Doom As Hyper-diegetic Hero

By | Tuesday, July 21, 2020 2 comments
A little while back, I came across a survey from Mark Hibbett about people's knowledge of Dr. Doom. He's actually working on his PhD thesis, entitled: "Comics And Transmedia In The Marvel Age (1961-1987): Doctor Doom As Hyper-diegetic Hero" and the survey was "to try and discover Doctor Doom's core characteristics - the things that make him Doctor Doom." Here's the abstract of his thesis...
Since he was created for 'Fantastic Four' #5 (1961) Doctor Doom has been a recurring character in every aspect of Marvel's transmedia universe. He has been the main villain in all four live action Fantastic Four films (including the unreleased Roger Corman movie of 1994), featured in almost every Marvel cartoon series, from 'The Marvel Superheroes' in 1966 to the current 'Avengers Assemble' and has appeared in video games, trading cards, toy ranges and even hip hop tracks. In the core Marvel comics universe he has appeared in over a hundred separate series, but until the current 'Infamous Iron Man' series has only ever headlined one, short-lived, ongoing series of his own ('Doom 2099', 1993-1996).

My research seeks to show that Doctor Doom's lack of his own series or dedicated creative teams has allowed him to evolve as a prototype of 'open source' characters, developed by numerous creators with no predetermined path, but managing to retain the core concepts of his character throughout. It will also propose that the shared 'universe' of Marvel comics in the period 1961-1987 is an early example of the shared world multiple author storytelling which has become the source material for the hugely successful 'Marvel Cinematic Universe' of the 21st century. Further, it will argue that Doctor Doom's emergence from the hyper-diegesis of the Marvel storyworld makes him a key case study for how such characters develop, and a counterpoint to the current focus on Batman as exemplar of transmedia characterisation. In this way I hope to challenge received narratives about the origins of this mode of storytelling, and to build on existing academic work on transmedia and convergence theory, thereby offering a new model of 21st century transmedia theorising based in 20th century comics seriality.
Hibbett shared the survey results with respondents last week, and what I found most interesting was actually his responses to the responses. Like many people who conduct surveys, he found there were some surprises when he started looking into the data. In some cases, as he reflected, he noted that how he worded the question could have been misinterpreted, thereby skewing some of the responses in a manner he didn't anticipate. For example, one question read, "Please enter specific physical actions that you associate with Doctor Doom" and some people responded with things like "combines science and sorcery" and "builds/invents things" which he would have consider more general activities than specific physical actions like "shakes fists angrily" or "fires blasts from his gauntlets." That Hibbett realized his definition of "physical actions" -- at least as it was presented on the survey itself -- was in fact pretty vague is precisely the type of thing he should be considering when examining the results.

Fantastic Four #200
But he also adds a bit of commentary about what he didn't see. He notes, "Conversely, aspects such as 'looking at monitors/video screen,' which to my mind is one of Doom's defining characteristics, was only mentioned by two people." Now, as you may or may not know, I am a long-time fan of the Fantastic Four, having run the FFPlaza website for over a decade, and I've read more than a few stories about Doom. And I have to say, I have no idea where Hibbett got the notion that "looking at monitors" was activity he associates with the character. I mean, sure, I can think of more than a few instances where Doom was looking at things on a viewscreen of some sort but he's more significantly used in person -- that was actually him stealing power from the Silver Surfer directly or attacking Mr. Fantastic personally or whatever. He's very much a hands-on villain. We're not talking about Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget or Baron Greenback from Danger Mouse, both of whom were almost exclusively shown sending agents out to attack the protagonists while they monitored the situation remotely. If Doom wanted to launch an attack against the Fantastic Four, he showed up at the Baxter Building personally.

Hibbett calls this out again under the question on "objects that regularly appear in Doctor Doom's stories" and again, there were only two people who responded with "viewing screens/monitors." Hibbett notes, "Also of interest was the fact that only two people mentioned 'viewing screens'. During my research I have noticed that these appear again and again, across all media versions of Doctor Doom, and yet they do not seem to have left an impression on respondents. One explanation for this could be that they were answering questions in the twenty first century, where viewing screens are so common as not to be notable, whereas the stories themselves were written and consumed in a time when they were still the stuff of science fiction."

While that's a possibility, I suppose, an earlier question asking about readers' familiarity with different eras found that respondents self-reported being equally familiar with Doom's 1960s appearances as any other time, including the present. Now that certainly doesn't mean that someone who's familiar with the 1960s material necessarily grew up in that time, but I think it does suggest there's a broad set of ages represented. So while readers more familiar with 21st century stories might dismiss "viewing screens" as commonplace and therefore insignificant, I don't know that older readers necessarily would. At least with regard to the older material. I mean, televisions weren't exactly unheard of in 1962 when Dr. Doom debuted. Heck, the idea of video communication shows up notably in Fritz Lang's film Metropolis and, while I can't speak to the reaction at the time, I've never seen anyone discuss it as a point of Fredersen's character, and the only mentions of it at all are in terms of how it was technically achieved in 1927. Here again, this is likely because Fredersen -- like Doom -- uses other forms of communication. Indeed the one character he calls on his videophone (Grot) is introduced to the audience by coming to Fredersen's office and having an in-person conversation with him.

The other bit I find curious in Hibbett's discussion is this portion, in response to a question about locations associated with Dr. Doom: "There was another difference here between my own perceptions of Doom and that of the respondents. My reading (and viewing) has shown that the United Nations building occurs again and again in Doom's stories across different media - while analysing [sic] the survey I was watching the Spider-Man cartoon series from 1981, which features the UN building in almost every episode where Doom appears - yet only four people mentioned it. Unlike the viewing screens in the previous category, this is less easy to explain away with advances in technology, and may point to differences in the way that comics fans and creators view the core components of character." The UN got a grand total of four mentions from the 200+ respondents. Given that he established early on that the responses were primarily from comics fans and he even notes here that many of Doom's UN appearances relate back to a specific cartoon, I find it curious this is an element of surprise for him.

Now, I mention all this not to try to undercut Hibbett or his work, but I think it's somewhat of a quantitative proof of how different people can read the same character. Hibbett has multiple central elements tied to his interpretation of Dr. Doom that are not only generally considered not critical, but they're so uncritical as to barely be even worthy of mention by most people! This is why we so often hear creators talk about bringing long-standing characters "back to their roots" when the previous set of creators promised the exact same thing. It's not just that people have different ideas of what they'd like to do with the characters; it's that people have different ideas of what the character has already done, even if they've read the exact same material!

Hibbett came to this project with some ideas about Dr. Doom that seem to run at odds with what might be considered as "generally accepted" characteristics. One isn't necessarily more right or wrong than the other, they're just different readings.
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Matt K said...

An interesting prism through which to consider this may be found in your sentence "he showed up at the Baxter Building personally" and my reaction thereto.

My reaction, at least my initial reaction, to this sentence is that it feels dated, because the Baxter Building is "the old" Fantastic Four headquarters.

In fact it is not, as I realize a second later. I'm not up on current continuity, but if the Baxter Building is still in the use, then it's certainly not "the old" Fantastic Four headquarters but rather the Fantastic Four headquarters. Probably, it has been the series' protagonists' home base for the great majority of nearly six decades.

What I think of as the Fantastic Four's "modern" headquarters, i.e. Four Freedoms Plaza, was really just an anomaly which lasted, what, about a dozen years? If I recall correctly, FF Plaza was kind of introduced "between panels" in the late 1980s*, and subjected to a series of ultimately fatal misfortunes at the turn of this century. Not all that long in the bigger history.

It simply happens that these were the exact years when I was most closely engaged with the Fantastic Four. I began reading regularly in 1991, and fell by the wayside about a decade later. Twenty years on, for me at least, FF Plaza still seems like the Fantastic Four's modern home, and the Baxter Building still seems like a throwback.

For almost any other span of engagement, of equal or greater length, I'm certain that it seems quite different.

* As a visual artist, I think FF Plaza may be regarded as part of a shortlived 1980s trend of massive architecture, stripped of most ornament except a single Brobdingnagian glyph; see also the same era's Avengers headquarters and X-Factor ship.

I did some quick checking out of curiosity. The original Baxter Building debuted in Fantastic Four #1 (Nov 1961), of course, and was later destroyed in FF #278 (May 1985).

Officially, FFPlaza first appeared in #289 (Apr 1986) but it was still very much under construction. The building appears completed with the team living in it in the anniversary issue: #296 (Nov 1986). We don't see the formal opening/dedication ceremony until FF Annual #22 (Nov 1989) but that story appears to have been written to take place before #296. The FF last used FFPlaza as their headquarters in #416 (Sept 1996) when they 'vanished' for the Heroes Reborn stuff. The building was destroyed entirely in Thunderbolts #10 (Jan 1998).

A new Baxter Building was rebuilt and placed on the site in FF v3 #39 (Mar 2001). The building went up for sale and it was bought by Peter Parker(!) in Amazing Spider Man v4 #3 (Nov 2015). It had to be sold again when Parker's business dissolved in Avengers v7 #11 (Nov 2017). When the Fantastic Four reformed, they moved into 4 Yancy Street instead of trying to buy the Baxter Building back.

So we've got:
24 years in the Baxter Building
1 year in Avengers Mansion
10 years in 4 Freedoms Plaza
1 year off-world
4 years in Pier 4
14 years in the (new) Baxter Building
2 years in 4 Yancy Street

Fascinating timing now that you mention it. Despite the FF being in a place called "The Baxter Building" for 38 of their 59 years, you hit almost precisely and exclusively the time when they weren't in it.