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A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

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A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on ‘Doctor Doom’

The ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ co-creator takes part in an in-depth exit interview.

Take a character who’s almost 60 years old, add an inspired creative team, and what do you get? You have the recently wrapped 10-issue run of Marvel’s Doctor Doom, which breathed new life into Victor Von Doom, arguably comics’ greatest villain.

From beginning to end, Doctor Doom, written by Christopher Cantwell and illustrated by Salvador Larroca, kept readers hugely enthralled (fittingly, the title received a 2020 Eisner Award nomination for Best New Series). Between the conclusion of Doctor Doom and the release of King in Black: Iron Man/Doctor Doom #1 (on sale December 30), Cantwell was kind enough to take part in a Doctor Doom exit interview.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

AIPT: Thanks for taking the time to reflect on Doctor Doom, Chris. Despite pandemic-related delays, the final issue of the series — titled “Bedford Falls”– had a perfectly timed release two days before Christmas. Doctor Doom #1 was titled “Pottersville.” Was It’s a Wonderful Life a heavy influence on the initial idea for this series or did the parallels to the film come later in the development of the overall story?

Christopher Cantwell: Very early on, I conceived of the idea of Doom having visions of a better life — ones that seem legitimate because Doom always has sparks of noble virtue in his extremely twisted and dark heart.

Christopher Cantwell

Courtesy of Marvel.

Soon after that came the idea of: what if this good future was just as much a legitimate reality as the one we know? The “alternate universe” concept is very well-trodden in comics and a lot of genre stories, but I liked the idea of flipping it on its head and saying “this is the bad version, we live in the alternate reality that sucks.” 2020 has made a strong argument for that, huh? And, of course, we wouldn’t know we lived in the s----y universe until we were exposed to this better version of our own world. And rather than be repulsed by it, we would come to desire it, despite our strongest hang-ups and character flaws. I saw Doom as no different. I thought of the Mirror Universe in Star Trek, the alternate reality where the Federation is evil and Spock has a goatee, etc. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel did this too, where we saw that all the characters we loved were dead or horribly wounded or turned into evil vampires.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a favorite movie of mine and one of the earlier examples I can find of this idea in popular stories. George Bailey sees a world in which he doesn’t exist and it’s awful. Pottersville is corrupted. His brother is dead. People live in slums. The Building & Loan collapsed. By the end, he’s desperate to get back to Bedford Falls.

So I wanted to play the story in reverse and from the POV of Pottersville. The way I see it, the good Victor Von Doom from the “Bedford Falls” reality begins to have horrible visions of a world where he never became good, and this happens as soon as the Antlion black hole is created in our universe. Likewise, our Doom starts to envision a better life. This is also when Kang starts showing up, and it’s implied he’s seen the good world as well as the bad. He continually shows up in proximity to these two Dooms because of his convoluted genetic relationship to both of them.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

MODOK, because of his supreme mind, has mathematically predicted this better world, provided the current Doom makes certain choices, and this reality is so good MODOK actually wants it to happen! Even Mephisto, who in a lot of ways is a mystic seer, has begun to envision this alternate better reality (which he, of course, hates, because it means less tortured souls for his dominion, and no chance at Doom’s soul either). Blue Marvel, once inside the black hole itself, starts to put it together in his own head that his reality is hellish once a virtuous Doctor Octavius tells him of this better world.

The only being with the full picture is Death, who sees what our Doom will do when fully confronted with this better reality. And she’s perfectly fine with the outcome for obvious reasons.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

On a scientific level, I tried to play with quantum entanglement. When we punch a black hole into our universe and create “a white hole” in another, both sides start getting confused as to which reality is real. Hell, I think Kang says ‘quantum entanglement” in the first issue.

Our story ends differently than It’s a Wonderful Life, of course (or rather, sort of), because our protagonist is the “Pottersville” Doom. But that means the good “George Bailey” Victor has always been possible within him.

Of course, keep in mind that even It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t sappy. The title is ironic. The movie addresses how Bedford Falls narrowly survives the flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and World War II. George Bailey experiences these things on top of all his personal woes. Even the “better version” of reality is still tough, and not perfect.

I tried to hint at this when the reader finds out the “George Bailey” Victor was once as evil as our Doom and endured the same hardships, plus imprisonment. He earned the life he has. So our Doom can’t just write him off as a fantasy.

But ultimately our Doom has to reject this alternate reality because in order to accept it, he has to completely nullify who he is. Doom is too fatalistically proud to do that, at least our Doom is. So he either nullifies himself, or nullifies this universe. It’s clear what he chooses.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

And on a story structure level, this is actually exactly how It’s a Wonderful Life and Mirror Universe Star Trek stories and alt reality Buffy stories end, too. The protagonist gets a glimpse of a different life and goes, “no, no, no, no!” They reject this other reality and return to their own.

That’s exactly what Doom does in our story. He just lives in the bad universe instead. He rejected the good one. (Evil Willow does this in Buffy, too, hating the good world… but a funny thing happens to her right as she returns to her evil reality.)

Long answer, and clearly I thought about all this way too much.

Also, if I got to number this other Marvel Universe where Good Doom saved the world, it would be Earth-320, after 320 Sycamore, the “ol’ drafty house” in Bedford Falls that George and Mary buy and turn into a warm and loving home. Of course, if George never existed, the house stays abandoned and spooky in Pottersville.

AIPT: A long answer, yes, but very interesting to hear! So, while our Doom shows a desire to change his life at various points throughout the series, he very quickly reverses course at the end of Doctor Doom #10. Do you think Doom was ever truly serious about serving time in prison to make amends, marrying Fruzsina, and becoming a hero? Or were these just the temporary delusions of a very damaged man?

CC: I think he was sincere about changing his ways, but he was always wrongheaded about how to go about it. He can’t just decide to be a hero, and decide how to be punished for his misdeeds, and expect to be worshipped for his humility. All of these predictions he makes show he hasn’t actually changed at all! But he has such a strong desire to be this better Victor at this point that he just concocts a very Doom-like plan to get there.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

Doom’s major internal problem throughout the story is figuring out how to get from where he is now to the future where things are so wonderful. It seems impossible because the gap is so wide. He’s trying to shortcut it by Issue #10. But you can’t shortcut true change, which he learns by story’s end. He hasn’t changed at all, or enough, to accept his alternate self’s diagnosis of his problems. So he literally “self” destructs.

AIPT: Early in the series, Kang and the Witness reference the future Doom sees in his visions. Is the idea that, at that point in the story, the future was indeed bright for our Victor and he simply changed course in Doctor Doom #10, thus eradicating that possible future?

CC: Yes, but it’s confusing for everyone involved. Again it goes back to the Antlion black hole/worm hole. A weird version of quantum entanglement is going on universe-wide, so Kang is seeing both realities and trying to rectify them, the Witness gets confused because he sees GOOD Victor’s death instead of the one that is seconds away from happening to our Doom, and Doom himself can’t figure out if this really is his future or a cruel dream. I imagine the alternate better reality Doom and others see throughout is a possible destiny for Doom maybe 15-20 years into his future if he makes certain choices (again, like MODOK says when he points out Doom has agency in his fate, which also makes the end reversal possible with Doom’s last awful choice).

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

AIPT: Something that makes Victor’s visions of a better life more desirable — at least from a reader’s perspective — are some of the interactions with his supporting characters throughout the series. Kang the Conqueror, Morgan Le Fay, and Mephisto are some of the worst acquaintances someone could have, and yet, Doom seems quite comfortable around them. Would you say these beings are among the closest things Victor has to friends?

CC: Yes. Doom shares an “honor among thieves” rapport with a few characters in this book that I wanted to actually portray as meaningful relationships. Kang has the potential to be a great “frenemy.” Of course, Doom ultimately murders him, but only because Kang was about to screw him over, too. That said, Kang is someone Doom can maybe murder over and over again because our book’s Kang is so infinitely lost in his own time travel escapades. I wanted Kang’s death to be meaningful, though, so he’s gone from the series until the last scene of the last issue, and I tried to imply that this Kang that shows up has no knowledge of Doom murdering him, or any of the trials Doom has just been through since Doom has annihilated this other possible reality.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

Doom also loved Morgan once and I just wanted to have a downbeat in their relationship that wasn’t operatic and tumultuous. I like what I call “hang out” scenes, which don’t necessarily move the plot forward, but catch characters in lulls while they’re in transit to other parts of the story.

I think Doom hates Mephisto, though. Mephisto is a real a-----e. He’s also extremely powerful and extremely pathetic at the same time. I chose to go with the latter in this portrayal because I needed Doom to be going through such an emotional crucible that he didn’t have time for Mephisto’s bullshit.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

AIPT: And Victorious, do you think Doom truly cares about Zora?

CC: 10000%. I think this is currently Victor’s most important relationship in his life other than Reed. I think Doom loves Victorious as a daughter. I think she is such a genius creation by Dan Slott. Victorious is the one person Doom can do right by in his reality. He’s also a horrible and at times abusive mentor. I wanted to forward their story for whoever chooses to take them on next.

Victorious questions Doom for the first time in our series. She ultimately chooses to stand by his side, but after some rough patches and intense self-realizations, she ultimately places Latveria over the man himself. That could lead to later conflict, which I think would be REALLY tough for Doom. It’s Doom’s orders to Victorious to kill her traitor mother that put such a distaste in his mouth that he finally decides to be good. She’s integral in his decisions to change himself. The page of her cradling Doom in her arms is one of my absolute favorite pages Salva did for the series. She’s his hero. Literally.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

AIPT: You’ve described Blue Marvel as a foil for Doctor Doom. What, in your opinion, makes their dynamic work?

CC: This is probably an irritating answer, but for our story, I wanted Brashear to function as John from The Book of Revelation when it comes to Victor’s journey. He is the witness to the whole awful thing that happens. He tries to decipher and understand, but it’s so extreme that he has trouble doing so. I also wanted a pure-hearted person to realize they lived in Hell, and that there could be a better version of the world. Brashear himself is revealed to not be perfect in our story. He’s wrong several times.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

People got pissed that I had Silver Sable body slam him, but I’m sure that even a living antimatter reactor can be caught off guard in certain small moments. That’s my idea with him here. He’s constantly caught off guard throughout our story, despite his immense powers and mind. I truly don’t know if he’d have left the better reality had Doom not annihilated it.

AIPT: Based on their interactions in this series, Reed Richards and Doom seem like two individuals who only bring out the worst in each other. Deep down, do you think Reed is just as petty as Victor?

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

CC: I think Reed is just as petty, but only with Doom. I think Doom brings out the WORST in Richards. They’re funhouse mirror versions of each other. They see warped qualities of themselves in the other, and they also see their actual selves. We despise in people most what we actually see in ourselves. I think that’s definitely true for Reed when he looks at Doom.

AIPT: And while Doom has never been able to kill Reed, he has no problem destroying his more successful doppelganger and everything he helped build just for making our Victor confront hard truths about himself. At the end of the day, do you think Doom’s greatest enemy will always be himself?

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

CC: Yep. Always. And that’s how I justify this evil act in my head. Some readers were mad that Doom killed an entire universe, which included his kids. It included every nice person you’ve ever met in Marvel history. It included Aunt May. I mean think about it. He killed everyone. Morgan Le Fay. The West Coast Avengers. He killed Ms. Marvel. He killed Power Pack. He killed all the Watchers. Eternity. Thanos. He killed your dad. He killed bacterium in the water on Mars. F-----g everything.

Why?

Because in that split second moment, he saw it all as a reflection of himself. A reflection of himself that was admittedly being a little condescending (and thusly not perfect). A reflection of himself he worried he could never reach. A reflection of himself that in order to become he would have to invalidate who he was.

Was he thinking universal genocide? No.

He was shattering a mirror out of momentary rage.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

Despite the scope of the crime, I only think it was murder in the second degree. It was a crime of passion. It just included an entire existence. Like… imagine Captain America biting into a subway sandwich and just being instantly nullified. No idea how it happened. The Thing going to the bathroom and there’s no toilet paper left. Blink. He killed Kang again. He killed Victorious, wherever she was.

But he wasn’t thinking about any of that in that moment. He was thinking only of himself.

And that is — now literally — his most fatal flaw.

AIPT: It was quite the gut punch. On a lighter note, what about the series are you most proud of? And why is the answer that you finally made Doctor Doom’s Secret Wars Blaster Car canon?

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

CC: Man I love me some Marvel Easter Eggs. I got to make fun of 2099. I think I am most proud of the book’s tone. I think we were able to tell a story that was at once emotional, funny, harrowing, exciting, warm, and then utterly dark.

AIPT: The series was also filled with stunning imagery, including gorgeous splash pages and multiple Doom armors. Do you have an absolute favorite Salvador Larroca visual from the 10 issues?

CC: Doom rising out of the pile of bones and fire in his Hell armor is incredible. I love the panel of Kang and Doom on the boat in issue #6 where they’re both saying they will destroy each other but they’re really saying “I love you, brother.” It’s as close as they’ll ever get. And Salva NAILED Kang’s expression in that panel. It’s perfect.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

AIPT: While you show plenty of signs of humanity within Doom throughout the series, your final statement on the character appears to be that there is no good in him — he is Death’s greatest servant (as she suggested he would be in Doctor Doom #3). Is this an accurate read, or are these final proclamations yet another mask Doom hides behind?

CC: That’s not my statement. That’s Doom’s statement. It’s funny how often people get that confused in comics. Doom says there’s no good in him. But we just read 10 issues where there seemed to be quite a lot in him. He’s feeling sorry for himself in this final page. He’s justifying what he just did. He might even be covering up some real guilt. And yeah, Death got him on a technicality, but I don’t think it’s a title he’ll privately be proud of, even if later he touts it as a threat or boast to his enemies down the road.

So yes. He’s totally retreated back behind his mask at the end. If anything, this doesn’t prove he’s eternally evil. It proves that he has a strong streak of cowardice he has yet to overcome or even acknowledge.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

AIPT: Finally, after a rich exploration of Doctor Doom’s character, what made you decide it was just time for Victor to face off against an evil Santa Claus?

CC: I reverse engineered the timeline of when the issue would come out and realized it was December, and that it would be after a really heavy conclusion of his solo title book. King in Black is such a major event that my main concern was fitting it into Iron Man’s story timeline (this might be a dodge but there’s a montage of Tony fighting bad guy after bad guy thanklessly at the beginning of Iron Man #3, so I imagine KiB happening in that really tough slog period for Tony, which is why I have Tony really feeling sorry for himself at the top of this one-shot).

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

For Doom, I’m not sure where it falls for him. I imagine just after the events of his book, which is the perspective I used for his first few lines to Tony where he calls himself a villain and one that can never be saved. This is also the first major crossover even I got to participate in. Honestly, I was extremely intimidated by Donny’s pitch. I wanted to play with all the heavy hitters but I was also terrified. All I know is Iron Man and Doom! So I was like, “What about an Iron Man/Doom story, and since it’s December, Santa’s also been taken over by the symbiote invasion.” And Donny was gracious enough to let me use Doom. So I got context for where Tony’s head is at, and got to put the two characters I’m most comfortable with together in a contained very funny adventure. I feel like Doom needed a lighter moment after our book’s conclusion, and this KiB Tony certainly needed a lighter moment after what just happened to him in the crossover event, and what’s GOING to happen to him in Iron Man #5 in the very next week on 1/6/21 (hint hint… it’s not great).

So ultimately I just had fun. I made a lot of jokes, and we made a scary Santa. It was a win for everyone.

A not so wonderful life: Christopher Cantwell reflects on 'Doctor Doom'

Courtesy of Marvel.

AIPT: Sounds like good comics to me! Chris, thanks so much for taking the time to reflect on your Doctor Doom run. Hopefully, your time writing the character is far from over.

For more of Chris’ thoughts on Doctor Doom, check out the writer’s appearance on episode 88 of the AIPT Comics Podcast.

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