Don McGregor and Trevor Von Eeden are on Kickstarter

There is a Kickstarter fundraiser currently taking place that I really wanted to draw everyone’s attention to.  Writer Don McGregor and artist Trevor Von Eeden are attempting to raise the funding to publish their brand new graphic novel Sabre: The Early Future Years.  I’ve already written about how much I enjoy Von Eeden’s artwork in my July 24th blog post.  Because of my appreciation for his artwork, I’d really like to see this project get funded.  McGregor and Von Eeden’s target is $17,000 to me met by September 9, 2013.  As of this writing, they have only raised $6,631, approximately one third of their goal.  I did pledge a few dollars, but due to my current work and financial situation, I wasn’t able to offer too much.  So I’ve been promoting the hell out of this, really hoping that others can also pitch in.  Here is the link to their page on Kickstarter where you can pledge funds:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jsacks/sabre-graphic-novel-by-don-mcgregor-and-trevor-von

And below is a preview of Trevor Von Eeden’s artwork for Sabre: the Early Future Years.  It features coloring by George Freeman, who previously worked with Von Eeden on his two volume graphic novel The Original Johnson.

sabre early future years preview

In addition to being a fan of Trevor’s art, I also greatly enjoy Don McGregor’s writing.  He has a very distinctive style of prose, narration, and dialogue, a real sophistication to his plots and scripts.  In the past, McGregor has worked on a number of critically lauded, groundbreaking stories.

In the 1970s, while at Marvel Comics, McGregor did well regarded work with the character of Black Panther in the pages of Jungle Action.  He also had an exception run on Amazing Adventures, chronicling the saga of Killraven, a freedom fighter struggling to overthrow Martian invaders in an apocalyptic future.  Debuting in Amazing Adventures #18, the Killraven / War of the Worlds feature was initially conceived by Roy Thomas & Neal Adams, inspired by the H.G. Wells’ novel.  However, with the character’s fourth appearance in issue #21, McGregor took over as the series’ writer.  He worked with several different artists over the next few issues.  And then an up-and-coming P. Craig Russell became the regular illustrator with #27, producing stunningly vibrant, bizarre artwork.  The two collaborated on Killraven until Amazing Adventures was cancelled at issue #39 in 1976.  McGregor and Russell reunited to craft a coda to their run which saw print as the Killraven: Warrior of the Worlds graphic novel in 1983.

Amazing Adventures 28 cover

It was in 1978 that McGregor teamed with artist Paul Gulacy to create the first Sabre graphic novel, which was released by up-and-coming independent company Eclipse Comics.  In the early 1980s, an ongoing Sabre series was also published by Eclipse, lasting 14 issues.  Comics Bulletin is currently running a multi-part interview with McGregor looking at the origins of Sabre.  Here’s a link to the first installment:

http://comicsbulletin.com/columns/6013/the-great-sabre-interview-part-one-characters-that-are-alive-in-an-alternate-universe/

While at Eclipse, McGregor also wrote a pair of noir mysteries, Detectives Inc.  The first graphic novel, A Remembrance of Threatening Green, was drawn by the talented Marshall Rogers, with the equally amazing Gene Colan illustrating A Terror of Dying Dreams.  McGregor and Colan later re-teamed on a mammoth 25-chapter Black Panther serial “Panther’s Quest” which ran in Marvel Comics Presents.  I’d like to see that one collected in a trade paperback.

Detectives Inc 1 cover

Those original Sabre and Detectives Inc. stories have subsequently been reprinted by other publishers such as Image and IDW.  Those collected editions are well worth seeking out.

So, having gone into all this detail about McGregor’s amazing writing, I really hope that I’ve piqued some interest, and that people will show their support for his latest project.  Separately, McGregor and Von Eeden have each rafted truly exception work in the past; together I expect that they make an amazing team.  I definitely hope that one day soon Sabre: The Early Future Years will be published.  I’ll keep you all updated on their progress.

September 10, 2013 Update: Unfortunately, the Kickstarter fundraiser did not meet its goal, only reaching $11,618 of the needed $17,000.  I was really looking forward to seeing the new Sabre graphic novel.  I am going to keep in touch with Don McGregor on Facebook, and see if he decided to attempt another Kickstarter campaign in the future, or perhaps go another route. Hopefully, one way or another, the book will make it into print in the near future.

How I discovered Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby is rightfully considered one of the all-time greatest creators to have ever worked in the comic book industry.  Born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, the man who came to be known as Jack Kirby was responsible for creating or co-creating a huge percentage of what we now know as the Marvel Comics universe, as well as a number of key characters over at DC Comics.  He also conceived a number of concepts for series that either came out through smaller companies which allowed him to retain ownership or that unfortunately never saw print in his lifetime.  I’ve blogged about Kirby before.  So today, on what would have been his 96th birthday, I am going to look back on how I personally came to be a fan of his work.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, from time to time I would see Jack Kirby’s name mentioned in various lettercols or editorial pages, usually referring to him in glowing terms as an exceptional artist and a brilliant designer of characters.  However, back in those days, trade paperback collections were few & far between, and back issues from the 1960s that he had worked on were typically well out of the budget of a ten year old.  It would be a few years before I would actually have the opportunity to see Kirby’s artwork with own eyes.  In hindsight, I now realize that selected panels from some of his early 1960s work appeared in the Marvel Saga series that was published in the mid-1980s.  But the first entire issue illustrated by him that I ever owned was Fantastic Four #74, which I picked out of the back issue bins of some comic shop or another around 1986, probably because it had a cool cover.

Fantastic Four 74 cover

I managed to buy that copy of FF #74 pretty cheap, for maybe $5.00 or so.  That’s because it was certainly not in mint condition, to say the least.  It must have changed hands at least a few times before I acquired it.  And at least one of the previous owners had decided to use a magic marker to trace the outlines of the figures in a few of the panels.  Eeeek!  Even at ten years old, I knew that was a no-no!  Nevertheless, most of the pages were left untouched, and I was able to appreciate the artwork of Kirby inked by Joe Sinnott.

FF #74 was a pretty cool comic book.  I haven’t looked at in a while, but as I recall the Silver Surfer, imprisoned on Earth by Galactus, is moping about the apartment of blind sculptress Alicia Masters.  Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, is none too thrilled that the Surfer is hanging out with his best gal, and doesn’t exactly offer a sympathetic ear to the former sentinel of the spaceways.  Next thing you know, the Surfer decides to lay a cosmic powered smack-down on the gruff Thing.  Before their grudge can proceed further, Galactus returns to Earth, hoping to re-enlist his former herald.  The devourer of worlds dispatches his servant the Punisher to retrieve the Surfer… no no no, not the guy with the skull on his chest who goes around shooting criminals full of holes.  This Punisher is a funny-looking robot dude who predates Frank Castle by almost a decade.  A big fight ensues between the FF and the Punisher.  Then, next thing you know, the story ends on a cliffhanger, and a ten year old Ben Herman threw up his hands in despair, wondering how he was ever going to find a copy of issue #75, and even if he did, would he even be able to afford it!?!

I believe that my next major look at Jack Kirby’s work was maybe three years later, in early 1989.  In the latest issues of Captain America, writer Mark Gruenwald had resurrected the diabolical Red Skull, in the process taking the opportunity to bring readers up to speed on the history of the crimson-masked fiend.  I was really curious to check out some of those past storylines Gruenwald had flashed back to in issue #350.  So once again, I dove into the back issue bins, pulling out a copy of Captain America #210, with its strikingly odd cover of the Red Skull’s metaphorical tentacles entrapping the book’s cast.

Captain America 210 cover

“Showdown Day” was written & penciled by Kirby, with inking by Mike Royer.  If I thought the cover was unusual, well, that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Picking up mid-story, this issue sees Cap and the lovely Donna Maria Puentes tussling with the ultra-bizarre, supremely twisted Nazi genetic engineer known as Arnim Zola, as well as his grotesque army of mutant creations.  Meanwhile, SHIELD agent Sharon Carter is investigating an eccentric millionaire recluse named Cyrus Fenton, who is actually none other than the Red Skull in disguise, funding Zola’s experiments from behind the scenes.  Oh, yeah, and the Falcon gets attacked by a giant bird.

Truthfully, my first impression of Kirby’s artwork on this issue was that I thought it was really bizarre.  Even so, I had to admit that he drew an evil-looking Red Skull.  As for Donna Maria and Sharon, wow, both of them were really sexy babes who left a memorable impression on my 13 year old mind.  And, as for Kirby’s writing, setting aside the fact that Captain America is actually absent from the second half of the story, it was interesting.  Kirby deftly scripted the Red Skull as this icy schemer, really imbuing him with a palpable air of menace.

As with that Fantastic Four issue, Captain America #210 also ends with a “to be continued.”  Fortunately, most of Kirby’s mid-1970s Marvel work was both easier to find and cheaper to purchase than his comics from the previous decade, and within a few years I managed to track down the entire story arc.

And this brings me to my discovery of Kirby’s celebrated work at DC in the early 1970s, when he created the Fourth World.  By the time I was in high school, I had known about the tyrannical Darkseid and his evil followers from Apokolips for several years, first due to their inclusion in the Super Friends cartoons, and then their appearances in John Byrne’s run on the Superman books, plus the Cosmic Odyssey miniseries by Jim Starlin & Mike Mignola.  I really wanted to read the original Kirby issues but, again, they were both expensive and difficult to find.  Finally, in the early 1990s, at a comic con in Westchester, I was able to purchase Forever People #4 and #9 for relatively reasonable prices.

Forever People 4 cover

Eagerly pulling those two comics out of their bags, I read them and…. okay, once again, I’ll be honest.  The artwork was great, the writing not so much.  At least, that’s how I felt at the time.  From those two issues, I was left with the impression that Kirby may have been a brilliant artist, but he sure was a lousy writer.

So a couple of more years passed, and I managed to find a few more of the Fourth World books at inexpensive prices.  Specifically, I picked up New Gods #7 as well as Mister Miracle #9 and #18.  I don’t know, maybe I was slightly more mature, or maybe those were better stories, or maybe it was just a matter of having more realistic expectations.  Whatever the case, I liked those three issues a lot more.  And, of course, a few years later I learned that New Gods #7, “The Pact,” is considered by many to be one of the greatest single issues that Kirby ever created.

Finally in 1998 DC released an inexpensive black & white three volume set of trade paperbacks that reprinted the majority of his New Gods, Forever People, and Mister Miracle issues.  I picked them up and fell in love with the material.  Able to read almost the entire run of stories from beginning to end, suddenly everything fell into place.  Also, by this point I had come to recognize that Kirby’s stylized scripting, the cadence of his dialogue, while it undoubtedly had its peculiarities, also possessed an appealing quality to it that suited the material.  Kirby had crafted an incredibly epic, poignant odyssey in his trilogy of titles which, sadly, was brought to much too premature an end.

New Gods trade paperback

And that is how I became a fan of Jack Kirby.  Nowadays, practically everything he worked on during his lifetime has been brought back into print.  Kirby envisioned the day when comic books would be read like full length novels.  That has come to pass, with trade paperbacks and graphic novels now an industry standard.

I’ve said this before, but I cannot help thinking Kirby died too young.  He passed away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76, and for the last dozen or so years of his life ill health had resulted in a decline in the quality of his artwork.  I wish that Kirby could have lived longer, retaining his vitality & drawing ability.  He dabbled in creator-owned work in the early 1980s, but between his health problems and the then relatively new, uncertain status of the direct market those series did not last long.  Imagine if Kirby had still been at the peak of his talents in the 1990s when Image Comics had exploded.  He could have taken some of his myriad unpublished, unrealized ideas for characters over to that company and created long-running titles that he held full creative control and ownership.

I know, I know… asking what if and if only and all that other hypothesizing is pointless.  What’s done is done.  I’m just sorry that Kirby isn’t here to see how much of an influence, an inspiration he has become to so many, how much enjoyment his work has brought to a legion of fans.

As I was writing this up, I recalled an anecdote that concerns either James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler.  Reputedly one of those two authors was once asked by a reporter if, in the course of his works being made into less-than-faithful movie adaptations by Hollywood, he felt that his books had been ruined.  And in response Cain (or perhaps it was Chandler) apparently led the questioner to a bookshelf in his study, pointed to it, and replied “They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.”  In a way, that applies here.  Jack Kirby, sadly, is no longer with us.  But his innumerable amazing works remain behind for us to continue to enjoy for many years to come.

Strange Comic Books: Spider-Man “Life in the Mad Dog Ward”

I’ve written before about the classic Spider-Man story “Kraven’s Last Hunt” which originally came out back in 1987.  I think that many people have forgotten that immediately after J.M. DeMatteis’ six part arc concluded, the very next month another storyline ran across all three of the Spider-Man titles.  Appearing in Web of Spider-Man #33, Amazing Spider-Man #295, and Spectacular Spider-Man #133, it was written by Ann Nocenti, penciled by Cynthia Martin, and inked by Steve Leialoha, Kyle Baker & Josef Rubinstein, with covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  There wasn’t an overarching title to the story, but I refer to it by the cover copy on Amazing #295, “Life in the Mad Dog Ward.”  Whereas the previous six issues had seen Spider-Man buried alive, Ann Nocenti’s arc featured him getting locked up in an insane asylum!

amazing spiderman 295 cover

Housewife Vicky Gibbs is alone with her thoughts & inner demons.  The already emotionally troubled mother of two has finally decided to leave her husband Frank.  She can no longer stand the fact that he has become involved in the mob, specifically the organization controlled by Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime.  Before Vicky and her children Jacob and Tanya can leave, though, Frank arrives home.  And soon after, he receives orders from the Kingpin’s right-hand man the Arranger, orders that involve having his wife committed to the Pleasant Valley mental hospital.

Pleasant Valley, which is owned by the Kingpin, is a front.  In cases where there are former associates of Fisk’s or witnesses to his crimes who, for one reason or another, cannot simply be killed, he pulls strings to have them declared mentally unfit and sent to Pleasant Valley.  There they are detained indefinitely and drugged to keep them silent & pacified.  Running the hospital is the Doctor, who in exchange for collaborating with the Kingpin is allowed to engage in unethical medical experiments.  This Doctor also occasionally reprograms certain patients to serve as assassins for the Kingpin.

Elsewhere, Peter Parker is walking about in a daze.  He is recovering from his traumatic encounters with Kraven & Vermin, as well as worrying about more mundane matters such as bills and his relationship with his wife.  After having dinner at his Aunt May’s house, Peter is wandering the streets of Forest Hills.  Suddenly his spider sense goes off as an ambulance rushes by, with Jacob and Tanya futilely chasing after it on foot.  Bumping into Peter, the two children explain that their mother is being sent to Pleasant Valley.  Returning to his apartment, a restless Peter is unable to sleep.  He keeps wondering if there is more to the children’s story than he initially thought.  Slipping into his Spider-Man costume, he heads back to Queens to investigate.

Jacob and Tanya have also gone to Pleasant Valley, having stolen their father’s gun, believing they can rescue their mother.  Frank arrives to stop his children, but all three are soon detained by the hospital’s armed security force.  When the guards move to grab the trio, Spider-Man swings in and knocks out the majority of them.  One, however, sadistically tosses Tanya off the roof of the asylum, and when Spider-Man leaps to catch her, he is shot.  Lying wounded in an alley, the bleeding web-slinger urges Tanya to flee.

amazing spiderman 295 pg 14

Peter regains consciousness in Pleasant Valley, having been patched up by the physicians there.  The cynical staff, who refer to the hospital as “the Mad Dog Ward,” think that Peter is just some nut who only believes he is a superhero.  When the weakened Peter resists, he is quickly drugged & restrained.  Only the Doctor realizes that this new patient is exactly who he claims to be.  He is looking forward to experimenting on Spider-Man’s mind, but first he must complete his conditioning of the Kingpin’s latest assassin, Mad Dog 2020 aka Brainstorm.

Drugged and disoriented, Peter struggles to string his thoughts together coherently.  He befriends Mary, a nurse new to the facility who is already unsettled by what she sees.  Peter gets Mary to let him talk to Vicky, but she is in even more of an anesthetized stupor than he is.  Peter also meets Zero, a very dim but strong & well-intentioned man-child whose greatest wish is to be a genuine superhero.

Peter attempts to rally his fellow patients to revolt.  Unfortunately, everyone is too zonked out on drugs, and the uprising is soon quashed by the staff.  The Doctor realizes that Zero, who he had hoped to program into a future Mad Dog assassin for the Kingpin, has proven non-aggressive, yet at the same time continues to rile up the other patients.  And so the Doctor decides to have Zero lobotomized.  Once Peter begins to become coherent again, he learns of this impending procedure.  Undeterred by his previous failure, Peter attempts to convince Mary to switch the patients’ daily drugs for a placebo.  The nurse is reluctant, fearing that suddenly coming off their medication will make them violent or suicidal, but eventually she decides to go along with the plan.

The next day, the patients begin to come out of their stupor.  We start seeing some rather odd, aggressive behavior from the various inmates, but seemingly nothing too outrageous.  And then THIS happens:

spectacular spiderman 133 pg 11

Yipes!  Whenever I turn the page and see this, I start laughing uncontrollably.  Is that Cynthia Martin channeling Edvard Munch?  In any case, Peter takes advantage of this ruckus to break out of his bonds.  He and Mary free Vicky and Zero from their cells.  However, the Doctor, in addition to being backed up by his security guards, sets loose Brainstorm.  The programmed killer attacks, but fortunately Peter has regained his superhuman strength & reflexes, and he manages to defeat the Mad Dog.

Before the Doctor can make another move, he finds himself with a gun pointed at his head by Frank Gibbs.  After much soul-searching, and having been shamed into action by his children, the mobster has finally decided to leave his life of crime behind and spring his wife.  Using the Doctor as a hostage, Frank, Vicky and Peter are able to make their way out of the Mad Dog Ward.

A day later, Peter returns to Pleasant Valley with Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich, hoping to expose the facility’s abusive practices.  Unfortunately, the Kingpin has beaten both them and the authorities to the punch.  The Arranger has called a press conference to announce that an “appalled” Fisk has only just uncovered the unethical behavior at Pleasant Valley, and that the Doctor is now in police custody.  Peter is disgusted that the Kingpin has managed to weasel his way out of trouble yet again, maintaining his façade of a respectable businessman.  On his way out, he passes by Mary, who is leaving to find a better job.  As the story closes, we see Vicky, Frank, Jacob and Tanya driving west, preparing to start a brand new life.

“Life in the Mad Dog Ward” is certainly a strange, unsettling story.  Ann Nocenti has always been a very unconventional writer.  When I first discovered her work, via this story and her run on Daredevil in the late 1980s, I initially found her work off-putting.  At the time I guess I was expecting more conventional superhero stories.  What I got from Nocenti were examinations of the roles women play in society, environmental degradation, corporate corruption, faith & religion, animal rights, crime & punishment, and the psychological motivations that make people into who they are.  This was really heavy, deep material for a teenager, especially as Nocenti certainly did not err on the side of subtlety.  She pulled no punches, espousing her views with bluntness and conviction.

Yet at the same time, when she presented her various antagonists, Nocenti took the time to render them three-dimensional, to delve into what made them tick.  The Kingpin, Typhoid Mary, Bushwacker, and Bullet committed monstrous acts, but Nocenti gave us a look into their heads, to show how from their points of view they each felt they were behaving in a justifiable, rational manner.  She even wrote what was probably one of the most nuanced portrayals of Marvel’s own Devil figure, Mephisto.

In the mid-1990s, I began to have a greater appreciation for Nocenti’s writing, and I really enjoyed the series of stories she did in Marvel Comics Presents with artist Steve Lightle where she delved further into the twisted psyche of her creation Typhoid Mary.  Nowadays, looking back on her work at Marvel, I really am able to grasp just how sophisticated and ahead of her time Nocenti really was, bringing a very unique sensibility to mainstream comic books.  It’s definitely a pleasure to re-read stories such as “Life in the Mad Dog Ward” and look at them from a different, adult perspective, to catch the aspects of them I didn’t pick up on when I was younger.

We see in Vicky Gibbs a woman who feels constrained by the role of wife and mother.  Her husband Frank expects her to placidly accept what he does for a living, even if it is illegal, because it puts food on the table.  Frank believes that as long as he is in the role of breadwinner, Vicky should simply accept her own responsibilities as a traditional housewife.  Obviously Frank is very much in the wrong, dismissing Vicky’s concerns about where the money comes from, and how the anxiety over it has exacerbated her mental illness.  He is equally at fault when he allows the Kingpin’s goons to pack Vicky off to a mental hospital in order to save his own skin.  Yet, as written by Nocenti, we can see how Frank has rationalized all of his decisions.  However, once Vicky is out of the picture, locked away in Pleasant Valley, Frank is forced into the role his wife previously held, caring for their children.  And seeing up close just how miserable Jacob and Tanya are, how much they have come to hate their father, he is finally forced to own up to his mistakes and take action to clean up the terrible mess he has created.

web of spiderman 33 pg 1

Cynthia Martin’s penciling is well suited to this story arc.  She has a very clean line and straightforward style to her storytelling.  It is definitely effective at conveying the stark, dramatic tone of the story.  A more traditional, dynamic Marvel-style type of artwork might not have worked as well.  Martin effectively renders the moody, oppressive sequences in the Mad Dog Ward as well as the more straightforward scenes featuring normal, everyday people.

A while back, in my Thinking About Inking blog post, I wrote about how significant a role the inker / finisher has upon the final look of artwork.  I believe this is demonstrated very well in the three part “Life in the Mad Dog Ward.”  Cynthia Martin’s pencils are inked by a different artist in each issue.  Steve Leialoha, Kyle Baker and Josef Rubinstein each bring their unique styles and sensibilities to the finished work.  All three do an excellent job at inking Martin.

Topping it all off, literally, are a trio of surreal, atmospheric covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  They really encapsulate the madness and sense of disconnect from reality that the characters experience throughout Nocenti’s story.

Five years later Ann Nocenti, paired with the art team of Chris Marrinan and Sam DeLaRosa, brought back Zero, Brainstorm, and the not-so-good Doctor.  The interesting, insightful “Return to the Mad Dog Ward” saw print in the adjective-less Spider-Man title issue #s 29-31.  I did a Google search and, according to a couple of web sites, there may be a collected edition of all six issues coming out in a couple of months.  Keep your fingers crossed!

spiderman 29 cover

After an absence of several years, Nocenti recently returned to the comic book biz, writing several titles for DC Comics.  I hope at some point she is also able to do some new work for Marvel.  I can’t help wondering if she has any more stories to tell about her various creations there such as Brainstorm and Zero.  And, yeah, no one quite writes Typhoid Mary as well as Nocenti does.

David Quinn’s Doctor Strange, part three

Here is the third and final installment of my look back at the bizarre, experimental, amazing run on Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme by writer David Quinn.  Many of the major subplots of Quinn’s arc come to an epic conclusion in issue #s 72-75, the four part “Last Rites.”

Previously Doctor Strange had assembled the mystic artifacts he had collected into a Forge, and had used it to tap into the “Gaian Aura” of the Earth itself to gain access to a new source of magickal energy.  As “Last Rites” opens, Strange believes he is finally ready to confront his usurper, the ancient Salome, who has assumed the title of Sorceress Supreme.  After a year shielding himself in his null space Sanctum Sanctorum beneath Trinity Church, Strange opens up the gateway to it, expecting Salome will take the bait and come charging in, ready to do battle.  However, this doesn’t happen.  Instead, the mystic entity Agamotto materializes, warning that he and the other beings comprising the Vishanti have granted Salome their benediction.  Strange is horrified, believing that now Salome will be even more difficult to defeat, and despairs that his months of preparations have been in vain.

Obsessed over both stopping Salome and traveling to the Dark Dimension to assist his former lover Clea, Doctor Strange decides he must reclaim the energy he invested in the creation of the artificial beings “Vincent Stevens” and “Strange.”  He uses the Gaian Aura to create an aetheric sword & suit of armor which will protect him from the corrupting energies of Salome’s Dance still within him.  Doctor Strange then head off to confront the Strangers.  Arriving at the Tempo Building, he finds the pair preparing to finally merge together to ensure their continued existence.  Neither of the Strangers is ready to simply hand over his life energies to their “father,” and so a battle quickly erupts.

Dormammu has a bone to pick with Clea

Dormammu has a bone to pick with Clea

Elsewhere, in the Dark Dimension, a despondent Clea is preparing to enter into an alliance with her uncle, the dread Dormammu, deposed ruler of the realm.  Clea is reluctant to side with her evil relative, but she feels that she has no choice, given that Doctor Strange was unable to aid her in restoring order to her war-ravaged home.  Entering the magick dampening field of the Sanctuary, Clea and Dormammu prepare to sign a peace accord.  However, even stripped of his mystical energies, Dormammu is not powerless.  Treacherously, he brutally, bare-handedly rips the spine from one of his own soldiers and hurls it at his niece.  The only thing that saves Clea is her advisor Nobel, who throws himself between the two, receiving a mortal wound.  Clea’s ragtag army quickly flees, with Dormammu and his forces giving pursuit.

Back on Earth, Doctor Strange is attempting to convince “Strange” that Vincent Stevens intends to betray his would-be ally.  Indeed, Stevens plans to use his techno-magick not to merge with “Strange” but to take possession of his form.  Stevens’ own technology is eventually turned against him, and the doppelganger is destroyed.

With just “Strange” left, the Doctor tries to induce the entity to willingly give up his existence, so that both Earth and the Dark Dimension can be saved.  However, the aetheric entity refuses, hollering to his creator “If you want to amend your errors, give me a REAL life!”  He argues that Doctor Strange is acting just as selfish and manipulative as Vincent Stevens was before, proving himself a monumental hypocrite.  And despite all that is at stake, the Doctor finally realizes that his creation is right, that sacrificing “Strange” with an ends-justify-the-means rationalization will make him just a bad as the entity who harbored all his darker, buried impulses.

The Doctor is forced to acknowledge that “Strange” is sentient, that he has a soul, a right to exist.  The magician tells his creation “I am willing to sacrifice what I most desire… in order to give you life!”  The two pool their energies, and the master of the mystic arts transports “Strange” to the Dark Dimension.  There, “Strange” merges with the dying Noble, becoming a new, composite entity known as Paradox, who embodies the personalities & qualities of both beings.  Paradox saves Clea from Dormammu and his Mindless Ones, transporting her to safety, ready to fight by her side in the future.

Strange Sacrifices

Strange Sacrifices

Doctor Strange, knowing that Clea is safe, returns to his Sanctum to confront Salome, who has at last arrived.  Strange realizes that, for all his plots & planning, in the end he is nowhere near powerful enough to defeat Salome.  His only hope is to utilize strategy and try to bluff the Sorceress Supreme.  Indeed, although Salome probably could have defeated Strange easily, she has become so utterly obsessed, so insane with the thought of humiliating him that he is, just barely, able to outmaneuver & trick her into defeating herself.  An unexpected ally is also presented in the form of Sister Nil.  The Lilin has come to care deeply for Strange and is ready to sacrifice herself for him.

Salome is banished once more from Earth’s dimension.  The corrupting energy of Salome’s Dance finally removed from his body, Doctor Strange completely rejuvenates himself, physically becoming a much younger man. Donning a pair of mystic spectacles, he safely emerges from his Sanctum to finally walk the streets of New York, ready to restart his life.

The near-total revamp of Doc’s physical appearance is odd and unexpected.  As others have commented, this new form, as drawn by Peter Gross, bears a more than passing resemblance to John Lennon.  I was rather surprised by this.  I e-mailed Quinn to see if he would share his memories of this redesign.  Here’s his response:

“I think that was the powers that be’s guidance. I reached out to Evan, but he was on vacation, so we’re going on my hazy memory of an uncomfortable time. That’s an important context to capture − Marvel’s ownership was decimating the system of distributors and stores and sales were plummeting across the line. (All we could claim with Doc was that our sales were slipping more slowly than the rapid freefall of other titles — not enough.) Editors were losing jobs every week and desperate to grab attention for their books. So with hindsight, I think Evan’s bosses saw our new empowered Doc and steered it toward a more youthful look. Ironically, he ended up looking like a 25 year old Harry Potter. Look at other books at the time and you might detect other desperate measures to temporarily pump up sales to keep editorial employed.”

As a reader who witnessed the tumultuous upheavals of Marvel in the mid-1990s, I have to agree that Quinn’s memory of  where the directive to de-age Doctor Strange came from sounds plausible.  I can certainly imagine how editorial and/or management might say “Hey, if we make Doc young & hip, more teenagers will read him!” After all, these are the same people who just a year later gave over Captain America and Avengers to Rob Liefeld.

Uh oh, looks like the Doc has been dropping some Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Uh oh, looks like the Doc has been dropping some Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Regarding the other aspects of “Last Rites,” I was initially surprised that Quinn had spent three and a half issues focusing on Doctor Strange’s confrontation with the Strangers, and only the last half of the double-sized #75 was devoted to his final battle with Salome.  This pacing seemed an unusual choice.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Doctor’s most important conflict was not with Salome, but with himself.

Even before Quinn’s run, Strange had always been a rather distant, aloof figure, often detaching himself from the world he had pledged to protect.  After he was stripped of his position as Sorcerer Supreme, depowered, and afflicted with Salome’s Dance, he then began to act in a ruthless, manipulative manner.  Strange kept his allies at arm’s length and in the dark concerning his intentions.  He created, used, and then discarded his aetheric agents the Strangers with a disturbing casualness.  In his obsession to overcome Salome, he had allowed himself to become alienated from his own humanity.  It was more important for the Doctor to confront the consequences of his actions, and for him to acknowledge that much of the Strangers’ ruthlessness & brutality came from his own long-buried flaws.  Finally, the Doctor had to be willing to sacrifice his happiness, and perhaps even his life, to both enable “Strange” to exist and to save Clea, even if it meant that he might not be powerful enough to survive his own confrontation with Salome.  Much as he had to do many years before studying under his mentor the Ancient One, Doctor Strange had to re-discover humility and serenity.  It was by rising above his obsessions, as well as by his past decision to try and care for & redeem Sister Nil rather than punish her for her crimes, that Strange was finally able to banish Salome.

There was, I admit, one aspect of Quinn’s overall storyline that I felt was underdeveloped: who, exactly, is Salome?  According to her own words, she was the Sorceress Supreme of Earth thousands of years ago.  From this we can infer that in the past, in some manner or another, she did act in the role of Earth’s protector.  But obviously something must have occurred at some point to change this.  Perhaps she became arrogant, corrupted by the power & authority she wielded.  This could have been what led to her original banishment to another dimension.  I really would have liked to have seen Quinn explore who Salome was.  In his work with Tim Vigil on Faust: Love of the Damned, he has scripted the vile characters of M and Claire in such a brilliant way that, for all their depraved acts, the reader can, if not sympathize with them, at least understand their points of view and what it is that drives them.  I wish he had done something similar, gotten into Salome’s head to show us what makes her tick.

The final final four issues in Quinn’s run, #s 76-79, are written with the assistance of editor Evan Skolnick, who co-writes #77 and scripts #s 78 & 79 from Quinn’s plots.  Several new plotlines are set up.  Doctor Strange assumes the identity of Vincent Stevens and takes charge of his corporation in an effort to clean up the corruption and destruction caused by the Strangers.  The Doctor also begins a slow, painful reconciliation with his former aide Wong, who still harbors bitterness over the death of his fiancée Imei.  There are further developments with Clea and Paradox.  Modred the Mystic and Wildpride briefly resurface, the later revealed to be Strange’s disgruntled short-lived apprentice Kyllian.  Most ominously, the elder god Chthon’s impending rebirth is on the horizon.  No doubt Quinn would have developed all of these over future issues.  But he was replaced as the series’ writer before he had the opportunity.

Quinn shared a few brief comments on where he had hoped to take both the character and the series…

“My focus at the end of Last Rites was to give a reunited Dr. Stephen Strange earth magick based powers of his own acquisition, versus tricks borrowed from the Vishanti. He would stand on his own for the first time, be much more powerful and confident — and future adventures planned some aggressive earth magick around the MU of the day. I thought it was about time he grew up, and stop just being the MU’s cosmic babysitter / plot device. (Sound familiar?) Since we had also gradually empowered Clea, I thought a more adult relationship would be interesting to explore − if Strange could stand up on his own, he better be okay with a woman who does, too!”

Quinn was unfortunately not able to enact these plans…

“Evan was laid off. His replacement was swamped and kind of let the last issues run on autopilot while preparing yet another new direction in a year… and the good Doctor has never sustained a successful run since, in terms of sales.”

The temptation of Sister Nil

The temptation of Sister Nil

The strongest of Quinn’s last four issues is his final one, #79.  In “Farewell, Nightmare Music” Sister Nil is restless, wanting her complete freedom, to explore the world of human beings.  But Strange is wary of this, as she still has no control over her cancerous death kiss.  Taking advantage of this potential schism is Strange’s old foe Nightmare, who offers Nil the chance to assume a crucial role in his dream realm.  Quinn & Skolnick write Nightmare as his usual mocking, arrogant self, yet they also imbue him with a sympathetic, tragic quality.  It is a nuanced depiction.  As I said before, Quinn excels at portraying his antagonists in a multi-faceted manner that explores their inner workings.

The artwork on these eight issues is certainly of a high quality.  Regular artist Peter Gross works on most of these, doing really amazing visuals.  On the first two chapters of “Last Rites,” Gross is inked by Lee Sullivan, who I remember very well from his cool art on the comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine.  They work well together.  There is this one page in #73 that especially jumped out at me, when Salome first penetrates the Sanctum Sanctorum.  Gross gives her the most expressive body language as she angrily grasps at Doctor Strange’s cloak of levitation, believing him to be in it.  Realizing it is empty, this transforms to triumphant luxuriating as she indulgently wraps herself in her prize.

Chapter three is a nice fill-in job by another very talented artist, Steve Yeowell, who manages to retain his own style while fitting in well with the previous two issues done by Gross & Sullivan.  The final chapter of “Last Rites” in issue #75 has Mark Buckingham contributing pencil breakdowns, with Gross doing the finishes.  And, wow, does the collaboration between the two of them look amazing!

Salome: sorceress supreme, house crasher, fashionista

Salome: sorceress supreme, house crasher, fashionista

Also present during David Quinn’s final issues is veteran Marvel artist Marie Severin, who previously worked with the writer on one of the segments in Midnight Sons Unlimited #6.  Severin provides breakdowns to Doctor Strange #78, with Gross drawing the finishes.  On the next issue, #79, she does full pencils, and consequently much more of her style comes through.  I really enjoyed Severin’s work on “Farewell, Nightmare Music.”  She did such a fantastic job illustrating this emotional, surreal story, closing out Quinn’s run with class & style.

I have one last note, concerning the coloring by “Heroic Age,” which appeared throughout Quinn’s entire run.  This was some of the earliest computer coloring in a Marvel title.  Consequently, I think it got off to a pretty rough start, looking very garish in the first few issues.  I guess the folks at Heroic Age must have worked on reefing their techniques, though, because over time the coloring improved.  There was a real noticeable difference in quality in Doctor Strange Annual #4.  From then on, they did increasingly good work.  In these last eight issues, I was quite impressed by the coloring.

Okay, now that I’ve come to the end of this three-part look back at the period when David Quinn wrote Doctor Strange, you might well be wondering “Why?”  Why devote three lengthy posts to some little-known comic book stories written in the mid-1990s, a period that is, often deservedly, looked upon as a nadir in quality for the entire comic book industry?  Well, simply put, it is exactly because of that perception that I felt these comic books deserved an analysis.

In the last several years I have become a fan of the work David Quinn has done with Tim Vigil on Faust: Love of the Damned.  This motivated me to take a second look at Quinn’s run on Doctor Strange.  I discovered I really enjoyed it.  His writing is filled with energy and insane ideas and off-the-wall mystical concepts and the sort of dark lunacy typically associated with Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison’s work for DC / Vertigo.  I was very curious to see what other people thought of Quinn’s stint on the series, so I did a few searches on the Internet.  And I discovered that there was almost nothing there, aside from the occasional brief write-up or reference in someone’s blog, certainly nothing in-depth.  So, I thought, why not do it myself?  Why not perform that detailed retrospective of Quinn’s Doctor Strange material?

Truthfully, in certain respects, I barely scratched the surface.  I could probably have written twice as much as I did about these stories.  But I didn’t, and part of that is I hope people will take a look at them for themselves, and discover just how cool and interesting these overlooked stories are.  Fortunately, all of these comics can be purchased relative inexpensively on Ebay or from online retailers.  So do yourself a favor, and check them out.

David Quinn’s Doctor Strange, a suggested reading order:

  1. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #60
  2. Marvel Comics Presents #146
  3. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #61-63
  4. Midnight Sons Unlimited #5
  5. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #64-66
  6. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme Annual #4
  7. Midnight Sons Unlimited #6
  8. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #67-79

Old vs new: fan wars and Doctor Who

Okay, I’m taking a break in my retrospective of David Quinn’s Doctor Strange stories to talk about some issues concerning another well-known fictional doctor.  I am, of course, referring to Doctor Who.  Come on, you all know me!  Who did you think I was going to blog about, Doctor Doolittle?

When I heard that Peter Capaldi had been cast as the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor, my first reaction was to head over to good old Wikipedia to look him up.  I quickly realized that Capaldi had previously appeared in both the Doctor Who episode “The Fires of Pompeii” and the Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries.  I thought he delivered strong performances in each of those roles.  I wasn’t familiar with his other work, but from reading his bio it was obvious that he has been quite busy for the past three decades.  To me, he seemed like a very capable actor, and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to the role of the Doctor.  I really did not intend to make any other comments until I actually had the opportunity to view him playing the Doctor some time in 2014.

Then I started to see articles and postings around the Internet, comments from a number of younger fans that Capaldi, at 55 years of age (incidentally the same age as William Hartnell when he became the first actor to portray the Doctor back in 1963) was “too old” or “unattractive” to play the role.  And my blood pressure went through the roof.  I was preparing to write up the mother of all blog posts going off on an extended bloody rant tearing these teenagers a new one.

And then I read an insightful & intelligent response to this controversy on one of my favorite WordPress blogs, An American View of British Science Fiction.  Entitled “The Twelfth Doctor & Why I’m Sick of Nerd In-Fighting” this thoughtful piece of commentary caused me to step back, take a deep breath, and try to consider the other side.  I decided that if I was going to post my thoughts, I would do so in a reasonable manner that attempts to articulate and explain my position.

The man on the left is the Doctor. The man on the right, incidentally, is also the Doctor.

The man on the left is the Doctor. The man on the right, incidentally, is also the Doctor.

The reason why I am so annoyed at younger fans complaining Peter Capaldi is “too old” is that it just seems to indicate both a level of superficiality & fickleness among newer fans, as well as a complete lack of interest in anything involved with Doctor Who from before 2005.

Speaking from my own personal experience, when I first got into Doctor Who in the early 1980s, and Peter Davison was playing the Doctor, I was absolutely dying to find out about the show’s rich past from the 1960s and 70s.  I so badly wanted to be able to watch William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, and Tom Baker’s stories. And it just seemed that, excepting Tom’s stuff, you couldn’t find them anywhere! Maybe the fact that so much of the material from the series’ first 11 years had either A) never been broadcast in the States or B) was lost forever, having been foolishly junked by the BBC in the mid-1970s, made it even more tantalizing.  You know, when you cannot have something, you end up wanting it even more.

I guess nowadays, with pretty much every single existing episode of the series available on DVD, people can go on Amazon and have a copy of any Doctor Who story delivered to their door in 24 hours, or even downloaded instantly onto their computer. That convenient access makes it a hell of a lot easier to take the show’s history for granted.

I never thought of it as “nerd elitism” but, okay, yeah, for many years I felt like I was one of those lone voices carrying the torch of Doctor Who fandom.  This was especially true in the 1990s, the period many older fans refer to as “the wilderness years.”  Back then, aside from the 1996 television movie starring Paul McGann, the only way to experience brand new Doctor Who was to read the original novels published first by Virgin and then by the BBC themselves.  The thing was, the quality of those books was highly variable.  Some were brilliantly revolutionary & cutting edge, while others were horribly pretentious, were trying much too hard to come across as “gritty” and “adult” or, worst of all, were just a couple of steps up from fan fiction by writers who wanted to “fix” perceived mistakes in the series’ continuity (I am not going to name any names).

The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch, probably one of the better Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s.

The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch, probably one of the better
Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s.

Okay, you could also buy Doctor Who Magazine for its excellent original comic strip, but that was only eight pages out of the entire periodical.  And in 1999, Big Finish began producing brand new audio adventures starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy.  True, each two-CD story would cost around $25, and you could only listen to these new stories, rather than watching them.  But it was, at that point, literally the next best thing to having new Doctor Who on your television.

My point is, for much of the decade the pickings were rather slim.  Nevertheless, despite all that, I remained a fan.  I approached the novels, the comic strips and the audio plays with both enthusiasm and an open mind.  That’s how much I loved Doctor Who.  I recognized it had to change and, yes, go through some uncomfortable growing pains to survive.

The thing is, though, in those days, whenever I told anybody that I was a fan of the show, they either had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, or worse, their reaction was that I was some loser without a life, fruitlessly pining away for the return of a series that had been axed years before, never to return.

So, yeah, when I hear younger fans say that they have no interest in going back and seeing anything from the original 26 year run, it’s very annoying. Because if it wasn’t for those two and a half decades, as well as that decade plus where we had nothing but novels, comic strips, and audio plays, here and now there would not be this great series featuring David Tennant and Matt Smith which those new fans love so much.  And when those same fans say Peter Capaldi is “too old,” again it just seems like a deliberate thumbing of the nose at the show’s past.  The magic of the character of the Doctor is that he can be so many different things, and not only some handsome, dashing young fellow who makes the ladies swoon.

Look, I get it.  Many of those old serials seem really padded out compared to the current fast-paced incarnation of the series.  Even an “old school” fan such as me will be the first to admit that many of those stories could be cut down by an episode or two and not lose any material of real significance.  So, yeah, to younger viewers those stories might seem a chore to sit through.  But I wish they’d at least give some of those older episodes a chance, and see just how diverse a character the Doctor has been over the years.

“The Twelfth Doctor & Why I’m Sick of Nerd In-Fighting” does relevantly address the issue of Matt Smith’s age.  Yes, I acknowledge that back in 2009 when I heard some 26 year old actor had been cast as the Eleventh Doctor, I was one of the many long-time fans who thought this was a huge mistake, that he was much too young to be playing the role.  But you know what?  I still stuck around.  I watched Smith’s debut in “The Eleventh Hour,” and by the end of the episode he had pretty much won me over.  By the time the two-part “The Hungry Earth” / “Cold Blood” story was broadcast, I was a firm fan.  I could see he was much like Peter Davison, portraying the Doctor as an old soul in a young man’s body.  And now that Smith’s run is coming to an end, I am very sorry to see him go.

So, yes, I admit it: I was wrong!  But the point is, even though I was initially against Matt Smith because of his age, I stuck it out, I gave him a chance.  And, as you can see, I was very pleasantly surprised.

How about we all give Peter Capaldi a chance, please?

How about we all give Peter Capaldi a chance, please?

And that is another part of why I am so frustrated.  As I have related above, Doctor Who was tossed about in extremely stormy weather for the last decade of the 20th Century, but people such as me stuck it out because we truly loved the series and the characters, and we were willing to take the time to root out the quality stories from the dross.  That is why it really is disheartening to read about how some of these younger fans are apparently ready to jump ship in an instant, at the first sign of displeasure, rather than giving Peter Capaldi an opportunity to prove himself.

I hope that the fans of the series that came aboard after 2005 will take my advice, and at least wait & see before judging.  You never know what is around the corner.

David Quinn’s Doctor Strange, part two

In the second part of my look back at writer David Quinn’s run on Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme, we pick up from the events of Annual #4.  As “Strangers Among Us” concluded, both Vincent Stevens and “Strange” had discovered that they were not true living beings, but mystical creations of Doctor Stephen Strange based upon aspects of his own personality.  Now both of them were slowly beginning to discorporate, and each was desperate to maintain his existence.  Stevens thought the solution lay in technology, whereas “Strange” believed that he and Stevens needed to merge together into one being.  Meanwhile, in the Dark Dimension, Clea was attempting to travel to Earth and reach Doctor Strange, in the hopes that he could aid her in quelling the mystic civil war engulfing her home.  She was unaware that her former lover had been infected with the energies of Salome, forcing him to take refuge in his new null space Sanctum Sanctorum.

In Midnight Sons Unlimited #6, we find Doctor Strange in the midst of assembling the “Forge” out of the numerous mystical items previously collected by “Strange” on his behalf.  Perhaps subconsciously sensing that Clea is making her way to Earth, Stephen Strange finds his thoughts drifting to his one-time student & paramour.  He relates to Sister Nil, his Lilin prisoner/ward, some of his past history with Clea.  The Doctor recounts three occasions when he and Clea encountered Verdelet, a scorned would-be lord of vampires who was passed over by his sire Varnae in favor of Dracula.  Their various encounters with this undead fiend through the years highlight the progression of their relationship.  Quinn does excellent work examining the couple’s shifting, developing roles over time.  In the first segment, Clea is very much the wide-eyed novice discovering a new world, in need of Doctor Strange’s guidance & protection.  In the second, they are teacher and pupil, with Clea honing her abilities by aiding Strange in his war against mystic menaces.  And in the third, we see them as equals, confidently working alongside one another.

Midnight Sons Unlimited 6 pg 22

Each of the flashback segments is illustrated by a different artist.  The first one, set early in Strange & Clea’s association, is  drawn by Marie Severin, one of the artists to work on the post-Ditko issues of Strange Tales in the late 1960s.  Appropriately enough, this tale seems to be set in that exact era.  Severin, who is probably best known for her work on Marvel’s self-parody title Not Brand Echh, adds a humorous touch to this tale of the undead via her colorful, off-the-wall depictions of the hippy counter-culture.

The second part also features work by a former Doctor Strange artist.  The super-talented Gene Colan drew the series throughout the 1970s.  He is inked here by Dave Simons, who previously embellished Colan’s pencils on Howard the Duck.  Making an appearance is Colan’s vampire-hunting co-creation Blade, who crosses paths with Strange and Clea as they engage in their second match with Verdelet.

Quinn returns to present-day events in Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #67.  Clea arrives on Earth and is shocked to discover that Stephen Strange’s Bleecker Street home is now a vacant lot.  Looking for clues to the Doctor’s whereabouts, she explores Greenwich Village disguised as a punk rock chick.  Finally, Clea realizes that her long association with and intimate connection to Strange allows her to reach out with her mystic senses to locate his new Sanctum.  The two are reunited, and each learns of the tragic circumstances that has befallen the other of late.  Clea understands that Strange is, at the moment, unable to help her.  As the spell that transported Clea to Earth fades and she returns to the Dark Dimension, each of them comes to terms with the need to go on alone in their respective quests.

Issue #68 is a fill-in written by Dan Abnett focusing on the two Strangers.  He does a nice job of getting into Vincent Stevens’ head, exploring his desire to continue to live.  Stevens may be immoral and unscrupulous, but he has still developed into a living, sentient being.  You can feel his anguish at his slow disintegration.  Abnett’s issue ties in very well with Quinn’s ongoing story.  It seems that editor Evan Skolnick did a good job coordinating the scripts of the two writers so that events would smoothly flow from one point to another.

Doctor Strange 69 pg 11

Quinn returns with Doctor Strange #69 and, honestly, I think it is one of the strongest issues of his entire run.  Having been rejected once and for all by Stevens, a disoriented “Strange” is wandering about, desperately searching for another being to merge with.  “Strange” crosses paths with Polaris and Forge from X-Factor, en-route back to Washington after a conference on human/mutant affairs.  They are in the midst of arguing about the role of mutants in society.  Forge thinks it crucial that mutant-kind band together in a unified front to ensure their security.  Polaris, however, believes that different views ought to be expressed, and debate encouraged among mutants about what role they should play in the world.

“Strange” is drawn to Polaris as he senses that due to her status as a mutant she is an “outcast” much like him.  He wants to merge with her, making them both, in his mind, complete.  While they are fighting, Polaris slowly begins to comprehend that “Strange” is a being who wants to be accepted & understood.  Forge, however, perceives “Strange” as a threat, and attempts to destroy him.  Polaris’ first instinct is to chastise her teammate for rash action.  But when “Strange” abruptly reforms, she reacts with fear.  A disenchanted “Strange” flies off, telling Polaris to “remember your hypocrisy.”  And perhaps she comprehends for the first time the perspective of ordinary humans who fear and attack those that are different from themselves.

The guest art team of David Brewer & Pam Eklund do excellent work illustrating Quinn’s extremely compelling, thought-provoking plot.  And the issue is topped off by an absolutely amazing cover by Mark Buckingham.

Doctor Strange 69 cover

The quests by both Vincent Stevens and “Strange” to perpetuate their existences continues in issue #s 70-71, the two part “Half Lives.”  Stevens believes that he has finally found the solution via “techno-magick.”  He intends to use this to take over the form of the most powerful being on Earth, the Hulk.  He summons the green goliath to his Tempo skyscraper by masquerading as the real Doctor Strange… an appropriate enough thing to do, I suppose, since for the past several months people have kept mistaking Stevens for the Master of the Mystic Arts.

“Strange,” on the other hand, is drawn to the Hulk’s oldest friend Rick Jones, who also once shared his form with Captain Mar-Vell. “Strange” believes this makes Rick uniquely suited to merge with him.  Rick, on the other hand, has only just married his true love Marlo Chandler.  Looking forward to embarking on a new life with her, he certainly has no desire to go back to being one half of a composite entity.

The debate between Rick and “Strange” is abruptly interrupted when the Stevens-possessed Hulk crashes in, ready to destroy his aetheric “brother” as payback for weeks of harassment.  It seems Stevens is on track to do just that until Rick, who knows the Hulk all too well, uses psychology to make the gamma-spawned giant’s true personality angry, giving him the strength to reassert control.  Stevens’ consciousness is banished.  Desperate, Stevens claims that he has changed his mind and wishes to merge with “Strange.”  The two flee back to the Tempo, leaving the Hulk and Rick to try and sort things out.

While all this has been taking place, Doctor Strange has been in his Sanctum.  He has completed his Forge, and is now attempting to utilize it to channel the magick influence of the Earth itself, thereby gaining a new supply of power.  This, he hopes, will allow him to leave null space and take back the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme from Salome.

At the same time, the Doctor is ready to just casually stand back and allow “Strange” and Vincent Stevens to “dissolve naturally.”  He seems unaware, or unwilling to admit, that the two Strangers have become independent entities, clinging tenaciously to life.  So, despite his vow to no longer treat “those who trusted me like mere chess pawns,” Doctor Strange is as yet unwilling to accept the consequences of his creating the Strangers.  Quinn ably demonstrates this glaring moral blind spot in the Doctor’s philosophy.  It is one the writer will examine in-depth in his next four issues.

Closing out #71, we finally catch a glimpse of Salome, who has been absent the past several issues.  Still searching for Doctor Strange, the mad sorceress contacts the Vishanti.  Salome offers up her services to these cosmic beings in exchange for the power to destroy Strange, the man who previously rejected them.  Thus is the stage set for the final confrontation between the two.

Doctor Strange 70 pg 14

“Half Lives” features the debut of the new regular artist on Doctor Strange: Sorcerer SupremePeter Gross had worked on Dr. Fate and Books of Magic for DC Comics / Vertigo, as well as Hellstorm for Marvel itself.  That made him well suited to draw another mystical-themed title such as this.  I do think the more traditional superhero action elements in these two issues with the Hulk do perhaps come out a bit awkward.  However, Gross does amazing work on the much more bizarre and esoteric sequences featuring Doctor Strange and Salome.  The scenes of Strange in the Forge Canal are really eerie, containing a surreal quality.  As we will see, Quinn’s upcoming “Last Rites” arc will definitely play to Gross’ strengths as an artist.

In part three, we will be taking a look at the final portion of David Quinn’s work on Doctor Strange, as featured in issue #s 72-79.

David Quinn’s Doctor Strange, part one

In my June 6th blog post, I talked about how I was tracking down David Quinn’s run on Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme.  Having finally done that, I’m going to take an in-depth look at Quinn’s innovative, offbeat, and downright bizarre run.

Unlike many creators who come in to take a series in a brand-new direction, David Quinn did not simply sweep under the rug everything that came before him.  Rather, he built upon what had gone before.  To wit, in the months preceding, in stories by Len Kaminski, Roy Thomas & Geof Isherwood, Doctor Strange’s mystic patrons the Vishanti had called upon him to fight on their behalf in the War of the Seven Spheres.  Believing this conflict would last for several millennia, and not wanting to leave Earth unprotected from other supernatural threats, Strange refused.  As a result, the Vishanti stripped him of the title of Sorcerer Supreme.  So, when Quinn came onboard, his protagonist was vastly reduced in power & ability.  And Quinn totally ran with that, showing just what drastic measures the Master of the Mystic Arts would take to continue in his role of protector of the Earth.

Y’know, in certain respects, I have to think that Quinn didn’t have the most ideal of circumstances under which to begin his stint on Doctor Strange.  Here he is, ready to kick off a brand-new storyline with sweeping changes in issue #60 and, by the way, it just so happens that that issue is going to be part 7 of a multi-title Midnight Sons crossover titled “Siege of Darkness.”  Indeed, Quinn does get off to a bit of a bumpy start.  I mean, Doctor Strange is competing for page space with Ghost Rider, John Blaze, Vengeance, Morbius, the Nightstalkers, and the Darkhold Redeemers, all fighting off an assault on Strange’s Bleecker Street home by the demon sorceress Lilith, and her children the Lilin.

(Having said that, I’m sure that being part of a huge crossover centered on Ghost Rider was a really great way to hook new readers!)

Quinn manages to squeeze in a couple of key plot points in #60.  First, Doctor Strange has a brief premonition of the future.  Second, one of the Lilin, Sister Nil, penetrates Strange’s house and attacks the Midnight Sons.  The de-powered Strange is unable to fight Nil himself, and is forced to make a terrible choice.  He uses his remaining power to summon Morbius to save them, but as a result is unable to prevent Nil from using her cancerous touch to murder Imei, the fiancé of his longtime ally Wong.  And, as the issue concludes, the Doctor’s house is destroyed in a mystic explosion.

Anyway, long story short, the Lilin get banished, but their ally Zarathos is still hanging around.  And he immediately finds another group of supernatural baddies, the Fallen, who take up the battle against the Midnight Sons.

Salome arrives, first in Doctor Strange's nightmares, and then on Earth

Salome arrives, first in Doctor Strange’s nightmares, and then on Earth

Quinn actually introduces a major player in his own overarching storyline in between Doctor Strange #s 60 and 61.  Marvel Comics Presents #146 was part 14 of “Siege of Darkness,” and in an eight page tale illustrated by Isherwood, Strange finds himself in a bizarre dream along with his ancient foe Nightmare.  However, this time the lord of the dream dimension isn’t Strange’s true enemy.  Rather, he comes face to face with the mysterious and lethal Salome, a vampire-like being who feeds on dark emotions.

This leads right into part 15 of “Siege” in Doctor Strange #61.  Salome, who is one of the Fallen, finally returns to Earth after thousands of years of exile in another dimension.  This is an altogether more focused issue, as Quinn has the other Fallen, uncertain of how Salome is going to affect their plans, decide that they are better off waiting things out on the sidelines.  That enables Quinn to focus on the conflict between Doctor Strange and Salome, the latter of whom makes a beeline to the Midnight Sons, who are gathered at the ruins of Strange’s house.

(For the nitty-gritty, click on the above images to enlarge!)

Engaging Doctor Strange and his allies in battle, Salome declares that she was “Sorceress Supreme” of Earth millennia before, and that she is now ready to reclaim her title.  Strange, already depowered and weakened from the battles with the Lilith and the Fallen, is obviously in no shape to fight off this lethal contender.  Ceding the title to her, he vanishes in a vortex of mystic energy, all his arcane possessions disappearing along with him.  The furious Salome is ready to vent her anger on the remaining Midnight Sons, when suddenly a bizarre figure appears.  His face covered in a mask, his costume superficially resembling that of the Master of the Mystic Arts, this being known only as “Strange” drives off Salome with a berserker fury.

It is in issue #s 62 and 63, freed from dealing with the whole “Siege” crossover, Quinn really begins to advance his story arc.  Skipping forward four months, we see that the masked being “Strange” has been crisscrossing the globe, collecting various mystic artifacts with a ruthless efficiency.  Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, a man named Vincent Stevens, who bears a striking resemblance to a somewhat younger Doctor Strange, has been using his powers of hypnosis to both manipulate the financial market and establish ties with organized crime.  Constructing a towering skyscraper known as the Tempo, Stevens leads a hedonistic lifestyle, throwing lavish erotic parties for the wealthy.

Neither of these individuals is the genuine article, though.  The true, original Doctor Stephen Strange is dwelling in his new Sanctum Sanctorum located in a “null space” in a vast cavern a mile beneath Trinity Church on Wall Street.  Gaunt, haggard, and decidedly short of temper, the former Sorcerer Supreme is clearly in trouble.

Quinn takes a detour in Midnight Sons Unlimited #5, bringing the sixth century sorcerer Modred the Mystic into the proceedings.  Modred’s philosophy can be summed up with the saying “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”  He firmly believes that the key to protecting the Earth from the forces of darkness is to master those very forces to use against his foes.  In past stories this has predictably backfired, and on at least one occasion he ended up a pawn of the elder god Chthon.  Obviously not having learned from his mistakes, Modred, along with his new disciple Wildpride, manipulate several members of the Midnight Sons into attacking Salome.  The whole affair is merely a ruse, an attempt to make Salome his servant so she can aid him in killing Doctor Strange, enabling Modred to become the new Sorcerer Supreme.  Of course this spectacularly blows up in Modred’s face, and as the story closes we see the sullen, humiliated Mystic being mocked by Wildpride.  (Not to worry, though, those two will pop up again soon!)

Obviously Quinn set up a lot of mysteries in these first several stories.  Once again, unlike many of his contemporaries on other 1990s Marvel titles, having set up these subplots, Quinn quickly followed through, delivering a number of unusual answers in the four part “Strangers Among Us” arc that ran in Doctor Strange #s 64-66 and Annual #4.  As editor Evan Skolnick quite reasonable explained in the letters page of #66…

“When a writer presents his readers with a mystery, it behooves him or her to eventually reveal the previously-hidden facts. We’ve been leaking them slowly over the past six months, giving you enough hints for you to guess… but it’s a fatal error to raise a question and then wait too long to answer it.”

A very strange arrival

A very strange arrival

Quinn reveals that the mystic treasure hunt by “Strange” has been conducted on behalf of the real Doctor Strange.  The sorcerer is amassing these objects in his new Sanctum.  There, he is also keeping Sister Nil as a prisoner, a constant reminder to himself of Imei’s death so that he will not fail again.  After the Doctor is unable to convince his one-time ally Namor the Sub-Mariner to give up an ancient Atlantean artifact, the Coral Crab, “Strange” takes it upon himself to retrieve the object from the ocean floor.  This brings him into conflict with not only Namor, but also a mystic sea serpent and, upon returning to New York City, former ally Vengeance.

All of this attracts the attention of Salome.  A necromancer, the Sorceress Supreme divines events by peering into mystic skins literally made from the flesh of her followers.  She observes “Strange” referring to “the Other,” and learns this is Vincent Stevens, who she mistakes for Stephen Strange.  Salome has brought the disenchanted Wong into her service by convincing him that she has resurrected Imei, although in fact it is actually a winged skeletal demon named Xaos.  Wong and Xaos abduct Stevens and transport him to Salome’s sanctuary in Iraq.  Salome quickly realizes that Stevens is not Doctor Strange.  And then “Strange” appears, ready to once again battle Salome.  It is at this point that the Sorceress Supreme finally deduces what has been going on.  In an effort to convince both “Strange” and Stevens to ally with her, Salome offers up explanations.

During the events of issue #61, in the midst of Doctor Strange’s explosive disappearance, he created a “stasis spiral,” stopping time.  In that frozen moment, he literally created “Strange” and Vincent Stevens via “aetheric discharges.”  Because Doctor Strange could not generate life from nothing, he derived their personalities from aspects of his own.  “Strange” was the savagery and violence he had long repressed.  Vincent Stevens embodied the selfishness and materialism of his former life as a wealthy surgeon which he overcame many years before when he studied under the Ancient One.  Doctor Strange had to create these twin beings to act as his agents in the outside world.  Because he had been infected by the energies of “Salome’s Dance,” if he left the null space of his new Sanctum, he would instantly disintegrate.

The origin of the Strangers.

The origin of the Strangers

From within his Sanctum, the Doctor manages to take psychic control of Vincent Stevens and, through his form, engages Salome in battle.  But even with the help of “Strange,” the Doctor cannot best Salome.  He is forced to channel the energy of Salome’s Dance in his body and use it against her.  This finally drives her off, but the Doctor knows that it is only a temporary victory.  And he wonders if his use of her dark powers has corrupted him.

There is also a back-up story in Annual #4 written by Tom Brevoort & Mike Kanterovich.  “Desperate Needs” brings us up to date with Clea, the lover and student of Doctor Strange.  The War of the Seven Spheres has touched upon her native Dark Dimension, causing horrific carnage.  Clea, unaware of her former partner’s own dire circumstances, sets out to journey back to Earth’s dimension and recruit Doctor Strange’s assistance in saving her world.  Brevoort & Kanterovich’s story works as both a nice stand-alone character piece and as a lead-in to issue #67.  But I’ll be looking at that in the next installment.

Sooooooo, what do I think of David Quinn’s work on Doctor Strange?  In this first arc he does very good work.  After an understandably rocky start during “Siege of Darkness,” the writing really takes off.  I realize, reading through the letters pages of these issues, that at the time these drastic changes were met with very mixed reactions.  But, in hindsight, I think that the series did need shaking up.  Roy Thomas did some decent writing, and he worked well with both Jackson Guice and Geof Isherwood.  But after more than four years, Doctor Strange was due for a change.

In his editorial in issue #60, Skolnick stated that he was trying to recapture “the original, defining aspects” of the Steve Ditko & Stan Lee stories from Strange Tales.  If you look at those original Ditko & Lee tales (go out and get Essential Doctor Strange Vol. 1) you will see that it did take several issues for them to really hit their groove.  I think the exact moment when that occurred can be pinned down: Strange Tales #126, the introduction of the dread Dormammu.  This kicked off a more or less uninterrupted storyline that lasted until #146, Ditko’s final issue.  And during this 21 issue arc, there really was no status quo.  Doctor Strange spent most of the time on the run from Baron Mordo and his myriad disciples who had been empowered by Dormammu, searching across the Earth and through various dimensions for the means to overcome his awesomely powerful adversaries.

David Quinn’s writing on Doctor Strange definitely contains the same sort of tension and unpredictability as that classic storyline, the suspense and mystery inherent in waiting to see how the Master of the Mystic Arts would outwit his enemies.  Quinn puts his own unique spin on it, via the moral ambiguity of the Stephen Strange’s actions, the mystery of the two “Strangers,” the alienation of his allies, and the introduction of a brand-new arch-villainess, Salome.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, I really did enjoy the work of Mel Rubi and Fred Harper, who were the art team on the first several issues of Quinn’s run.  I believe that this was Rubi’s very first published work.  He starts off a bit shaky, but you can see him grow from issue to issue.  As for Fred Harper, I’m probably biased since I’m friends with him, but his inking is great.  It really gives the art a tangible mood and atmosphere.  He is another artist who has really grown, consistently getting better & better.  If you look at his current painting & illustration work, it is absolutely fantastic.

The artwork on the Annual was courtesy of Kyle Hotz.  He reminds me a bit of Kelly Jones.  There is this sort of twisted, intricate detail to Hotz’s art that really suits the final chapter of “Strangers Among Us.”  And his layouts & storytelling are extremely dramatic.  He really gives the battle between the Strangers and Salome a hell of a punch.

Strange vs Namor the Sub-Mariner

Strange vs Namor the Sub-Mariner

And, of course, Mark Buckingham contributes several excellent covers for the “Strangers Among Us” arc.  We’ll be seeing more from him in upcoming issues.

One last thing: the lettering on the Annual is courtesy of Janice Chiang.  She has always been one of my favorite comic book letterers.  Every time I see her work, I can spot it almost instantly.  There is an element of calligraphy incorporated into Chiang’s fonts.  It works wonderfully well, and feels very organic.  The role of letterers is usually overlooked, so I wanted to make sure to highlight her efforts here.

Okay, this post went on much longer than I intended.  In part two, when I cover Doctor Strange #s 67-71 and Midnight Sons Unlimited #6, I promise I won’t ramble on so much!