Tuesday, May 17, 2005

It all came about as a result of Free Comic Book Day.

Y'see, I hate to waltz into my comics shop, scarf up free swag, and leave without buying something. I'm just nice like that. Anyway, last year I picked up a couple of CDs- this year, I was more in the mood for something to read (especially since I had to do the Sunday morning radio thing the next day) so I browsed and browsed and browsed...and then I saw it. On a shelf full of discounted graphic novels and trade collections was a copy of THE ESSENTIAL DR. STRANGE VOL. 1 at 50% off. I knew then that this was meant to be. I had kinda been in the mood to re-read some old Marvel stuff anyway, and this fit the bill perfectly. And even better- this collected work that extended beyond the classic Lee/Ditko run into later issues, many of which I had never read, or had forgotten about. So...what did I think?

Well...it's pretty much like it seems. The early Lee-Ditko stuff is as visually incredible and inconsistently scripted as you'd think. I don't mean to slam Stan, far from it- his dialoguing at its best had a great, breezy flow that enhanced the KirbyDitkoAyersHecketc. art that it accompanied, and he seemed to be great at coming up with plot angles, or interesting directions for others' plots. I am not one that thinks that Lee had nothing to do with the greatness of early Marvel. But Silver Surferisms aside, Stan didn't always write the best hightoned dialogue out there. The dialogue in most of these stories tends towards the ponderous, pretentious and stagy; when characters aren't having grim internal monologues, they're haughtily pronouncing, to all that will listen, how powerful and mighty and great they are and how they absolutely can't BELIEVE that anyone would dare fuck with their mighty personages. And it's not just the bad guys- Doc Strange does this all the time as well! Doc, Dormammu, his hot sis Umar, Nightmare, the Demon, eternal fuckup Baron Mordo, even the friggin' Ancient One- they all boast and brag just like they were old school rappers. Of course, when I was 4, 5, 6 years old and reading this stuff, I didn't think anything of it, but as an adult, I can't help but notice. But hey- Stan was merely trying to follow in the footsteps of pulp writers and many of the other purveyors of popular culture "weird" writings. Not everyone can be Fritz Lieber.

And Ditko. Ah, Ditko. Many, myself included, love his Spidey stuff but this was the uncut funk. The bomb. Hallucinatory landscapes, the literal representation of beams of magical force and Steve's brilliant realization of such Lee brainstorms as the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak and the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto. Even Steve's women were foxy here. Obviously Steve saw his chance to let his imagination run wild and he seized it lustily. As a youngster, I remember being absolutely fascinated by his art here. It's funny, too- the old saying "Often imitated, never duplicated" is very true in the case of those who have tried to follow in the Sturdy One's footsteps. I think, honestly, only Jim Starlin came close to this level of weirdness. Even Ditko never really topped his work from this period. So this volume is worth having for this reason alone. I miss the color, though, even though it looks just fine in black & white.

As I had said before, I had already read many of these stories, either in the original issues of Strange Tales (I was a big fan of those Torch & Thing stories that were co-featured) or later in reprint form in Marvel Tales, and my perception of them now is, unsurprisingly, a bit different from when I was 4-6. At first, Lee and Ditko seemed unsure about what they wanted to do with the Doctor. His appearance was that of an inscrutable Asian type, but I think they realized that it didn't make much sense for a man named "Strange" to be Eurasian, so his features slowly but surely became more Westernized as time went on. Early stories pitted him mostly against Mordo and Nightmare as well as the odd tale that seemed to be an old mystery/horror script they had dusted off and written Doc into. Things seemed to shift into gear with #126's "Domain of the Dread Dormammu", which introduced (much to Mordo's chagrin, I'll bet) Doc's arch-foe Dormammu, the nasty extradimensional sorcerer nabob with the fiery melon, who would plague him for almost two more years not to mention his future paramour Clea. Ditko had also gotten back to inking himself, after a couple of George Bell-delineated episodes which were fine, but Ditko was always Ditko's best inker back then. After that we are introduced to a succession of interesting foes: The Demon, not Etrigan but a fella with a pointy hat and collar who snags Strange in the "unbreakable" Crimson bands of Cyttorak- I think this was my very first Strange story, back when I was a little kid so it's one that sticks with me even to this day. The Demon was duly beaten, but he would return as a stooge of Mordo, who had by then hooked up with Dormammu. Next up was another favorite of mine, Tiboro, another extradimensional tyrant with a groovy wand- this issue was scripted by one Don Rico; guess Stan had deadline issues or something. During a TV show about the occult, several panelists are sucked into Tiboro's dimension by a magical effigy of ol' Tibby, and the Doctor had to go in after. Blew my little mind, it did. But with #130 came the mother lode, the Tabula Rasa: the multi-part "Defeat of Dr. Strange", in which Mordo, augmented by Dormammu's power (Dormy couldn't invade our world because he promised Doc Strange he wouldn't when the latter helped him out of a jam in their first confrontation), recruits mystics all over the world, invades the Ancient One's Sanctum Sanctorum, and attacks- leaving Strange's mentor in a coma and the Doctor himself on the run, hounded by cutthroats, evil mystics, and wraithlike beings that could battle him in his ectoplasmic form, and other assorted menaces. Lee, despite the still-grandiose dialogue, crafted (with Ditko's plotting help, I assume) a taut, exciting story that featured (in my opinion, anyway) some of the best artwork of Ditko's career. Mood, panel layouts, imaginative renditions, you name it, it was there. Stan and Steve pulled out all the stops for this one, and the saga ran until Ditko left with issue #147. Eighteen issues of some of the best of 60's Marvel. Strange traveled the world, always with Mordo's minions in hot pursuit, trying to find the secret of "Eternity", which was the key to defeating Mordo and Dormammu and restoring the Ancient One to health. One of the most memorable issues, for me, during this run was #131 (the second chapter) which featured the Doc in the Orient, and taking a plane back to the States- and Mordo's wraiths flying around, all through the plane, searching for and eventually doing battle with him. In fact, the Torch and Thing tale in this issue was the "Bouncing Ball of Doom", another of my childhood faves, making this a desert island comic if ever there was one. Another favorite and one which hit me hard as a child was #133's "A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time", in which Strange escapes to another dimension after the first battle with DormaMordo, and gets mixed up with two magical sisters, one of which is the rightful ruler of that world and the other a jealous psychopath. At the time I was reading many of these stories, I was staying with my grandparents while my folks worked, and I had free run of my Aunt Lavana's record collection. I happened to play the Coasters' hit "Love Potion #9" when I read this for the first time, and to this day when I see that story I hear that song. This tale was eventually reworked by Marv Wolfman and Craig Russell in Dr. Strange Annual #1, then by Russell alone in the 90s as the one-shot What is It That Disturbs You, Stephen?.

After Ditko left, Doc's exploits continued to be written by Lee at first, and continued in Strange Tales- but they replaced Ditko with the great Bill Everett beginning with #147, who stayed around for 6 issues. Everett was certainly one of the greats and a personal favorite artist of mine, and all things considered he did a fine job, considering 1) he had to follow a legend; 2)they kept pasting in Ditko-drawn pictures of Clea and Mordo, presumably to maintain the visual continuity; and 3) he had some personal issues going on (by many accounts I had read), leading to some inconsistency and deadline-spawned rushing. Everett's Doc was a little more square-jawed and handsome, more slick if you will, than Ditko's, and (especially) early on there were some nicely done scenes of Doc interacting with the real world, as in the very first issue where Doc goes to the drug store to buy some cold medicine and breaks up a robbery. They tried to give him some real-world problems, as well- an early theme was that they were broke and couldn't pay the bills on the Greenwich Village brownstone. Eventually, out of the blue in a later issue, they had an impatient Doc just conjure up a bunch of money, and that was that! The main baddie was a fellow named Kaluu- an Atlantean sorcerer who terrified even the Ancient One, but even though it took the better part of the next three issues, Kaluu was easily beaten. He then retired from the evil magician gig, and created a coffee-flavored liqueur. Next up was Dormammu's right sexy and right evil sister Umar, who managed to do what her sibling couldn't- invade Earth. By then Everett had been replaced by Marie Severin, whose Umar was darn near as hot as Everett's! After the Umar saga came in went, another seminal Marvel supernatural characters came on the scene- the Living Tribunal, another godlike being with a floating hooded head whose task it was to pass judgment on other supernatural miscreants. After Severin, Warren stalwart Dan Adkins came on board, with George Tuska with Adkins on inks filling in once or twice...and the scripting was left to the likes of Roy Thomas, Dennis O'Neil, and someone named Jim Lawrence. The feature seemed to really flounder for about the last quarter of this collection- Lawrence's stories, in particular, were awful with florid dialogue that made Lee's seem like poetry, and it was his misfortune to preside over the pre-90's nadir of Strange lore: the saga of his battle with evil scientist Yandroth and his giant robot "Voltorg". It's not that the idea of pitting the magic of Strange vs. the evil super-science of Yandroth was a bad one per se; but the execution was terrible. The giant robot looked ridiculous, like a big metallic version of the Ma Hunkle Red Tornado, and this story went on for four more issues, until they spun Nick Fury off into his own book and turned the entirety of Strange Tales over to the good Doctor. I forget if the Yandroth story was resolved there...but I do know it wasn't much longer until Gene Colan and Roy Thomas came along to give us the masked Doctor, and wrote some pretty involving stories after that.

Even considering all this, I thought that this whole volume was a hell of a read, with some of the best 60's Marvel had to offer...and even the later stories were lively and exciting. I missed the color, for sure, but it was well worth the ten bucks.

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