Hero Vs. Villain: Retracing MF DOOM’s ties to comic book culture
It’s often been said that the most fascinating characters in comic books aren’t the heroes, but the villains they square off against.
Bruce Wayne’s tragic childhood drove his noble motives, but Batman’s quest to clean up Gotham isn’t as captivating without the Joker’s chaos and anarchy. Matt Murdock lost his vision, then grew up to be a skilled lawyer by day and a Daredevil by night, but in Wilson ‘Kingpin’ Fisk we see Marvel’s own Tony Soprano, an intimidating colossus of a crime boss suffering from his own personal demons. The Fantastic Four were civilian astronauts who gained their superpowers after a freak accident, but Doctor Victor Von Doom wears a mask after a machine he designed to contact the dead resulted in an explosion that nearly blew his whole face off. Following a global pilgrimage and a long temple stay with Tibetan monks, Doctor Doom vowed vengeance against those he felt responsible for his disfigurement.
No wonder Daniel Dumile, enigmatic baron of the underground rap game, saw a kindred spirit in the Doctor, inspiring him to craft a persona that enabled him to be hip-hop’s ultimate supervillain. The London-born, New York-raised rapper and producer, whose abrupt passing last Halloween wasn’t made public until New Year’s Eve, has an origin story that eerily echoes Doctor Doom’s own. In the early 90s, back when Dumile was Zev Love X and one-third of New York City rap collective K.M.D., a car fatally struck his brother and fellow group member DJ Subroc, real name Dingilizwe Dumile. K.M.D. were then dropped by their label later that same week after they got panicky over releasing their sophomore effort due to its cover art, a provocative drawing of a Sambo caricature getting lynched. Dumile subsequently went into hiding for five years, licking his wounds and swearing retribution at an industry that had crushed his spirit.
Enter MF DOOM, Dumile’s way of subverting stereotypes during the height of the commercial rap boom. First reemerging in 1998 at open mic nights in Manhattan, nylon tights stretched over his face, DOOM released his debut Operation: Doomsday a year later. Among fans, the record is considered a masterpiece and the antithesis of the loud couture of the jiggy rap era at the time. It saw all caps DOOM draw further inspiration from lowercase Doom on the album cover, upgrading to what is now his signature gladiator mask while sporting a green pullover hoodie and holding a microphone, ready for war. It’s on this album that we get introduced to his proclivity for geek-like-me lyrics: a smorgasbord of shoutouts to and samples from sci-fi TV, monster movies and most notably, the Marvel comics and animation that would become synonymous with his oeuvre for the rest of his career.
An excerpt from the theme tune of the 1967 Fantastic Four cartoon opens Operation: Doomsday, a running thread throughout this record. Setting the tone for what can be best described as an auditory version of an animated 60s comic book, DOOM lays out his grandiose plans to “destroy rap” while sampling the likes of Scooby Doo and old school kaiju films to bizarrely brilliant effect.
In a 2005 interview with The Wire, DOOM expanded on his homage to the Fantastic Four’s archnemesis, expressing his admiration at how comics “show the duality of things.” He came up with the character of DOOM while attempting to “look for an angle that would be brand new in hip-hop”, thus coming up with “the villain”. It’s those concepts that also inspired him to create more alter-egos for subsequent projects. Several years after Doomsday came the freakish space rap voyage known as Take Me to Your Leader, which Dumile recorded as King Geedorah, a three-headed intergalactic monstrosity straight out of Godzilla’s rogues gallery. Then, three months later, arrived Vaudeville Villain in which the rapper assumed the character of Viktor Vaughn, another obvious callback to Doctor Victor Von Doom and a younger version of DOOM himself.
Grittier and grimier than his previous two efforts, Vaughn is portrayed as a brazen ne’er-do-well who only cares about trapping and time travelling. Vaudeville Villain resumes Dumile’s tribute act to comic books by implementing snippets of dialogue from vintage 80s Spider Man cartoons across the album’s 17 tracks. Peter Parker himself is mentioned a couple of times by Vik, who references his intelligence in Never Dead (“If I don’t study I’ma cheat off Peter Parker”) and their differences in Lactose and Lecithin (“It’s V Vaughn not to be confused with V la viper/ Or either Peter Parker”), highlighting their moral dichotomy between good and villainy.
MF DOOM gets tagged back in alongside elite producer and musical soulmate Madlib for Madvillainy, a sonic exercise in near-perfection. It’s not only the album where DOOM fully embraces the wickedness that was first alluded to in Operation: Doomsday, but where you’ll also find the funky All Caps which was exactly how DOOM wanted his name to be stylised. The animated visual for the song is a memorable one, paying homage to the Silver Age of comics as we witness experiments gone awry and a mutated Madvillain on the run. This crate-digging classic is also where you’ll find the first ever self-diss track, as Vik Vaughn makes his return on Fancy Clown chastising his girlfriend for cheating on him with DOOM of all people.
MM..FOOD continued to build on the mythos of DOOM that Madvillainy established an album prior. Starting with the declaration that “Operation Doomsday is complete!”, we dive deep into the world of a triumphant DOOM who waxes lyrical on an assortment of foods until the Fantastic Four are able to end the supervillain’s tyrannical rule by the outro’s conclusion. While there was a distinct lack of skits compared to past albums, classic Spider Man and Fantastic Four soundbites are scattered across DOOM’s ode to sustenance.
It’s no surprise to learn that comic books and their characters have a large fanbase within hip-hop. Ghostface Killah called his solo debut LP Ironman, Jean Grae adopted her stage name from the X-Men’s telekinetic sorceress, the album artwork of Outkast’s ATLiens adds to its legend and Kendrick Lamar was helmed with the task of creating the Black Panther soundtrack. Yet it’s the elusive Dumile and his alternate personas who best embody the ties that bind both worlds, both fuelled by folklore and extraordinary abilities. His choice to flip the script and follow the opposite path to what a hero would take was ahead of his time, reinventing himself as the rap game’s Doctor DOOM to huge aplomb.
At just 49 years old, Dumile died too young, but he lived long enough to see himself become the villain. And we wouldn’t have had it any other way.