Joe Sinnott: 1926 to 2020

Legendary comic book artist Joe Sinnott passed away on June 25th at the age of 93.  Sinnott had such a long and distinguished career as an artist that I really could not do him justice in a short blog post.  I will touch upon a few highlights, but for a much more detailed examination of his career I strongly urge everyone to get a copy of Brush Strokes With Greatness: The Life & Art of Joe Sinnott written by Tim Lasiuta from TwoMorrows Publishing.

Fantastic Four #57 (Dec 1966) cover artwork by Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott

Joe Sinnott was born in Saugerties, NY on October 16, 1926, and he lived in that area for almost his entire life.  Following service in the U.S Navy during World War II, Sinnott attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now known as the School of Visual Arts). 

One of his instructors was artist Tom Gill, who asked Sinnott to work as his assistant. Sinnott assisted Gil for nine months in 1949.

In 1950 Sinnott decided to find work on his own, and he was soon receiving regular assignments from Atlas Comics, the precursor to Marvel.  Atlas editor Stan Lee assigned numerous stories for Sinnott to illustrate which saw print in the company’s war, horror, science fiction and Western anthologies.

“Invasion From Outer Space!” from Journey Into Mystery #52 (May 1959) penciled & inked by Joe Sinnott

In 1957 Atlas experienced a severe contraction due to its distributor American News Company being shut down by the federal government in an anti-trust case.  Sinnott was one of the many freelancers let go by Atlas, and so he had to find work elsewhere.  He worked for a number of clients, including Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact, an educational, Catholic-oriented comic book published by George A. Pflaum that was distributed to parochial schools in North America.

Stan Lee asked Sinnott to return to Atlas in 1959.  Within two years the company had transformed into Marvel and begun its successful superhero revival.  During this period Lee first had Sinnott work as an inker over Jack Kirby, initially on stories for Atlas war and monster anthologies, and then on some of the early Marvel superhero books, such as Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962) the first appearance of Doctor Doom, and Journey Into Mystery #83 (Aug 1962) the first appearance of Thor.  Sinnott also contributed the full artwork for some of the early Thor stories that appeared in Journey Into Mystery in 1963.

Artwork from The Beatles published by Dell Comics (Sept 1964) penciled & inked by Joe Sinnott

Lee had actually wanted Sinnott to become the regular inker over Kirby on Fantastic Four following issue #5.  However at this time Treasure Chest assigned Sinnott to draw the 65 page biography “The Story Of Pope John XXIII, Who Won Our Hearts,” which was serialized in nine issues between September 1962 and January 1963. 

Treasure Chest vol 25 #16 (May 14, 1970) cover artwork by Joe Sinnott

Soon another ambitious project was assigned to Sinnott, a biography of the British rock band the Beatles published by Dell Comics in 1964.  Sinnott was given a mere month within which to illustrate the entire 64 page book.  It speaks highly of both his talent and professionalism that he turned in the job on time while doing quality work. And, as I’ve observed before, drawing likenesses can be very tricky. All things considered, I think Sinnott did a fair job capturing the appearances of the Fab Four.

Following the completion of these two biographies, Sinnott began to work for Marvel almost exclusively.  He also continued to illustrate stories and covers for Treasure Chest up until the title came to an end in 1972.

Sinnott did finally became the regular inker over Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four beginning with issue #44 (Nov 1965).  The art team of Kirby & Sinnott on FF in the second half of the 1960s is highly acclaimed.  As historian Mark Alexander stated in his book Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years (TwoMorrows, 2011)…

“In an uncanny stroke of luck and perfect timing, just when Kirby gained the time to improve his artwork, Joe Sinnott became the FF’s regular inker. Sinnott was a master craftsman, fiercely proud of the effort and meticulous detail he put into his work. … That slick, stylized layer of India ink that Sinnott painted over Kirby’s pencils finished Jack’s work in a way that no other inker ever would. Comic fans had never witnessed art this strange and powerful in its scope and strength.”

A scan of the original artwork for Fantastic Four #81 page 1 (Dec 1968) penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Joe Sinnott. I think this is a really good example of Sinnott’s polished inking over Kirby. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Following a falling-out with Marvel, Kirby departed Fantastic Four with issue #102 (Sept 1970).  Sinnott, however, remained on as the FF inker / finisher for 15 years, until issue #231 (June 1981).  In the post-Kirby decade Sinnott inked pencilers John Buscema, Rich Buckler, George Perez, Keith Pollard, Bill Sienkiewicz and John Byrne on Fantastic Four.  It’s generally regarded that Sinnott helped maintain artistic consistency on the title during the Bronze Age.

Sinnott became a much in-demand inker / finisher at Marvel from the mid 1960s thru the early 1990s.  He was paired with numerous pencilers during this 27 year period.  As longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort explained on his blog:

“Joe Sinnott defined the look of the Marvel art style as much as anybody this side of John Romita, and more than any other inker in the business. His smooth linework and clean finish gave a pristine, sleek, modernistic flavor to any assignment he worked his brush over, regardless of the penciler. He’s absolutely my favorite inker of all time, a guy who improved the quality of any series he was working on. Additionally, Joe is an absolute professional, and a hell of a nice guy.”

Thor #407 (Sept 1989) penciled by Ron Frenz & inked by Joe Sinnott

Sinnott’s last regular assignment for Marvel was Thor, paired with penciler Ron Frenz from 1989 to 1991, another wonderful collaboration.  In 1991 Sinnott made the decision to retire from monthly comic books, although over the next 28 years he continued to contribute to various miniseries, special editions, pin-ups and other projects, and to ink the Sunday installment of the Spider-Man newspaper strip.  In March 2019, at the age of 92, he FINALLY made the decision to completely retire as a professional artist, although he continued to draw for pleasure until nearly the end of his life.

The news of Sinnott’s passing this week was met with sadness.  This was not only because he was an incredibly talented artist who worked on hundreds of great comic book stories, but because he was also a genuinely good person, beloved by friends, colleagues and fans alike.  As comic book writer & historian Mark Evanier opined on his blog this week:

“If you were in a crowd of folks who worked in the comic book industry and announced, “Joe Sinnott was the best inker who ever worked in comics,” you wouldn’t get a lot of argument. If you said, “Joe Sinnott was the nicest guy who ever worked in comics,” you’d get even less.”

Fantastic Four #181 (April 1977) autographed by Joe Sinnott

I was one of the many fans who was fortunate enough to meet Joe Sinnott when he was a guest at comic book conventions.  He always came across to me as friendly, warm and down to Earth.

Sinnott was one of those people whose work I enjoyed before I met him, but afterwards I became even more of a fan by virtue of the fact that he was such a good guy.

Joe Sinnott leaves behind a rich, creative legacy, and he will definitely be missed.  I wish to offer my condolences to his family and friends for their loss.

Rich Buckler sketchbook drawings

Comic book artist Rich Buckler passed away on May 19th at the age of 68. I knew that Buckler had not been well for a while now, but I was still very sad to hear the news. Buckler was an incredibly prolific artist. He is probably best known for creating the groundbreaking cyborg anti-hero Deathlok, but at one time or another he drew pretty much nearly every major Marvel and DC character, as well as doing work for a number of other publishers. Buckler lived in the NYC area and was a frequent guest at conventions. I had the opportunity to meet him on several occasions. He always seemed like a nice guy.

I’ve already blogged about Rich Buckler’s great work on several occasions in the past (please check out my write-up on his Deathlok stories) so I wasn’t certain exactly how I could pay tribute to him now without repeating myself. It then occurred to me that I could feature the various convention sketches that I obtained from Buckler at comic cons. Each of these was done in one of my theme sketchbooks.

1) DOCTOR DOOM

Doctor Doom by Rich Buckler

This great drawing of Doctor Doom from June 2009 is the first piece in my “villains and bad guys” theme sketchbook. When it came to deciding who to have kick off the book, Buckler quickly came to mind. Buckler penciled Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s, paired with inker Joe Sinnott and writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. Doctor Doom is one of Marvel’s all-time classic super-villains, and Buckler did a great rendition of the character during his run on FF.

I’m extremely happy with this piece. Buckler did an amazing job sketching the iron-fisted monarch of Latveria, starting off this sketchbook with genuine class & style.  This sketch was subsequently published in Back Issue #74, edited by Michael Eury, from TwoMorrows Publishing. The theme of that issue was the Fantastic Four in the Bronze Age.

2) The Vision

Vision by Rich Buckler

Bucker only worked on a handful of issues of Avengers over the years, but he did very nice work on the series. One of the stories that Buckler penciled, in issue #106, contained an incredibly dramatic depiction of the Vision on the splash page, inked by the amazing Dave Cockrum… what a wonderful collaboration! Buckler & Cockrum really brought to life the synthezoid’s somber brooding and contemplation of life.

After I started my Avengers Assemble theme  sketchbook, the question of who to have draw the Vision inevitably came up. Well, that splash page from #106 almost immediately leaped to mind, and I knew I had to ask Buckler to sketch the character. It definitely came out very well. I wish Buckler could have worked on more Avengers stories; he had a real affinity for the characters.

3) HAN SOLO

Han Solo by Rich Buckler

You might have previously seen this great sketch of Han Solo from the Star Wars movies on my entry for Super Blog Team-Up 7. I still think it’s an astonishing oversight that, outside of a single trading card for Topps, Buckler was never given the opportunity to contribute artwork to any Star Wars related projects. His work would have been such a wonderful fit for the series. He certainly did an amazing job on this sketch, capturing both the likeness and the personality of the character.

Years later, when Buckler was on Facebook, he shared numerous images of a great deal of his work, both published and unpublished. One of the pieces he posted was this sketch. Unfortunately he only had a small, blurry pic of it. When Buckler found out I was on FB, he asked me to send him a larger scan, a request I was more than happy to fulfill.

4) MANTIS

Mantis by Rich Buckler

Yes, I do have a Mantis sketchbook. She is, quite obviously, one of my favorite characters. I thought it would be nice to have the first piece in the book drawn by an artist who had worked on some of the character’s published appearances. Rich Buckler previous drew Mantis in Giant-Size Avengers #1 and Fantastic Four #325. He used that FF issue for reference, creating a beautiful portrait of the character.

This sketch, which was drawn in December 2015 at Winter Con in Queens NY, nearly didn’t happen. I approached Buckler early on Saturday morning about doing a sketch. Less then half an hour later, though, Buckler was feeling ill, and he had to be rushed to the hospital. Amazingly, though, in the afternoon he was back at the show. I thought he was crazy, and that he ought to be resting at home. However, since he was there, I asked him if he felt well enough to draw a sketch. Buckler said he was, and he did this great piece. That was the last time I got to see him before he passed away, so I’m grateful I had that opportunity.

I highly recommend reading the eight part essay series “From the Desk of Rich Buckler” that Daniel Best presented in 2010 on his blog 20th Century Danny Boy. These essays by Buckler offer an in-depth look at his career, his creative process, and his thoughts on the comic book industry.

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round three: Axis

“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” – John Steinbeck

At long last here is the third and final part of my examination of the conflict between Magneto and the Red Skull, between the Holocaust survivor turned mutant revolutionary and the Nazi terrorist.  For those who have not already read them, here are links to Part One and Part Two.

Magneto 12 cover

Previously the Red Skull, who’d had the brain of the deceased telepath Charles Xavier grafted into his own, was brutally killed by Magneto.  Unfortunately, rather than ending the Skull’s threat, this caused him to transform into a new incarnation of Onslaught, the being originally created years before from the combined subconscious darkness of Xavier and Magneto’s minds.

(Or perhaps Onslaught was actually Rob Liefeld… I forget exactly.)

The Avengers and X-Men’s battle against the “Red Onslaught” and the terrible aftermath is seen in the Axis miniseries by writer Rick Remender and various artists.  Magneto’s perspective of these events is depicted in issue #s 11 and 12 of his solo series, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Roland Boschi, with covers by David Yardin.

In Axis #1, illustrated by Adam Kubert, the reborn Red Skull / Onslaught is spreading a psychic hate plague across the globe.  Havok, Rogue, the Scarlet Witch and Magneto attempt to stop the Skull.  It seems a hopeless task, especially as the three members of the Avengers Unity Squad want nothing to do with Magneto.  Havok, perhaps under the Skull’s psychic influence, attacks the master of magnetism, shouting at him “You damn murdering hypocrite! You’re just like him, Magneto!”

Axis 1 pg 13

The Avengers and X-Men, alerted to the Red Skull’s threat, arrive in Genosha.  After long months of tense relations between the two teams, they finally realize that they need to join forces against this common foe.  The towering Red Onslaught, however, is unimpressed, and he summons a pair of immense Sentinels constructed out of near-unbreakable adamantium.  The Skull reveals that he previously used his mental powers to manipulate Tony Stark into constructing these robot monstrosities, programming them with the data needed to defeat Earth’s heroes.

(Side note number one: Was any of this previously seen or even hinted at before the events of Axis #1, maybe in an issue of Iron Man?  Because the reveal by Remender seems to come completely out of left field, with no build-up or foreshadowing.)

Between the Red Skull and the Sentinels, the heroes have little chance, the blame for which Magneto is more than happy to lay at Iron Man’s feet.  In the midst of battle, Magneto flees.  The Avengers and X-Men are defeated and imprisoned by the Sentinels.

Back in his sanctuary, away from everyone else, Magneto finally engages in self-reflection, and acknowledges his own role in causing this crisis.  “All that I have done… it was for nothing. I have committed unspeakable acts. I have hurt people. I have taken lives as easily as I might draw breath. All so my people, so mutants, might thrive.”

Magneto 11 pg 7

Briar Raleigh, Magneto’s human ally who sympathizes with his goals, argues that he could not have foreseen the results of killing the Skull.  Magneto disagrees, informing her “After all this time, after so many atrocities committed in the name of mutants, after so many bitter failures, I was blind not to anticipate something like this.”

Attempting to spur Magneto out of his despondency, Briar plays old video footage of his brutal attacks against anti-mutant forces.  She then shows him an interview with a young girl he once saved, who says “People say he’s some sort of monster, or maybe a terrorist, or that he’s insane. But I’m just glad mutants have someone like him, someone who can be angry, who can do bad things, so that we might survive.”

Grimly resolved that he is the one who has been forced into the role of making the difficult but necessary choices, Magneto sets out to recruit allies against the Skull.  If the Skull’s Sentinels are programmed to defeat heroes, then he will ally himself with criminals and villains.  Among those he approaches are Doctor Doom, Loki, Carnage, Sabretooth and Mystique.

Deadpool, who is not, strictly speaking, a villain, but who is certainly nuts, gets wind of all this and decides to find out what is going on.  The merc with a mouth tells him “I kinda want to know what the hell you’re trying to pull. I mean, I thought you were supposed to be a good guy.”  Magneto somberly responds “Not even you are foolish enough to think me a hero. Such distinctions are for those who can look at their own reflections and not despair.”

Magneto 11 pg 18

Magneto and his group of ne’er-do-wells engage the Red Skull and his Sentinels in Genosha.  During the battle, they manage to free the Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange, and Magneto tells them to attempt an “inversion spell” to revive the suppressed remnants of Xavier’s consciousness in the Skull’s mind.  Before it can be completed, Strange is knocked out.  Doctor Doom steps in and forces Wanda to complete the spell with him.

The inversion is seemingly successful.  Onslaught is banished, and the Red Skull is returned to human form, unconscious.  Immediately, though, there are problems.  The Avengers want to imprison the Skull ASAP before he re-awakens.  The X-Men, however, want custody of him, to see if now they can fully restore Xavier to life.  The disagreement causes the two teams to once again find themselves at odds with one another, neither side willing to budge.  Their fragile alliance is shattered.  Even in defeat, the Skull achieves a dark victory, once again driving apart humans and mutants.

And what has happened to Magneto?  Wounded, watching all of this from afar, he hears the Scarlet Witch ask “Where are the villains?”  Magneto bitterly thinks to himself, “After everything we did… everything I did… these Avengers… even my own daughter… would still see me as another threat to be eliminated or contained.”

Magneto 12 pg 15

As we soon find out in Axis #4, however, the inversion spell by Wanda and Doom worked much too well.  It caused everyone who was in Genosha to turn 180 degrees on the moral compass.  All of the heroes who were present are now ruthless, violent and selfish.  All of the villains are now moral and altruistic.  Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon and now the new Captain America, wants to lead all of the inverted Avengers in taking over the world, creating an ordered society that they control.  The mutant Genesis is transformed into a reborn Apocalypse who leads the X-Men into war against humanity.  They construct a bomb that will wipe out all non-mutants on Earth.  Oh, yeah, and Tony Stark becomes an arrogant, greedy, hedonistic asshole.  If you thought regular Iron Man could be a jerk, well, inverted Stark is about a hundred times worse.

The now-elderly Steve Rogers and the few non-inverted heroes who managed to escape being captured by the corrupted Avengers are forced to ally themselves with Magneto and the other inverted villains to stop the X-Men and Apocalypse.  These events play out over the remainder of the Axis miniseries.

(Side note number two: Did Remender really need nine extra-sized issues to tell this whole story?  The whole thing would very comfortably have fit into a mere six issues.  I liked Axis, but it definitely suffered from being padded out with tons of fight scenes that played out over a bunch of splash pages and double-page spreads.)

Finally coming to Axis #9, with Jim Cheung artwork, Rogers and the inverted villains attempt to recreate the inversion spell.  Doctor Doom manages to summon Doctor Voodoo and his ghostly brother, and they take possession of the inverted Scarlet Witch.  Doom and the possessed Witch catch up with Rogers, who has located the Red Skull.  The man who was once the personification of human evil has been inverted into the remorseful White Skull… seriously, even his mask turned white.  How did that happen?

The White Skull begs Magneto not to once again resort to murder, to not kill Iron Man, and allow the new inversion spell to undo the damage.  Magneto reluctantly agrees.  Doom, the Skull, and the possessed Witch re-enact the inversion, turning everyone back to normal.  Well, almost everyone.  Iron Man, who refuses to go back to how he once was, is able to shield himself, and both Havok and Sabretooth are caught in his energy field.  That means Havok is still a violent fanatic who hates humans, Sabretooth still has a conscience, and Stark is still a douchebag.  Oh, well, can’t win ‘em all!

Axis 9 pg 24

In the closing pages of Axis #9, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch form a new Avengers Unity Squad, hoping to bridge the gap between humans and mutants so that a disaster such as this never occurs again.  Magneto, however, is in no mood to celebrate, realizing that Doctor Doom, the Red Skull and Iron Man have all escaped.  We see that the Skull is now the prisoner of Doom, a potential weapon to be used by the Latverian tyrant in the future.

Hopefully Magneto and the Red Skull will meet again.  Theirs is a dramatic, powerful enmity driven by mutual contempt & hatred.  They are simultaneously alike and as different as night & day.  Much can be revealed about Magneto through the comparing & contrasting of him to the Skull.

Magneto, as re-envisioned by Chris Claremont to be a survivor of the Holocaust, is undoubtedly a complex, complicated and morally ambiguous individual.  One can certainly see Magneto as the personification of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous warning “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Likewise the character appears to embody the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I have often regarded Magneto as a tragic but dangerous figure.  He is a man who experienced horrific losses in his childhood & early adulthood, and who is unable or unwilling to let go of the past.  All of this has led him to fanatical extremes.

The Red Skull commits evil acts because he is a psychopath.  Magneto, on the other hand, is driven by fear and guilt, by a burning obsession to never again become a victim.  Unlike the Skull, it is certainly possible to understand, even sympathize with Magneto.  But if in the end by his actions Magneto arrives at exactly the same place as the Skull, as an unrepentant monster, than all the rationalizations in the world are meaningless.

Fred Kida: 1920 – 2014

Comic book artist Fred Kida, who was born on December 12, 1920, recently passed away on April 3th at the age of 93. Kida’s career as a professional artist was a long one, stretching from the Golden Age of comic books in 1941 until his retirement in 1987. One of his artistic influences was legendary Terry and the Pirates creator Milton Caniff, who also inspired John Romita, Frank Robbins, and Lee Elias, among others.

Early in his career Kida worked at Hillman Periodicals, working on several of its regular features, including Airboy, a teenage aviator who piloting his experimental aircraft Birdie fought both the Axis powers and a variety of criminals within the pages of Air Fighters Comics. During his time on the Airboy feature, Kida designed the iconic Valkyrie, who made her debut in Air Fighters Comics volume 2 #2 (November 1943). One of comic books’ first femme fatales, she was a sexy Nazi agent whose flying skills rivaled Airboy. Valkyrie ended up quickly switching sides, joining the Allied cause at the conclusion of her debut story, as well as beginning a romance with Airboy.

Airboy Comics v3 6 cover

The Elias-illustrated Airboy stories co-starring Valkyrie were collected in a black & white volume in 1982 by Ken Pierce. In the book’s introduction, the legendary Alex Toth wrote:

“Kida demonstrated a rich sense of drama in his underlying black and white art – he produced powerful blacks, mixed with myriad textures to contrast his open whites which, assisted by sharp coloring, reproduced very well – with clarity and strength.”

(Well, he put it better than I ever could have!)

Catherine Yronwode provided several insightful text pieces introducing the stories, as well as offering a few of Kida’s own thoughts on his work. Although Fred Kida’s Yalkyrie is long out of print, I was fortunate enough to locate a copy several years ago. It can also be easily found on Amazon.

During the 1950s, Kida spent several years at Atlas Comics, the 1950s incarnation of Marvel Comics. He worked in a myriad of genres, illustrating mystery, war, romance and Western stories. The subsequent decade saw Kida absent from comic books, although he assisted Dan Barry on the Flash Gordon comic strip, first in the early 1960s, and again in the late 60s.

Captain Britain 17 pg 2

Kida returned to Marvel in the 1970s. His major assignment during that time was on Captain Britain, the first original Marvel UK title, inking both Herb Trimpe and Ron Wilson’s pencils. After spending years unsuccessfully searching out back issues of that series here in the States, I finally picked up a number of them in 1999 during my short time over in London, specifically #s 15 to 27, a lengthy story by written by Gary Friedrich that teamed up Brian Braddock with Captain America and Nick Fury against the Red Skull. Trimpe was also nicely inked by Kida in several issues of Marvel’s Godzilla series.

Although working mostly as an inker during the 1970s, Kida did also occasionally pencil for Marvel, notably a two part story that ran in Captain America #238-239. Written by Peter Gillis, with inking by Don Perlin, this action-packed story gave Kida the opportunity to draw Cap in action against a barrage of high tech mercenaries, giant hawks, prehistoric diatrymas, and psychic warfare. Gillis, commenting on Facebook about working with Kida, stated:

“I was so jazzed to do the two-parter with him – one of his very few book jobs at Marvel. I knew this was his first time drawing Cap and (the old) Nick Fury, but there was none of the oddness you might get with somebody’s first time: it was as if he’d been doing these guys for years.”

(If you would like to read those issues, they are collected in Essential Captain America Volume 7, along with plenty of other great stories.)

Captain America 238 pg 23

Kida also penciled the now-classic What If #22, which posed the intriguing question “What if Doctor Doom had become a hero?” Don Glutt penned a thought-provoking alternate reality examination of Victor Von Doom that insightfully revealed much about the “real” Doom. Kida, inked by Dave Simons, turned in very good work.

Kida’s last regular professional assignment was as the artist on the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip. Paired with Spider-Man’s co-creator Stan Lee, Kida worked on the strip from 1981 to 1986.

A few years ago I was able to locate Fred Kida’s mailing address. I sent him a letter telling him how much I enjoyed his work on Airboy and Captain America, and his inking over Herb Trimpe’s pencils. Regrettably he never wrote back to me. Nevertheless, I hope that I was able to convey to Kida that his work is still appreciated.

(Credit where credit is due: I obtained the scan of the cover to Airboy Comics volume 3 #6 from Comic Book Plus. Thank you to Peter Gillis for bringing that website to my attention. Fans of Golden Age comic books will undoubtedly find it a veritable treasure trove.)

Khan Noonien Singh: Star Trek’s “benevolent dictator”

I thought it might be nice to sit down and re-watch my DVD of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan today.  As I’ve written before, it is a really great movie.  The script by Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards has so many fascinating aspects to it.  And then it occurred to me that it had been literally years since I’d actually viewed “Space Seed,” the Star Trek episode written by Gene L. Coon & Carey Wilber to which The Wrath of Khan is a sequel.  I did a Google search, and found that you can view it for free online at Hulu.  Yeah, okay, you have to sit though several commercials, but it’s still better than watching a grainy bootlegged version.

Viewing “Space Seed” and Star Trek II back-to-back, I realized what an amazingly fascinating character Khan Noonien Singh was.  Obviously a major aspect of this is that the part of Khan was portrayed by the amazing Ricardo Montalban, who turns in a forceful, charismatic performance.  But I think that aspects of Khan’s character also speak to a quality present in society, the notion of the appeal of the so-called “benevolent dictator.”

The idea of one unifying individual bringing order to a state or nation, or perhaps even the entire world, is certainly not a new one.  In certain respects, it is understandable.  The alternative, democracy, is an extremely flawed, messy process.  Dozens upon dozens of dissenting voices have to be heard and appeased, compromises need to be achieved that often end up pleasing no one, politicians who are supposed to be the representatives of the people are swayed or outright bought by private interests, and the entire day-to-day functioning of government can be ground to a halt by a small group of elected officials who are unwilling to participate in the process.  One needs only look at the current deplorable state of affairs here in the United States to see this taking place.

But, really, just how much better is the alternative?  Lord Acton stated that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Or, as Spock (Leonard Nimoy) observes in “Space Seed,” when commenting on the genetically engineered supermen who once nearly seized control of Earth, “Superior ability breeds superior ambition.”

Khan Space Seed

The crew of the Enterprise, having discovered the cryogenically frozen Khan and his band of followers in outer space, is of two minds about the man.  While Kirk (William Shatner) dislikes what Khan represents, at the same time, looking at the historical record, the Captain of the Enterprise sees that, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Khan’s dominion over a major portion of the globe was relatively benign & peaceful.  Indeed, over dinner with the ship’s crew, Khan passionately argues that the Earth made a terrible mistake in driving him into exile.  He states that his rule was not tyrannical, but “an attempt to unite humanity.”  He goes on to forcefully declare “We offered the world order!”

Khan is certainly an extremely charismatic individual with a magnetic personality.  However, the man’s true side begins to come out in his interactions with Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). The Enterprise’s historian is immediately attracted to Khan and what he represents.  In an early establishing shot, we see McGivers’ quarters are decorated with paintings & sculptures of men of power such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Richard the Lionheart.  She possesses a much romanticized view of these individuals, who she considers superior to the males of her time.  And Khan immediately seizes on to that.

In his actions, Khan shows some of the signs of being a sociopath.  He is driven by ego, by the belief in his superiority over others.  He values other people primarily for what they can give him.  He knows how to talk a good game.  And he is superb at reading other people.  Khan immediately identifies that McGivers has this idealized view of individuals such as himself, and that she is attracted to him, both on a physical level and because of what he represents.  No doubt he also notes that she has a rather submissive side to her personality.  He takes advantage of all this, forcefully seducing her, and then ordering her to assist him in taking over the Enterprise.  When McGivers is at first unwilling to do so, Khan then appears to dismiss her, denying her the attention & affection she craves.  It is definitely an extremely unhealthy and twisted relationship built on abuse.

Once Khan and his followers, with McGivers’ aid, take over the Enterprise, his charming, civilized veneer continues to slip.  Khan realizes that Kirk and his crew are not going to easily capitulate.  He threatens Kirk with an extremely slow, painful death by suffocation, and promises to repeat this to the rest of the bridge crew, one by one.  However, if any of them swear to serve him, he will spare their lives.  In this way, at least in his mind, he appears benevolent.  As Khan no doubt sees it, he is basically saying “Look, I can be reasonable and merciful. Just do what I tell you to do and I promise no harm will come to you.”  Of course, the crew refuse Khan’s offer, and remain loyal to Kirk.  This just serves to further enrage Khan.  The more his enemies resist him, the more violent he becomes.  It is this that shocks McGivers into betraying Khan.  Witnessing first-hand the cold, hard reality of the types of men she had admired, she is repulsed, and she rescues Kirk, who organizes his crew to take back the ship.

However, Khan’s ego will not allow him to give up.  He attempts to blow up the Enterprise, wanting to take down everyone with him.  Kirk of course manages to thwart this.  Later, with the super-humans in custody, Kirk offers Khan and his followers the choice of settling on the untamed planet Ceti Alpha V instead of imprisonment by Starfleet.  He also gives McGivers the opportunity to join Khan rather than face court martial.  She agrees, and Khan declares “I will take her. And I’ve gotten something else I wanted: a world to win, an empire to build.”  There is Khan’s ego once more at work.  He forgives McGivers for her betrayal.  And he twists things around so that he can rationalize that despite being defeated he has achieved what he wanted in the first place.

Khan Star Trek II

Unfortunately, as we find out fifteen years later in Star Trek II, things turn out really badly for Khan and his people on Ceti Alpha V.  Six months after settling there, the neighboring planet in the system exploded.  Ceti Alpha V’s orbit shifted, turning it into an inhospitable desert, and for the next decade and a half Khan and his followers barely clung to existence.

When the Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha V, mistaking it for the exploded planet, Khan instantly recognizes its First Officer, Pavel Chekov, formerly of the Enterprise (Yes, I know, Walter Koenig didn’t join the cast of Star Trek until the second season, and so wasn’t in “Space Seed.” Koenig likes to joke that his character was serving on a different part of the Enterprise at that time, and that Chekov accidentally kept Khan waiting an uncomfortably long time to use the bathroom, hence the animosity.)  Here again Khan’s ego immediately comes into play.  Instead of recognizing an opportunity for rescue, he becomes full of resentment.  Looking around at the sorry state he is now in, Khan declares “On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince, with power over millions.”  He is disgusted at the notion that in the intervening years Kirk has been promoted to Admiral, no doubt seeing it as a further insult that his rival has had a successful career while Khan was off rotting in exile.  In fact, Khan places the blame for his circumstances squarely on Kirk for never returning to check up on him (which, admittedly, is a fair enough criticism).  Now Khan sees the opportunity for revenge.  He takes control of the Reliant and sets out to kill his hated foe.

It’s interesting that Khan refers to the death of his “beloved wife,” undoubtedly a reference to Marla McGivers.  I really do wonder if Khan loved her.  It seems somewhat difficult to believe so, based on their relationship in “Space Seed,” where he was manipulating her.  Maybe he genuinely did.  Then again, perhaps Khan merely convinced himself that he loved her, because it fulfilled his self-image as a good man.  Whatever the case, I think that when the opportunity arose to attack Kirk, he uses McGivers’ death as one more self-justification in pursuing his vendetta.

In watching Star Trek II, you do realize that Khan has ample opportunities to take a different course of action.  Instead, he is absolutely hell-bent on gaining revenge.  Even Khan’s utterly loyal right-hand man Joachim (Judson Scott) attempts on more than one occasion to argue that they have their freedom and a spaceship, they can go anywhere in the universe, lead their own destiny once again.  But Khan’s monumental pride simply will not allow it.  He will not let go of the idea of avenging himself on Kirk.

After the Enterprise barely survives an encounter with the Khan-controlled Reliant, Kirk bitterly notes “He wants to kill me for passing sentence on him fifteen years ago. And he doesn’t care who stands between him and his vengeance.”  It eventually transpires that this includes Khan’s own devoted followers.  He is more concerned with revenge than he is for their welfare.

It’s interesting to note that early in the film we see a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on Khan’s bookshelf.  No doubt he has had ample time to familiarize himself with the novel during his long exile.  Yet Khan ends up playing the role of Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal captain who leads himself and his entire crew to their deaths in his pursuit of the white whale.  Khan himself obviously recognizes the parallels, but he simply does not care.  As he activates the stolen Genesis Device in an attempt to destroy the Enterprise along with his own ship, he quotes the novel: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”Doctor Doom Jack Kirby

I had never noticed it before, but Khan actually bears some interesting similarities to the comic book character Doctor Doom, who was created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Like Khan, Victor Von Doom is often described as a “benevolent dictator.”  He is the absolute monarch of the country of Latveria.  In certain respects, Doom has transformed his homeland into a paradise.  There is no crime or poverty in Latveria; of course, neither is there any free will.  Some might argue that the loss of civil liberties is a small price to pay.  The problem is that this seeming golden age is dependant solely upon the whims of Doctor Doom.  Like Khan, he is a creature of immense ego, convinced of his innate superiority.  He claims to love the people of Latveria, and by granting them peace & prosperity it allows him to demonstrate to himself and everyone else that he is right, that he knows what is best for the world.

However, just like Khan, when things don’t go exactly according to plan, off come the kid gloves, and suddenly Doom is an extremely dangerous, petty, vengeful individual.  Certainly his decades-long vendetta against Reed Richards for what is, in truth, a mistake Doom made due to his own arrogance, proves that.  In Doom’s mind, he cannot be wrong; it must be somebody else’s fault.  And he’s pursued his quest for vengeance against Richards, his desire to show everyone that he is the smarter, better man, with a fanatical single-mindedness.

As for the people of Latveria, as much as Doom claims to adore and cherish them, the second they become a liability, the second they stand in his way or cease to be of use to him as a propaganda symbol or a method of stroking his ego, he will casually cast them aside or destroy them.  In the end, Doom comes first, and everything else is secondary.

And that is why, as alluring as the concept of the “benevolent dictator” appears, it is really a terrible idea.  Yes, in the short term a supposedly well-intentioned absolute ruler may be able to create order & stability.  But it is the type of progress that cannot last in the long run, and which is ever subject to the frailties of the all too human egos of those in control.