Monday, September 16, 2019

Master of the Mystic Arts--Cultists, Not So Much

Having had occasion to glance back at a post from two years ago concerning the 1972-73 span of issues of Marvel Premiere which featured Dr. Strange, there probably isn't much more for me to add to what turned out to be a frank, overall, and (hopefully) fair assessment of the subject, which also included a review of the first issue of the series. In essence, the stories that followed comprised a six-issue buildup to a confrontation in the seventh between Strange and the evil force that waited in the wings--Shuma-Gorath*, one of the many entities who had apparently ruled the Earth in ancient times** and who had every intention of reclaiming that position and suppressing the human race into worshippers and slaves.

*Was it ever made clear where to place the accent in the name? Mentally I've been pronouncing it "Shuma-GorATH," which sounds more imposing, doesn't it?

**Just how many were there? The age of the Earth is estimated at 4½ billion years, which leaves large enough chunks of millennia for evil horrors to stake claims to. There's a post in there somewhere...

With the series being published bi-monthly for the duration of this particular story, it would take precisely one year for readers to reach the finale, while sampling an unusual mix of artists who practically made up their own Bullpen. In addition, with the exception of the earliest installment, co-written by Archie Goodwin and Roy Thomas, the bulk of the story was scripted by Gardner Fox, who by Marvel's own admission may not have been the ideal choice for a Dr. Strange series (a less drawn-out approach by the company to reader criticism than that taken with Jack Kirby's stormy tenure as the writer of Captain America.) Still a dedicated collector during the 1970s, however, I stuck with it to the end (the same mindset that got me through the entirety of titles like Marvel Team-Up, et al.!), eventually reaching the two final issues that saw Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner pick up the reins as co-plotters and begin their successful handling of the character.

It will be those issues that we'll focus on in a moment; but for now, have a look at a brief digest of what came before, since each installment goes a little further in laying the groundwork for the menace of Shuma-Gorath and, as it happens, the fate of the Ancient One.

Marvel Premiere #4 (Sept. 1972)
Writers: Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas (plot)
Pencils/Inks: Barry Smith/Frank Brunner

At the request of a man worried about his girlfriend who was doing research in his hometown of Starkesboro, New England, but has now ceased any communication with him, Strange accompanies him to investigate--unaware that the entire town is part of a cult devoted to the sacrificial rites of Sligguth the Abominable, with the cultists paving the way for the return of Shuma-Gorath. It's a coming threat that Strange learns of from his mentor, the Ancient One.

Unfortunately, while Strange is in Starkesboro, his powers are barely manifest due to the evil aura of the town which inhibits his use of sorcery--an explanation which is absolutely preposterous, given the countless evil forces that Strange has often pitted himself against which afflicted him with no such handicap.  But it will hamper him for a third of this series.

Dormammu would have regarded these black mass cultists as plodding amateurs, Doctor.

We've seen Smith's work in the prior issue, while Brunner has stepped aboard here and begun getting his feet wet with the character. As for Strange, we'll see little to nothing of his prowess in this installment, with the "spawn of Sligguth" (i.e., the townspeople of Starkesboro) working to nullify Strange's potential threat to Shuma-Gorath. Eventually, their chants overwhelm him, trapped with the one who had depended on him and will soon turn on him.

Marvel Premiere #5 (Nov. 1972)
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils/Inks: Sam Kweskin (as Irv Wesley)/Don Perlin

Ebora, the dark priestess of Sligguth, takes delight in explaining to the now-captured Strange the background of the Sligguth cult and the imminent coming of Shuma-Gorath. As for the Ancient One, he has troubles of his own.

Meanwhile, Strange's cloak helps him escape his chains; but while pursuing Sligguth (you'd think it would be the other way around, wouldn't you?), he calls upon the Vishanti for aid, who choose not to intervene directly but at least temporarily suspend the evil aura of the town so that Strange can save himself.

Sligguth escapes to the sea, where Strange fatally deals with him at last.

Marvel Premiere #6 (Jan., 1973)
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils/Inks: Frank Brunner/Sal Buscema

With Sligguth's death, N'Gabthoth, the "Shambler from the Sea," is awakened and enters the town, where Clea and Wong are imperiled by the townspeople who now resemble troglodytes. But it's N'Gabthoth who is the true threat--particularly to Strange, who must now battle once more in a weakened state since the Vishanti's respite from the town's aura has run its course. Four months have passed for the reader, and Strange is still being handled with one hand tied behind his back.

The influence of Brunner, taking pencils this time, is more apparent, and admittedly a welcome change from Messrs. Wesley and Perlin--with the Ancient One's arrival in astral form welcome as well, since, like the Vishanti, he moves for a second time to shield Strange from the town's evil effect in order to let him battle the aptly-named "Shambler" with his full might, something that Brunner lends some nice flair to.

Marvel Premiere #7 (March, 1973) - Dagoth:
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils/Inks: Craig Russell/Mike Esposito, Frank Giacoia, Dave Hunt

With a clue provided by a parchment in the possession of the defeated N'Gabthoth, Strange heads for Stonehenge (by way of Penmallow, England)--bringing along with him another group of artists, passing through what is by now a well-oiled revolving door. In Penmallow, Strange is roped into another mystery and laden with more civilians dealing with secrets of the occult and dark mystery (in "Witch House," mind you)--all involving an ancient civilization (Kalumesh), another cult of worshippers (of the demon-god, Dagoth), and the always-reliable tales of sacrilegious rituals, with all roads again leading to Shuma-Gorath.

Witch House has its own evil aura (of "time-forgotten blasphemies"), though apparently not enough to affect Strange as he battles Dagoth.

Marvel Premiere #8 (May, 1973)
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils/Inks: Jim Starlin/Frank Giacoia, Dave Hunt

At Stonehenge, Strange battles armed demons sent by Shuma-Gorath; but when they are slain, he allows himself to be drawn through a dimensional doorway which drops him off at an alien planet ruled by Kathulos, another servitor of Shuma-Gorath. We learn later that Shuma-Gorath has a desire not only to reclaim the Earth but also to rule the cosmos, so we can assume that he reached out at some point and found an alien who would serve his cause. That sounds far-fetched, though perhaps we should all just be grateful that we're not dealing with more cultists here.

At any rate, Kathulos' own desire to subvert Strange's will gives Strange the means to defeat him--though it leaves Strange stranded on an alien world.

Which brings us at last to:

Marvel Premiere #9 (July, 1973)
Writer: Steve Englehart (Frank Brunner co-plotter)
Pencils/Inks: Frank Brunner/Ernie Chua

Strange decides to destroy the planet of Kathulos in order to draw Shuma-Gorath to him--and he succeeds, though he experiences a disturbing vision in the process.

Shuma-Gorath's departure leaves a trail for Strange to follow to Earth--which, four days later, leads him to the Crypts of Kaa-u, where he at last finds the Ancient One, a "prisoner" of the Living Buddha and his Shadowmen. But the Ancient One does not resist his capitivity (though you would have sworn otherwise in seeing him earlier), or his slow passage to death, though his plan depends upon withholding the truth of the matter from his disciple.

Before Strange can press further, the Shadowmen attack--and, in so doing, force the Ancient One to respond, thereby leading to the rise of the dreaded creature who otherwise might never have been able to pose a threat to Earth.

The Ancient One on the verge of dying--thereby bringing about the rebirth of Shuma-Gorath? But... the Ancient One wanted to die, didn't he?

How tangled is this puzzle? The answer is next, as we join Dr. Strange


Anonymous said...

CF, I too say Shuma-GorATH - no other pronunciation ever occurred to me.

The idea of evil entities ruling the world in ancient times is lifted straight from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft such as "At The Mountains Of Madness" (1936) - in fact, this entire run of Dr. Strange was inspired by/shamelessly stolen from...the works of Lovecraft.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Lovecraft for kids... and something of a half-arsed attempt to tie-in with Marvel's Robert E Howard comics ("serpent folk of pre-cataclysmic Valusia").
A very Roy Thomas idea that might have worked in the (then) new horror comics like Werewolf By Night - the Darkhold being an obvious ersatz Necronimicon - but it was out of place in Doc Strange.

The only really notable thing about the issues between Barry Smith and the arrival of the Brunner/Englehart team is the use of one-off artists.
Craig Russell and Jim Starlin aren't at their best here - obviously Premier-era Doc was used to try out newbies - but its still interesting to see their early work.
Especially as they both went on to do really great work on Strange within a few years.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, they were ripping off Lovecraft, but a lotta writers did. When he was alive he was okay with it, even encouraging them, like he did with Howard, his pen pal.
I thought that Kathulos story was downright eerie. A head sticking out of a plant. Starlin could come up with some pretty wild imagery.
I've got this run, and it's kinda fun to sit back, maybe in the shade on a summer day, and reread 'em.
Or better yet, on a dark and moonless night.
Halloween's coming up, so I expect thing to get downright spooky around here at PPOC, as per usual.


Comicsfan said...

I don't know, M.P.--with characters like Shuma-Gorath and the Son of Satan making appearances, I kinda feel we're pushing our spooky quota far enough already!