Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #5

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:

Part One:  Mordo Agonistes
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Doctor Strange 39 (February 1980)
"The Old Dark House"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Al Milgrom

Since being driven mad by witnessing the second Creation in Marvel Premiere #14, a catatonic Baron Mordo has lived in an upstairs room of Strange’s home, yet when Stephen and his friend Alfeo Cardinal Spinosa—curator of the Vatican’s San Gabriel archives, which Mordo was seen robbing on a security camera—enter, he vanishes.  A chagrined Strange realizes that recent events blinded him to the substitution of a “spirit form…created from elements of Mordo’s own flesh…”  After a restorative kiss from Clea, he announces that this is a more pressing threat than Royce’s murder; since his old ally Lord Julian Phyffe “showed an unusual interest in Mordo when we last met,” Doc and Alfeo head for Paris, leaving Clea behind.

Investigating Wong’s disappearance during a “personal errand,” she senses traces of his psychic aura despite being lied to about his visit by Mr. Sung, who sends two thugs after her, yet it gets worse:  Dormammu’s Wraiths, which only she can see, pursue her, instilling an instinctual fear.  She luckily—and literally—bumps into Strange’s friend Sara Wolfe, who sees only the human threat, hustling her safely back to the Sanctum in a cab.  No sooner have they arrived chez Phyffe on the Rive Droite than Doc sees Alfeo crumble into dust and is kayoed with a candlestick; Clea, meanwhile, fires up the Orb of Agamotto to see a captive Wong aboard an aircraft and, enlisting Sara’s aid, uses a simple spell to switch forms, walking out in full view of the unwitting Wraiths.

Strange awakens strapped to an operating table, amid ghoulish “doctors” representing those he’d rejected as a greedy surgeon; bound and gagged, he can cast no spells, but uses his cloak to raise and smash the table.  Defeating an apparition of Hippocrates, he finds himself first back on Skid Row, then in an operating room, where his shaking hands stop him from cutting into the patient, unmasked as ex-flame Madeleine de St. Germaine.  A spell restoring reality pops unbidden into his mind, showing that he’d nearly sacrificed her in a Black Mass, and as a fight with the cultists starts a fire consuming the chapel and adjacent mansion, he rescues Madeleine, who reveals that Mordo promised to spare Phyffe—now his servant—when he opens the Seven Gates of Chaos...

Picking up where our formal curriculum ended, Claremont’s sophomore entry resumed an eight-issue run that teamed him throughout with veteran Doc penciler Gene Colan and able inker Dan Green.  The latter, paired with Ricardo Villamonte in #40, was part of a “D. Hands” collective on #45 that, according to multiple sources, also included Frank Giacoia, Al Milgrom, Tom Palmer, Wendy Pini, Josef Rubinstein, Walt Simonson, and Bob Wiacek.  Tom Orzechowski’s typically outstanding lettering (the last effort on this title by Chris’s X-Men mainstay, alas), Al’s superbly macabre EC-style cover (showing what he can do when he puts his mind to it), and the title (evoking James Whale’s 1932 Karloff Klassic) all betoken the start of something wonderful here.

The Wraiths are a bracing callback to the seminal Mordormammu epic from Strange Tales, this sequence offering the strong and nuanced female characterization that is a Claremont hallmark, and there’s a wonderful shot in page 11, panel 5 of Sara oblivious to the Wraith right outside the window.  Gentleman Gene’s gift for atmosphere is epitomized by page 2, panel 5, a low-angle shot encompassing a seated Alfeo in the foreground and Strange from behind as he gazes into the fire in the background, with Clea in between—but only up to the start of her bust.  A class act, the Dean displays her admirable figure (e.g., page 14, panel 2) without resorting to the shameless cheesecake seen in, say, Spider-Woman, which Chris, ironically, will take over a year from now.

Now, I’m the first to admit that this is probably a reach, yet when I saw the sound effect “Phut!” in page 10, panel 6, I immediately thought of the silenced shot that killed Le Chiffre in 007’s debut, Casino Royale (1953):  “There was a sharp ‘phut,’ no louder than a bubble of air escaping from a tube of toothpaste.”  Wouldn’t put it past Claremont, whose handling of the ever-complex Doc/Clea relationship did not disappoint me.  My initial reaction to her offer of a hug and a kiss was to anticipate Doc’s (“And that will make all right in the world, eh, Clea?”), yet their ensuing clinch is characterized as “rare, beautiful, supremely precious, and too quickly over”; she stays in New York not because she is excess baggage but to pursue the vital search for their friend Wong.

Doctor Strange 40 (April 1980)
"Dawn of Death!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan, Ricardo Villamonte, and Dan Green
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Mark Rogan
Cover by Bob Layton

Strange confronts Lord Julian at a party (the splash page a superb “gotcha” moment as he reacts to seeing Stephen still alive), where he dare not use his full power, and despite being warned that Mordo is merely using him, Phyffe refuses to divulge his location, fleeing by car.  An “arcane aura” protects him, yet his plea for aid is met by laughter as the baron forces his car off the road and into a watery grave where Strange, depleted by recent struggles, finds his old-fashioned rescue attempt a waste, the impact having broken Phyffe’s neck.  Lucky to survive the frigid water himself, Doc is pulled from the Seine by Madeleine, but passes out in her car almost immediately—and so is unaware that Mordo has reanimated the body of his slave.

Granting the revenant absolute power, Mordo rebrands him as Azrael, “after the Hebraic angel of death”; a few hours later, Doc calls the Sanctum and Sara expresses concern over Clea, who has followed Wong’s psychic trail 200 miles north to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, where she is shot by an unseen assailant.  Paying little heed to an International Herald Tribune headline about disappearances near Citrusville, Doc recalls how, as a resident at New York Hospital, he saved his hostess—then Madeleine Revell, a translator at the U.N.—from car-crash injuries and fell for her, but after a year she declined his proposal “Because I do not like the man you are becoming.”  Back in the present, she poses the $64,000 question:  so what’s the deal with these Chaos Gates?

Their ancient spell will reverse the seven days of Genesis:  once opened, unleashing a demon, the first gate can never be closed, while the second demon will destroy all life on Earth (this sounds suspiciously like a Fulci film).  With the book stolen from the Vatican, Mordo needs to sacrifice 13 mystics “in a place of great occult power—like Stonehenge,” or…a Nexus of All Realities!  Madeleine’s maid, Colette Joubert, bursts in and abruptly decays, heralding the arrival of Azrael, at whose touch all things, even spells, age.  Striking through his pawn, Mordo seals the cloak and Eye of Agamotto in a force field; Doc saves some gendarmes and gets Madeleine outside, only to be pinned by bricks and hefted by Azrael, his face masked by an astral projection of Mordo’s.

Let’s get a very few gripes out of the way:  first, I’m often oblivious to lettering, but even given what a tough act Orz is to follow, I think Mark Rogan’s work here is substandard; it looks uneven and too large, threatening to crowd the artwork.  And I never know whether the primary blame falls on him, Chris, or the three (count ’em, three) editors for the various typos, most annoyingly—and repeatedly—confusing “its” and “it’s.”  Finally, Doc addresses Julian as “Lord Phyffe,” whereas if I’ve learned nothing else from the sublime Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, it’s that the proper form would be “Lord Peter”…but that’s about it, with the positives outweighing the negatives by a huge margin in this new fast-moving example of Claremontian wonderfulness.

Now, Gentleman Gene.  God damn, man.  The Dean’s exquisite framing is worthy of an Oscar-winning cinematographer.  Check out page 2, panel 3 (above right):  Doc is truly ready for his close-up, with just enough of his cloak showing on all sides to give him a crimson backdrop.  Word and image commingle brilliantly in page 6, panel 2 with the lettering of “YYEEAAAGHK!,” shaped to fit around Phyffe’s car, enhancing the sense of motion as it plunges into the Seine.  Professor Blake can probably dissect the differences in the Green and Villamonte inks, but to me, it all just looks like prime late-Bronze Colan, with my only real complaint about the artwork being that Azrael, especially as portrayed on page 22, looks too much like the Pillsbury Doughboy to be truly scary.

This issue also demonstrates the impressively organic quality of Claremont’s work, as the former greed that Doc was forced to face last issue is, we learn here, the very quality that ended his relationship with Madeleine; the reverse-Genesis of the Chaos Gates would be a mirror image of the Sise-Neg experience that so traumatized Mordo; and Colette’s crumbling into dust echoes that of Alfeo.  It should be noted, however, that when he returned to reality, Stephen discovered Spinosa had been shot through the heart:  “My psychic senses were so hyper-aware that what I ‘saw’ when he disintegrated in my arms was the actual destruction of his life-force…”  (And you know I’m gonna give Chris extra points for using Doc’s signature line, “Curse me for a novice!”)

Per the last-page “Special announcement!!  This story continues in Man-Thing #4 (on sale in 30 days).  It concludes in 60 days, in Dr. Strange #41…”  The, uh, thing is, Man-Thing #4 resolves not one but two cliffhangers, so it behooves us to ask what writer Michael Fleisher and artists Jim Mooney and Wiacek have been doing with Manny since rebooting his book in November.  In Man-Thing #2, two men about to test an experimental teleportation device in the swamp—like you do—are suddenly confronted by Manny, panic, and fire it at him, transporting him into the Himalayas and a scenario strongly recalling Iron Fist’s origin:  Russell Simpson is there seeking the Yeti with his wife and his best friend, Roger Grafton, who really wants Elaine all to himself.

He’s naturally thrilled when an ice storm blows Russell off a cliff, yet Elaine continues to resist his slimy advances and wants to go look for hubby.  His 500-foot fall broken by snow, Russell is saved from a bear attack and sheltered in a cave by Manny, whose prints are mistaken for the Yeti’s by Roger, sparking visions of dollar signs; meanwhile, with jaw-dropping implausibility, Russell ascends the cliff with Mountaineer Manny in tow.  Spurned again, Roger leaves the tent in a huff and, seeing Russell inconveniently clambering up, plugs him with his rifle, but Manny, awash with Russell’s dying anguish, hoists his new BFF’s bod over the top, where he’s drawn to the fear oozing from Roger—who abandons Elaine as his ineffectual shots trigger an avalanche...

In #3, Rog hires a crew to excavate Manny, but he and Elaine have emerged into the hairy hands of the Yeti, Cro-Magnon descendants led by Hiram Swenson, an anthropologist nursed back to health after his Sherpas betrayed him.  An old Yeti sneaks Manny out of their ice-pit prison to show him a “wooly [sic] mammoth” sculpture with a similar snout in their temple, believing him (as Swenson scoffs) an “invincible mastadon [sic] demon whose return signifies the death-knell of your culture!”  Shoulda listened:  the immolation is interrupted as Roger—still calling moss-green Manny a “snowman” amid actual Yeti—mows them down, earning a fearful face peel; as a “Doomsday Gong” brings down the cliffs, his men fly off, Manny clutching Elaine and the strut.

Man-Thing 4 (May 1980)
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Bob Wicaek

The escape goes awry:  terrified by her plight, Elaine burns at, well, you know, wrenching out of Manny’s grip, while the plane’s lurch at the reduced weight and the sub-zero cold combine to crumble his wrist, so both plummet toward rocky peaks…and suddenly vanish.  Meanwhile, in Paris, with nothing to lose, Doc risks an all-or-nothing spell that may kill him as surely as Azrael’s touch, which is aging him rapidly.  Azrael is destroyed, yet after he has magically rejuvenated himself, Strange tells Madeleine, “In a sense, I’m borrowing from Peter to pay Paul by replenishing my strength all at once, instead of undertaking a lengthy convalesence [sic]. Sooner or later, this will catch up to me—I fear with a vengeance,” but first, off to Florida!

Still recovering, Strange minimizes his use of magic, but must employ a spell of cooperation on Sheriff John Daltry (his office oddly displaying a portrait of Man-Thing), who reveals details of the murders and kidnappings bespeaking Mordo’s selectivity in choosing his sacrificial victims.  Joshua, Jennifer, and Andy Kale were the first abductees, so Daltry recommends her ex-beau, Jaxon, to guide them through the swamp in his airboat.  Based on what he learned when he met Howard the Duck in Marvel Treasury Edition #12, Strange assumes that he and Jen—a disciple of Dakimh the Enchanter—are earmarked as the “high priest and priestess” of the coven; too late, Elaine tries to warn them, and as they approach the Kale house, Manny rises from the water.

Climbing ashore from the wrecked airboat, Jaxon and Madeleine pull Elaine to safety, perplexed that she is both burned and frostbitten, having literally dropped in from the Himalayas.  Mordo’s appearance confirms what Manny’s uncharacteristic aggression has already suggested (i.e., that he, like Azrael, is being used as a pawn) before the baron quickly fells Madeleine and the others.  While Manny tries to drown him, Strange muses that feigning defeat may buy him time to undo Mordo’s plan, but when he senses the ankh on his forehead, signifying mortal danger, it may be too late, and as Mordo regards his apparent corpse, he gloats to Madeleine—seemingly turned to gold—that his chosen one is really “the so-called guardian of this nexus of reality”…Ted Sallis!

Effective here, Fleisher and Mooney are replaced by, respectively, Claremont and Don Perlin, who round out most of the revival’s 11-issue run (inked in its entirety by Wiacek), and it’s worth noting Chris and Bob’s superb handling of Manny in Marvel Team-Up #68.  There’s a decidedly Ditkoesque look to the image of Mordo on Wiacek’s cool cover, with its effective color scheme, that is entirely appropriate and enjoyable in this context.  Yet to say that the interior artwork—an unwelcome reminder of Doc’s Perlin-drawn guest shot in Ghost Rider—is a comedown from the Colan splendor bookending it would be a vast understatement; even Don’s predecessor on this book, who if nothing else had a long history with Manny, would probably be preferable to Perlin.

I used to say that due to its structure, or lack thereof, Manny often seemed like a guest-star in his own strip, and this crossover—with its inevitable recap for non-Doc readers—recalls  that effect, placing the title character offstage for fully half the issue.  Taking over the book at just the right moment, Chris compensates by digging deep into Gerber-lore to dredge up Jaxon, possessed by a demon at Thog’s behest way back in Fear #13, while introducing new cast member Daltry.  The disappointing artwork notwithstanding, this is a fine continuation of Doc’s storyline into literal and figurative new territory, and given the mystical elements of Man-Thing’s origin and plotline, it’s perhaps surprising that he and the Master of the Mystic Arts have never crossed paths before.

Doctor Strange 41 (June 1980)
"Weep For the Soul of Man..."
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Ed Hannigan
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Layton and Klaus Janson

Floating in an astral limbo, Strange is surprised when Clea appears and bids him to follow her, until he realizes it is really Death and eludes her yet again, emerging face-down in the Okealachobee River from a deep zen trance that slowed his life processes.  In a demonic temple he raised inside Ted Sallis’s shack, Mordo prepares to open the crystalline first gate; with Jen, in ritual garb (yowza!), and Man-Thing chained in the center, his other victims—e.g., Joshua, Andy, Jaxon, Madeleine—are on obsidian slabs on a dais laid out like a clockface, Mordo at noon.  He plucked Manny from the Himalayas, gave him Ted’s mind with no memory of his monstrous past, and duped Sallis into aiding him by promising to restore his lost humanity.

Planning to find and rule an alternate Earth with no sorcerers once this one is totalled, Mordo is summoning the “dread lords of the Mabdhara” when Doc appears.  Yet after he uses an illusion to distract and sneak up on his foe, the latter’s spell of protection hurls them into the Nexus, so Mordo need not even defeat Strange, merely keep him there as the demon’s hand reaches out of the gate and begins its grisly work of reducing the victims to bones, growing larger and stronger.  Forced to watch from afar as Madeleine dies, the enraged Strange is on the verge of strangling Mordo while Jennifer, in the moments before her own death, asks Sallis, “even if Mordo wasn’t lying…What kind of man are you to buy your ‘humanity’ with the lives of innocent people?!?”

As Doc turns away, realizing that killing Mordo would make him no better, his foe lunges at him with a rock; simultaneously, protected by his amalgam of magic and science, Ted-Thing forces the hand back through, slams shut, and shatters the gate, creating an interdimensional vortex into which he resignedly lets himself be drawn until Doc anchors him and seals it.  We are told—but not shown—how, just as Mordo was about to “administer the coup de grace,” the shock wave from the vortex swept away and separated the two sorcerers, with only Strange finding his way back to Earth.  The dead are returned to life, yet the same unique synthesis prevents Strange from restoring Ted’s humanity, driving him mad and forcing Doc to leave the monster mindless again.

Mixed feelings on this one.  Layton and Janson—an odd, and oddly effective, pair, that—get us off to a great start with their memorable cover, while the splash page by Messrs. GreenGene is, if you’ll pardon the groaner, to die for.  Overall, I find this a satisfying conclusion to an excellent arc; even if the “Hey, let’s cure the Hulk/Thing/Man-Thing/Whoever—oohhh, didn’t quite make it!” card is one played far too often, Claremont at least handles it with typical thoughtfulness.  So what, you might reasonably be asking by now, did I dislike about it?  Well, I’ll give you a hint:  it has to do with an atypical example of poor pacing on Chris’s part.  Hmm…could it be the 109-word, climax-describing “Gee, folks, I wish you could see this!” caption in the midst of page 27?

Bingo!  Now, I’m not suggesting that an arc of this size, while by no means overlong, should’ve been stretched out to another issue.  And I know that recaps are necessary, again, especially with crossovers.  And the opening sequence with Death is a keeper, if for the splash alone.  But still—dude, seriously?  “Sorry, we’re all out of time, but here’s what you would’ve seen!”  The loss of said spectacle is all the more regrettable when what Colan does show, drenched with atmosphere and the antithesis of Perlin’s monument to the mundane, is so, well, spectacular:  the cavernous, TARDIS-like interior of Ted’s rotted shack on page 11; the dais/clockface on page 14, right out of a Christopher Lee movie; the claw that is all we’ll see of the chaos-demon; its skeletal victims.

In two weeks...
The conclusion of Professor Matthew's
dissection of Claremont on Doctor Strange!

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