panel three of the F.F. Annual # 2 origin which states that von Doom's face was "hopelessly disfigured".  Unlike Reed Richards' account, from F.F. # 5, that statement comes from the omniscient narrator and, therefore, must be accurate.  This is supported by the fact that von Doom's entire head is swathed in bandages---something which would not be necessary if he had suffered injury to just the lower left side of his face.

 

Next, the scene in the original story in which the mask is applied to Doom's face shows that the mask cannot possibly be red hot.  The monk holds it his bare hands, as shown by his fingernails.  Furthermore, as the mask is set in place, Doom continues with his grandiose statement without pause, let alone any pain-blinded dash into a snowbank.

 

Lastly, Byrne's Doom evidently feels that his facial scar from the explosion is beyond the help of plastic surgery to repair.  He speaks of his "hideous countenance" and doesn't seem to be concerned about the additional damage that will be inflicted when the red-hot mask is put on.  In truth, his attitude comes across as, "My face can't get any worse."

 

But in The Mighty Thor # 182, we see a Doom desperate at the chance to get his face restored.  That means that, if he had received only a minor injury from the university explosion, he would have had it fixed when it was easy to do so.  And he would not have had glowing hot metal applied to his face to make it worse.

No, the only logical conclusion is that Doom's face was, indeed, horribly mutilated by the explosion of his inter-dimensional device.

 

That makes John Byrne's story a revision---it alters facts in continuity---and not a retcon, which would have been simply adding non-contradicting details.  Therefore, it cannot be applied to the Silver-Age Doctor Doom.

 

 

 

Undoubtedly, other writers have or will attempt to leave their stamp on the Fantastic Four by tinkering with the crucial events in Doctor Doom's origin.  Perhaps subtly, by trying to shift some of the blame for the explosion which destroyed Victor von Doom's face onto others.  Modern comics writers love to give the heroes feet of clay.

 

But in doing so, they dilute the purity of Stan Lee's conception of Doctor Doom:  a tragic figure done in by his own arrogance, that Doctor Doom is, and always has been, his own worst enemy.

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John Bryne's revision makes Doom out to be a blithering idiot.

One thing that always bothered me about Doom's origin was his experiment involving "black magic" yet Reed knows it won't work due to some scientific formula?

And how did Doom get the resources for all this? Was no one checking up on him? How did he keep it a secret yet have Reed know what he was trying to do?

Philip Portelli said:

One thing that always bothered me about Doom's origin was his experiment involving "black magic" yet Reed knows it won't work due to some scientific formula?

In college, Reed had read over Doom's notes at some point, and noted some mathematical errors. Magic is one thing, but Reed knows math, and if you drop a decimal space, he's gonna notice. And he did, and he told Doom, who threw him out.

I don't remember what story that was in, but I see the panel in my head, and it's pretty early, probably with Chic Stone inking. It might be Fantastic Four Annual #2, or Fantastic Four #40. I'm not gonna look it up, because as the Commander notes, everything we learned about this scenario post Lee-Kirby is revisionism. I don't need to look it up, because the storyline is lodged pretty firmly in my head. I have those early issues so completely memorized that when a WORD was off in later stories, I noticed it. Just like Reed and math.

And so I've dismissed those stories. Lee and Kirby made the situation plain on the face of it (sorry) in the early '60s, and any later take on it is making things up after the fact. Even if it's Jack Kirby doing the inventing, a man who was plainly bitter after leaving Marvel and not above making things up to make Stan Lee look bad.

Victor Von Doom's face was badly scarred by an experiment that he attempted carelessly in college, despite being warned by Reed Richards to re-check his math. (You don't get a face covered in Invisible Man bandages for a tiny scar.) Blaming all this on Richards, as petty men do, Von Doom went off to the Himalayas, where his already ruined face was further damaged by a red-hot mask.

That is the story. Mr. Kirby, Mr. Byrne, please check your notes. I think you've got a few decimal places wrong.

I first encountered Marvel heroes, and Doctor Doom, in Fantastic Four #5. I had passed up FF #4 because the cover didn't do anything for me. A guy in swim trunks carrying a woman? I had no idea who Namor was.

Doctor Doom, including the cover, was different. The concept of science and magic being used together was fresh and new. Too bad they didn't continue with it beyond his origin.

I didn't read any John Byrne FF stories except the one with the milk from the Skrull cows. Yikes! I agree with all the opinions above. Making Doom vain and foolish or subject to self-delusion only damages the character.

Many years later they gave Magneto a Holocaust background. They could have done that with Doom. Hitler killed a lot of Gypsies, too.

(I don't think they ever covered it, but a name like "Von Doom" would usually denote aristocracy. How would a Gypsy get such a name?)

Good points all, Richard.

I had to laugh when I read your story of passing up Fantastic Four #4 due to a dull cover, because I can only imagine how you feel about not having bought that for 12 cents when you had the chance. (Or was it still 10?) I have the same wry memories of passing up Amazing Fantasy #15 for $5. (Five bucks for a comic book? No way! And Spider-Man was only in the first story!) And yes, other tales of the same ilk. Ah, the deals we could have done, had we known then what we know now.

Funny you should mention how Doom's science+magic approach wasn't followed up on. I agree, so much so that I was surprised years later when it was brought up that Doom had anything to do with magic.

I'm a bit younger than you, and I started reading about Doom around Fantastic Four Annual #2, I think. Yes, that book mentioned sorcery ("Why did I not suspect? My mother was a witch!") but I didn't attach much to that, being a young science-based nerd. And none of Doom's appearances in the current books I was reading (Fantastic Four #39-40, that Daredevil two-parter) or many of the stories I was reading in reprint (Amazing Spider-Man #5, Fantastic Four #16) had anything to do with magic.

So when it was brought up later, I thought "Yeah, it was mentioned in his origin, but was he really involved in magic?" And I went back and re-read the Doom stories in the order they were printed -- not the order I first read them -- and saw that yeah, magic was part of his origin, and a little bit into his career. Then it stopped.

So I finally figured out why Doom wasn't a poor man's Reed Richards. He had a separate silo of study that Reed didn't have. It wasn't a good thing -- magic always requires a price -- but it gave him the edge he needed over "Mr. Fantastic" and his friends. It's what made unpredictable, dangerous and terrifying. Some of which I didn't really "get" until I did the research.

By the time Mark Waid wrote "Unthinkable," I was ready for it. And I hope you read it, too. It's the best Doom story I've ever read, addressing everything that makes him who he is.

As to Von Doom's name, I think it was established in Fantastic Four Annual #2. But I prefer to believe it's an affectation, because as you say, it's a bit pretentious for a gypsy in the early part of the 20th century in Eastern Europe. I do kind of like the approach I read somewhere, or maybe it was one of the movies, where his name was Van Damme or something, and he slightly altered it to reflect his new, post-face-mask persona.

In my head, that's the story.

Captain Comics said:

I have the same wry memories of passing up Amazing Fantasy #15 for $5. (Five bucks for a comic book? No way! And Spider-Man was only in the first story!)

I was buying issues of Amazing Adult Fantasy and loving Ditko’s “Twilight Zoney” stories. I’m not sure, but I might have passed up AF #15, too, in disappointment that it wasn’t “Adult” anymore and didn’t seem to have the Ditko magic, at least going by the cover.

Not that it’s important, but FF #2 was the last 10 cent issue.

By the time Mark Waid wrote "Unthinkable," I was ready for it. And I hope you read it, too. It's the best Doom story I've ever read, addressing everything that makes him who he is.

Looking at listings, I know I read “Unthinkable” when it first came out in 2003. I don’t have the comics anymore, so I’m getting “Fantastic Four, Vol. 1 Mark Waid” in hardcover, which collects the entire story. Gotta have it!

As to Von Doom's name, I think it was established in Fantastic Four Annual #2. But I prefer to believe it's an affectation, because as you say, it's a bit pretentious for a gypsy in the early part of the 20th century in Eastern Europe. I do kind of like the approach I read somewhere, or maybe it was one of the movies, where his name was Van Damme or something, and he slightly altered it to reflect his new, post-face-mask persona.

I think that was in one of the movies. Was the movie concept of Doom getting powers at the same time as the FF from the movies or did they get it from the Ultimate Fantastic Four title, which I never read? 

IIRC, this happened in both the movies and Ultimate Fantastic Four, although it's been awhile since I read or watched either. 

Richard Willis said: 

Was the movie concept of Doom getting powers at the same time as the FF from the movies or did they get it from the Ultimate Fantastic Four title, which I never read? 

When it comes to retcons (or “revisions” if you prefer), I am guided by one of two principles: the primacy effect or the recency effect. In other words, I will go either with what happened first, or what happened most recently. (Honestly, I go with whichever version I like better.) For cases in which I choose the recency principle, I will often invoke the “in light of more recent knowledge” clause.

For example, when Jim Starlin first revealed the origin of the Titans, he made Mentor the brother of Zeus. Later revisions made him the brother of Zuras, forever tying the Titans to Jack Kirby’s Eternals. AFAIC, this revision goes into the past as well as into the future, so anytime I re-read the Captain Marvel story in which the origin of the Titans was originally presented, I read “Zuras” instead of “Zeus.”

I’m not saying that what I do for the Byrne revision necessarily; I never really gave it that much thought before. The change that bugged me, more so than the question of whether the accident in college scarred Doom’s entire face or whether it gave him a little scratch, was that Doom insisted the mask be put on his face while it was still red hot. If I want to buy that, I have no problem reinterpreting the events of FF Annual #2 “in light of new knowledge.” The problem I have with Byrne’s interpretation is not that it makes Doom vain, but insane.

Byrne’s version was his way of paying homage to both Lee and Kirby by concocting a version of events in which both scenarios were true. It’s not the first time he had taken this approach. Different versions of Captain America’s origin showed him alternately drinking the super soldier serum (“before the chemicals [lost] their potency!”], being injected with it, ot being treated with “vita-rays.” In the version John Byrne did in collaboration with Roger Stern, all three were true.

There’s also a drawing of Doctor Doom by Jack Kirby which shows Stan Lee’s face beneath the mask, a drawing I’ve heard about so often I may or may not have ever seen it, but I can see it in my mind as if I had in any case. I’ve heard it suggested that Kirby drew this sketch in anger, insinuating that Lee was a dictator. Then again, Lee himself put a different spin on that drawing (I think in Origins of Marvel Comics) citing that drawing as the reason why Dr. Doom is his favorite villain.

Which version is true?

Perhaps they both are.

I always pictured Doom's face as looking like Harvey Dent's left side on both sides.

"Lee preferred to write Doom as treacherous and cruel, hiding behind a veneer of nobility. "

While I loved Dwayne McDuffy's Damage Control, his conviction Doom would never have cheated Luke Cage of $200 always struck me as pulled out of McDuffy's butt. Silver/Bronze-Age Doom never had any trouble double-crossing people.

"There was one constant, though, no matter who was behind the typewriter:  Doctor Doom's arrogance.  The perspective of everything he viewed was down his nose."

In Doom's mind, "Ride of the Valkyries" is playing on the sound track whenever he comes into a room, riding to a crescendo — Enter Doctor Doom!

Stan's treatment of Doom's face reflects his fondness for using Tormented Disabled Person as a character element (Blake's leg, Matt's blindness, Doom's scars).

Weirdly, an article from the turn of the 1980s (in Mark Gruenwald's fanzine Omniverse) cited the Blake/Doom encounter as proof that Doom might not be scarred, quoting the lines ("I never expected it would be like this ... there's nothing plastic surgery can do for you.") and ignoring the horror on Blake's face.

"Retroactive continuity" actually originated as a historical term: a historian referred to the way cultures rewrite history so they can retroactively see a continuity between present and past. I got curious about the origins once so I looked it up.

A question I'm pretty sure I know the answer to, but maybe not: in the What If where Doom doesn't get scarred and turns out to be a hero, when he takes the Latverian throne there's a reference to him being the rightful ruler, by blood. I'd never heard that before and I'm pretty sure it was made up out of whole cloth — but if it's based on some obscure reference, someone here is going to know, so ...

Not sure about Doom's royal bloodline but he did battle two legitimate crown princes of Latervia who tried to oust him from power, Rudolfo and his brother Zorba (Not a Greek) who actual took the throne of Latveria but ran it so tyrannically and poorly, the people were praying for Doom's return!

Fraser Sherman said:

While I loved Dwayne McDuffy's Damage Control, his conviction Doom would never have cheated Luke Cage of $200 always struck me as pulled out of McDuffy's butt. Silver/Bronze-Age Doom never had any trouble double-crossing people.

Then we never would have had the line:

“Where’s my money, Honey?

Stan's treatment of Doom's face reflects his fondness for using Tormented Disabled Person as a character element (Blake's leg, Matt's blindness, Doom's scars).

But they were always self-tormented. Blake and Matt knew they couldn’t get the girl, even though they could have.

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