Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Now Comes The Sorcerer Supreme

Issue #11 of Marvel Premiere initially seemed intended to be a transition issue following the conclusion of a year-long storyline which pitted the Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr. Strange, against the servants of the prehistoric demon known as Shuma-Gorath, and then finally against the monster itself. Following that saga, Strange would begin a new conflict with his arch-nemesis, Baron Mordo, and a powerful mystic from the 31st century known as Sise-Neg; but before the curtain rose on that arc, issue #11 would set the stage by reprinting two stories that reacquainted readers with Mordo's long and often bitter conflict with Strange. One of those stories was Strange's origin story, where we first met Mordo--a former student of the Ancient One who coveted his master's power but was passed over in favor of Strange (and has held a grudge ever since). Yet there appeared to be more to the issue's unexpected format than giving the appearance of an interlude.

Toward the end of the Shuma-Gorath saga, noted artist Frank Brunner began what would become a distinguished stint as regular artist on the book for the remainder of Strange's stay there, co-plotting the good doctor's adventures along with the mag's new scripter, Steve Englehart. Up to that point, Premiere was being published bi-monthly, a schedule which Strange's former title had shifted to for its final three issues in 1969 presumably due to poor sales. Following the Shuma-Gorath climax, Premiere briefly assumed a monthly publication schedule, "for the summer" according to a letters page response (referring to a nonexistent Bullpen Bulletins announcement on the subject); two issues later, however, it returned to bi-monthly status for Strange's remaining two issues under the Premiere banner (and well into the following Iron Fist run). From there, Englehart and Brunner segued to Doctor Strange #1--back in his own title at last, though once again precariously see-sawing between monthly and bi-monthly scheduling, with yet another reprint appearing in only its third issue.

Brunner's run on Doctor Strange ended with issue #5, the announcement citing lack of time: " book, bi-monthly, is about all [Brunner] likes to handle--and lately, other projects have begun to pile up around him. So, reluctantly, he's had to put aside his pencil for [Doctor Strange] in order to get to the others." (If you noticed a glaring contradiction in that statement, join the club--those "other projects" piling up in Brunner's queue seem to add up to more pending work than a single bi-monthly book that's reportedly his preferred limit.) In hindsight, Premiere #11 turned out to be an indication that Brunner's days as Strange's penciller were vulnerable to a monthly deadline--and as we take a look at the beginning of that final ambitious Premiere story, it's clear even at this early stage that his contribution to Dr. Strange was invaluable in restoring interest in the character, and would be missed.

And so this new story represents, in a more meaningful way, the transition for Strange that extends beyond what we saw during his brief stop at the Ancient One's Himalayan temple in the prior issue. He's now truly presented to readers as the "Sorcerer Supreme"--a title surely made for a comic headlined by a character versed in mysticism, but is fraught with potential problems as far as the character having no peers in sorcery (which will become evident even as early as this particular tale). Already he must begin a dangerous new mission; but he also must tend to the details of his new station, which are fascinating in the respect that Strange is practically a new character budding before our eyes--as well as the eyes of those who have waited for his return.

Strange is approached in his meditative state by Clea, his lover from Dormammu's dark dimension, and his manservant, Wong. Their concern, and his warm response, assure us that his ties to his mortality, and to his humanity, remain strong; while the scene also serves as a recap of the long series of conflicts which led to the confrontation with Shuma-Gorath, and the Ancient One's death/ascendance. But it's clear that Strange has used his isolation to delve into his own new frame of mind. The scene is one of both reflection and reaffirmation, and he shares it in complete candor with those he trusts above all others--and one in particular whom he has deeper feelings for.

Returning to his New York sanctum, his attention turns to Clea, whose role in Strange's stories has been as diminished as her own powers (which may be part of the problem). But the solution for both is at hand.

If it seems a bit too soon for Strange to make this kind of decision so hastily after experiencing such upheavals in his life, that's a valid point--as well as the questionable choice of selecting your mate to fill such a role, when the dangers inherent in Clea's new position would possibly prove to be a distraction for both of them at a crucial moment. But Englehart handles the situation adeptly in succeeding stories, and master and disciple end up working well together. (Just as those instances where Strange and the Ancient One joining forces often made for compelling reading.)

As for Mordo, Strange is realistic in assuming that his former rival will be resistant to burying the hatchet--figuratively, that is, since he might readily be willing to see it buried in Strange's person, with a sharp twist for good measure. But it's an excellent lead-in to the main story, and will open the door to the epic that runs for the remainder of Strange's time in Premiere.

Mordo's ancestral home, Transylvania, is Strange's first stop, a hamlet where Mordo is reviled by the villagers and where Strange receives an unwelcome reception simply by asking for directions to Mordo's estate. A passing gypsy offers his help, which Strange accepts; and in the gypsy camp, Strange meets an alluring woman named Lilia, who proves to be far more than she seems.

So immediately we have this dimension's "Sorcerer Supreme" all too easily enthralled by a gypsy's spell, initiated by little more than an exotic dance. The Vishanti must be planting their faces in their palms.

But what's Lilia's connection to Mordo? A very basic one, as it turns out--a weakness of the heart which Mordo used to gain a sorcerous book in her possession, after which he cast her aside without a second thought. Consequently, Lilia has no qualms in using Strange to regain her people's treasured book, confident in his ability to breach Mordo's stronghold and deal with any resistance they might encounter.

But Mordo is no fool--and while the book is located and in plain sight, unguarded, it's nevertheless been booby-trapped.  At Strange's touch, a horror is unleashed in the darkness, one that we've already gotten a glimpse of on this issue's cover. Too late, Lilia deduces that Strange cannot adequately defend them while he remains under her power--but before she falls, fatally wounded, she manages to free Strange, who dispenses the same fate to his stone attacker. Despite her behavior in this matter, it's difficult not to feel for Lilia--misguided in her actions toward one she deemed guilty by association, but moving to make sure that he faced the threat against him with his mind and soul intact.

Turning to the book, Strange is able to access and examine it in detail--and what he discovers makes him fearful of Mordo's plans as well as his potentially endangering the entire universe.

The foreboding scene caps a fine beginning to Strange's new position as the Ancient One's successor--but as powerful as he now is, he'll find the sorcerer known as Sise-Neg has little cause to acknowledge either Mordo or even Strange as his superior.

Marvel Premiere #12

Script: Steve Englehart (with Mike Friedrich)
Pencils: Frank Brunner
Inks: "Crusty Bunker"
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

Wow. This particular issue is new to me. That last series of panels where Dr. Strange vanishes is fantastic, and as always gorgeously reproduced here. I dunno how you do it, C.F.
Dr. Strange reminds me of the the Swamp Thing over at D.C. Comics, in that it was a character that had more than it's share of great illustrators, and writers too of course.
Do you think off-beat characters and comics like Doc Strange attract talent, inspire them, or both?


Comicsfan said...

M.P., I think such characters require a good fit of creative talent, which doesn't necessarily happen right away or even at all. As we saw in prior issues of Marvel Premiere, Strange went through a series of writers and artists who didn't really have a grasp on the character, whereas Brunner and Englehart worked as a team beyond that of artist and writer to map Strange's stories and provide him with more dimension and depth.

There have been other discussions in various forums about writer/artist teams meshing well together, and it remains an interesting topic to this day. Mostly it seems a matter of how well the writer adapts to or compensates for the pages he or she is given to script; but, as you note, there have certainly been instances where both writer and artist are inspired to take a crack at a book and put their ideas for the character(s) into effect beyond what would be covered in plot notes passed between them. The Englehart-Brunner run that began in Marvel Premiere is the perfect example.

Mike Hood said...

Can you help me with something, please. I've read so much about the fake letter written by Steve Englehart as Reverend Billingsley, but I haven't managed to find a transcript of the complete letter. In which issue was the letter printed (Marvel Premiere or Doctor Strange)? Do you have a link to an online transcript? I've spent over an hour searching! Alternatively, a scan of the letters page would be even better.

Comicsfan said...

Mike, you can find that letter in Doctor Strange #3 from 1974. :)

Mike Hood said...

Thanks. That's a DDD issue. Do you know if there's a full transcript available online? Or a scan of the letters page?

Comicsfan said...

Not sure, Mike, but try Googling the issue number along with other terms like "letter" and "Billingsley" and something should turn up.

Mike Hood said...

That's exactly what I've done. All I get are articles that include quotes from interviews with Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner.

Mike Hood said...

I got it! Someone uploaded a scan for me!

Dear Mr. Lee,

The other evening at our church's Christmas social, a young member of my congregation showed me a comic book you present called MARVEL PREMIERE (#14 March). He told me that it dealt with God.

I borrowed the comic from him, thinking that I would find another denigration of our Lord in the manner so fashionable these days. However, after reading the issue, I must commend you on the taste and appreciation you, your editor and your writer showed in handling a very difficult subject. It is magazines such as yours which truly perform the Lord's work and open new eyes to His majesty.

I have since recommended MARVEL PREMIERE to many of my congregation and friends. Thank you, Mr. Lee, for your fine work.

Rev. David Billingsley,
8794 East-West Highway,
Denton, Texas