*and almost retracted!
By Professor Mark Barsotti
Q.N.S., K.O.F., R.F.O.
I didn't read the Sise-Neg saga when it hit the stands in 1973. If memory serves – always a shaky proposition, almost 40 years in the rearview – it was '77 or so, after finding the first and last chapters, Marvel Premiere #12 and #14, among my big brother's dusty comic stack.
It seared my synapses. Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner (abetted by writer Mike Friedrich on #12 and the "Crusty Bunkers" ad hoc inking crew) deliver a king-hell of a story ("heaven of a story" may be more apt, but it clanks in the ear), and a flat-out religious heresy.
From Galactus to the Asgardian pantheon, many of Marvel's best stories had featured characters with god-like powers, but even as a callow youth, I realized that daring to cast GOD (Judeo-Christian division) in a funny book - let alone having a power-hungry bad guy become HIM - was several steps beyond what was considered Right and Proper, a gutsy move that pushed the envelope of the possible in comic storytelling. Editor Roy Thomas and the Marvel hierarchy (i.e. Stan) deserve credit for letting the New Breed Bullpen – Englehart & Brunner here, Starlin, Gerber, and Wolfman elsewhere – off the formulaic leash, and controversy be damned.
Well, not quite. Frank Brunner recounts in Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story how, after MP #14 hit the stands, Stan wrote him and Englehart a note demanding they run a reaction on the letters page: "You're going to have to print...'this is not God, this is just a god.'"
Instead, Englehart & Brunner wrote a letter praising the story from a fake Texas minister, mailed it to Marvel (complete with Texas postmark), and crossed their fingers. The letter was forwarded to Stan and settled Smiley's nerves. Instead of a retraction, he had them print the phantom rev's endorsement. That's such a great story I suspected it was apocryphal, but nope. From the letters page, Doctor Strange #3:
"Dear Mr. Lee,
"...I borrowed the comic..."(from a young congregant), "...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 perception...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."
Okay, so the tale broke new, heretical ground, and the book's braintrust hoodwinked Marvel's head honcho, but how does the story hold up, forty years on?
The arc opens in low-keyed fashion in MP #12, with Clea and Wong locating the Doc in the Mexican desert, where Strange has been meditating on the Ancient One's death/transformation and his own new role of Sorcerer Supreme. After appointing Clea his disciple, DS heads to Europe in a quixotic attempt to make peace with the Ancient One's original acolyte, Baron Mordo.
Strange doesn't find Mordo, but plenty of hostility from the Baron-hating locals and is hustled out of town by a friendly gypsy. The fetching, raven-haired Lilia then puts the Doc under her spell with a hexie hoochie-coo, proving that a Master of the Mystic Art is still a man.
Mordo had recently romanced Lilia to steal "our people's most treasured heritage," the mystic Book of Cagliostro (a real 18th century Italian occultist), and the Doc is tasked to retrieve it from the Baron's castle. Mordo's Watch-Gargoyle protects the tome, and Lilia releasing Strange from her spell so he can fight at full power costs the gypsy her life. After destroying Gargie, Strange learns Mordo used Cagliostro's secrets to not only travel into the past, but may have acquired the knowledge to change it.
Top-shelf stuff, thanks to Brunner's lush, Neil Adam's-inspired art (with a dash of Ditko) and Englehart demonstrating how to write "mystic" comics in the all ways his predecessor Garner Fox could not, but our expectations are of another Strange-Mordo clash, not the much higher stakes Steve and Frank were brewing up in their creative caldron.
MP #13 – which I only read in the last decade – starts upping the ante with twisty, Möbius strip time travel paradoxes: Strange follows Mordo to eighteenth century Paris, but arrives before him at Cagliostro's home. When the sorcerer ignores his warnings and vanishes, Strange impersonates Cagliostro to fool Mordo who, although promptly defeated, also mysteriously vanishes. A knock at the door gets Strange back into Cag-drag, just in time to greet Doctor Strange, come to warn Cagliostro...
Strange and Mordo find their powers inexplicably depleted, and neither can influence Cagliostro, who takes them both down at tale's end and reveals he's actually 31st century sorcerer Sise-Neg, sucking up ever-more of the universe's finite amount of mystic energy as he travels back in time, accounting for the others' weakness. And SN is just getting started. He's heading to "the dawn of creation! And what is another term for an all-powerful being at the dawn of creation?"
Okay, Steve & Frank seem all in, but the Marvel U is rife with Big Power Baddies, threatening star systems and the fabric of reality, god-like in their despotic fashion, before they fall. And Strange's last panel exhortation, "...Sise-Neg is the greatest threat our reality has ever known!" sounds like standard "continued-next-ish!" hype, when it's actually an understatement.
If the concluding chapter, "Sise-Neg Genesis," no longer wallops the reader with the shock of the new, it nonetheless holds up as a high water mark in graphic literature.
Traveling back to the dawn of human history with the ever-more powerful Sise-Neg (with stops in Arthurian England and Sodom and Gomorrah along the way), Strange and Mordo are cast as angel and devil, nattering away at the future mage like magpies. Mordo, desperate to bootlick his way to First Disciple, champions the ruthless exercise of power. Strange argues any god worth the name must possess understanding and compassion. Brunner's art (inked by D.C. stalwart Dick Giordano) is up to the weighty material, mixing Adams-like realism with slimy, slithering dragons and trippy, dimension-hopping eye candy.
In an unexpected callback to the spotty (at best) space-monster sagas of Gardner Fox – which, creatively, seem ages ago – multi-tentacled Shuma-Gorath returns to slaughter our ape-like ancestors, just come down from the trees. At this pivotal moment the Doc's argument – that the proto-humans are bound to the newly-transcendent Sise-Neg by the unbroken bloodline of our common humanity – holds sway. Even SN can't destroy the Lovecraftian malignancy that is Shuma-Gorath, but he can banish it. And deliver "the two surviving apes" to "a haven – a garden."
The story could have ended there to allegorical "ooh" and "ahh" applause – who doesn't love a good Adam & Eve riff - but Englehart and Brunner have a final card to play. And it's the fourth ace.
Sise-Neg and his symbiotic companions travel further, back to the Big Bang and beyond, to the instant everything is uncreated, leaving Strange and Mordo drifting in the darkness of absolute nothingingness. Then the Doc's amulet illuminates Sise-Neg's face, no longer prideful and triumphant, but pinched and pained, depicted by Brunner like a woodcut of some dour monk, driven mad by the Ultimate Insight that was his lifelong heart's desire.
"I have been wrong!" declares Sise-Neg, the most successful, power-mad despot in the History of Comics. "My plan to recreate the universe in my image was truly pitiable! (Having) achieved my Godhood...I have learned the truth that everything is as it should be...so I shall recreate the universe – exactly as it was before...when you remember this, think not the man called Sise-Neg – but the God called – Genesis!"
Instantly, Strange and Mordo are rocketed back to the present, the Baron struck dumb by witnessing the Second Creation, while our more enlightened Doctor can only laugh at the irony of being returned atop a skyscraper just as the noise of the crowds celebrating the arrival of the New Year, 1974, ring through the canyons of Manhattan.
Dissected with professorial critical distance, one might sniff that Englehart's God should have had a wider ecumenical embrace, but you can't reverse spell multiple deities in the title. One could carp that dinosaurs appearing alongside proto-humans warms the hearts of cretin creationists. And if Sise-Neg's assertion that "Man...is this dimension's closest approximation of perfection!" is a scary and dubious thought some days, on others it's an ennobling summation of humanity's on-going struggle from the slime to the stars.
And it's a work of fiction, class, not Gospel. It's a comic book, and a great one.
Be thee a stone Chris Hitchens atheist, a wiccan, or a fake preacher from Denton, Texas, if you aren't moved by such masterful Let Their Be Light myth-making – agreeing with "the Message" being quite beside the point - then I suspect you ain't human at all, but rather a stone-hearted spawn of Shuma-Gorath.
And to Messrs. Englehart and Brunner, your work that made me shout with excitement as a kid still stands as a bold and thought-provoking work of Literature. Capital L.
And I hope you hit Stan up for a raise.