The Many Loves of Doctor Strange

Today’s post is a sequel of sorts to January’s “Journey of the Sorceror”. It looks at an East Ren library copy of Essential Doctor Strange. For convenience, I’ve split the stories collected within into three arcs.

The first, A Gathering of Fear includes episodes I previously read in Marvel UK’s heroic fantasy title, Valour. This weekly was a blend of Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur, late 70s Thor ( which we’ve looked at in a previous blog post ),late 70s Conan and the odd Wally Wood short from the late 60s.

The first stories follow up a Conway Thor storyline and reintroduces the Lovecraftian Dweller in Darkness, a shadowy colossus with facial tentacles, whose servants include “Shade Thralls” and the cloaked spook,  D’spayre. Tom Sutton’s artwork has a grotesquely cartoony feel, reminiscent of early 70s-Strange but is replaced by classic Strange penciller, Gene “the Dean” Colan. Roger Stern is a writer whose work I find rather bland and workmanlike. This unmemorable batch of a half-dozen stories, like those Marvel Premiere tales by Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin and Gardner Fox, seem to suggest that 30s Pulp Horror isn’t a successful milieu for Doctor Strange.

The subsequent Shadowqueen arc was written by Chris Claremont and it really piqued my interest in the pages of Valour. Claremont pits Strange against the N’Garai, his own brand of Lovercraftian Elder God, familiar from his stories of the  X-Men and Dracula.  Colan’s art looks fantastic but the stories are dreadfully verbose and fall flat in terms of emotion. Wong is given a heroic ancestry but the rebel leader of another dimension rejoices in the comical sobriquet Silver Fox.  Mordo is re-positioned as the major antagonist of the series and Claremont introduces a new love interest in the form of old flame Madeleine St. Germaine. He also introduces Sara Wolfe,  Strange’s business manager. She is of Native American ethnicity because , y’know, Claremont loved the patronising “Noble Savage” trope. Despite a crossover with his Man-Thing stories, somewhat to my surprise, I found Claremont’s idiosyncrasies failed to entertain in this arc, although Colan’s work might now lead me to try Night Force again.

The most enjoyable stories in the book comprise the This Menace Reborn arc, which introduces the art of Marshall Rogers. His employment of graphic effects and panel arrangements is playful and exhilarating, reminiscent of Steranko. Stern returns as scripter and his stories are more “super-heroic” than Claremont’s moody monologues. Guest-stars in this arc range from Brother Voodoo, the 1960s Fantastic Four and Sgt. Fury, in an exciting, anniversary time-travel story with more than a hint of Aleister Crowley.  Guest artist Michael Golden makes the DeMatteis Defenders of the early 80s look tremendous.

 

As Clea, Strange’s lover/apprentice, is finally written out- the writing is on the wall from the very beginning of this collection- Stern introduces yet another romantic interest: Morgana Blessing, whose love for Strange has survived through all her reincarnations. This love story is cleverly linked to the FF’s classic adventure with Rama-Tut ( and later, Englehart will add further layers of complexity by involving the West Coast Avengers and Khonshu, Moon Knight’s patron). Paul Smith provides the final story in this Essential volume. His stylish and clean art is less detailed and exaggerated than Rogers and “A Mystic Reborn” also reintroduces Kaecillius, the villain of the 2016 Dr. Strange movie. He’s the Great Gambonno lookalike, who was a servant of Baron Mordo in the Sixties.

Given the tiresome verbiage of Claremont and the blandness of Stern,  this book is not really “Essential”, in comparison with the Fireside Dr. Strange collection. The notable exception is of course the Marshall Rogers run. He really seems like the natural heir to Ditko.

Coming soon: Superman 1987

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Here Be Monsters

Today’s post is the third and final entry in a spring crossover with my original blog, Some Fantastic Place. Appropriately so, since it concerns mid-Sixties reprints of the X-Men, which I first read fifty years ago, in the black and white weekly comic Fantastic as a “pre-schooler”. I read them again, when they next appeared in the pages of The Mighty World of Marvel, nearly forty years ago.  And, most recently, at the beginning of this year, in a collection entitled Lonely are the Hunted.

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The first story today is from the US X-title’s fortieth issue but I first read it in a wildly miscoloured reprint in the 1970 Fantastic Annual. The Mark of the Monster is a goofy and oft-derided story but I’m fond of it since it represents my childhood fascination with the team. In this Thomas/Heck/Tuska collaboration, the Monster of Frankenstein  is an alien android on a survey mission.The Frankenstein family and their creations would be folded into the MU later in the pages of Silver Surfer, Iron Man and of course, the eponymous fright-mag of the 70s. This story, I suspect, shows off Thomas’s literary expertise and may be an homage to the Frankenstein comics of the 40s and 50s.

 

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Oddly, the mini-arc which follows also features a monstrous antagonist. Now Strikes the Sub-Human/ If I Should Die introduces Grotesk, a mutated subterranean who wants to obliterate the human race. He’s clearly Thomas’s tribute to Kull the Beast-man, the Marvel Family villain. His origins are reminiscent of Sub-Mariner’s reintroduction in the FF but in a Marvel Universe where Mole Man and Tyrannus, not to mention the obscure Kala and even the Lava Men rule their own netherworlds, Grotesk is an unnecessary addition.

Professor X sacrifices himself to defeat the would-be world-beater in a climax which is still sombre and dramatic even if Angel isn’t sure that it is Xavier …and observant readers who paid attention to the Changeling in the Factor Three saga might also be doubtful…

The Origins of the X-Men back-ups recount Xavier and Scott Summers’ first meeting and their first Evil Mutant nemesis- Jack O’Diamonds, who with further mutation becomes The Living Diamond. I’m not convinced crystal-fisted teleporter Jack Winters is any more a mutant than Electro or Sandman however. The first two parts of Iceman’s origin have a flavour that reminds me of S.E Hinton’s Outsiders or Rumblefish.

The next story arc is a crossover with the Avengers, where Magneto escaped his captivity on the Stranger’s planet. With a dynamic Buscema cover, Xavier’s lonely funeral is depicted in The Torch is Passed and Pietro, now back in the Brotherhood, pays his respects. However, the pursuing X-Men are soundly trounced by Magneto. George Tuska’s mutants are pencilled more excitingly than Heck but I prefer the latter’s design sense.

Angel escapes from Magneto’s island stronghold in an odd interlude. Red Raven, Red Raven reintroduces an obscure 1940s hero and his sunken city of birdmen. The tragic Raven will return in the pages of Sub-Mariner and later as a member of the homefront Liberty Legion. This pause in the narrative makes sense when you discover (as Alter Ego magazine attested ten years ago) that Thomas intended to team Red Raven up with Quicksilver and Rick Jones as Bucky. This was allegedly a collaboration with Barry Smith but it has a Forties flavour of the Invaders or Liberty Legion.  Ironically, Thomas had a habit of killing off his wartime idols before retroactively introducing them in The Invaders ( c.f. Toro, Miss America – and Marvel Boy, although he was from the Fifties.)

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When Mutants Clash is the last colour issue of the original X-Men before the Cockrum team take over the bi-monthly title. I got it in the market in Morecambe in 1978 and it’s a conflict between Cyclops and Quicksilver by Heck and Roth In Battle Joined. Meanwhile, Angel musters the forces of the Avengers- somewhat depleted at this stage and comprising Hank, Jan, Hawkeye and brand-new recruit the Black Panther. Magneto  exacerbates a Mighty Marvel Misunderstanding between the two teams but he is hoist by his own petard as the much-maligned Toad betrays him.

Magneto won’t be seen again until the Neal Adams era and post-Sentinels, Wanda and Pietro rejoin the Avengers a couple of years after these issues. John Buscema’s art is gorgeous and Angel is looks more heroic than he’s ever done before. The final images of the fleeing Brotherhood on a spiral staircase, the Toad stamping on Magneto’s hands and Mags’ helmet bobbing in the waves stayed with me for life, from whatever Power Comic reprinted them.

This collection is rounded out with two 60s reprints from Not Brand Ecch, one of which features a cheeky cameo by the Doom Patrol. The other parody features the Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles and represents “college boy” Marvel at its hippest height. Although these stories represent, in part at least, my formative experience of Marvel mutants, it’s clear that X-Men was a title that was struggling. Shaking up the status quo, debuting new costumes and, playing it, at least from the covers, as a series of solos ( as Arnold Drake would do subsequently and as John Byrne did initially with Alpha Flight in the 80s ) really did little to revitalise the title until the epoch-shattering Adams issues.

I wonder if a new member wouldn’t have been a good idea- and a female one at that? Angel’s romantic interest Candy could easily have been revealed as a mutant, although any powers she had would probably have been of the “point and faint” variety. A new master villain was needed with Magneto written out and the Conquistador from the Beast back-up tales might have been a possibility, with some development. Unfortunately, everything post-Factor Three was a little dreary, with the exception of the Buscema crossover.

Coming soon: the many loves of Doctor Strange- and on Some Fantastic Place, Batgirl and Spy Smasher

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