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Through the Cracks – Marvel’s Worst CharacterJune 20, 2012 DARLING DORK No comments
Written by Charles Meier
Recently I had occasion to read Amazing Fantasy Omnibus , Marvel’s 2007 hardcover collection of all 15 issues of the anthology series that began life as Amazing Adventures, continued it as Amazing Adult Fantasy, and ended it renamed Amazing Fantasy for its final issue. This last is the only one most people remember, as it happens to feature the debut appearance of Spider-Man. For the most part, the rest of this series is deservedly forgotten, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s artwork notwithstanding–the book is a vestigial limb of sorts, attempting to be a supernatural-themed anthology series in a period when Fredric Wertham and the Comics Code had made a eunuch of the genre.
But I’m not here to write a review. No, rather I am here to bring your attention to a discovery I made within the pages of this collection. It’s not something I thought I was going to find here, but there it was all the same. You see, I discovered the single worst character ever created/published by Marvel. Yeah, even worse than The Sentry. I give you…Dr. Droom.
No, not that guy–Dr. Droom. Marvel’s original occult-based hero (note: probably not true), appearing first in the pages of Amazing Adventures #1 and last in Amazing Adventures #6, a whole two years before Marvel’s other, better known, far more interesting occult-themed hero. In his 25-page, six-month career, the good doctor set the standard for a veritable legion of dull, forgettable filler characters and their hackneyed, ridiculously contrived adventures.
But this was not always the case. Once, Anthony Droom was your average bald, white, middle-aged weeaboo physician, content to relax between patients with a good book and one of those smoking pipes the government apparently used to issue to every guy the day he turned thirty. One day, while taking his ease in the Super-Secret Doctors’ Treehouse Club (No Nurses Allowed), Droom overhears two of his more hirsute colleagues discussing the case of an ailing Tibetan lama, who has petitioned the Western medical world for aid. Isn’t that always the way? It’s “acupuncture” this and “feng shui” that, but the moment them old lymph nodes start swelling up it’s right off to the Occidental pills and potions and chemotherapy!
Droom, apparently blessed with an abundance of free time and frequent-flyer miles, hops right on the next plane to Tibet. Upon arriving at the temple, the lama’s assistant promptly informs Droom that they have no money and can’t pay him. This sequence is a bit odd, actually–the assistant comes off as such an imperious dick I kinda get the impression they do have money, but expect Droom to work free of charge anyway. This almost certainly isn’t intentional, but then again maybe it’s Ditko (who drew this story) sneaking in one of the old “moochers and looters” rants.
Regardless, Droom, filthy socialist that he is, decides he can’t abandon a patient in need and sets off–sans shoes and doctor’s bag–for the temple’s inner sanctum. Along the way, he encounters two obstacles: first, a floor of hot coals, and second the lair of a vicious gorilla/lion hybrid, or “gorlion”, doubtless the product of the secret genetic laboratory the Chinese built under the monastery. Droom manages to best both, and one Indian rope-trick later (this is 1961, remember, back when all Asian nations/cultures were still pretty much the same) finds himself face to face with the lama, who informs Droom that he is not sick, but merely dying of old age. Which seems like an odd definition of “sick” to me, but there you go. As it turns out, this is no house-call after all, but an audition–the lama seeks a successor to continue his fight against the “strange, sinister occult forces” that terrorize mankind. Droom, having proven his worthiness, is to become said successor, despite his presumably knowing sweet F.A. about the occult and there being an apprentice who presumably has something resembling actual training in the next room.
Droom accepts the offer, at which point the lama sees fit to gift him with “an appearance suitable to your new role!” And so…
The lama turns Droom Asian.
Eeeeeeeeyeah. You’d think, for all this trouble, the lama could have found, y’know, an actual Asian to take his place (I already mentioned the apprentice, right?), but nope! Apparently my great-grandpa was right and Asians really are all selfish cowards, so rewriting some gwailo’s DNA it is!
So the lama dies, and a not at all freaked out Droom (who is most likely no longer welcome in that doctor’s club) and his new, not at all resentful apprentice set out to put the fear of Agamotto in the dark arts. Or their nearest Code-approved equivalent.
The next five issues of the now very ironically titled Amazing Adventures encompassed the entirety of Dr. Droom’s career. And what a career it was! Droom battles the (Namor-less) ancient Atlanteans…who turn out to be aliens. Droom battles a stage hypnotist trying to get himself elected governor…who turns out to be an alien. Droom chases off an alien spaceship resembling a Halloween-themed lawn dart with a wrecking ball. Droom battles a mad scientist who shrinks and steals houses…who turns out to be an alien. This was something of a recurring theme, not only in Dr. Droom, but in Amazing Adventures/Fantasy as a whole. “Battles” is overstating it a bit; the wrecking ball thing aside, Droom usually saved the day simply by hypnotizing that month’s alien(s) until they went away (or, in the case of the Atlanteans, hypnotized them into forgetting that Earth even has surface-dwellers).
“But wait!” you may say. “Wasn’t Dr. Droom supposed to be protecting us from ‘strange, sinister occult forces’? What’s with all the aliens?” A fair question, and one answered by our reverse-epicanthoplastic hero at the end of his third appearance. When asked by the police how he figured out the stage hypnotist was an alien, Droom says:
“It was his boast of having REAL MAGIC POWERS! I, of all men, know that REAL magic does not exist!! All is illusion! All is fantasy! When Zemu’s magical feats had no EARTHLY solution, then the only possible answer could be that he possessed secrets and knowledge which were not gleaned from this planet! For nothing can be hidden from Doctor Droom! That is my pledge! That is my power!
I’m not one to suggest that the feature including aliens and the extraterrestrial makes it hypocritical to rule out magic and the supernatural. That’s a false equivalency and I know it. The problem here is that, in the space of four speech bubbles, Dr. Droom negated the entire premise of his series. As my hypothetical reader pointed out above, that dying old lama recruited/yellowfied Droom to fight occult forces, not crazy-ass aliens.
And that’s another thing: Dude, I don’t know if you were paying attention, but you got turned Asian. Turned. Asian. And it wasn’t like he held you down and went crazy on your face with a highlighter pen or anything like that. No, one handshake and all of a sudden you’re Warner Oland. If there’s no such thing as REAL MAGIC POWERS, then how in hell do you explain that? Was the lama an alien? Are you an alien? Are Asians aliens? Would that make all this more or less racist? (PROTIP: more) How is it you don’t seem to need any special gadgets or doohickeys to hypnotize people or talk to them with your mind, two things you pretty clearly couldn’t do before you got yellowed up?
Worse yet, if there’s no such thing as magic or the occult, then what–besides the racism–sets you apart from all the other Amazing Adventures/Fantasy protagonists outwitting and defeating alien invaders? Is it that you appear more than once? Why do you appear more than once? You’re not any more interesting than any of those other people–in fact, quite often you’re a great deal less. At least Dr. Strange had something resembling a character arc, starting out as a selfish jerk who loses everything that he considered important, that he thought defined him, to find within himself the integrity to assume an awesome burden. Ninety percent of your job was just showing up.
I’m inclined to blame the Comics Code for all this. However, it could very well be a case of someone wanting to take the character one way and someone else wanting to take the character another, but that would be delving into the decades-old question of just how much writing Stan Lee actually did and Dr. Droom just isn’t worth that conversation. In fact, in this case Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby might end up fighting to give each other sole credit.
Amazingly, Dr. Droom would (sort of) pop up again in the 1970s. He was, if anything, now even less interesting; now de-Asianed and renamed Dr. Druid, the character graduated from “half-baked precursor” to “full-blown knockoff”. More proof (like you needed it) that the American comics industry will recycle any property. No idea what happened to that apprentice, though. I expect he’ll be popping up in his own miniseries around 2015 or so.
I can’t stress enough how much Dr. Droom just…blows. The race-baiting white-man’s-burden bullshit is bad enough, but that Lee/Ditko/Kirby/who-the-hell-ever couldn’t even be bothered to maintain some degree of consistency of theme shows their lack of enthusiasm for the character. You can almost literally count the number of shits they don’t give. By this point in time, these three men were mere weeks away from the work that would define not only their legacies, but the shape of the industry to come. Whereas Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four went on to form the backbone of Marvel Comics, Dr. Droom ended up the coccyx–a worthless, easily-bruised reminder of a tradition the industry was busily outgrowing.
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