Friday, 12 December 2014

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3

Essential Doctor Strange volume 3 collects issues #1-29 of his second series plus Annual #1 and the crossover issues of Tomb of Dracula #44-45. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Doctor Strange, his Sanctum Sanctorum, Eternity and Dormammu, plus a pin-up of Doctor Strange and Dracula from a Marvel calendar and an extra page used in a previous reprint of Tomb of Dracula #45. Most issues are written by Steve Englehart with shorter runs by Marv Wolfman, Jim Starlin and Roger Stern, and individual writing or plotting contributions by Frank Brunner and Roy Thomas. The art sees runs by Frank Brunner, Gene Colan and, right at the end, Tom Sutton, plus other contributions by Alan Weiss, Alfredo P. Alcala, Rudy Nebres, Dan Adkins, Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom. One issue sees a framing sequence around a reprint of Strange Tales #126-127 drawn by Steve Ditko and scripted by Stan Lee. The annual is written by Englehart and co-plotted & drawn by P. Craig Russell whilst the Tomb of Dracula issues are written by Wolfman and drawn by Colan. That's a lot of creators so there's a separate post for some of the labels.

Doctor Strange is a character and series that a lot of writers have struggled with over the years. Some seem to have very little idea as to what to do with the character beyond yet more rounds of battles with the likes of Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Nightmare and other foes from the original stories along with yet more encounters with Eternity for the sake of it, continuing to wallow in the legacy of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee but only really offering more homages of the same old. Others try to ignore all those elements and instead thrust the good doctor into new environments, taking him away from all of that but again it can be ultimately unsatisfying. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity around Doctor Strange's powers with his power level especially volatile to the point that stories can be resolved with deus ex machina endings. It's unsurprising to find that in this volume there are multiple attempts to contain his power, whether by temporarily depowering him whilst in a specific environment or else overtly trimming his wings when he gives up the role of Sorcerer Supreme, although he gets it back later on under a new writer.

The early issues do a lot for the mythology with the introduction of Silver Dagger, the fanatical ex-Cardinal who has become on of Doctor Strange's most recurring of foes, but otherwise we get an epic retread of familiar themes. But there's a real effort to build on what has come before rather than merely retelling the same kind of adventures. There's a return of Dormammu but as a reincarnation no longer bound by his previous vow to spare Earth and so opening up new dangers. At the same time we learn a great deal more about the Dark Dimension including the revelation that Clea is the daughter of Umar and Orini, and thus the true heir to the throne. Elsewhere Doctor Strange is thrust into the Orb of Agamotto and into the realm where he encounters Agamotto himself. (Although he is not yet explicitly named but it's pretty clear who this giant caterpillar is meant to be.)

There's a growth in the cosmic elements and a willingness to both define and shake up the universe, seen most obviously in the encounter with the personification of Death. Here the entity is presented as male though the female presentation would subsequently come to be the norm. Death and Eternity are now set out as the two fundamental forces in the universe, marking the very brief start to attempts to rationalise the many different seemingly all powerful cosmic entities who have shown up in Marvel comics over the years. Such is the boldness on the cosmic scale that the end of issue #12 sees the Earth itself destroyed by Mordo's madness. And it isn't an illusion or reversed but instead the planet is recreated by Eternity, with accelerated evolution to restore it to the exact moment. However Doctor Strange has to live with the knowledge of what happened, that everyone around him is a duplicate whilst he is the sole survivor of the original planet.

It's surprising just how close to modern religion this run gets. There's explicit acknowledgement of God and where He sits in the cosmic hierarchy with Eternity clearly below him. Later Doctor Strange battles a being who is presented explicitly as Satan. Although he acknowledges other names such as "Lucifer", "Mephistopheles", "Beelzebub" and "Old Nick", there is nothing here to suggest that he is in fact one of the many demons. Truly the Devil is the most inconsistently portrayed character in the Marvel universe.

One of the recurring themes sees Doctor Strange thrust into a variety of worlds in which he encounters aspects of himself and/or his life. One of the most memorable comes in a realm populated by duplicates of Stephen though the ruler is masked. And it seems Steve Englehart's hostility to Richard Nixon continued unabated even a year after the resignation because the ruler is hiding behind a Richard Nixon mask.

This mixture of the fantastic and the personal works well with some good development of Clea. She and Stephen demonstrate a mixture of uncertainty and disagreement over exactly what their relationship is, though given the age of these issues it's surprising that they're all but actually showing us the couple sleeping together. (For that matter the flashback depicting the one night stand between Clea's parents, Orini and Umar, is also quite close to explicit.) The two aren't always on the same wavelength about when they are being master and disciple and when they are a couple, leading to some unfortunate moments. Clea's insecurities are played on by a number of beings, and ultimately she is subjected to a spell by Xander that leaves her amnesiac and angry, attacking even Doctor Strange. Although the spell is short-lived and Clea soon returns to Stephen's side, it's clear by the end of the volume that there are still issues to resolve.

The United States's bicentennial is marked with an aborted saga called "the Occult History of America" in which Doctor Strange and Clea travel through the nation's history to investigate Sir Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. In the course of the journey they encounter Stygyro, who is presented as the perfect contrast to Strange, being a long-lived and powerful sorcerer from a previous era, travelling across the ages and even seducing Clea whilst in the form of Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately both the saga and Stygyro fall victim to changing writers, with the Occult History hurriedly abandoned whilst Stygyro later turns up as one of the Creators. The Creators are the main focus of the rear of the volume as they and their agent Xander work to undermine Doctor Strange, even manipulating him into decisions that remove the Sorcerer Supreme title from him. They are a group of sorcerers working with the In-Betweener to reform the universe through the odd method of swapping places with the stars and remoulding the now human stars in their own image. At one stage the Earth has become a place occupied by anthropomorphic animals, including the boar Doctor Stranger Yet who provides for an interesting confrontation between the two counterparts. The epic climaxes in a showdown with the In-Betweener at the Wheel of Change.

The annual serves as a side-step from this storyline as Doctor Strange hunts for Clea but gets dragged into a power struggle in the realm known as Phaseworld, where the Empress Lectra battles both her sister Phaydra and the angel Tempus. However the revelation of Lectra's lies and illusions in luring Stephen ultimately result in the destruction of the whole realm and all who live within it. It's a curious little tale but ultimately it doesn't amount to much and it's easy to see why it would later be rewritten as the 1990s one-shot Doctor Strange: What is it that Disturbs You Stephen?

The crossover with Tomb of Dracula may be significant in the long run for the first interaction between the two lead characters but here it feels like a step out of the comfort zone and into a crossover for the sake of a crossover. It doesn't add much to either series and feels like it was done just to boost sales on the weaker selling title, though I'm not sure which one that was.

This run shows a few deadline problems that led to reprints; oddly both of the original stories are included in full here. In issue #3 Doctor Strange is on a journey through the Orb of Agamotto to confront Death and remembers the events of how he first met Clea and Dormammu. Here there's a brief framing sequence to tie things together, with the final page combining both modern and classic material so it would have been hard to present just the frame as sometimes happens when the Essentials come to a reprint issue. Still it's a surprise and delight to see a Ditko-Lee story again even if the contrast between the original artwork and the-then modern style is all too clear. Issue #21 sees a reprint of "The Coming of... Dr. Strange" from issue #169 of the previous series. It's odd that it's included here as the story is presented straight up as a reprint without any effort to incorporate it into the ongoing narrative. Due to a reduced page count a bit of the story has had to be trimmed and, using volume 2 side by side with volume 3, it's possible to compare the two to see what has been change. Most of the loss is in individual pages but occasionally two pages have been cut up to produce one condensed version. As the most substantial version of Doctor Strange's origin to date it's easy to see why it was chosen but it's harder to understand why it was included in this reprint volume unless someone in production failed to spot it was a reprint until it was too late.

Another issue that feels like a deadline problem is #29 which carries a team-up with Nighthawk as they battle Death-Stalker, the old foe of Daredevil. The whole thing feels odd and a little out of place in the run despite being by the regular creative team. Either this was an attempt by a newish writer to go in a different direction from before or else it was prepared as an emergency standby that could fill-in a gap in either this series or the Defenders. Either way it's a rather unsatisfactory ending to it all.

Overall this volume is solid but not always the strongest. The first two thirds show a good attempt to combine the traditional Doctor Strange mythology with some new elements and new takes on the existing ones, and it broadly works to make the series interesting. However there's still some repetition of themes and it continues in the last third of the volume which shows all the signs of multiple writers struggling with the situation they have inherited, with some going in a clearly different direction from what was previously planned, and the result is an unsatisfactory mess. Doctor Strange is a tricky series to get right so it's a pity when such periods don't last for longer.

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