It’s the end of August and summer is winding down. Yes, technically it doesn’t actually end until September 23rd. However, the unofficial end of the summer season here in the States is Labor Day, which is only a week away. Most people regard these as the closing days of summer.
So before all the kiddies return to school I wanted to end the summer with an appropriate post. Let’s cast our eyes back to 1988 and the pages of Amazing Heroes #138, their second annual swimsuit issue.
For younger readers, Amazing Heroes was published by Fantagraphics between 1981 and 1992. It featured in-depth articles and interviews on both mainstream comic books and the ever-growing independent scene. For most of its existence Amazing Heroes was edited by Kim Thompson.
Amazing Heroes had a few swimsuit editions in the late 1980s and early 90s. Unlike many of the comic book swimsuit specials that would follow from other publishers that were tacky T&A fests, Amazing Heroes approached theirs with tongue planted firmly in cheek. A diverse selection of artists contributed to their specials.
The cover to Amazing Heroes #138 is penciled by the legendary Neal Adams and inked by Art Nichols. It features four lovely ladies from Adams’ creator-owned Continuity Studios books. I’m not familiar with the gals in the middle. But on the left is Ms. Mystic and on the right is Samuree. I always chuckle at this one. In the Ms. Mystic series the title character’s costume is always rendered by Adams with zip-a-tone. So the joke here is that, in lieu of a swimsuit, Ms. Mystic is wearing an actual sheet of zip-a-tone to the beach.
I got this autographed by Adams recently. It’s a lovely piece by him, a playfully sexy pin-up illustration. I hope one of these days Adams collects his creator-owned material into trade paperbacks. I feel that is an often-overlooked aspect of his career.
Here’s a look at just a few of my favorites from the many great pin-ups featured in Amazing Heroes #138…
John Workman renders Big Barda of Jack Kirby’s New Gods in a bikini. Workman is best known for his extensive work as a letterer, frequently working with Walter Simonson. But Workman is also a talented artist. As can be seen from this, he also possesses a great sense of humor. This is a cute send-up of good girl art, simultaneously sexy and self-deprecating. That “tapioca pudding” line totally cracks me up.
If you are Fantagraphics and you’re going to do a swimsuit special, certainly you’re going to ask two of your best artists, Love and Rockets co-creators Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, to contribute a piece. After all, both brothers are well-regarded for their depictions of the female form. Of course, Beto and Jaime draw some good looking guys, too. Here’s a jam piece by Los Bros Hernandez. On the left is Israel by Gilbert. On the right is Danita by Jaime.
This pin-up and a great deal of other material that had originally appeared in a variety of places was reprinted in the Hernandez Satyricon trade paperback. As much as I love Gilbert & Jaime for their very compelling characters & intricate plotting it was also nice to have many of their beautiful pin-ups gathered together in one volume.
I really enjoy Fred Hembeck’s fun, cartoony artwork. He is a huge fan of Silver Age comic books, especially the Marvel Comics work of Steve Ditko. Hembeck has done quite a few loving Ditko homages over the years, including this one, “Surfing in The Ditko Zone.” It brings a smile to my face seeing Doctor Strange, Clea and the dread Dormammu in swimsuits riding the waves in one of Ditko’s psychedelic alternate dimensions.
As I’ve mentioned before, my girlfriend Michele is a fan of Omaha the Cat Dancer by writer Kate Worley and artist Reed Waller. I’ve never read the series, but Michele has all of the collected editions, so one of these days I’ll sit down and immerse myself in it. Omaha is an exotic dancer / stripper, and the book is definitely for mature readers. The series was partly created as a protest against censorship. It perfect makes sense that Waller would draw Omaha as “Ms. First Amendment” here. It’s a beautiful illustration.
In the late 1980s Eclipse Comics was publishing their revival of the Golden Age aviator hero Airboy written by Chuck Dixon. The talented Bo Hampton was one of the artists who worked on it. For this swimsuit issue Hampton renders Airboy / Davy Nelson III, the near-mindless swamp monster known as the Heap, and the femme fatale Valkyrie at the beach. I always chuckle at the sight of the Heap in a pair of swim trunks!
IDW is currently reprinting Eclipse’s Airboy in a series of trade paperbacks. I recommend getting them. They contain excellent writing and artwork.
Here’s a great pin-up of the whole crew from Evan Dorkin’s irreverent creator-owned series Pirate Corp$ / Hectic Planet jamming at the beach. It always amazes me at the insane amount of detail, as well as the just plain insanity, Dorkin always manages to pack into his artwork. He draws a huge crowd of characters and successfully invests each one with an individual personality. Dorkin is definitely one of the most talented and underrated comic book creators around.
In the late 1990s Slave Labor Graphics released three trade paperback collections of Hectic Planet. You can find them on Amazon at affordable prices. Again, I recommend them. Dorkin did good work in those stories.
Bringing things to a close, here is a scan of the original art for a pin-up of Purity Brown and Nemesis the Warlock from the pages of 2000 AD drawn by Bruce Patterson. As an inker, Patterson has worked with a diverse number of pencilers. This piece demonstrates Patterson is also able to do extremely good work on his own. Purity Brown of course looks damn sexy in her black bikini. As for Nemesis, there’s comedy gold in seeing the alien chaos lord clad in a black Speedo holding a beach ball.
I won this on Ebay in the late 1990s. Only a couple other people bid on it, so I got it for an amazingly low price. I owned it for almost 20 years before eventually selling it to another collector when I had some bills I had to pay. The art board Patterson drew on had warped a bit by the time it made its way into my hands, but it still looked great. This is a piece that I feel, due to the subtle shading Patterson utilized, did not reproduce especially well on black & white newsprint.
Older fans often look back at the demise Amazing Heroes in 1992 as an unfortunate setback to serious journalism on the industry. I think that’s a valid argument. Even more so when you consider that following in Amazing Heroes’ footsteps was Wizard Magazine. If Amazing Heroes was the New York Times of comic book reporting then Wizard was definitely the NY Post!
Many of the old Amazing Heroes issues can be found on Ebay for low prices. They’re well worth picking up for the interviews and the in-the-moment examination of the dramatic changes the comic book industry underwent throughout the 1980s. And, of course, you also had fun features like their swimsuit specials.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Half Lives” features the debut of the new regular artist on Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme. Peter 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.
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!