Friday, 13 February 2015

Essential Doctor Strange volume 4

Essential Doctor Strange volume 4 is made up of issues #30-56 plus Man-Thing (volume 2) #4 and a story from Chamber of Chills #4. The writing is mainly by Roger Stern and Chris Claremont with contributions by Don McGregor, Ralph Macchio, Bill Kunkel, David Michelinie and J.M DeMatteis. The art is mostly by Tom Sutton, Gene Colan and Marshall Rogers with contributions by Ricardo Villamonte, Alan Kupperberg, Kerry Gammill, Paul Smith, Brent Anderson and Michael Golden. The Man-Thing issue is written by Claremont and drawn by Don Perlin whilst the Chamber of Chills story is written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Howard Chaykin. And yes, a separate post is needed for some of the labels. A bonus is a 1981 house ad for the series announcing the creative team as Roger Stern and Frank Miller but the latter doesn't seem to have made it to the title.

As always this is a difficult series to write and generate excitement about. There have been periods in the character's history when a creator has successfully grasped Doctor Strange and managed to make the elements work in such a way to produce a grand tapestry that has a real buzz to it. And there are other periods when the title wanders from writer to writer in a search for something to do. Unfortunately this volume exclusively covers the latter period. Both Roger Stern and Chris Claremont are highly successful writers with much acclaim for their work elsewhere, yet here they join the long list of creators who have tried and failed with the character. It's a wonder that this series lasted so long, especially considering it was bimonthly for the entire of the period covered here (and would stay so for the rest of the title's run, lasting long enough to generate the contents for a fifth volume). Some of the art is quite spectacular, and the reproduction is especially sharp, particularly in reproducing nuanced greys that help to distinguish astral forms from the solid. But the overall narrative is dull and so consequently this is the weakest of all the Doctor Strange Essentials if not one of the dullest in the whole Essential series.

That's not to say there aren't attempts to build something big, starting with a protracted saga involving the Dweller in Darkness that brings in some new lesser villains such as the mystic Alaric and the Dream Weaver, as well as pre-existing foes such as Ningal and D'Spayre. There's also a team-up with Namor the Sub-Mariner and another with the adventurer Murdoch Adams, whose sole previous appearance in Chamber of Chills is reprinted here in order to establish both him and his longstanding foe, the demon Ludi. The ending is awkward with the Dweller declaring victory as he has succeeded in making Doctor Strange doubt his abilities. It might have been followed up on but the arrival of a new writer immediately takes the series in a different direction.

One storyline sees Baron Mordo return as he seeks to destroy the Earth by opening Chaos Gates near the Nexus of All Realities located in the Florida swamps. En route he turns Stephen's old colleague Julian Phyffe into Azrael, a demon with the power to rapidly age people and things to death. The story leads to a crossover with Man-Thing, who sacrifices his chance of being restored by Mordo to human form to save the day and not even Stephen's magic can deliver the deserved reward. Meanwhile Clea and Wong have been captured and taken to another dimension populated by barbarians and wizards where Wong's ancestor's actions have led to the state of this world, including the transformation of the Princess Shialmar into the Shadowqueen. It's a tale of longstanding vengeance that helps to add to Wong's character but it's also a trip into the realm of sword and sorcery long after the fad had passed.

There are some lighter tales as well, including one in which Doctor Strange has to handle a nosy journalist who soon learns the importance of Stephen's work or an encounter with a demon at a highly traditionalist North Carolina university founded by the man who captured a bell that could summon the demon. The result sees a shattering of the traditionalist policies as the students start challenging them. Doctor Strange also teams up with Brother Voodoo to free the latter's brother's spirit from Damballah; the adventure also serves to underline the differences between the two heroes.

The volume sees Clea go through a cycle of uncertainty and doubt to advancement and optimism about her position with Stephen. Their relationship is developing strongly but she is unsure about her effectiveness as a disciple, often needing to be rescued by him. And her doubts are not helped by the return of various women from his past including Victoria Bentley and the previously unseen Madeleine St. Germaine, who under different circumstances might have ended up marrying Stephen years before. More troubling for her is Morganna Blessing, a writer in whom Clea detects great romantic feelings for Stephen. A pair of epics with Baron Mordo, Dormammu and Nightmare establishes that Morganna has been reincarnated multiple times throughout history. Stephen encounters several of Morganna's previous incarnations first as he pursues his foes through time to wartime Britain where Mordo has been manipulated by his grandfather and Dormammu as part of a scheme to bring the latter to Earth in the past. In battling this and encountering Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos, Stephen discovers that Morganna is a reincarnation of nurse Lady Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury's wartime girlfriend. Later as Stephen travels back through time in pursuit of a portion of Morganna's soul that has become detached and threatens human history and the realm of Nightmare. In the course of this he encounters further incarnations of Morganna and thus by predestination he creates the bond between them.

Doctor Strange's quest finally ends in Ancient Egypt as he finds himself caught up in the events of the Fantastic Four's visit to the kingdom of Rama-Tut way back in the earliest days of their title. There is no direct interaction between them and Stephen, whose body is captured and so has to spend most of the issue in his invisible astral form, with the result that early Marvel history isn't altered in any way. However Stephen's actions in focusing the sun upon the Thing are now the reason for the latter suddenly reverting to his human form at the oar of a galley, a moment of plot convenience in the original story that could have been simply dismissed as just a typical piece of Silver Age logic. But since neither Ancient Egypt nor Rama-Tut (better known as Kang and Immortus) have been significant forces in Doctor Strange's adventures, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this setting was chosen simply for the opportunity to retcon away Ben's reversion and reduce the perceived silliness of the Silver Age. There is frankly no need to constantly revisit the Silver Age and tinker with the stories in order to explain away the odder plot elements, and it's certainly not a priority for Doctor Strange to be running around clearing up incidents from the Fantastic Four.

Eventually Clea decides that as a being from another dimension she is unsuited to be the disciple of the Sorcerer Supreme and that she should not stand in the way of another's feelings and so opts to return to the Dark Dimension to lead a band of rebels. This throws Stephen into a prolonged despair, moping around his house for a while including time to work off a standby fill-in issue featuring the couple that would otherwise no longer be useable in an emergency. (At seventeen pages it's also now too short as the series, and regular Marvel titles in general, had recently increased to twenty-two story pages, but this allows space for a longer framing sequence than usual.) He is then subject to an attack by D'Spayre that throws him into a succession of ever more bizarre realms in which first he died in the car crash and then he is just a fictional character in comics created by "Ted Tevoski" and "Les Tane". It's a crisis that also serves as an opportunity for Stephen to come to terms with his place in the universe and begin to move on. The final issue in the volume sees him back on form as he faces down three of Mordo's former demons who seek to invade the Sanctum Sanctorum under the guise of being a film crew for an interview conducted by Morganna. We get a recapping of the origin and also the potential starting of something as he and Morganna agree to start as friends and see how things develop.

There are a few other developments to the supporting cast with Wong given an ancestor in the form of Kan, a warrior monk whose actions in defeating the Wizard Kings have led to each successive generation of the family seeking to atone through serving mystics. The household staff is expanded with the introduction of neighbour Sara Wolfe who finds herself stuck in the house for a protracted period and ends up sorting out Stephen's bills, leading to her accepting the job of Business Manager and Social Secretary. She is the great-granddaughter of a Cheyenne shaman but her role in the series is limited to providing personal and business support, with the occasional humorous moment such as her attempts to declares items like Eye of Newt as a tax deductible expense. There is, however, a hint that something could develop between her and Wong in the long run.

Just occasionally there are unusual experiments in storytelling, with issue #53's summation of previous events being delivered by Gnit, an annoying beast that is literally the nightmare of Nightmare, who thus cannot dispose of it whilst his realm is threatened. It's a change from the usual dwelling upon a key character's thoughts and makes for a bit of comedy at an otherwise deeply serious time.

Beyond the inexplicable detour into the events of an old issue of Fantastic Four there are no individual issues in this volume that stand out as real stinkers. But as a whole it's just slow and stilted, showing how difficult it is to make this series exciting. It may avoid overusing the same villains again and again and it's not really retreading old ground but at the same time it all feels like it's going through the motions. All creators have their weaker moments and this is most definitely some of those.

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