What Makes A Cover? Zeck And Austin’s Secret Wars # 10

by Koom Kankesan

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of blogs devoted to iconic comic book covers (and perhaps other images) that have meaning for me. I thought that it would be the equivalent of Sister Wendy but with comic book covers. By that, I mean I’d like to bring the same passion and devotion to humanity that the noted Carmelite nun and television presenter brought to famous works of art, not shying away from the feeling evoked in them. I understand that mainstream comic books rarely aspire to the religious fervour and the fine pedigree associated with classical art but I thought it would still be fun to try.

The first image I’d like to discuss is the cover of Secret Wars #10 by Mike Zeck and Terry Austin, cover dated February 1984, from Marvel Comics. I thought of this cover recently when looking at pictures of football players who have taken a knee during the national anthem. I don’t mean to focus on Colin Kaepernick particularly – any football player will do – but this photo seems almost a mirror reflection of our Secret Wars image.

The juxtaposition seems doubly ironic, not just because of random associations across time, but because Victor von Doom would never take a knee willingly to anyone under any circumstances. When Doom debuted in the early Kirby issues of the Fantastic Four, beginning with #5, he was always presented as ugly, monstrous, heavy handed – the grey iron that had moulded his body armour also formed his personality. What makes the Secret Wars cover so unique and memorable is that it places Doom in a position we’d normally never see him in.

The exposed flesh, the cuts and bruises, the dangling transistors and ruptured technology, all evoke a vulnerability or nakedness that has been hitherto unknown in the history of this character. His gunmetal armour and green serge cloak (outstanding complementary colours and design, by the way) DEFINE his identity. We forget that there’s a body in there (and that’s because sometimes there isn’t – when Doom uses one of his robots instead of himself). His armour has always seemed inviolate. Even in his greatest battles with the Fantastic Four, he’s never suffered the indignity of having his armour shredded and turned inside out, exposing him quite like this.

Apparently, since Doom cannot or will not remove the armour, it has been said that his armour’s technology filters out his waste into the surrounding air. This can’t be pleasant for his enemies and might explain why he rarely has friends. The real reason why Doom rarely has allies or friends of course is because he brooks no equals. His mask in this image perfectly captures some emotion, some expression of wonder and horror with the metal bands that stand in for teeth mesmerized in a gaping maw. The eyes (the only thing of his actual face which we can see) – along with the rest of the mask – evoke an expression so wholly understandable that it is uncanny. The eyes look upward and to the right, suggesting a sight so overwhelming and unusual that Doom himself is awed, perplexed, and unsure.

This is a complex emotion for Doom who has until now often been rendered as a two dimensional character. The denting in his face plate, the loving care with which the rivets are drawn, make Doom human. This emotion, plus the way he is physically drawn, evoke that three dimensionality the comics of the 80s yearned for and sometimes achieved.

The 80s were distinct in mainstream comics because of the marked realism – the grim and gritty aesthetic – that entered stories. Though Secret Wars was a far cry from the marked realism of all those titles for ‘Mature Readers’, there is something about the art on this cover that reflects that yearning for three dimensional depth and definition. It’s not just the extreme and loving detail that has been worked into the image. It’s the sense that we’re seeing a real person, a real character at least, with a real personality kneeling in that crater of energy and destruction. And what a moment is captured there! You can hear the thunder and feel the lightning, stoking our imagination even as it sizzles and ebbs from the previous moment.

Though Doom is kneeling, he struggles to stand up. He looks upward and though his superior technology has been blasted and rendered inert, his gauntlets crackle with Kirby energy. He is struggling to rise and face his opponent and it is this virtue, to not give up, kneeling yet looking up, that lends Doom an almost-nobility that is completely absent when he is in tyrant mode. Usually he is just a mask but here he is a person wearing a mask, dearly hoping that both his mask and will to survive will hold on.

The art speaks for itself. There’s a reason this particular Zeck & Austin cover is so memorable, even beyond all the other great covers Zeck has penned. First, the composition. Doom is centered and angled for maximum dramatic effect and true to Zeck fashion, the angles and lines somehow indicate a whole scene beyond the frame. ‘Beyond’ is an unfortunate pun here because the Beyonder, a being of unimaginable power, stands there ready to destroy Doom’s rebellious nature. Not including the Beyonder in the shot, besides adding mystery, lends the composition greater power because it really allows the viewer to focus closely on Doom. We can gaze and marvel at all the broken armour, the tattered fabric, the individual plates and components of his signature suit that has been turned inside out for our perusal. Besides, the Beyonder’s 80s glam hairstyle and white disco jump suit haven’t aged anywhere near as well as Doom’s olive cloak and gunmetal armour.

The detail on the transistors and components is remarkable. Perhaps the closest image resembling this is the interior page from a John Byrne Fantastic Four issue. Although this image of Doom defeated does not come close to the power and majesty of the Zeck & Austin cover, I wonder if it might have provided an inspiration:

Another connection or inspiration might be Darth Vader from Star Wars. Though Doom precedes Darth, the phenomenal success of the Star Wars films in the late seventies and early eighties made Darth a universally known pop culture icon. Like Doom, he was essentially fused to his suit which became a metaphor for his personality. The mask of Darth was the face of totalitarian evil. There was something so right about seeing only the back of Darth’s mottled, pulpy, and scarred head in The Empire Strikes Back as the top of his helmet is lowered. For similar reasons, it just felt plain wrong when the mask was removed in Return of the Jedi and we could see his indistinct and unmemorable face. Someone seems to have seized upon the connection between Doom and Darth and transposed the Sith lord to a copy of the Zeck/Austin cover in this neat self-reflexive trick:

There is a subsequent Secret Wars cover (issue 12) which is sort of a companion piece to the image on the cover of issue 10. Though it doesn’t come close to the former in terms of power and memorability, it is also pencilled by Zeck and shows Doom triumphant. It doesn’t have the same detail or composition (it seems more hastily conceived and is VERY reminiscent of a Kirby pose/composition) or even the same glow in terms of colour. Perhaps it is supposed to be more striking because Doom’s face is revealed (absorbing the Beyonder’s power has allowed him to heal and repair the effects of the experiment which damned him to a lifetime of donning the armour) but the equivalent depth, realism, or humanity are lacking. It might be one of those Uncanny Valley type situations. Doom exists at his best as a two dimensional character. Interesting stories arise when this two dimensionality is prodded and stretched but once we actually see his face, the effect is ruined. Doom’s true face must remain his mask.

I’ve really enjoyed writing this as the last post of 2018. I’d like to wish everyone, comics readers and fans alike, a very happy holiday – thank you for reading and the best to all of you and your families!

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