Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Secret... The Power... The Nightmare!

With his renewed exposure in Marvel Feature from late 1971 to mid-1972 as one of the Defenders, followed almost immediately by a prominent appearance in Amazing Spider-Man, it certainly seemed that steps were being taken to test the waters of Dr. Strange returning to his own series. What sealed the deal for the character was a string of well-received (if bi-monthly) issues by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner in the pages of Marvel Premiere, at the end of which Strange segued to the 1974 Doctor Strange #1.

But prior to that, it was the first six issues of Premiere which reintroduced Strange as a character in his own right (albeit a character who by then had received a considerable bump from his association with the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner as one-third of their informal team).

At first, however, it appeared that little thought had been given to how Strange would be handled in these new stories beyond getting him back in circulation, if the revolving door of writers and artists we were greeted with were any indication. Strange's stock-in-trade was the eerie and the mysterious; yet the month following Strange's solo debut, Englehart's The Defenders #1 would hit the stands, where Strange would be hobnobbing with Marvel's mainstream super-heroes and super-villains. Which Dr. Strange would readers expect to see? Until Englehart would take over the character in Premiere and provide a measure of coherency for Strange in these two separate worlds, it was a struggle to take an interest in the character appearing in Premiere, where Strange himself seemed to be struggling under the yoke of different writers and artists who weren't quite suited to him, as a letters page response acknowledges in so many words.

But in this first appearance, the character's original writer, Stan Lee, does an excellent job of reigniting our interest in Dr. Strange--helped in no small part by artist Barry Smith (who also plotted this story), whose work I've at times taken issue with but whose style seems suited to the realms and situations which Strange often finds himself in (a style that's at times reminiscent of Craig Russell). With Smith's work here embellished by Dan Adkins, who's no *ahem* stranger to this character by any means, the story works out to be a fine first step back into the limelight for Dr. Strange.

Like the ASM story, it becomes clear that Lee hasn't lost his touch when it comes to establishing an aura of intrigue and the unknown when reading through the opening pages of a Dr. Strange story. Almost immediately, we're swept up in a scene which portends misfortune--perhaps for Strange, perhaps not. The scene ends without incident--but all is not what it seems.

Dismissive of the more domestic nature of the near-accident outside his dwelling, Strange remains preoccupied by the approaching danger he senses. What's puzzling at this point is how Smith moves things along--all for the sake of the story and the danger that must escalate, but resulting in ill-considered actions on Strange's part. For instance, as Strange frees his astral form and begins to investigate, whatever force that's set against him begins to noticeably encircle his sanctum; yet he chooses not to immediately rejoin his body, even though the danger is literally at his doorstep and his physical body has now been left completely vulnerable.

To sidetrack for a moment, it's perhaps important to note that this story sets up an eight-issue arc that sends a number of threats against Strange in increments, after which he'll face the one they all serve. We'll learn the name of that foe eventually--but Lee will do his part here and pave the way by ominously implying that a greater danger for Strange waits in the wings. Yet with this being the only story that Lee scripts, it's unclear whether or not he's been made aware of the identity of that climactic foe, or even the long-term plot (assuming that one even exists at this point). There's a reason I put it that way (which we'll get to in a minute); I only mention it because as this story unfolds, you get the sense that Lee and Smith have put this tale together as a self-contained vehicle for Strange's reintroduction, complete with a twist to it that allows it to fit right in with similar stories in Strange's Strange Tales days.  It's a welcome approach, with Lee simply leaving the door open for [FILL IN VILLAIN'S NAME HERE] to be put in play by succeeding scripters who pick up on the story from here--and as a result (assuming all this supposition is true), I think you'll find the story to be a more enjoyable read than looking for clues to that foe's identity which may or may not exist here.

For now, Strange gathers information by making contact with his wizened master, the Ancient One--who may as well have not been contacted at all, given the wealth of information he obviously has on the subject but is reluctant to divulge.

Try as one might, it's difficult to fathom why the Ancient One, while clearly knowing the identity of the foe Strange will face this night, withholds the name, instead leading Strange to discover it on his own by giving him riddles to decipher. (On an unrelated note, the colorist for this issue is uncredited, but is likely seething at how Marvel's digital copy of the story (above) added gold pigmentation to the Ancient One where none previously existed--nor can Smith and Adkins be too pleased at some of the detailing that has been compromised.)

Regardless, Strange's worst fears are realized, when his physical form falls prey to the malevolent force that invades his sanctum while simultaneously rendering his astral form substantive enough to deal with. But in grappling with the one who hijacked his body, Strange makes an equally shocking discovery.

Smith, as would be the case with Russell, appears to be in his element here, as Strange's investigation now takes a turn into bizarre avenues which Strange, while astonished at the change in locale, has had abundant experience in navigating, through many variations. That's not to say he takes in the scene calmly--we are talking about the disappearance of his home planet, after all, and the man is still mortal. But, rejoining his physical body, he soon discovers that the situation has taken on a more personal nature, when his sanity is called into question by no less than a version of himself--filled with despair and bereft of hope.

Again, however, Strange's experiences have prepared him well for such distractions--and instead of giving in to the despair of his doppelganger, he probes further for the truth, and thereby reveals the true course his evening had taken.

Delirious to those attending to his injuries, but very much aware in whatever state his essence currently exists, Strange puts two and two together and correctly guesses his tormentor's identity, based on the very nature of the attacks against him--a tormentor who now gallops toward him mouthing words that ring familiar for Strange:

"My secret is my power! And my power is my secret!"

What a clever way to have the attack proceed from here--playing out as it does on two different levels, though each affects the same man.

As he thrashes about as a hospital patient, it's clear that, in a reality that his attendants cannot fathom, Strange has engaged with Nightmare, having dismounted the villain by logically using his own words against him: "You let me learn who you were too soon! Your secret is your power! But now--your secret is out! And so--your power fades!" Well, it's not that simple for Strange against this kind of foe--but he at least discovers that Nightmare is acting as a cat's-paw for a more powerful foe that has Strange in their sights. It's this development that calls into question whether Lee was aware of any plotting beyond this one story. Here, Nightmare has acknowledged that he's the one associated with the Ancient One's riddle; yet in the story where the true foe is actually revealed, the riddle's words are shifted so that they now apply to the arc's primary villain (either through oversight or otherwise) by writer Gardner Fox, via the villain's servitor, Sligguth the Abominable.

Strange, meanwhile, continues to badger Nightmare to divulge the name of his master--but his efforts are futile, and he decides to abandon the battle. Much to the surprise of a hospital intern, who has heard far more than he can be allowed to retain.

With Strange essentially no worse off than he was before, his parting words make for a fitting end to the story, though in its closing panels Lee alludes to the threat Strange has yet to face.

The end of this saga would mark the creation and first usage of the title "Sorcerer Supreme" for Strange, which mostly served as an indication of Strange's ascendance to the position formerly (and informally) held by the Ancient One as this dimension's preeminent sorcerer and mystical guardian... though the term may have been primarily intended to hopefully generate buzz on an exciting new direction for this character who had previously proven to be so directionless.*

*I still prefer "Master Of The Mystic Arts," which sounds much less pretentious.

Marvel Premiere #3

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Barry Smith
Inks: Dan Adkins
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

I had forgotten how mind-trippingly brilliant this comic book was. Barry Smith--wow. "There is no ground!" And for a Lovecraft fan like me, this arc would prove very rewarding.
If you're a fan of Cosmic Horror, that is!


Steve Does Comics said...

I've always absolutely loved that tale, probably my favourite Dr Strange story, thanks to the trusty pencil of Barry.

Comicsfan said...

When it was first published, Steve, I think I gave it little more than a shrug--but it's grown on me over the years, to be sure.

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