Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

02 April 2006

Essential Dr. Strange, v. 2

Collects: Doctor Strange v. 1 #169-178 and 180-183, Avengers #61, Sub-Mariner #22, Marvel Feature #1, Incredible Hulk #126, Marvel Premiere #3-14 (1968-74)

Released: March 2005 (Marvel)

We are blessed to live in a time when Marvel reprints so much of its material, from both its current output and its back catalog. The Essential program is especially impressive, reprinting:

  1. The A-List Talent. Seven volumes of the Amazing Spider-Man, for instance, and five volumes of Fantastic Four, as well as five Essential Avengers and … well, I could go on.
  2. The Second Stringers. Those who can sustain several series for a little bit or one for a long time. Power Man, who’s getting a second volume soon, or the Defenders, who are due.
  3. The No Hopers. Or classic runs, if you prefer. (I don’t prefer.) These guys can’t hold down a book to save their lives: Killraven, Iron Fist, Monster of Frankenstein, Ant Man.

Dr. Strange fits firmly in the second list. The Sorcerer Supreme of Marvel Earth, battling magicians, extradimensional horrors, and gods, he’s been around since the Silver Age, had several series (and had several series cancelled), and is an integral part of the Marvel Universe. But how did he achieve that status? Other than being created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, of course.

The Essential Doctor Strange, v. 2, keeps Strange’s status as a Marvel mainstay a mystery.

Volume 2, logically enough, picks up where volume 1 left off: Strange Tales morphs into the first volume of the eponymous Dr. Strange comic. Volume 2 contains Dr. Strange #169-178 and 180-3 (#179 was a reprint), Avengers #61, Sub-Mariner #22, part of Marvel Feature #1, Incredible Hulk #126, and Marvel Premiere #3-14. There are two things that scream a warning in this listing: one, that there are so many guest appearances / crossovers included, and two, that Dr. Strange headlined Marvel Premiere. No good can come from either.

The first volume was the first Essential that I missed the color: the trippy Steve Ditko art missed something without the psychedelics, but it was still very enjoyable. I still believe Dr. Strange needs color like Ringo needs John, Paul, and George, but I didn’t miss it as much in v. 2 because the stories themselves were so lifeless and difficult to struggle through.

The Essential can be divided into three parts: The Dr. Strange beginnings, the run-up to the creation of the Defenders in the middle, and the Marvel Premiere at the end. The Dr. Strange issues are unremarkable, with Strange fighting the same cosmic entities (Dormammu, Nightmare, even the obscure Tiboro) and new crappy mages (Lord Nekron, the Sons of Satannish) as he did in Strange Tales, and without Ditko’s outstanding and inimitable art, there’s no spark. Gene Colans atmospheric pencils should be perfect for Strange, but for some reason, they dont quite seem to click; perhaps the title needs someone who can pull out the Ditko acid trips every once and a while as showstoppers, and Colan doesnt do that here. The only positive is that Clea, Strange’s future lover and student, is rescued from extradimensional exile and finally brought into the regular cast. Even that isn’t an unqualified success; Clea and Strange’s attraction seems forced and acted out by rote, and the attempt at a love triangle with an Englishwoman who is attracted to Strange goes nowhere.

The middle segment is the only one that’s very good, although unlike the Essential Defenders, the creation of the Defenders isn’t the focus of those issues — they merely cover what happened while Strange was not headlining a book. The Sub-Mariner issue leads out of the last Dr. Strange issue, Hulk #126 takes over from Sub-Mariner, and the back-up from Marvel Feature #1 leads into the Marvel Premiere (ugh) issues.

Marvel Premiere … ugh. #11-4 are entertaining, with Strange going back in time to fight Baron Mordo and finding a magician greater than either of them. But #3-10 are a listless Lovecraft pastiche that is gutted to be suitable for kiddies and turns into a horrible mess. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” becomes #4-6, the very Lovecraftian name “Shuma-Gorath” is the extradimensional being (read: Elder God) who is manipulating everything, and the cosmic horror Strange fights seems incredibly mundane. “The Living Buddha” even shows up as a villain, and that’s a high point.

The book plummets to a nadir at Marvel Premiere #4-6, the three-part Lovecraftian storyline. (The credits claim to feature “concepts created by Robert E. Howard,” which is bizarre, given Howard got the concepts from Lovecraft.) The issues feature writing from Gardner Fox, not at his best, and art by three different pencillers — Barry Windsor-Smith, Irv Wesley, and Frank Brunner (with help from Sal Buscema). To say the art is inconsistent is a severe understatement; going from Windsor-Smith, a legend (also not at his best, though), to the serviceable Wesley is like hitting a brick wall at 100 mph.

Most jarring is the depiction of the people of Starkesboro; they are described as having the Starkesboro look, which is supposed to inspire unease or revulsion in spectators. Windsor-Smith chooses to give the residents a scaly look that makes them appear part reptile, while Wesley chooses to make them look half-Muppet.

Marvel Premiere must be among the worst Marvel Universe comics of all time. It starts out with two issues of Adam Warlock and goes only downhill from there. Twelve mostly subpar issues with Dr. Strange are followed by 11 painful Iron Fist issues. Then it features a bunch of mostly single-issue heroes that will almost certainly never be reprinted. Looking over a summary of the issues, the only interesting bits seem to be #51-3 — the finale of a Black Panther storyline that stretches over four years and three different titles — and #50, an Alice Cooper story.

(Admittedly, I’ve never read anything other than the Iron Fist / Dr. Strange issues. And if you’re a sci-fi fan, there might be something in the Dr. Who, Weirdworld, Star-Lord, and Seeker 3000 stories. But if the quality of those 23 issues are anything to judge by, the series has more value in the recycle bin than in a long box.)

Anyway, back on task: There’s nothing in the Essential Dr. Strange v. 2 for anyone — except for completists, the curious, and Dr. Strange fanatics (you know who you are, all three of you). Otherwise, give this a miss. It’s not the worst Essential I’ve read — that would be Essential Super-Villain Team-Up — but it’s a chore to read. Grade: D+

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