Ah, nostalgia! Be it that old cartoon, a favorite toy or a comic book from days gone by, isn’t it great, when out of the blue, the memories come flooding back, and you’ve no choice but to exclaim “Holy Crap! Remember…?”
Written by David Michelinie
Art by Bob Hall
Published by Marvel Comics
Victor Von Doom has long been one of my favorite villains in the Marvel Universe and comics in general. Unlike most costumed antagonists, the source of his villainy wasn’t greed, insanity, or even hatred towards his super-powered foes but rather a singular vision that he felt compelled to impose on the entire world. While things frequently got personal between him and Reed Richards, Doom was at the core a frustrated dictator who felt that he alone was worthy to rule Earth and all of its people. In 1986, Marvel showed its readers what a world ruled by the disfigured Latverian monarch in an original graphic novel entitled Emperor Doom that managed to shoehorn some poignant ethical questions in the midst of all the superhero action.
Emperor Doom follows the titular villain as he enlists the help of Namor the Sub-Mariner in capturing C-level baddie Zebediah Killgrave, aka The Purple Man. Doom straps Killgrave to a large machine known as a “Psycho-Prism” that amplifies his powers of persuasion to the point where he is able to take over the minds of every man, woman, and child on the planet. He then sends Namor out to place a smaller device on characters such as Ultron and the Vision who are not susceptible to the Psycho-Prism. The entire population of the world gladly hands power over to Doom and regard him as their supreme leader. His influence even spreads to the heroes of the Marvel Universe, with the exception of Simon Williams, aka Wonder-Man, who luckily had spent a month in a sensory deprivation tank at the time the Psycho-Prism took control of everyone. When Simon emerges from the tank, he quickly discovers what Doom has done and has to fight his way through his fellow Avengers and go into hiding in order to avoid being arrested as a traitor to Doom’s rule. Wondy slowly gets a handful of Avengers back on his side by forcing them to see footage of Doom being a villain, and they eventually join him in a desperate raid on Doom’s compound to destroy the Prism and restore free will to the world.
Plot-wise, there’s nothing in Emperor Doom that stands out from a typical story arc found in most superhero comics of the late Eighties, but within this rather pedestrian story, veteran Marvel writer David Michelinie asks some fairly poignant questions about a world still in the midst of the Cold War. Michelinie points out several times in the graphic novel that, while Doom has eradicated free will, he has also ordered both the United States and the Soviet Union to disarm all of their nuclear weapons, thereby ending the decades-long cold war. His rule also results in a reduction of world hunger and an end to racial prejudice and discrimination. These changes provoke a philosophical dilemma on the part of Wonder Man and his fellow Avengers, as they are forced to choose between restoring freedom to the world or keeping it enslaved with many of its most pressing problems solved. Of course, they choose to free the world from Doom’s grasp, which results in everything quickly returning to how they used to be, including the mutual threat of nuclear annihilation.
Emperor Doom is a remarkable Marvel story because it ends on such a bittersweet note. The heroes of course are happy to have saved the world from the rule of a power-mad despot but are disappointed in the people of Earth for how quickly they make things just as awful for each other as they were before they were brainwashed. Its message could be seen as too obvious and heavy-handed by today’s standards, but in 1986 it was a refreshing change of pace from the stories it churned out at the time. Instead of giving readers a straight story of good versus evil, Michelinie challenges readers with a question of whether free will is truly preferable over the greater good. While it doesn’t get as deep as, say, Watchmen or even Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme mini-series, the fact that a high-profile comic book story written in 1986 starring some of its most well-known heroes against one of their most hated enemies was even willing to explore such a theme was quite an eye opener for many readers. For being far deeper than anyone expected it to be at the time, Emperor Doom gets 4.5 out of 5 Spinning Machine Men.