Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #6

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

Part Two: The Wizard of the West Village
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Doctor Strange 42 (August 1980)
"The Black Mirror!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Michael Golden

Sailing out of the sky (erased from the public eye by “a useful spell” that also alters their appearances) at Miami International Airport, Strange and Madeleine go their separate ways—New York and Paris, respectively—weighing rekindled passion against their other relationships, since she is now MWC.  Daily Globe stringer Lou Wallis recognizes Doc, reports his presence to Starrett, and agrees to follow him in search of info, “the dirtier, the better.”  Cameramen across the street shoot his return to the Sanctum, where he sees Sara asleep amid takeout containers; awakening, she admits to finding unpaid bills while “tidying” his desk, so Doc shows her ten 10-pound gold bars in his safe and hires her to manage his business affairs.

Doc follows Clea’s psychic trail to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, where Asian minor mystics force his car off a cliff, but he is saved by his Cloak of Levitation and subdues the Warriors of the Golden Dragon.  Their otherworldly-garbed masters—whose “dread liege” is Shi’almar—gather around the Crystal of Power to conjure a 1,000-foot pillar of fire that turns into a dragon as Strange approaches the mansion.  He leaves his body in the library, yet the beast can track his astral form, so Doc uses his cloak to break the circle, banish the dragon, and knock out the four sorcerers; he follows Clea’s path through the Black Mirror, a “gateway to countless dimensions,” only to be captured and readied for beheading by brigands, including his own lover and disciple!

I always enjoy Doc’s occasional “greatest hits” issue:

  • Crimson Bands of Cyttorak?  Check.
  • Shield of the Seraphim?  Check.
  • Flames of the Faltine [or, per Ben Grimm, “Flamin’ Saltines”]?  Check.
  • Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth?  Check.
  • Images of Ikonn?  Check.
  • Vapors [only later Vipers] of Valtorr?  Check.
  • Demons of Denak?  Check.

Penciler Gene Colan and inker Dan Green deliver the goods, as they consistently have since the start of Claremont’s run, and it’s interesting to compare their rendition of the dragon on page 22 with the complementary—if by no means drastically different—one on that atmospheric cover, which I correctly pegged as Michael Golden’s work.  I just wish I found this new storyline more immediately engaging; hate to be narrow-minded, but one with old friends like Man-Thing and Mordo is of greater intrinsic interest to me, so I’ll have to wait and see.  Not that there are no compensations, e.g., Strange’s upgrade of Sara from next-door neighbor to P.A., and the benefits package must have been pretty good, because I see that she stayed with the strip far longer than I.

As usual, Chris takes his time unfolding things:  the kidnapped Wong, the object of the exercise, is still M.I.A., while Clea, last seen getting gunned down and rolling into a ravine, makes a yet-to-be-explained, last-panel entrance.  For some reason it’s the quiet moments that struck me most about this issue, e.g., Doc pondering life’s mysteries in page 7, panel 3; a surprised Sara peeking over the back of her chair in page 10, panel 1; Doc in 007 mode as he reconnoiters while sitting on the hood of his jeep in page 15, panel 2.  That said, the battle with the dragon is suitably cool, and really, as I look over it again, there’s nothing wrong with this whatsoever—it looks great, as only Gentleman Gene can make it, and Claremont is planting his usual garden’s worth of seeds...

Doctor Strange 43 (October 1980)
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Michael Golden

Recognizing Strange, who understandably has not noticed her, Clea tries to stop would-be headsman Duron just as Doc uses his cloak to fly free, scattering the brigands.  Nipping the MARMIS in the bud, she introduces their leader, Bayan, who conjures the symbol of the Vishanti (“No sorcerer consecrated to evil could stand to look at it, much less re-create it”), a challenge that Doc must answer in kind.  Clea relates how the Lords of the Golden Dragon kidnapped Wong “to pay some ancient, ancestral debt,” captured and drugged her, and forced them both through the Black Mirror into another world, where warriors took them into the mountains toward the city of the Shadowqueen, Shialmar, now mysteriously sans the apostrophe.

The tables turned as Bayan’s rebels ambushed the warriors, then turned again as avian-mounted sky-slayers recaptured Wong, but Bayan saved Clea, who has fought with the brigands over the weeks that ensued there while mere days passed on Earth.  She explains that Shialmar is opposed by Silver Fox, the last of the wizard kings who once ruled their world, and Strange is stunned to learn that the Shadowqueen, the immortal demon-sorceress who overthrew them, is sworn to serve the N’Garai.  The involvement of this “race of other-dimensional beings—elder gods who are utterly, irredeemably evil [introduced in Claremont’s Satana prose story in Haunt of Horror #4, debuting in comic-book form in X-Men #96]…makes things far more serious than I thought.”

Bayan learns that Wong is in Majaedong, former capital of the wizard kings, now dominated by the black crystal towers of Shialmar’s palace, where she berates her minions for embroiling Doc; their Warriors having already paid the price with their lives, the Lords are turned into gargoyles.  Subduing and impersonating three soldiers, Doc, Clea, and Bayan infiltrate the imperial prison, and after his Morpheus Mist fells all within, Bayan—a recent “guest”—tracks Wong’s “outworld life-force” to his cell.  The rescue is delayed when those ornamental gargoyles overhead turn out to be you-know-who, as Clea laments her constant need to be rescued, yet they are defeated, with Bayan not only displaying further sorcerous ability but also admitting that he is, gasp, Silver Fox.

Back at Bayan’s camp, Wong reveals how—okay, deep breath, class, we’re almost done—1,000 years ago his ancestor, the mystic monk and warrior Kan, was investigating a reputedly haunted temple when he saw, touched, and was drawn through, yes,  a Black Mirror.  He was greeted and hailed by Jehan, the king of Siridar; his sister, Princess Shialmar; and court magician Mung as the savior and liberator of their race, who would lead them in their war against the wizard kings.  Then the “camera” pulls back, and we see the Shadowqueen smugly observing this through her coffin-shaped crystalline Shadowscope™, having duped another unwitting member of the Kan clan, this time into flushing out Silver Fox, and preparing to slay them all…BWUHAHAHAHA!

For those who share my interest in housekeeping details (although I don’t know if any of these constitutes a “new normal,” especially since this book is a bimonthly), only the story pages are numbered, as in the Silver Age, i.e., 1-17, rather than the Bronze-Age norm of 1-31, including ads.  The Bullpen Bulletins Page is nowhere to be seen, and the checklist that lately dominated it is squeezed into the bottom of the lettercol, where Chris thanks longtime fan Cat Yronwode for compiling years of Strangeiana into The Lesser Book of the Vishanti for the writers’ benefit.  Meanwhile, this storyline lurches on in fits and starts, its pace periodically halted by not one but two big info-dump flashbacks, the brief Bayan/Silver Fox masquerade just muddying the waters.

When Clea first invokes him, an image of Silver Fox looms over her and Strange, a bit indistinct, yet clear enough to see that he bears a suspicious resemblance to Bayan…who bears a suspicious resemblance to Stephen…which makes me wonder if I know where this whole thing is headed.  But damn, it looks good right from the splash, a big ol’ slab of Colan wonderfulness with Duron ready to chop Doc into kindling; page 3, panel 3 is a delightful shot of Strange grabbing Clea and soaring into the air while planting a big smooch on her.  Nobody draws gargoyles quite like Gene the Dean, with these guys looking like the Dragon Man’s quadrupedal cousins, and although I’m not sure the world was waiting breathlessly for The Secret Origin of Wong, we get one anyway.

Doctor Strange 44 (December 1980)
"Duel of Fire!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Michael Golden

As Shialmar watches through her “mystic viewing crystal,” to use the Claremont-approved terminology, we learn that she loved Kan, and Wong continues his tale, albeit with some odd alterations; now Jehan is prince of Sirik and Mung is chief sorcerer Vung.  Sirik, they say, leads “a confederation of human states” oppressed by non-human wizard kings, and M/Vung’s spell brought a warrior to lead their struggle.  No fool, Kan is skeptical, so Vung, invoking the lords of the Mabdhara (as Mordo did in #41), sends a Kyrii—the demon that reportedly slew Shialmar’s parents at the wizard kings’ behest—to attack the nascent couple, and after dissolving it with a shuriken “edged in sacred silver,” he’s gonna unleash the wrath of Kan.

Only after Kan and the siblings raze Majaedong, massacring the (really beneficent) wizard kings when they refuse to surrender, does Vung show his true colors, downing the trio in the name of the N’Garai, yet designated sacrifice Shialmar makes them a better offer:  “not blood, but the soul of one who loves.”  Transformed into the Shadowqueen, she expunges Vung; chooses Jehan to satisfy the N’Garai’s demand for the life of a loved one; and sends Kan safely back to China via the mirror, which he kept, while the first-born males of his line indentured themselves to mages devoted to the forces of good to atone for his sin.  Back in the present—as Wong reveals he is the son of Hamir the Hermit, who’d served the Ancient One—she appears in Bayan’s camp.

Turning a slain rebel into a stone gargoyle whose touch transforms others, she begins an airborne “Duel of Fire” (this issue’s title) with Strange, who seeks to exploit Shialmar’s good/evil duality, since she was created by a self-sacrificing act of love.  Clea’s alien nature blunts the effect when she is touched; hit with an arrow by Wong, Shialmar hesitates to slay Kan’s “twin,” allowing Doc to draw her evil into himself and then cast it out again, causing a lightning bolt visible even on Earth, as Sara sees the Sanctum briefly covered with scarlet flames.  Clea uses the Eye of Agamotto to ensure that no evil remains in Strange, and the gargoyles return to normal, yet the dying Shialmar, her soul now free, refuses aid, reaffirming her love for Kan with her last breath...

Third in a series of vibrant Golden covers—collect ’em all!  Inside, though, things get a little, uh, strange:  the overall count is still 32, yet the story pages, now completely unnumbered, total a whopping 22; can they really have sacrificed five pages of ads for the sake of this conclusion?  It turns out my guess was completely wrong.  Since she’s established as the Sorcerer Supreme of this other-dimensional “Earth similar to—yet far removed from—our own,” I thought Shialmar would turn out to be that world’s Clea, twisted by resentment, and BayFox its Stephen Strange.  Meanwhile, Chris augments the strip’s lexicon a little, with Shialmar deploying the Crystals of Cyndriarr and Daggers of Daveroth, and I think Doc’s “By the soul of Rhiannon!” might be new.

Despite my doubts about its structure, Chris ultimately sold me over the course of this trilogy, with no small measure of assistance from Gene and Dan, the latter notching his penultimate inking credit on this series (although I see he penciled #58-61).  Look, I admire Brunner as much as the next guy, yet four full issues doth not a dynasty make, while co-creator Ditko had no peer when it came to the rapid-fire phantasmagoria of the Strange Tales serials.  But although there are plenty of books I don’t want Colan to work on, when it comes to the long-form storytelling that his solo title made possible, there is very little in my Marvel frame of reference that simply feels as right as the Dean on the Doc, like that old shirt you slip on when there’s a chill in the air.

As for Claremont, this book being by definition one of Marvel’s most intellectual, it’s a perfect fit for such a cerebral writer, who spends a commendable amount of time inside Doc’s head.  No, there’s no shortage of spectacle, as Gene unleashes his battles and tempests and gargoyles (with a delightful shot in story page 17, panel 3 of Clea staring goggle-eyed at the hand turned into a claw), yet much of what I consider the “action” takes place in thought balloons as Strange feels out his foe and plots his strategy.  Wong occupies an interesting position:  while the arc gives us lots of interesting material concerning his backstory, he himself spends comparatively little time onscreen, although Chris lets him play a major part in Shialmar’s literal and figurative downfall.

Doctor Strange 45 (February 1981)
"Wizard of the West Village"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan, Dan Green, Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, Wendy Pini, Frank Giacoia, Joe Rubinstein, Bob Wiacek, and Tom Palmer
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Dave Cockrum

 “Wizard of the West Village,” blares a New York Daily Globe headline.  “Police Call Dr. Strange on Ritual Murders.”  When Doc—consulted as “an expert in occult lore”—protests the insinuation that he is a suspect, the man responsible, Jack Starrett, tells him legal action is fruitless, and the story is the first of a series.  Comparing his life to Pandora’s Box, “a book better left closed,” Doc departs and Starrett calls Gillis, who has been staking out the Sanctum from across the street with his partner.  Posing as a Ma Bell employee (and evoking, for me, Clouseau’s “Emile Flournoy” i.d. in The Return of the Pink Panther, my favorite of the series), Sanderson plans to plant bugs...but he and Wong encounter something down in the cellar.

The same fate befalls Sara, puzzled by Wong’s absence when she arrives while Strange and Clea enjoy a romantic lunch at the Plaza, which ends abruptly as Clea, asked if Doc can help her with whatever’s been bothering her lately, blurts out that he is the cause and runs off.  Catching up to Clea, Doc takes her to Central Park, where she says she will remain his lover but not his disciple, afraid that her lesser power and his concern for her may doom him in battle.  He asks her to put off a final decision, yet after a carriage ride back to Bleecker Street, they find Starrett at the door, seeking the overdue Sanderson; hearing Clea scream when she investigates, Doc races to her aid, telling Starrett to wait in the foyer—so naturally he disobeys (thinking, “Not a chance, jerkball”).

In the cellar, Doc finds a “pool of liquid fire…[a] mystical gateway to the N’Garai dimension,” occupied by an Old One that seeks to avenge Shialmar’s death and clutches Clea, Wong, Sara, and Sanderson in its tentacles.  Strange severs one with the Fangs of Farallah, freeing Clea, yet the others are pulled into the sa’arpool, re-emerging possessed and armored by the demon, so the lovers retreat and regroup after Clea entraps them and summons Wong’s sword to sever a second tentacle.  Leaving Clea to guard his body, Strange sends his astral form up to his study to brush up on an ancient, obscure spell in the Book of the Vishanti that can seal the pool, and finds the snooping Starrett, who flees as Doc “summons a silver dagger [yes, that one] from its cradle…”

The weapon that once took his life now saves others as he stabs the slaves, freeing their souls but leaving their bodies unharmed, then Doc arranges the five of them around the pool, drawing on their life forces to seal it and banish the demon.  Having seen into Pandora’s Box, Starrett avows that his series is over, leaving Strange to ponder how Shialmar’s defeat opened a portal between their worlds.  Praising Clea’s role in the battle, he accepts her doubts, yet notes that “from doubts come questions; from questions, knowledge; from knowledge, enlightenment.  You are stronger than you realize,” and so, countering that he has “a knack for saying the right thing at the right time,” she agrees to stay on in both capacities, as lover and disciple.  Passionate smooch.  “Fin.”

Pagination Update:  another 22, and I’m now thinking there may be a connection with the recent price hike from 40¢ to 50¢, but since it took effect back in September—a non-Doc month—and absent those Bullpen Pages, I don’t know if there’s been any talk of a 29% increase in editorial content to offset the 25% price increase.  Meanwhile, reading between the lettercol lines gives us the sense that lame-duck writer Claremont’s departure was abrupt and/or unwelcome, a theory supported by the “D. Hands” inking of Colan’s pencils.  “The (Not so) Cheerful One moves on handing the reins over to Roger Stern (equally capable but not half as good looking.)  Any details about what’s coming up will have to be ferreted out of him.  Nuff said,” reads the next-issue box.

A house ad on page 25 states that future entries will be “mystically conjured by Roger Stern and Frank Miller”—as does the lettercol  in #46, a transitional issue encompassing two stories, three writers, and four artists—yet evidently this never eventuated; Colan’s Green-inked swan song in #47 is followed by the year-long Marshall Rogers run.  On his way out the door, Chris harvests a seed planted back in #42 (interestingly, the “Randy Johnson” Globe byline on the splash page is seen nowhere else), but typically turns it from a mere anti-tabloid romp into a significant coda to the Shialmar trilogy.  While it’s not immediately clear if this is the third and final sa’arpool Chris invoked in Marvel Team-Up #79, I can’t recall if Stern ever followed up on the N’Garai mystery.

Before leaving, Claremont gives us another new spell (the Chains of Krakkan, with which Clea subdues the N’Garai’s pawns, although the Farallac Fangs date back to Silver Dagger’s debut in #1), and tackles Clea’s feelings of inadequacy head-on; a permanent fix is perhaps out of the question, but the tale ends on a satisfying note of resolution.  The full-pager on 16 of the N’Garai clutching its victims cries out for Harryhausen, but Gene commendably brings it to life on paper, and the image of the pentagon surrounding the pool that dominates page 27 is stunning.  Kudos go to the Giacoia/Green/Milgrom/Palmer/Pini/Rubinstein/Simonson/Wiacek inking collective for what is, to my eyes, a largely consistent feel, although page 10 has a sparse, unfinished look to it.

In Two Weeks!
Professor Tom discusses
Roy Thomas' final issues of Conan!


  1. I always wanted to re-read Claremont's Doc. I have zero recollection of these issues, but have a fond memory of Stern's and Roger's following arc. This was the last time Doctor Strange was truly good. I am not a fan of Stern's last issues where he had to pure the MU of the vampires, still this was better as everything Peter Gillis later wrote until the series was cancelled.

    Still it is remarkable that the series continued bi-monthly to 1987. Is there any other major Marvel character who was published that long bi-monthly?

  2. Isn't the cover to issue 42 done by Mike Golden? Issue 45's cover is done by Cockrum which incidentally is reviewed as issue 44.

    do I dare ask for my no prize award?

    1. Thanks for the heads up. Your No-Prize is on its way.