Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dr. Strange In Wonderland

The character of Dr. Strange took what seemed to be an arduous path toward his second solo title, following the cancellation of his 1968-69 series--his final three issues shifting to bi-monthly publication before the plug was finally pulled, and right in the middle of an ongoing plot. Strange had just uncovered the existence of the Undying Ones, a storyline that would eventually be played out in the pages of three other titles. Needless to say, the mystic master became something of a floater during this period. He would first track the Undying Ones' devotee, the Nameless One, to its home dimension with the aid of the Sub-Mariner, and subsequently sacrificing himself to become trapped there in order to enable Namor's escape; two months later, the incredible Hulk came to Strange's aid, playing a part in freeing the magician and returning with him to Earth, where Strange would renounce his sorcerous life. It would be a year and a half before he would reclaim it, in the premiere issue of Marvel Feature featuring the debut of the Defenders.

Following the three-issue Marvel Feature appearance of the Defenders, Strange segued to a twelve-issue (albeit again bi-monthly) run in Marvel Premiere, just as The Defenders began as its own series around the same time. Finally, three months after his appearance in Marvel Premiere concluded, and still bolstered by his continuing monthly exposure in The Defenders, the second Dr. Strange series was launched, with writer Steve Englehart smoothly pivoting the character from the concluding events of Marvel Premiere that saw Strange ascend to the position of Sorcerer Supreme following the Ancient One's death.

Which brings us to the second shot of Dr. Strange as a series in its own right, a promising beginning in light of Englehart having written the final five issues of the character's story in Marvel Premiere (with a classic reprint being shuffled in) and being accompanied by the artist from those issues, the very talented Frank Brunner (if only briefly). As the disciple of the Ancient One, Strange was already arguably the world's preeminent sorcerer by reputation if not formally in name, his challenges being met as the "Master of the Mystic Arts," a title his new comic continued to use on its cover for the time being. Englehart's step in elevating him to the more formal status of "Sorcerer Supreme" is perhaps a risky one, since Strange's often-used phrase, "Curse me for a novice!", will be much more difficult to justify from a man who has been judged as ready to assume the powers and status of the Ancient One; yet already, Englehart has found ways to demonstrate that Strange is yet human, and can still be deceived and/or taken by surprise by a clever foe. As indeed this story exemplifies, to deadly and even fatal effect.

With Strange just coming off an encounter with "God" and witnessing the dawn of creation, you could rightly wonder how the first issue of his new series would be able to top such a spectacle. The answer comes with a new villain--the nefarious and misguided Silver Dagger--and, consequently, an encounter which for Strange would literally turn into a matter of life and death.

Yet before leaping into the heart of the story (and it does indeed leap, thanks to the method of Dagger's incursion), the story accommodates any new readers of Dr. Strange with a calm acclimation, as Strange devotes time to his new disciple and his love, Clea--an introduction which also welcomes former readers of Marvel Premiere who wish to continue with the title character as Englehart and Brunner have molded him. Englehart's strength with Strange is blending the heady responsibilities and sorcerous nature of his station with his humanity, which these opening scenes take advantage of quite well.

(I couldn't help but chuckle at the gong's sound effect. A nice touch.)

Much has been made of the inviolate nature of Strange's spell-protected sanctum, the very word implying that Strange can feel secure enough to take some measure of relaxation within its walls. But Dagger's opportunity to strike comes with Clea's playful prank involving the rabbit, which now succumbs to a spell which will allow it to breach Strange's sanctum and allow Dagger's access.

Dagger rationalizes his success at entry by pointing out the non-threatening aspects of his initial spell, given that it's the rabbit that broke through the window, as well as the assumption that enlarging a rabbit is no threat. If I had a quibble to Englehart's approach, it would be here, since it makes little sense for Strange to compromise his sanctum's protection by fashioning that protection to allow some spells to penetrate it without a more sensitive filter in effect. Strange appears to have much yet to learn, if he so casually discounts the cleverness of a foe to work around his safeguards.

But what's done is done, and Dagger has obviously made plans for when he would penetrate Strange's abode--abducting Clea, stealing the powerful Eye of Agamotto, and dealing with Strange himself, a man he considers dangerous more in the sense of converting the innocent to what Dagger believes is the devil's work. To that end, he has one more grisly task to see to, before departing with Clea--slaying the sleeping sorcerer, despite the protective aura that surrounds him.

Wong doesn't discover Strange for another hour--more than enough time for a mortal wound to do its work, but an assessment which Englehart disregards in favor of getting Strange back on his feet and casting spells faster than you can say "wand of Watoomb." In so doing, Englehart provides a new facet to the Orb, as a sort of buffer between life and death--a state which Strange is now vulnerable to. And it's death which seizes the startled Strange and deposits him within the Orb's "realm."

Strange, his health and vigor restored in this new state in which he finds himself, at first wonders if he has completely "crossed over"--but it's made clear to him that he now exists in a state between life and death when he is received by a being which can't help but remind you of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice In Wonderland, though slightly more congenial in manner, at least at first. (We even have a large white rabbit at the beginning--how's that for symmetry?) The caterpillar would later strongly rebuke Strange for his resolve to escape this realm and free Clea, arguing this world of "unreality" has trapped Strange forever--something that Strange opened the door to when he attempted to use the Orb to fend off his death. Eventually, it simply advises him on a course of action, though with a grim prognosis.

The story closes with Strange, unsurprisingly, rejecting his host's advice to abandon his efforts to escape, and heading off to who knows what. (In this realm, that may be a perfect way of phrasing it.) As opposed to the story's violent beginnings, the relatively harmless and innocent tone of its ending implies a broader scope yet to unfold in terms of Strange's passage through this realm towards its center and the travails to follow. It's a tantalizing tale that seems well thought out by both writer and artist, with Strange facing danger on two fronts--one of which has already brought about his un-death.

The dynamic Defenders! (Guest stars, already? Seriously?)

Doctor Strange #1

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Frank Brunner
Inks: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza


david_b said...

Englehart was certainly channeling some future-Gerber with the talking philosophical caterpillar, presumably they were ingesting the same 'meds' back in the day.

I typically prefer Colan and Ditko far more than Brunner, but I did collect this premiere ish and the first masterworks. Brunner was certainly more-polished and lush but, like Colan, the series was like a weird 'monster-of-the-week' versus the more austere/occult charm ala Ditko.

Anonymous said...

Those guys, Gerber, Englehart and the rest, were all drinking the same magic cool-aid.
And I'm glad they were! I dig this stuff.
Talking caterpillars...

B Smith said...

This was my first exposure to Brunner's work, which I read in a black-and-white reprint several years after the fact.

I could be wrong, but I think I espied more than a few, er, "references" to earlier Neal Adams work.

Comicsfan said...

Well, david and M.P., strictly speaking, we're probably going to have to attribute the smoking, talking caterpillar to author Lewis Carroll, rather than any recreational substances that '70s writers had access to. ;)

Anonymous said...

I sort of meant "cool-aid" as the zeitgeist, rather than any recreational substances. The influences of politics, culture, and so forth.
But, yeah, I'm sure that played a part too.
With my generation it was mostly booze and heavy metal. We were easily entertained.
M.P :)