Friday, 31 January 2014

Essential Doctor Strange volume 2

Essential Doctor Strange volume 2 charts the rise and fall of the character's first attempt at an own title and then his attempts at a comeback. It contains Doctor Strange #169-178 & #180-183 (#179 was a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man annual #2; the cover isn't included here) plus the crossover issues Avengers #61, Sub-Mariner #22 and Incredible Hulk #126. Doctor Strange had a brief back-up strip in Marvel Feature #1 that's included here as part of the return of the character for the Defenders' launch. Then a couple of years later he got a solo strip once again which was run in another tryout book, Marvel Premiere #3-14. Everything before Marvel Premiere, including all the crossover issues, is written by Roy Thomas and then Marvel Premiere is by, variously, Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Gardner Fox and Steve Englehart. Art is more mixed - the Doctor Strange issues are mainly drawn by Gene Colan, with contributions by Dan Adkins and Tom Palmer. The Marvel Feature story is drawn by Don Heck then Marvel Premiere has a variety of artists such as Barry Windsor-Smith, Irv Wesley, Frank Brunner, P. Craig Russell and Jim Starlin. Of the crossover issues the Avengers is by John Buscema, Sub-Mariner by Marie Severin and Incredible Hulk by Herb Trimpe. That's a lot of labels so inevitably a separate post has been created for some of them.

In the early days of the strip it was notable for doing things rather differently from the standard Marvel approach at the time. However after Steve Ditko's departure the series meandered without a clear sense of direction. This volume starts at the point where Doctor Strange got his own title, but this was clearly a consequence of Marvel expanding en masse thanks to a change in its distribution arrangements (a change that I've noted in more detail in previous reviews) rather than a specific decision to break out the character. The series only lasted fifteen issues (carrying forward the Strange Tales numbering, although a later revival of that title would confuse things by doing the same), with the last three seeing the series go bimonthly, always a sign of problems, and demonstrates the same lack of certainty about what to do with the character, with a drift towards several of the conventions of more traditional superhero titles such that we get variously a masked hero, a secret identity and even a step towards a romantic triangle with one woman pining for the hero but realising he only has eyes for another. Just to add to the mess, some of these developments come out of the blue and offer little. The series is also beset by retreading a lot of familiar ground.

The first issue is devoted to a retelling of Doctor Strange's origin before we get a succession of issues focusing mainly on the return of past foes with some familiar settings. Amongst the returns are Nightmare, Dreamstalker, Dormammu, Umar and Tiboro. A guest appearance by the Black Knight against the Sons of Satannish and Tiboro leads to an epilogue in the pages of Avengers as Doctor Strange works with Earth's Mightiest Heroes to tackle Ymir the frost giant and Surtur the fire demon, both from the pages of Thor. Meanwhile, in his second appearance in this brief run, Nightmare becomes the latest entity to challenge Eternity, with the Juggernaut thrown into the mix. The resolution includes the deus ex machina revelation that Eternity has slightly altered the universe to give Doctor Strange a secret identity as "Stephen Sanders", with all records and memories now reflecting this.

There are a few additions to the mythology in these issues, with the most significant debut being the entity Satannish. Other issues feature followers such as Lord Nekron and the Sons of Satannish, Asmodeus and Marduk. Satannish is another of many demonic beings in Marvel comics who appear to be the Devil in some form (and who go many years without clarity as to what the relationship between them is); his debut actually just slightly predates Mephisto's by a month. The last issue starts a storyline with new foes the Undying Ones, ruled by the Nameless One; however the series came to an abrupt halt and so the story was wrapped up first in Sub-Mariner and then in the Incredible Hulk with additional conflict with the Night-Crawler, the ruler of the neighbouring Dark Dimension. At the end of the Incredible Hulk issue, Doctor Strange decides to retire, abandoning his role and powers, and would not be seen again for a year and a half. However he would then reappear, without his mask or "Stephen Sanders" secret identity, when the Defenders launched in the pages of Marvel Feature and a back-up solo story restores his power and position, with yet another clash with Baron Mordo.

These issues also develop Doctor Strange's romantic life by bringing Clea to Earth and making more use of Victoria Bentley. Victoria has strong feelings for Stephen but is saddened to discover he has eyes only for Clea; however unlike some Marvel heroes he's not a dick who acts nasty in order to scare Victoria off. She may be disappointed but is perfectly willing to help him rescue Clea from another realm when she is the only one who can do so, a more sophisticated solution to the situation than some approaches that might have instead had Victoria jealously refusing and forcing Doctor Strange to find an alternative solution. Clea is brought to Earth where she's given her own apartment (showing an unmarried couple living together might have been too bold a step that Marvel didn't want to take in 1968) and there's some comedic asides as she comes to terms with the strange world around her and Stephen has to react quickly to handle the mess when she tries to use her magic. But aside from the culture clash there's a clear rapport between the two. However she gets largely forgotten when the series suddenly ends with no mention of her as Stephen ditches his role and powers, though once the Marvel Premiere strip gets going she appears as though nothing significant has happened in the interim.

With only fifteen issues, one of which is taken up by the retelling of the origin and another by a reprint, there's not too much time for the solo series. However it seems to squander even what is available, in part because many issues have oversized panels that allows the artwork to show off but which also slows down the narrative. Since the series is also going over a lot of old ground the overall result is rather disappointing and it's hard to get upset about it coming to an end so soon. It just reiterates the standard problem that it's often hard to know what to do with Doctor Strange and so a rest and then restricting his appearances to a team title was probably a good prescription. When he once again got an ongoing solo feature there was both an influx of new ideas and a wider changed environment at Marvel.

Initially it seems the new strip might be yet more of the same, with the first issue containing yet another confrontation with Nightmare. But then under the pen of first Gardner Fox and then Steve Englehart the series gets much more original with a strong sequence of stories that see Doctor Strange face off against a host of monsters and demons, putting him in difficult and novel situations. A trip to the town of Starkesboro reveals the population have been transformed into reptilian humanoids, worshipping the snake demon Sligguth, with its priestess Ebora and the Spawn of Sligguth upping the ante. The defeat of Sligguth only leads to the emergence of another monster, N'Gabthoth the Shambler from the Sea. Meanwhile the Shadowmen of Kaa-U kidnap the Ancient One as part of their worship of Shuma Gorath. Doctor Strange's search brings him into conflict with the demon Dagoth and then the living planet Kathulos. The defeat of the latter sees Doctor Strange stuck on a dead planet though he eventually finds a way to fly home, taking four days. When he finally reaches Kaa-U, he fights the Shadowmen's leader the Living Buddha, before the ultimate confrontation with Shuma Gorath. In the process Doctor Strange finds himself facing the ultimate dilemma when the only way to defeat Shuma Gorath is to kill the Ancient One - something that goes against all his medical and mystical oaths and his mentor to boot. Some of the monsters and concepts encountered in this saga are drawn from the works of Robert E. Howard, best known as the creator of Conan.

Gardner Fox is so heavily associated with his herculanen output for DC over the decades that it's always a surprise to discover his name on a Marvel comic. Fox's Marvel work was amongst the last of his comics career (although he also wrote many novels) and to both his and editorial's credit he didn't try to recreate his superhero magic at his new company but rather showed his diversity and worked mainly on westerns and horror. The 1970s horror trend may well have been to Doctor Strange's advantage, allowing a greater use of the occult than before and tapping into a prevailing trend in the market. Fox's run may be brief but it really shakes up the character and series, showing that there is so much more to do and exciting us, helped by a succession of strong artists who defy the usual rule that a different artist each issue invariably means fast, poor results. Fox and the rotation are succeeded by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner who conclude the Shuma Gorath saga and then present a daring saga that confounds expectations and amazes me that they got away with it.

After an emergency reprint (with a new framing sequence) of Doctor Strange's origin, we see the now Sorcerer Supreme seek to end his long-standing rivalry with Baron Mordo, which at first had me worried that we would get yet another retread of all ground, with a battle with the Living Gargoyle en route. But instead both Strange and Mordo get caught in the scheme of the time-travelling sorcerer Cagliostro, real name Sise-Neg, who travels backwards in time absorbing ever more power with the intention of reaching the start of time and influencing creation. He is even open about wishing to become "God" and as the three head backwards through the ages Sise-Neg is responsible for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (here shown as a place of general hostility to all strangers rather than a place practising sodomy), and then, in an earlier period, he creates a garden for two surviving apes. Finally at the start of time Sise-Neg concludes that man cannot be improved upon and so allows things to be created as before. It now seems incredible that a story could see print that effectively portrays its antagonist as the inspiration behind the understanding of God, and gives alternative explanations to some of the best known Biblical stories. Marvel in the mid 1970s was often daring, and highly inconsistent, on religious themes and I doubt they would be able to make such bold moves today.

This volume ends immediately before Doctor Strange was once again transferred to his own title and so comparisons with his first volume naturally arise. Both experience the problems of the Essential format automatically bundling together everything in sequence with the result that two distinct periods are presented in a single volume. And they both show the lengthy search to find a direction and purpose for the character after the initial burst of creation. Here we get the rather dire first solo series which just presents more of the same with greater space for the artwork and it drags. But the cancellation proves to have been beneficial as when the character got a solo strip once more there was now a new approach to magic and horror that allowed for some original and highly magical adventures. The strip once more regains a sense of daring and excitement, and so by the end of the volume things have come almost full circle.

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