Memories of The Incredible Hulk by Sal Buscema

Sal Buscema, one of my favorite comic book artists, celebrates his 85th birthday on January 26th. I’m going to take a look back at how I discovered Buscema’s work as a young comic book fan. (Part of this retrospective is based on a couple of posts I did several years ago. I guess you can consider this a “director’s cut” or something like that.)

Appropriately enough, I first saw Sal Buscema’s artwork in two issues of The Incredible Hulk, one of the series with which he is most closely associated.

On several occasions Sal Buscema has stated that the Hulk was his favorite character to draw. As he related to Jim Amash in the book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, published by TwoMorrows in 2010:

“I identified with [the Hulk]. Do you know what I liked about the Hulk? … He’s totally unique. He’s monstrous, lumbering, huge, unbelievably strong, and he gets even stronger when he gets angry. He has the mentality of a child. It’s so completely different from anything that you’ve drawn before. Is there another character as unique? … He’s an anti-hero, and yet because of his unbelievable power… look at all the fantastic things he’s capable of doing and usually does. That’s the fun and the constant stimulation that I had with this character.”

Buscema was the penciler on The Incredible Hulk from issue #194 (Dec 1975) to #309 (July 1985), an astonishing nine and a half year run. During that time Buscema missed only seven issues. I believe his 109 issue run on the series has never been surpassed by any other artist.

The very first issue of The Incredible Hulk that I ever read was #285, cover-dated July 1983.  It would have been on sale in early April 1983. I was six and a half years old and my parents bought it for me.

Prior to this, I had watched reruns of The Incredible Hulk cartoon that had originally been broadcast in 1966, as well as the new Saturday morning cartoon that debuted in September 1982.  Of course I had also seen at least a few episodes of the television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.  So I was already familiar with Bruce Banner and his gamma-spawned alter ego. But The Incredible Hulk #285 was the first time I had the opportunity to read one of the character’s actual comic book adventures.

The Incredible Hulk #285 was topped off by a fantastic cover drawn by artists Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott.  As a kid, I thought it was an amazing image.  The Hulk was fighting this giant orange figure seemingly made out of flames.  I hadn’t seen anything like that before. And, oddly, instead of striding around in his usual torn-up pants, on this cover the Hulk was wearing a shirt, tie, jacket and shoes. That said, his pants were still purple, so not everything about him had changed!

Flipping open the comic, I came to the first page of “Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life.”  The creative team was writer Bill Mantlo, penciler Sal Buscema, inker Chic Stone, lettered Jim Novak, colorist Bob Sharen and editor Al Milgrom.  This splash page once had the Hulk wearing a jacket & tie, his hair neatly combed.  Rather than running around on a destructive rampage, he is seated at a desk, narrating his memoirs into a Dictaphone.

Over the course of the next several pages the Hulk recounts how Dr. Bruce Banner created the Gamma Bomb. While attempting to save the life of teenager Rock Jones, who had wandered onto the test site, Banner was caught in the explosion of the weapon he created. The radiation now caused Banner to transform into a savage monster whenever overwhelmed by stress or anger. I distinctly recall that my seven year old self was surprised that in this flashback Banner’s assistant Igor, who set off the Gamma Bomb in an attempt to kill the scientist, was a Soviet spy, rather than an alien robotic infiltrator as he had been depicted in the animated episode “Origin of the Hulk” the year before.

Buscema drew an absolutely savage depiction of the Hulk in this flashback, as Banner transformed into the jade giant for the very first time, on the striking splash page seen at the top of this blog post.

Following this was an amazing two page spread by Buscema & Stone that illustrated the chaotic life of the Hulk over the next several years, the long and winding road taken by a green goliath who was more often than not hunted by humanity.  Among the numerous characters glimpsed in this flashback montage, my seven year old self recognized from the animated series the villainous Leader and his pink artificial servants, Betty Ross, her father the militant General Ross, and the equally belligerent Major Talbot. Of course I also knew who Captain America was.

I was surprised to find out that Bruce Banner’s identity as the Hulk was public knowledge, since in the cartoons it had only been known to Rick Jones. Years later I learned that the Hulk was probably the earliest major super-powered protagonist to have his secret identity revealed, way back in Tales to Astonish #77, which was cover-dated May 1966.

At the end of this montage, we come to the Hulk’s current status: At long last, after all this time, Bruce Banner has managed to gain control, to retain his human intelligence when transforming into the Hulk.

While the Hulk has been busy recounting his life, a crew of workers from Stark Industries headed up by Scott Lang, the new Ant-Man, has been constructing Northwind Observatory, a laboratory where Banner can resume his scientific studies.  Turning back into his human form, Banner joins Lang to supervise the installation of the laboratory’s power core.  At the last minute, Banner discovers that the power core was not designed by Stark Industries, but acquired from a company called Soulstar.  Banner immediately recognizes the name, but before he can prevent it, the power core is hooked up, there is “a massive electromagnetic discharge,” and a strange being emerges.

This creature, we are informed, is Zzzax the Living Dynamo (aka the guy guaranteed to always get the very last entry in the Handbook of the Marvel Universe).  Looking something like a humanoid lightning bolt, Zzzax is a creature that feeds on the human life force.  Before the monster can consume the stunned construction crew, Banner transforms back into the Hulk and tackles this old enemy.

Unfortunately the Hulk comes to a realization: In his old savage, child-like persona, the angrier he got, the stronger he became, but now, guided by Banner’s rational intellect, the Hulk cannot easily become angry, meaning his strength is limited.  And so the gamma-spawned giant realizes that, instead of relying on brute force to defeat Zzzax, he must now find a way to out-think his fiery foe.

As a kid, I thought The Incredible Hulk #285 was a fantastic issue with an amazing bad guy.  Yep, the idea of an intelligent Hulk was unexpected, but I just shrugged and read on.  Mantlo’s script was a really good introduction to the character of the Hulk, neatly surmised through the plot device of Bruce Banner penning his autobiography.  The second half, with the Hulk fighting Zzzax, was really exciting.

On the art side of things, the work by Sal Buscema was high quality.  To the best of my knowledge, this was the very first comic book I ever read that was penciled by him.  As I mentioned above, Buscema would eventually become one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  A number of years ago when Our Pal Sal appeared at a NYC comic book show I had him autograph this issue.  It was actually my second copy, since I read the original one so many times as a kid that the cover eventually fell off.

In regards to Stone’s inking, it is pretty good.  Having subsequently seen a great deal more of Buscema’s work, I have to admit that there were others who did a better job finishing his pencils, among them Joe Sinnott, Gerry Talaoc, and Buscema himself.  In the aforementioned Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist he admits that he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Stone’s inking.  Looking back at it as an adult fan, yes, I tend to agree with him.  That said, back when I was a little kid completely lacking in any knowledge of the subtleties of inking, I thought the artwork by Sal & Chic looked just fine.  I guess that’s probably the more important thing.

Even though I really did enjoy The Incredible Hulk #285, because I was just a few months shy of seven years old I very seldom had a chance to go buy comic books on my own, so I ended up not reading another issue of the series for a couple of years.  When I finally did, it was issue #309.  And if I thought #285 was a bit odd, well, that next one was downright bizarre!

The Incredible Hulk #309 was cover-dated July 1985, exactly two years since the last issue I had read.  And it was quickly obvious that a heck of a lot had changed in those two years!

The cover to issue #309 was by Mike Mignola.  It’s a pretty early piece of work by the future creator of Hellboy.  But you can certainly see his potential as an artist in this unusual cover image.  This had to be the first time that I saw Mignola’s art.  It certainly leaped out at me as a distinctive piece.

“The Triad” is written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by Sal Buscema, inked by Gerry Talaoc, lettered by John Workman, colored by Bob Sharon and edited by Carl Potts.  The last time I had seen Bruce Banner he was in full control of his bestial alter-ego and had been accepted as a hero by the people of Earth.  Now, though, the Hulk appears to be somewhere far, far from home, struggling to string together a simple coherent thought.

Within a few pages, Mantlo quickly brought readers up to speed.  Buscema renders another of his dramatic flashback montages.  I learned that the now-intelligent Hulk was haunted by Doctor Strange’s arch enemy Nightmare, who twisted Banner’s dreams to re-awaken the green goliath’s bestial alter ego.  Nightmare hoped to use the Hulk as weapon against the Sorcerer Supreme.  However, Strange was able to help the remaining spark of Banner’s consciousness strike back at the demon.  Unfortunately the Hulk was left with no mitigating human influence, and became an uncontrollable monster.  Rather than have to destroy his old friend, Strange exiled the Hulk to the extra-dimensional Crossroads, which linked up to a myriad of other realities.

And, wow, poor John Workman, a highly skilled letterer, had to try to squeeze all of this information onto a single page! I recall my eight year old self squinting as I read this recap, trying to make out all that tiny lettering.

Now, in the present, after some time wandering the Crossroads, traveling from one strange world to another, the Hulk’s sentience is very gradually awakening.  And with this renewed awareness, the Hulk discovers he is now accompanied by a trio of unusual figures.  The Triad is made up of a blue-skinned demon Goblin, a young orange-skinned girl Guardian, and a shining magenta star Glow.  These mysterious figures were somehow linked to the Hulk, their purpose to help restore the Hulk’s psyche.

Walking through one of the Crossroads portals, the Hulk and the Triad are transported into the middle of a vast alien desert.  Although the desolate sands stretch as far as the eye can see, and the harsh sun beats endlessly down, the Hulk refuses to activate the “fail-safe spell” cast by Doctor Strange that would return him to the Crossroads when he feels discontented.  As a massive sandstorm sweeps in, the Triad attempt in vain to convince the Hulk to wish himself off this planet before they all perish.

Finally, having survived the brutal elements, the Hulk at last finds that which his inhuman senses had detected from far off: a lush oasis.  The Triad realizes that the Hulk was not on a mission of suicide, but was driven by the will to find this oasis, meaning his mind is continuing to heal and come back together.

This was a really odd story to read as a kid.  The Hulk was stranded on the other side of reality, fighting not some supervillain or the military, but the very elements, accompanied by an incredibly odd threesome.  Mantlo really crafted an unusual story, having the Hulk’s struggle against nature juxtaposed against the Triad’s examination of and insights into his mental state.  It is a very introspective tale.

At the time, I had no clue who the Triad was supposed to be.  Within the next few issues, Mantlo would reveal that they were the splintered aspects of Bruce Banner’s subconscious mind given form and independent thought.  Certainly this was a clever, innovative idea.  Reading issue #309 with the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that Mantlo sprinkled the dialogue with a number of hints as to the true identity of the Triad.

Mantlo really broke a lot of ground with his run on Incredible Hulk.  Having already given us an intelligent Hulk, he has now exiled the jade giant from Earth and begun to embark on an examination of Bruce Banner’s psychological background.  A cursory glance at the Hulk stories that have been written in the decades since readily demonstrates just how much this influenced subsequent writers.

This issue’s artwork was absolutely incredible.  The thing that really struck me was the depiction of the Hulk by Buscema & Talaoc.  Obviously in other comic books and in cartoons the Hulk had always been a big, strong creature.  But this was the first time I had ever seen him drawn as such a huge, bestial, imposing figure.

The depictions of the Crossroads and the desert planet that the Hulk and his strange companions visited were very vivid and detailed.  Buscema did a great job on the pencils, crafting these alien environments.  And the inking by Talaoc was absolutely superb.  He created a tangible atmosphere of oddness for the Crossroads.  On the desolate world, his embellishments bring to life a harsh landscape that alternates between cutting winds and a brutal sun.

Buscema stated in the Fast & Furious book that Gerry Talaoc was one of his favorite inkers to work with…

“Gerry Talaoc was a terrific draughtsman and… he drew better than I did. He probably still does. [laughs] And the look of the book was great. I loved what he did. To me the final product was what counted.”

I agree that Buscema and Talaoc went together exceptionally well.  Talaoc really enhanced Buscema’s penciling without overpowering it.

Eight years ago I found out that Gerry Talaoc was retired and living in Alaska. I was able to mail a few comic books to him to get signed, and I made certain that The Incredible Hulk #309 was one of them.

On the letters page of The Incredible Hulk #309 editor Carl Potts revealed that this was Sal Buscema’s final regular issue penciling the series, ending his nearly decade-long run.  I don’t recall if this meant anything to me back then, since I was just a kid and really wasn’t paying attention to the credits.

Years later, though, I would learn about the behind the scenes circumstances that led to Sal Buscema’s departure from The Incredible Hulk.  Buscema and Bill Mantlo, who came on as writer with issue #245, had initially gotten along very well. Regrettably though, as Buscema recounted in Fast & Furious, after several years Mantlo started becoming much more hands-on and demanding in regards to the artwork & storytelling, requesting that Buscema draw pages in certain ways…

“What [Mantlo] was asking for was not good. I didn’t care for it at all, and I have to trust my judgment, because I’m the artist and he’s not. I hate to be this blunt about it, but the fact of the matter is that in many cases where Bill described what he wanted he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was not an artist, because he had no concept – and I do not mean that derogatorily, but simply as a statement of fact – of the relationship of one object to another in a given space. He would ask me to draw things that were impossible to draw.”

Buscema reluctantly asked Marvel Comics to take him off The Incredible Hulk. It’s an unfortunate end to his historic run. Nevertheless, looking at his penciling for issue #309, it is apparent, to me at least, that Buscema was doing high-quality work on the series right up until his departure.

By 1985 it had become a bit easier for me to buy comic books.  So fortunately I was able to pick up most the next several issues of the series.

Mike Mignola came onboard as the new penciler.  A few issues later the entire team of Mantlo, Mignola & Talaoc relocated to the pages of Alpha Flight.  After brief stints by John Byrne and Al Milgrom, The Incredible Hulk gained a new writer, Peter David, who had a lengthy, brilliant run that has some of its roots in Mantlo’s work.

Looking back on Mantlo’s run on The Incredible Hulk, it was innovative and exciting.  Despite the difficulties he had working with Mantlo towards the end, the artwork by Buscema was superb. In 2012 a good portion of the Mantlo & Buscema run, issues #269 to #313, was collected in, appropriately enough, a triad of trade paperbacks: Pardoned, Regression and Crossroads.

From my recollection, the point at which Sal Buscema’s artwork really began to stand out in my mind was when he became the regular artist on Spectacular Spider-Man in 1988. His work on that series was outstanding. And so, when I later ended up looking back at those two issues of The Incredible Hulk that I had picked up as a kid, I now realized they had been penciled by Our Pal Sal, which only increased my appreciation for them. It’s great to re-examine them and really absorb the incredible skill Buscema displays with his dynamic layouts & storytelling. Just check out the action, energy and drama on display above, on page 20 of The Incredible Hulk #285.

I definitely recommend purchasing Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist. It is still available from TwoMorrows Publishing.

Credit where credit is due: The format of this piece was partly inspired by Alan Stewart’s entertaining and informative blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books. Hey, as the saying goes, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best! You can read Alan’s entries on Sal Buscema, which so far look back at some of his work from the late 1960s and early 70s. And if Alan keeps blogging (and I certainly hope he does) perhaps in another six or so years he’ll be discussing Our Pal Sal’s work on The Incredible Hulk.

In conclusion, I want to wish a very happy 85th birthday to Sal Buscema, and thank him for the many great, enjoyable comic books he’s worked on over the decades.

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

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.

Doctor Strange 61 cover
“Siege of Darkness”

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!