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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!