Dr. Doom as Leviathan
The looming figure of one of Jack Kirby's greatest villains offers a clue to the cartoonist's worldview.
Much serious news in the world right now, which we’ll discuss in the coming days. But for the weekend, a diversion.
Douglas Wolk is a lively critic who has an upcoming book All the Marvels that performs the astonishing feat of surveying every Marvel super-hero comic from 1961 until a few years ago (more than 27,000 separate comic books). He also hosts a fun podcast devoted to one of Marvel’s major bad guys, Doctor Victor Doom. Douglas was kind enough to have me on to talk about Doom’s appearance in Fantastic Four #39 and #40 (from 1965). It was a blast and I’d encourage everyone to go listen to it here.
I wanted to expand upon something I mentioned in the conversation, which is the parallels between the cover of Fantastic Four #39 (where Dr. Doom towers over Manhattan and dwarfs our heroes, The Fantastic Four and Daredevil) and the famous frontispiece Abraham Bosse engraved for Hobbes’ Leviathan. (The connection was suggested to me by the Fantastic Four chronicler Chris Tolworthy).
It’s impossible to know if this is a direct homage, although we certainly know that Kirby and other cartoonists often tip the hat to classical imagery (as with the pieta).
The link between the two images is not just iconographic but also thematic. Dr. Doom is more than a garden variety outlaw. He is the ruler of a nation, Latveria. He is an autocrat who rules with an iron fist (literally! He wears iron gloves to match his iron mask). He is an embodiment of the principle of absolute sovereignty. A 1970s story featured Henry Kissinger, plausibly enough, protecting Dr. Doom from justice for diplomatic reasons, in the manner that Pinochet and other ghoulish dictators were cosseted by American power.
I’ll have much more to say about Kirby in the future (believe me!) but I want to sketch out a quick biographical account to underscore why Doom-as-Leviathan is so resonant.
Born in New York in 1917 the child of immigrant Jews from Austria, Kirby grew up in a world where collective action was essential for not just identity but survival. The kids in his street organized themselves into gangs (with ethnic identity as the salient dividing line). Some ended up as gangsters. Kirby would credit the group Boys Brotherhood Republic, a settlement house for ghetto toughs, with saving him from criminality. The path out of the ghetto required group effort: not just the Boys Brotherhood Republic but also his family and the studio he created with his artistic partner Joe Simon.
The team of Simon and Kirby created a patriotic Popular Front super-hero, Captain America on the eve of American entry into World War II. Captain America, of course, was a member of a group, the American military, which Kirby himself would join in real life. As a private, he landed in France two-and-a-half months after D-Day and witnessed the liberation of a concentration camp in that country.
After Captain America, Simon and Kirby would create a raft of teams: the Boy Commandos, the Newsboy Legion, and, in the 1950s, Boys’ Ranch and the Challengers of the Unknown. Working with Stan Lee in the 1960s, Kirby engendered another pantheon of groups: the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Inhumans, and Shield, among others. In his period auteurist outpouring of the 1970s, still more groups: the New Gods, the Forever People, the Female Furies, and the Eternals.
What was distinctive about Kirby’s groups was they were not (as with many other super-hero teams) a rag-bag of individuals brought together willy-nilly. Rather they were, to borrow a useful term suggested by the scholar Charles Hatfield, pantheonic: they often had a shared origin story or were defined by a common bonding experience and arrayed against matching teams with similar collective identities. Kirby’s groups conveyed the feeling of families, of tribes, of ethnicities, and of nations. The leader of these groups (think of Black Panther as the ruler of Wakanda) were also Leviathans: not just men but embodiments of a state or people.
Kirby’s fascination with groups — how they form, what holds them together, how they splinter — stands in contrast to the dominant individualism of much of popular culture. It’s notably different than the arch-individualism of the other great founder of the Marvel Universe, Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man and creator of Dr. Strange. A acolyte of Ayn Rand, Ditko depicted, with an appropriately claustrophobic and tormented style, a world of loners, outsiders, isolates, and misfits.
As I suggested in my conversation with Douglas Wolk, the battles fought by Kirby’s groups were allegories for the real struggles of ethnicities and peoples in Kirby’s lifetime: the popular front against fascism, the assimilation of immigrants and their children into America, the battle for civil rights, national liberation movements around the world.
One factor that shaped group identities were the villains, who were not mere individual miscreants but leaders who had their own tribe or nation. The Kirby villain — classically the Red Skull, Dr. Doom, and Darkseid — was almost always a fascist leader, uninterested in personal self-enrichment but motivated by the will to rule and dominate.
Kirby used the Leviathan motif often with Dr. Doom but also with other bad guys, such as the Hate-Monger from Fantastic Four #21 (1963), who is promoting bigotry and division. Since the comic book is nearly 60 years old, I’ll risk a spoiler and reveal that the Hate-Monger is not just a Leviathan but is in fact Adolf Hitler.
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