Joe Sinnott: 1926 to 2020

Legendary comic book artist Joe Sinnott passed away on June 25th at the age of 93.  Sinnott had such a long and distinguished career as an artist that I really could not do him justice in a short blog post.  I will touch upon a few highlights, but for a much more detailed examination of his career I strongly urge everyone to get a copy of Brush Strokes With Greatness: The Life & Art of Joe Sinnott written by Tim Lasiuta from TwoMorrows Publishing.

Fantastic Four #57 (Dec 1966) cover artwork by Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott

Joe Sinnott was born in Saugerties, NY on October 16, 1926, and he lived in that area for almost his entire life.  Following service in the U.S Navy during World War II, Sinnott attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now known as the School of Visual Arts). 

One of his instructors was artist Tom Gill, who asked Sinnott to work as his assistant. Sinnott assisted Gil for nine months in 1949.

In 1950 Sinnott decided to find work on his own, and he was soon receiving regular assignments from Atlas Comics, the precursor to Marvel.  Atlas editor Stan Lee assigned numerous stories for Sinnott to illustrate which saw print in the company’s war, horror, science fiction and Western anthologies.

“Invasion From Outer Space!” from Journey Into Mystery #52 (May 1959) penciled & inked by Joe Sinnott

In 1957 Atlas experienced a severe contraction due to its distributor American News Company being shut down by the federal government in an anti-trust case.  Sinnott was one of the many freelancers let go by Atlas, and so he had to find work elsewhere.  He worked for a number of clients, including Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact, an educational, Catholic-oriented comic book published by George A. Pflaum that was distributed to parochial schools in North America.

Stan Lee asked Sinnott to return to Atlas in 1959.  Within two years the company had transformed into Marvel and begun its successful superhero revival.  During this period Lee first had Sinnott work as an inker over Jack Kirby, initially on stories for Atlas war and monster anthologies, and then on some of the early Marvel superhero books, such as Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962) the first appearance of Doctor Doom, and Journey Into Mystery #83 (Aug 1962) the first appearance of Thor.  Sinnott also contributed the full artwork for some of the early Thor stories that appeared in Journey Into Mystery in 1963.

Artwork from The Beatles published by Dell Comics (Sept 1964) penciled & inked by Joe Sinnott

Lee had actually wanted Sinnott to become the regular inker over Kirby on Fantastic Four following issue #5.  However at this time Treasure Chest assigned Sinnott to draw the 65 page biography “The Story Of Pope John XXIII, Who Won Our Hearts,” which was serialized in nine issues between September 1962 and January 1963. 

Treasure Chest vol 25 #16 (May 14, 1970) cover artwork by Joe Sinnott

Soon another ambitious project was assigned to Sinnott, a biography of the British rock band the Beatles published by Dell Comics in 1964.  Sinnott was given a mere month within which to illustrate the entire 64 page book.  It speaks highly of both his talent and professionalism that he turned in the job on time while doing quality work. And, as I’ve observed before, drawing likenesses can be very tricky. All things considered, I think Sinnott did a fair job capturing the appearances of the Fab Four.

Following the completion of these two biographies, Sinnott began to work for Marvel almost exclusively.  He also continued to illustrate stories and covers for Treasure Chest up until the title came to an end in 1972.

Sinnott did finally became the regular inker over Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four beginning with issue #44 (Nov 1965).  The art team of Kirby & Sinnott on FF in the second half of the 1960s is highly acclaimed.  As historian Mark Alexander stated in his book Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years (TwoMorrows, 2011)…

“In an uncanny stroke of luck and perfect timing, just when Kirby gained the time to improve his artwork, Joe Sinnott became the FF’s regular inker. Sinnott was a master craftsman, fiercely proud of the effort and meticulous detail he put into his work. … That slick, stylized layer of India ink that Sinnott painted over Kirby’s pencils finished Jack’s work in a way that no other inker ever would. Comic fans had never witnessed art this strange and powerful in its scope and strength.”

A scan of the original artwork for Fantastic Four #81 page 1 (Dec 1968) penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Joe Sinnott. I think this is a really good example of Sinnott’s polished inking over Kirby. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Following a falling-out with Marvel, Kirby departed Fantastic Four with issue #102 (Sept 1970).  Sinnott, however, remained on as the FF inker / finisher for 15 years, until issue #231 (June 1981).  In the post-Kirby decade Sinnott inked pencilers John Buscema, Rich Buckler, George Perez, Keith Pollard, Bill Sienkiewicz and John Byrne on Fantastic Four.  It’s generally regarded that Sinnott helped maintain artistic consistency on the title during the Bronze Age.

Sinnott became a much in-demand inker / finisher at Marvel from the mid 1960s thru the early 1990s.  He was paired with numerous pencilers during this 27 year period.  As longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort explained on his blog:

“Joe Sinnott defined the look of the Marvel art style as much as anybody this side of John Romita, and more than any other inker in the business. His smooth linework and clean finish gave a pristine, sleek, modernistic flavor to any assignment he worked his brush over, regardless of the penciler. He’s absolutely my favorite inker of all time, a guy who improved the quality of any series he was working on. Additionally, Joe is an absolute professional, and a hell of a nice guy.”

Thor #407 (Sept 1989) penciled by Ron Frenz & inked by Joe Sinnott

Sinnott’s last regular assignment for Marvel was Thor, paired with penciler Ron Frenz from 1989 to 1991, another wonderful collaboration.  In 1991 Sinnott made the decision to retire from monthly comic books, although over the next 28 years he continued to contribute to various miniseries, special editions, pin-ups and other projects, and to ink the Sunday installment of the Spider-Man newspaper strip.  In March 2019, at the age of 92, he FINALLY made the decision to completely retire as a professional artist, although he continued to draw for pleasure until nearly the end of his life.

The news of Sinnott’s passing this week was met with sadness.  This was not only because he was an incredibly talented artist who worked on hundreds of great comic book stories, but because he was also a genuinely good person, beloved by friends, colleagues and fans alike.  As comic book writer & historian Mark Evanier opined on his blog this week:

“If you were in a crowd of folks who worked in the comic book industry and announced, “Joe Sinnott was the best inker who ever worked in comics,” you wouldn’t get a lot of argument. If you said, “Joe Sinnott was the nicest guy who ever worked in comics,” you’d get even less.”

Fantastic Four #181 (April 1977) autographed by Joe Sinnott

I was one of the many fans who was fortunate enough to meet Joe Sinnott when he was a guest at comic book conventions.  He always came across to me as friendly, warm and down to Earth.

Sinnott was one of those people whose work I enjoyed before I met him, but afterwards I became even more of a fan by virtue of the fact that he was such a good guy.

Joe Sinnott leaves behind a rich, creative legacy, and he will definitely be missed.  I wish to offer my condolences to his family and friends for their loss.

Remembering comic book artist George Klein

Recently I was reminded, thanks to the excellent blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books by Alan Stewart, of the very underrated work of comic book artist George Klein.

National Sportsman Dec 1939 cover smallOne of the main reasons why Klein is not much better known among comic book fandom is that he tragically passed away at a young age.  He died 50 years ago this month, on May 10, 1969.

Klein was born in 1915, although there is a bit of uncertainty over the exact date, as well as the location of his birth.  Klein’s earliest published work appears to be a painted cover for the December 1939 edition of National Sportsman.

Between 1941 and 1943 Klein was employed by Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel.  Creator credits in the Golden Age were often missing or inaccurate, but it is generally believed he worked on such titles as All-Winners Comics, Captain America Comics, USA Comics and Young Allies Comics at Timely.

In 1943 Klein was drafted to serve in World War II, and served as a private in the Army Infantry.  Honorably discharged in 1946, Klein returned to his career as an artist, working in both comic books and as a magazine illustrator.Detective illustration George Klein

Several of the periodicals that Klein worked for, both before and after the war, were pulp magazines published by Timely’s owner Martin Goodman, specifically Best Love, Complete Sports, Complete War and Detective Short Stories.  Klein was also a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife, the award-winning magazine published by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.  His work in Wyoming Wildlife and other publications apparently gained Klein some renown as a landscape and wildlife artist.

Klein once again did work for Timely, or Atlas Comics as it came to be known in the 1950s.  Among the various titles Klein worked on at Timely / Atlas in the late 40s and early 50s were the romance series Girl Comics and the well-regarded fantasy / romance series Venus, although (again due to the lack of credits) the exact details of his involvement are a matter of deduction and guesswork.

 

Venus 2 pg 1

During this time Klein also branched out to work for other publishers such as ACG, Ace Comics and Prize Publications.  By the early 1950s much of Klein’s work was for National Periodical Publications, aka DC Comics.

Beginning in 1955 Klein, working as an inker, was regularly paired up with penciler Curt Swan on DC’s various Superman titles.  Looking at the Grand Comic Database, the first story drawn by the Swan & Klein team seems to be the Superboy story “The Wizard City” written by the legendary Bill Finger in Adventure Comics #216, cover-dated September 1955.Adventure Comics 332 cover small

Swan and Klein continued to work together for the next 12 years, with their art appearing in various issues of Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.

Truthfully, Swan is a penciler who at times leaves me a bit cold.  He’s one of those artists who I recognize as technically proficient, someone who is a good, solid storyteller.  However often his work just does not connect with me personally.  That said, there is something about the teaming of Swan and Klein that really appeals to me.

Having been born in 1976, obviously I did not read the stories they drew when they first came out. About 20 years ago I really got into the Legion of Super-Heroes and began picking up the various Legion Archives.  I was immediately taken with the work that Swan & Klein on those Superboy and the Legion stories from Adventure Comics in the 1960s.  I regard Klein as one of the best inkers Swan ever got during his lengthy career.

As per writer & editor Mark Waid’s bio of George Klein written for the Legion Archives:

“Klein set new standards for his craft with his razor-crisp brushline, which brought new dimensions to the art of Curt Swan, the penciler with whom Klein was most frequently paired. Together, Swan and Klein defined for years to come the look of Superman and his cast of characters; to this day , most Legion of Super-Heroes aficionados consider Swan and Klein to be the all-time finest Legion art team.”

Adventure Comics 352 pg 5

Klein’s work over Swan’s pencils is an excellent demonstration of just how significant a role the inker can have on the look of the finished artwork in comic books.

Adventure Comics 352 cover smallProbably the stand-out stories of this era were written by the then-teenage Jim Shooter, who introduced Karate Kid, Princess Projecta and Ferro Lad to the Legion, as well as the villainous Fatal Five.  Swan & Klein did a superb job illustrating these now-classic stories.

One cannot discuss Klein’s work in the Silver Age without mentioning Fantastic Four.  Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, that title was the birth of what came to be known as the Marvel Universe.  For many decades the specific details concerning the creation of the early FF stories have been shrouded in mystery.

One of the most frequently-pondered questions was who exactly inked Kirby’s pencils on the first two issues.  After much debate & analysis, the conclusion reached by Dr. Michael  J. Vassallo, one of the foremost authorities on Timely / Atlas / early Marvel artwork, is that it was George Klein.  It is known that Klein worked on several stories for Atlas in the late 1950s and early 60s, which would put him in exactly the right place when the first two issues of FF were being created in 1961.

As to why Klein in particular was chosen to ink these two issues, longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort offers up this theory:

“I would also conjecture that perhaps the choice of George Klein to ink these early issues–if indeed he was the inker as is generally believed today–was to try to give them more of a super hero feel than Kirby’s monster or romance or western work. Klein at the time was inking Curt Swan on Superman, and you really can’t get a more classic super hero finish than that.”

Fantastic Four 1 pg 14

Absent the original artwork for those first two FF issues resurfacing, or some previous-unknown documentation being discovered, we will probably never be 100% certain; nevertheless, the general consensus is that Klein very likely inked those two issues, placing him right at the birth of the Marvel Age of Comics.

Klein’s work for DC on the Superman family of titles took place during the regime of editor Mort Weisinger.  The late 1960s saw an editorial shake-up at DC. Although Weisinger remained in control of the Superman books until 1970, this behind-the-scenes instability is reportedly what led to Klein departing the company.  He quickly found work at Marvel Comics which, eight years after the introduction of the Fantastic Four, was achieving both commercial success and critical acclaim.Avengers 57 cover small

Klein’s first assignment at Marvel was inking John Buscema’s pencils on Avengers.  After inking a couple of covers, Klein became the regular inker with issue #55, cover-dated August 1968.  Klein remained on Avengers for nearly a year.

The late 1960s is now considered one of the series’ most important and influential periods. Writer Roy Thomas, working with John Buscema, introduced the Avengers’ arch-nemesis Ultron, new member the Vision, and Hank Pym’s new costumed identity Yellowjacket, among other key developments.  Klein did a superb job inking Buscema on many of these key stories.  In 2001 Thomas spoke with Buscema about their work on Avengers, a conversation that saw print in Alter Ego #13.  In it they briefly touched upon Klein:

Roy Thomas: So how did you feel about George Klein’s inking compared to some of the others?

John Buscema: From what I’ve seen, a very credible job, not bad.

Considering that Buscema was notoriously critical of most of the artists who inked his work, I suppose by his exacting standards this was high praise indeed!

Avengers 55 pg 16

Klein also inked Gene Colan on Avengers #63-64, Sub-Mariner #11, and on several issues of Daredevil.  Klein was probably one of the best embellishers to ever work over Colan, who could often be a bit challenging to ink.

Daredevil 53 cover smallAdditionally, in early 1969 Klein inked two very early jobs by a very young Barry Windsor-Smith, in Daredevil #51 and Avengers #67.  Klein’s finishes gave some much-needed support to BWS who, although he was already showing quite a bit of promise, was still honing his craft.

Last, but certainly not least, Klein inked Jack Kirby on Thor #168-169, which were cover-dated Sept and Oct 1969.  It has been opined that Vince Colletta’s inking of Kirby was a good match on Thor, as the feathery line work provided a specific tone that was well-suited to the mythological characters & settings.  It was much less appropriate to Kirby’s sci-fi concepts, which is why Colletta was a poor fit on Fantastic Four.

Similarly, when Kirby took Thor in a more cosmic direction in the late 1960s, Colletta’s inking felt out of place.  So it was definitely nice to have Klein’s more polished inking on these two issues, which saw the god of thunder learning the origin of one of Kirby’s most cosmic creations, Galactus.  These Thor issues were very likely the last work that Klein did before his untimely death.
Thor 169 pg 2

According to the Field Guide To Wild American Pulp Artists, Klein was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver in May 1969, less than a month before he died.

I’m going to add a few words from Alan Stewart here summing up this unfortunate situation:

“It’s tragic that Klein passed away as young as he did — and the fact that he’d gotten married just a few months before makes it even more so. Unfortunately, his work over Curt Swan on the Superman books all those years was uncredited, and his subsequent stint at Marvel was too short for him to have made the impact of a Joe Sinnott or Tom Palmer. I agree he’s underrated.”

Action Comics 300 cover small

I really believe that Klein would probably be much better remembered as an artist if he had not died so young.  He did very well-regarded work on comic books in a career that lasted nearly three decades.

The reissuing of so much of DC and Marvel’s material from the Silver Age does mean that younger fans such as myself have now been able to rediscover Klein’s work.  Additionally, all these decades later Klein, as well as everyone else who worked on those early DC stories, are at long last receiving proper credit for their work in those reprint volumes.

There are so many creators from the Golden Age and early Silver Age who helped to make the comic book industry what it is today, creators who in the past were unfortunately uncredited and overlooked.  I hope this short profile on one of those creators, George Klein, will inspire readers to seek out some of these classic stories, and to develop more of an appreciation for the people who crafted those imaginative tales.

Thank you to all of the websites from which I gleamed information about and artwork by George Klein.  I believe I’ve included links to all of them, but if I did miss anyone please let me know!

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!

Comic book reviews: Uncanny Avengers #1-5

One of the few Marvel Comics titles I am currently following is Uncanny Avengers.  For years now, I have wanted to see a book that established some sort of ties between the Avengers and X-Men teams.  It never made sense to me that Captain America, who fought against the Nazis during World War II and who witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Holocaust, would just stand idly by while mutants were persecuted.  I’d always hoped that at some point Cap would actively recruit mutants to join the Avengers and publicly speak out in support of acceptance for the mutant community.

Uncanny Avengers #1
Uncanny Avengers #1

In the aftermath of the recent Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, we finally see Cap taking steps in this direction.  We are told that, following the events of AvX, fear & hatred towards mutants is at an all-time high.  This spurs Cap to form an “Avengers Unity Division” that demonstrates humans and mutants working side-by-side to protect the Earth.  He approaches long-time X-Factor leader Havok to head up the team.

While Havok and Cap are busy organizing this new Avengers squad, the Red Skull resurfaces.  He steals the body of Professor Xavier, who died during AvX.  The Skull somehow succeeds in implanting Xavier’s brain into his own, gaining the Professor’s formidable telepathic powers.  The Skull then sets out to ignite a race war between humans and mutants.  Following in his mentor Hitler’s footsteps, the Skull identifies a vulnerable minority who can be used as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills, in this case mutants instead of Jews.  The Skull utilizes his stolen telepathy to magnify bigotry against mutants, hoping to rally humanity to his side.

Just as I have wanted to see more of a connection between the Avengers and X-Men, so too have I long hoped that the Red Skull would one day become a major foe of the entire Avengers, not just Captain America.  And given his bigoted nature, I’m surprised that the Skull never really had any major encounters with the X-Men.  So I certainly appreciated the set-up of the first four issues of Uncanny Avengers, pitting an all-star line-up of Avengers and X-Men against the Red Skull and his bizarre lackeys, the so-called “S-Men.”

It is an interesting concept, having the Red Skull gain the awesomely powerful mental abilities of Professor Xavier.  On more than one occasion it has been shown that Xavier had the ability to affect literally millions of other minds.  However, he was a very principled individual, and usually refused to use his abilities for selfish ends.  Even so, on occasion Xavier did use his mental powers in morally questionable acts.  So, the question arises, what would then happen if those same abilities were gained by someone with no moral scruples, a man considered the human embodiment of evil, the Red Skull?  Scary thought, isn’t it?

It's a Red Skull kind of world.
It’s a Red Skull kind of world.

On writing duties for Uncanny Avengers is Rick Remender.  I’ve been a fan of his past independent work, such as Black Heart Billy, Crawl Space: XXXombies, and Sea of Red.  I haven’t really been following much of his material at Marvel.  Uncanny Avengers is certainly an interesting blending of traditional superhero action and Remender’s bizarre sensibilities.  In particular, having the Red Skull graft Xavier’s brain to his own stands out as a very Remender-ish twist. The oddball S-Men also are quite characteristic of his style.

One complaint I did have concerning the first four issues is that they did seem rather padded out.  The opening arc with the Red Skull might perhaps have worked better as a more tightly plotted three part story.

Issue #5 was an improvement as, in the days after the Skull’s attack, the Avengers Unity Division work to properly organize.  There is quite a lot of tension going on between the various members, and Remender does a good job examining these conflicts.

Havok is supposed to be the leader of this team, yet already we have seen his opinions and strategies being questioned by Captain America, the very man who appointed him.  At times Cap has a tendency to take charge uninvited, and it will be interesting to see how the dynamic between him and Havok plays out in future issues.

Okay, so who's in charge here, anyway?
Okay, so who’s in charge here, anyway?

There’s also a great deal of tension between Rogue and the Scarlet Witch.  Rogue blames Wanda for previously having tried to de-power mutant-kind, an act that set in motion a series of events which eventually led indirectly to Xavier’s death.  Rogue sees the Witch as a potential menace waiting to explode.  One of the main reasons why Rogue is sticking around is to keep an eye on the Witch, in case she eventually needs to be taken down.  This is an interesting reversal of status, because years ago Rogue was the outsider and one-time enemy with out-of-control powers who was reluctantly accepted by a suspicious X-Men team who kept a wary eye on her.  One would think Rogue, knowing what it is like to be in that position, would realize the hypocrisy of distrusting Wanda.  But, of course, that’s the thing about people: they are flawed & inconsistent like that.

The art on the first four issues is courtesy of John Cassaday.  He is a very talented artist who does amazing work.  The problem is he is also quite slow.  That resulted in a few delays in these issues coming out.  From what I understand, going forward Cassaday is sticking around as the cover artist, but the interior art will be handled by Daniel Acuna.

I liked the guest art team of Olivier Coipel & Mark Morales on issue #5.  Coipel previously penciled the main Avengers book about a decade ago.  I really enjoyed his work back then on the “Red Zone” arc which featured, yep, the Red Skull.  It’s too bad the Skull wasn’t in this issue, because I’d have liked to have seen Coipel draw him again.  Perhaps in a future issue?  As for Morales, he is an inker who has done consistently good, solid work in the past on such artists as Jim Cheung, Steve McNiven, and Leinil Francis Yu.  He seems to be well paired with Coipel here.  If Acuna needs someone to spot him on a future issue, I hope that editor Tom Brevoort will call in Coipel & Morales again.

The one thing I don’t like about Uncanny Avengers is the price tag.  Yep, four bucks is a bit steep.  Okay, yeah, I don’t mind as much having to fork over $3.99 for something published by Image or IDW or Dark Horse.  Those guys are smaller publishers, so they have to charge more to pay the bills.  But Marvel is owned by Disney, and this is one of their flagship titles.  They really do not need to be asking that extra dollar in order to turn a profit.  That is why I buy so little from Marvel nowadays, that $3.99 price they have on so many of their titles.

Uncanny Avengers is the exception, because I really like Remender’s writing, I definitely enjoy the characters he’s using, and I really want to see where this series goes.  I reached the end of issue #5 and thought to myself “Damn it, what happens next? Oh, hell, I actually have to wait a month to find out? Damn!”  I guess that’s the mark of a good book.