‘Essential Doctor Strange Volume 2’ is similar to the second half of Volume 1 in that it’s more piecemeal with several different creative teams at the helm. Volume 1 had a long stretch of Steve Ditko to establish the character, beginning with five-page tales and slowly stretching to ten and then to long continued stories. This book follows the trend of long, epic stories, probably because Doc’s antagonists are cosmic entities difficult to dispense with in a mere twenty pages.
We open with the talented team of Roy Thomas writing and Dan Adkins on the art in issues # 169-170 for a retelling of the origin of Doctor Strange and a battle with Nightmare, his first foe from way back. In a strange switch, Adkins inks Tom Palmer for issue # 171, in which our hero summons the Herald of Satannish to show him whence Clea, who aided him against Dormammu, has been banished. This is the first introduction of a thinly disguised Satan into Strange’s universe and it may not have been a good idea.
The Herald of Satannish did herald a sort of Golden Age for the series as issues # 172-183 feature the supreme scripting of Roy Thomas and the peerless pencils of Gene Colan which are excellently embellished by Tom Palmer, possibly the best inker ever. While reading these issues, I was struck by the deathless dialogue of Thomas which featured ‘kaleidoscopic cosmos filled with shifting shapes’, ‘macabre minions’ who are sent to a ‘darksome doom’ accompanied by ‘monstrous mocking laughter’ as Strange has the ‘priceless privilege’ of facing Nightmare. I was starting to wonder if Roy had been bitten by a radioactive Frank Ochieng (SFCrowsnest’s fabulous film critic). When Doc teamed up with less magical mortals to combat Ymir and Surtur in Avengers # 61, the mortals spoke like normal men and I realised that he had been using dramatic dialogue to foster the otherworldly atmosphere subtly suitable for mystic mayhem. However, if it reads a bit corny it sounds very corny indeed on the screen (I think that’s why Ben Grimm doesn’t work in movies), so I hope the film doesn’t copy this technique.
Colan’s art is very good, although there are many large panels and lots of white space. Sometimes this is suspicious and one has to wonder if a man being paid by the page is not simply using a technique to turn them out faster. However, Colan was famously devoted to his work and it would be unseemly to accuse him of laziness. I suspect he had been influenced by European comics and was experimenting with the limits of graphic storytelling. All in all, it works pretty well.
So well that the series was cancelled with Strange Tales # 183 (November 1969). Personally, I blame the Sons of Satannish and that baddie himself. United Statemen are generally quite religious and don’t like their children reading unwholesome material. Early on Strange’s tagline was changed from ‘Master Of Black Magic’ to ‘Master Of The Mystic Arts’. As long as he tangled with new fabulous entities like Nightmare and Dormammu, he was not controversial but borrowing from Christian myth was probably a step too far. Of course, the college kids loved both the art and the story but did not sustain a title back then. The Silver Surfer suffered similarly. Doc was doomed.
Fortunately, the Marvel Universe is a homogenous whole and, even if a character doesn’t have his own title, he can still appear elsewhere and did in Sub-Mariner # 22 (February 1970) which served mainly to remind me that Marvel should release another ‘Essential Sub-Mariner’ as when Subby got his own title, it was really good for a while. The mystic next showed up in Incredible Hulk # 126 (April 1970) which was a continuation and conclusion of the Undying One’s story.
Doctor Strange came back in Marvel Feature # 1 and was the origin of the Defenders but there was also a back-up strip. The original Defenders were Dr Strange, the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner. The Master Of The Mystic Arts returned for a longer run in Marvel Premier # 3-14 (July 1972-March 1974). I have to say I am indebted to Wikipedia for the publishing dates because the ‘Marvel Essential’ doesn’t give them. The ‘DC Showcase’ editions list the date of publication of each issue in the contents pages which is very useful and Marvel would do well to follow their example if they do further reprints.
Anyway, this run started with a story plotted and drawn beautifully by Barry Smith, inked by Dan Adkins and scripted by Stan Lee. In issue # 4, the plot was taken over by Roy Thomas and the script by Archie Goodwin. New inker Frank Brunner didn’t do Smith’s pencils justice. Rascally Roy cleverly combined ideas from H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. There’s an isolated town in which all the inhabitants look similarly odd (think Innsmouth) with a cult trying to call up an ancient evil (think Cthulhu) but, in this case, it’s Sligguth, the old serpent god of Pre-Cataclysmic Valusia (think Kull). It all promises a gripping epic and then in issues # 5-8, it all goes to pot. Gardner Fox takes over the scripting and we get a parade of monsters. Sligguth is a big lizard. Strange beats him and somehow that awakens N’Gabthoth, a tentacle-headed fishy chap who breaks into the evil church after a chest which has a map of Stonehenge. Doc finds the map and goes to England to fight Dagoth, basically a muscle man with a funny head. Fox was sacked by DC around this time, along with other writers who wanted better terms and conditions. I’m assuming that Roy Thomas gave him some work out of respect for his long career in the field but being handed an unusual strip like ‘Doctor Strange’ in the middle of a story may have proven too much for the poor chap. Changing artists with every issue wouldn’t have helped.
This volume ends on a high note with Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner picking up the reins for Marvel Premier # 9-14 and concluding the Shuma-Gorath story before introducing Sise-Neg. This controversial epic ended with God and the creation of the universe, about as cosmic as you can get. Satannish was bad enough but featuring God himself in a comic book was going too far and it is rumoured when Stan Lee saw the story, he ordered Englehart and Brunner to print a retraction saying this was not the God but a God. They allegedly wrote a fake letter from a non-existent minister praising the story and the retraction idea was dropped. I am hedging a bit on this statement because while the truth is out there it isn’t necessarily on wikipedia.
As ever, I’m flabbergasted by the second-hand price of these cheap reprints on pulp paper. I bought them when they came out, to read not as an investment. This one can cost up to £60 now but hopefully, you can find it cheaper. Clearly, if you want to collect ‘Marvel Essentials’ or ‘DC Showcase’ reprints you have to snap them up quick.
This book is worth getting. The stories are usually engrossing and, by its very nature, the format calls for interesting visuals so the artists do fine work. Worth buying just for the Colan/Palmer pictures. The contributions by Barry Smith and Frank Brunner are of not inconsiderable merit. Fans of the audio/visual film experience currently in cinemas may also enjoy the textual/visual version rendered herein. Popcorn is optional but don’t spill a fizzy drink on it as the cheap pulp paper will soak it up.
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/