Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Occult Beginnings of--Utopia!

While Captain America was appearing on newsstands with a special bicentennial celebration story in 1976, Doctor Strange, of all mags, decided to give its own nod to the event by taking a more direct approach--a time travel story which saw the doctor and his lover-disciple, Clea, visit first 1618 and then leaping forward over 150 years to 1775. However, this being a tour of history involving Dr. Strange, it looks like we can expect to run into our share of occult danger.

(No, I don't recall seeing any mention of dragons in the Declaration of Independence, either. You'd think an item like that would be scribbled in somewhere, wouldn't you?)

Why 1618, you ask? Strange has come to that time to confer with Sir Francis Bacon and gather information on his utopian work, "New Atlantis," which alludes to the new world of the Americas and the potential for independence from British rule to be found there--or at least it does thanks to writer Steve Englehart's interpretation, which he puts in place for this story. It's an acceptable approach for Englehart to take, since the men and ideals which would build the foundation of the United States would have to have their beginnings in those who lived and congregated in places like England or France or other nations throughout Europe.

Englehart has made other adjustments to better reflect the tone of a mag like Doctor Strange as well as to accommodate Strange's impulse to make a brief historical trek back through time. For instance, Bacon's "New Atlantis" was in actuality published as an unfinished novel, though Englehart fabricates a mystery in order to pique Strange's interest by arranging for the mysterious disappearance of its second half--that part of the novel which described the workings of Bacon's new society. It's a mystery which draws Strange in like catnip, since that missing half would circulate over the years in mystic circles, and Strange would find and read a copy of it while a disciple of the Ancient One. And it's that mystery which opens the door to the later conflict of the story, where a dangerous sorcerer known as Stygyro attacks and attempts to seize Bacon's work.

Englehart also makes adjustments to not only Bacon but his peers, fellow philosophers who wish to break away from the "petty feudal struggles" of Europe and see America as the home of a new society of free men. In Englehart's story, these men are mystic adepts who, while not as formally trained as Strange, are able to mystically examine his character and form a bond of trust with him.

Stygyro makes his move when Strange is examining the New Atlantis work--and in the struggle, part of the document is literally ripped from Strange's grip, leaving him with only (you guessed it) half of the manuscript. Just as was the case with Captain America, Strange as well has played a direct part in history, with Englehart handily stepping in (via Bacon) to close the circle.

Englehart's story gets overly bogged down in the writings in New Atlantis, lengthy and detailed musings on its contents that really have no bearing on the story's direction--which perhaps helps to account for the massive changes Doctor Strange will undergo following its next issue, the specifics of which we'll get to in a minute.

Part 2 of Englehart's tale begins with Strange and Clea saying their farewells to Bacon, and then continuing on to 1775 to meet Benjamin Franklin, a later advocate of Bacon's cause who sails to the colonies to meet and confer with like-minded friends.

(Those of you who have previously read this story no doubt realize what this introductory scene to Franklin is leading up to. Believe me, I'm cringing right along with you!)

To bring an air of danger to the voyage, Strange and Clea have made the disturbing discovery of spotting Stygyro during the ship's boarding, which of course bodes ill for their chances of ever reaching America. We don't yet know why Stygyro has been working to undermine these moments in history that would lead to American independence--we don't even know the particulars of Stygyro's origin as yet. But to challenge Strange, he clearly isn't lacking in power--and with his opening salvo in this timeline, he appears to have no qualms about ruthlessness in achieving his goals.

Stygyro continues to frustrate Strange's challenge to him by remaining out of reach, playing a cat-and-mouse game with him until a more direct confrontation that takes place in the ocean depths later. Until then, Strange and Clea have no choice but to fruitlessly search for him, leading to a less life-threatening but perhaps potentially serious confrontation in its own right.

Again, a scene which sets the stage for... for... well, there really are no words. Suffice to say that, while Strange is drawn to confront Stygyro beneath the waves, Clea and Franklin occupy themselves during the lull by getting further acquainted.

Meanwhile (thank goodness for "meanwhiles"!), Strange battles a monstrous merging of Stygyro and the dragon, finally proving to be triumphant against the enemy sorcerer and driving him off. The battle's end also quickly leads to the tale's conclusion, with Englehart tying the incident to the bicentennial theme by musing in narrative about "the price man pays for freedom," though the effort reads as something of an afterthought on his part.

Obviously there's the *cough* loose end of Franklin and Clea to deal with (who seem to have had their own patriotic celebration, complete with skyrockets); but with the shake-up the mag experiences beginning with its next issue, we thankfully don't have to spend time sorting it out, as the Marvel reset button is jammed down in accordance with the new direction editor Marv Wolfman wishes the book to take. In effect, the Ben Franklin on the ship turns out to be an illusion of Stygyro; in addition, Strange encounters another vision of the Ancient One, who dials back Strange's "Sorcerer Supreme" status due to Strange declining his invitation to ascend to the "one with all" state that his former master now exists in, and, as a result, demoting him back to Master of the Mystic Arts. It wouldn't be the only facet of Englehart's changes for the character that Wolfman would unravel, for reasons which Wolfman explains in this excerpt from an aside on the issue's letters page:

"As you've probably noticed by now, this issue marks the beginning of a new phase in the career of Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. Beginning this ish, there will be a new writer chronicling Doc's adventures. At the same time, the frequency of DOCTOR STRANGE is being cut back to bi-monthly.

"Before you leap to conclusions, or bombard us with letters insisting we return Stainless Steve Englehart to the scripting, or we keep DOC as a monthly, please hear us out.

"Firstly, a book's frequency is dependent on sales. DOC's sales are good--we are not in trouble--but they do not warrant a monthly status, at least not at present. Also, sales have seemed to decline somewhat in the past few months, proving to us, at least, that the direction we were taking Doc, though an esthetically pleasing one to many, myself included, was not the direction the majority of you wished to see Doc take. Therefore, beginning this issue, you will start to see a change in Doc's attitude and story line. The change will not be a major one, believe us. Doc's very concept prevents that. Instead, we'll be going back to what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, and Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner were doing in the past. Yes, that means more villains and more action. From Baron Mordo to Silver Dagger, it has been proven that Doc can battle the strangest assortment of bad guys found in a comic mag anywhere.

"As for why the change in writers, well, sad to say, after five years toiling in the Bullpen, Steve decided it was time to try something different for a while. We wish Steve the best wherever he goes."

Perhaps coincidentally, Wolfman's note took place in the same issue with a formal acknowledgement on the Bullpen Bulletins page that Marvel's books had undergone a price increase from 25¢ to 30¢. Doctor Strange went on to enjoy a run of 81 issues in total, which may lend credence to Wolfman's decisions for the character--though it should be noted that the book never returned to monthly status during the eleven years it remained in publication, which would have been an indication of improved sales as well as reader approval of the character's direction.

Doctor Strange #s 17-18

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Tom Palmer
Letterers: John Costanza and Denise Wohl


Anonymous said...

I didn't know anything about "New Atlantis" but I do now 'cause I googled it. The word 'utopia' comes from Thomas More's novel"Utopia", published in 1516 (in Latin, so it was surely a blockbuster). This year is the 500th anniversary of the novel and BBC radio recently did a new adaptation (gosh, PPoC is very educational today).

Comicsfan said...

All part of the service, Colin!

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