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Nov
11
2020

The True Origin of M.O.D.O.K.

As you may have heard, there’s going to be a stop-motion animated Hulu series starring Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. Reading this news, I was struck by how it’s just de rigueur accepted that M.O.D.O.K.–once a “serious” Marvel villain (first full appearance: Tales of Suspense #94 – ed.)–is now a jokey semi-ironic gag character, a character that might, ya know, show up in an animated series voiced by Patton Oswalt.

…or be featured on merch like coffee cups (sadly one tiny foot on mine has chipped off): 

…or–somewhat horrifyingly–be available as a high-dollar statue you can have your own (giant) face 3-D printed onto:

  

This idea of “jokey M.O.D.O.K.” has become so endemic that  I wonder if the general Marvel property-consuming public has any idea that this entire modern semi-ironic M.O.D.O.K. phenomenon has its origin in one very specific event: a self-published zine from 2004 called The Journal of M.O.D.O.K. Studies.

I wrote a bit about the then-relatively-recent rise in M.O.D.O.K.-ery way back in 2007 for the no-longer-with-us comics news site, The Pulse, and interviewed the creator of The Journal of M.O.D.O.K. Studies, Robert Newsome. Given the likelihood of a new wave of M.O.D.O.K. interest, I thought now a good time to post that long-404’d article here to my blog. I’ve abridged the article somewhat, but here you go: 

There’s a whole lot of MODOK going on.

George Bush’s approval ratings may be in the pits, but MODOK’s cultural cache has never been better. Ten years ago, if you’d asked your average fanboy who MODOK was, you’d have been met with a blank stare, but these days you can’t swing a dead cat in your local comics shop without hitting some kind of MODOKery. This once obscure Marvel villain, spawn of Kirby and Lee from a 1967 issue of Tales of Suspense, is now the cock of the walk in the Marvel universe, featured in the recent All-MODOK Ultimate Avengers issue, in which the entire Avengers team become “MODOKs”; starring in his own miniseries, MODOK’s Eleven; getting off one of the bawdiest gags in Marvel’s history in their recent holiday special; and even appearing as a Marvel Legends “build-a-figure,” available only as a piece-by-piece collectable, packed in, one appendage at a time, with other figures.

MODOK’s newfound stardom isn’t confined to the hallowed halls of your local “Android’s Dungeon” comics shop, though. Wandering the isles of indy comics festivals like SPX or MoCCA these days, it’s not unusual to overhear alt-comics hipsters expound upon the virtues of MODOK with the same studied reverence with which they discuss the latest offerings from Top Shelf, Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly. MODOKery has even oozed out of the seedy world of comics nerddom into the (relatively) mainstream world of animation: The Toonami series Megas XLR features an obvious MODOK homage (albeit one with the face of Bruce Campbell) and Disney has even gotten in on the act with their own faux-DOC., Technor, from their series Teamo Supremo.

So, you may ask, “Just who in the heck is this cause célèbre, MODOK?” Let us, as Lewis Carrol quothe, “begin at the beginning.”

As mentioned, MODOK is—like pretty much everything else cool in superhero comics—the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He first appeared in Tales of Suspense in the late 60s and has reappeared sporadically since then, usually to receive an eventual beat-down by Captain America (God rest his soul, supposedly), Iron Man or occasionally the entire Avengers team. If you want to immerse yourself further in MODOK’s history in the Marvel universe, you can find out plenty online, but that’s not really necessary if you’re seeking just to understand MODOK’s appeal; all you’ve got to do is have a look at the guy:

You see, MODOK is an enormous head in a floating chair. He’s a Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing. And also he has little baby-lookin’ arms and legs. And he shoots some kind of ray out of that weird disco amulet-thing he wears on his head. And he’s got a pompadour. Did I mention he’s an enormous head in a floating chair? As the Comics Journal’s Dirk Deppey put it, MODOK’s “so bizarre [he’s] cool despite actually being really lame.” And therein lies the secret ingredient to this recent MODOK revival: a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned, post-modernist tongue-in-cheek irony.

The catalyst for MODOK’s rise from semi-obscure B-list villain to giant-headed belle of the ball was surprisingly obscure: a fanzine—or ‘zine’—from Athens, Georgia called The Journal of MODOK Studies published in 2004 by a supposed “George Tarleton.” Why supposed, you ask? Consult your Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, folks—George Tarleton is MODOK’s real name, and an obvious pseudonym/homage from the scholar behind this “journal.”

The Journal of MODOK Studies—or JOMS as it’s known among the faithful—was an obvious labor of love. Printed on a photocopier, its old skool cred was evidenced by the still faintly visible lines around its pictures and blocks of text, betraying its literally “pasted up” nature. And of course, as its name makes clear, it was devoted to all things MODOK. What’s important about this publication isn’t just its single-minded devotion to MODOKery, though, but rather, that singular vision in combination with its tone: a half awed, half mocking ironic zeal focused on a subject that couldn’t have been more deserving of such treatment, a Kirby/Lee creation that was graphically half genius and half idiocy.

The Journal of MODOK Studies was published in the winter of 2003 and, as mentioned, was clearly a labor of love; according to the indicia, “MODOK is really awesome and this journal is only published because of this awesomeness, and not through any desire to make money…” This first issue begins with a play-by-play narration of MODOK’s original appearance in Tales of Suspense, then moves on to a piece supposedly reprinting the diary of a hapless food service employee recruited by MODOK’s parent organization, AIM (don’t ask). Included as well are MODOK pinups by a number of artists, including Johnny Ryan, Drew Weing and Patrick Dean—as well as a Bob the Angry Flower cartoon by Stephen Notley which introduces the character MODOKMODOK (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing MODOK). To anyone prescient enough to have been onboard the hovering MODOK bandwagon at this stage, JOMS offered the following congratulatory remarks: “You are to be commended for your interest in MODOK which has lead you to this publication, and if you’ve found the Journal and do not posses such an interest, it is our hope that this publication will create this interest, and a love of MODOK in you.”

And indeed it did—for me and for many others.

The Journal would publish its third issue—and last to date—in 2004. By that point, though, its mission was largely accomplished; the gospel of MODOK had been launched and MODOKery was spreading like a benevolent pestilence. How is it, though, that a humble zine could launch such a revolution? MODOK himself is clearly the catalyst—but to what specifically can one attribute his appeal? Rather than simply speculate, I contacted “George Tarleton,” real name Robert Newsome, of Athens, Georgia, to ask him about the genesis of the Journal and about his enthusiasm for all things MODOK:

BT: What possessed you to create a zine devoted to the “study” of all things MODOK?

RN: MODOK is awesome. That should be all I need to say, because, just LOOK at that guy… But there is some background. My post-college roommate and I had a couple of the MODOK action figures from the Iron Man cartoon around the house and I couldn’t stop looking at the things. [MODOK] really is, I think, one of the best character designs in all of comics. So I kind of developed a mild obsession (if that’s possible). But at the time, there really wasn’t a whole lot of MODOK in the Marvel Universe. I started collecting all the MODOK comics (even the really BORING Sub-Mariner 3-issue arc with MODOK and Dr. Doom) as well as the appearances of MODAM, Ms. MODOK and SODAM. Really. I’d been working on other ‘zines, but I’d gotten sort of bored with them, so I decided to put the MODOK habit I’d developed into print. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

BT: What is the secret of MODOK’s appeal?

RN: Ridiculous Kirby character design. I honestly believe, without the irony that saturates so much of people’s appreciation for comics, especially comics of the ‘60s, that MODOK is one of the most interesting character designs in the Marvel Universe. When you look at him, you’re just drawn in. Why is his head so big? How did he get that chair? Can he brush his teeth? Who made that snappy headband? I found it impossible to look at this guy without wanting to know more.

BT: I’ve heard that you distributed free copied of the Journal to everyone at the Marvel Comics booth at the San Diego Comic-Con. What kind of reaction did you get?

RN: I had distribution through Last Gasp, and people writing me from all over the country, but I couldn’t get one to Marvel. All the copies I sent to them were returned unopened. Maybe they thought it was an unsolicited submission… I don’t know. I wanted them to see it, though. So I went to the Marvel booth at the San Diego Comic Convention and just gave one to everyone working there. I’m not sure they knew what was going on, they all looked pretty confused. Nobody from Marvel really said anything.

BT: Do you credit yourself with the current MODOK revival, and if so, do you have any plans to deservedly exploit the situation for your own benefit?

RN: Yeah, I’m taking credit for it. I know that it’s entirely possible for someone with more influence at Marvel to have noticed MODOK’s brilliance independent of my work, but nothing exists in a vacuum, you know? Plus, I placed enough phone calls to the poor receptionist at Marvel asking if he/she knew what MODOK stood for (nobody ever did) that somebody had to say SOMETHING, right?

I’m thinking about doing another issue soon, but I’m not sure what would be in it. There’s certainly enough out there to write about even without the modern MODOK revival, like the two novels featuring MODOK, or the time Jack Kirby just totally forgot how to draw MODOK, and I still haven’t done my all-MODAM issue!

I was unable to pin Robert down on a date for a possible next issue of The Journal of MODOK Studies, unfortunately, but I believe I speak for fans of MODOKery everywhere when I say, I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

And here’s a small gallery of images from the three issues of JOMS, including comics by Johnny Ryan and Patrick Dean:

As a final note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pat myself on the back and point out that I was one of the earliest “converts” to The Church of the Semi-Ironic M.O.D.O.K. Shortly after the publication of The Journal of M.O.D.O.K. Studies, I did a kinda-autobiographical minicomic about teaching a summer art program during which the students became obsessed with M.O.D.O.K. In it, I appear as “a M.O.D.O.K.” 

You can read the whole thing here

 

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