Mighty Marvel Masterworks Doctor Strange volume 2: The Eternity War

By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, Art Simek, Sam Rosen & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4887-0 (PB/Digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Magical Marvel Unleashed… 10/10

When the emergent House of Ideas introduced a warrior wizard to their burgeoning pantheon in the summer of 1963 it was a bold and curious move. Bizarre adventures and menacing monsters were still incredibly popular, but most mention of magic or the supernatural (especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk) were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel dictating almost all aspects of story content. Almost a decade after a public witch-hunt led to Senate hearings on the malign influences of words and pictures in sequence, comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though some of the small company’s strongest sellers were still mystery and monster mags, their underlying themes and premises were almost universally mad science and alien wonders, not necromantic or thaumaturgic terrors.

Companies like ACG, Charlton and DC – and Atlas/Marvel – got around edicts against mystic thrills and chills by making all reference to magic benign or even humorous; the same tone adopted by TV series Bewitched about a year after Doctor Strange debuted. That eldritch embargo probably explains writer/editor Stan Lee’s low-key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilight troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of society…

Prior to being Marvel, the company had already published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant. Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-pagan-ed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961).

He was a psychiatrist, sage and paranormal investigator tackling everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans (albeit not the ones Sub-Mariner rules). Droom was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate and precursor for Stephen Strange‘s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme.

After a shaky start, the Master of the Mystic Arts became an unmissable icon of the cool counter-culture kids who saw, in Ditko’s increasingly psychedelic art, echoes and overtones of their own trippy explorations of other worlds. That might not have been the creators’ intention but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the “kids-stuff” ghetto…

This enchanting full colour paperback compilation – also available as a digital download – gathers the spectral sections of Strange Tales #130-146 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2: spanning cover-dates March 1965 to July 1966. With no fuss or muss, a classic extended saga opens with ‘The Defeat of Dr. Strange’ as an enigmatic outer-dimensional sponsor enters into a pact with arch-foe Baron Mordo. He will be supplied with infinite power and ethereal minions in return for the death of Earth’s magical guardian. With the Ancient One assaulted and in a deathly coma, Strange is forced to go on the run: a fugitive hiding in the most exotic corners of the globe as remorseless, irresistible forces close in all around him…

A claustrophobic close shave trapped aboard a jetliner in in #131’s ‘The Hunter and the Hunted!’ expands into cosmic high gear a month later as Strange doubles back to his sanctum and defeats the returning foe The Demon only to come ‘Face-to-Face at Last with Baron Mordo!’ Crumbling into weary defeat as the villain’s godly sponsor is revealed, the hero is hurled headlong out of reality to materialise in ‘A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time!’ before confronting tyrannical witch-queen Shazana.

Upon liberating her benighted realm, Strange resumes being the target of relentless pursuit: recrossing hostile dimensions and taking the fight to his foes in ‘Earth Be My Battleground’.

Returning to the enclave hiding his ailing master, Strange gleans a hint of a solution in the mumbled enigmatic word “Eternity” and begins searching for more information as, in the Dark Dimension, a terrified girl seeks to sabotage Dread Dormammu’s efforts to empower Mordo…

As the world went superscience spy-crazy and Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. took over the lead spot with Strange Tales #135, the Sixties also saw a blossoming of alternative thought and rebellion. Doctor Strange apparently became a confirmed favourite of the blossoming Counterculture Movement and its recreational drug experimentation subculture. With Ditko truly hitting his imaginative stride, it’s not hard to see why. His weirdly authentic otherworlds and demonstrably adjacent dimensions were utterly unlike anything anyone had ever seen or depicted before…

‘Eternity Beckons!’ as Strange is lured to an ancient castle where an old ally betrays him and, after again narrowly escaping Mordo’s minions, the Mage desperately consults the aged senile Genghis in #136: a grave error in judgement. Once more catapulted into a dimension of deadly danger, Strange barely escapes a soul-stealing horror after discovering ‘What Lurks Beneath the Mask?’

Back on Earth and out of options, the Doctor is must test his strength against the Ancient One’s formidable psychic defences to learn the secret of Eternity in ‘When Meet the Mystic Minds!’ Barely surviving the terrible trial, he uses newfound knowledge to translates himself to a place beyond reality and meet the embodiment of creation in ‘If Eternity Should Fail!’

His quest for solutions or extra might failed, he despondently returns to Earth to find his mentor gone and his unnamed female friend prisoners of his worst enemies in anticipation of a deadly showdown…

Strange Tales #139 warns ‘Beware…! Dormammu is Watching!’, but as Mordo – despite being super-charged with the Dark Lord’s infinite energies – fails over and again to kill the Good Doctor, the Overlord of Evil loses all patience, dragging all concerned into his domain.

Intent on making a show of destroying his mortal nemesis, Dormammu convenes a great gathering before whom he will smash Strange in a duel using nothing but ‘The Pincers of Power!’ He is again bathed in ultimate humiliation as the mortal mage’s wit and determination score a stunning triumph in concluding episode ‘Let There Be Victory!’

As the universes tremble, Doctor Strange wearily heads home, blithely unaware his enemies have laid one last trap. The weary victor returns to his Sanctum Sanctorum; unaware his foes have boobytrapped with mundane explosives.

Scripted by Lee and plotted and illustrated by Ditko, Strange Tales #142 reveals ‘Those Who Would Destroy Me!’ as Mordo’s unnamed disciples prepare one final stab at the Master of the Mystic Arts. They would remain anonymous for decades, only gaining names of their own – Kaecillius, Demonicus and The Witch – upon their return in the mid-1980s.

Here, however, they easily entrap the exhausted wizard warrior, imprisoning him with a view to plundering all his secrets. It’s a big mistake as – in the Roy Thomas dialogued sequel ‘With None Beside Me!’ – Strange outwits and subdues his captors…

In #144 Ditko & Thomas take the heartsick hero ‘Where Man Hath Never Trod!’ Although Dormammu was soundly defeated and humiliated before his peers and vassals, the demonic tyrant takes a measure of revenge by exiling Strange’s anonymous female collaborator to realms unknown. Now, as the Earthling seeks to rescue her while searching myriad mystic planes, he stumbles into a trap laid by the Dark One and executed by devilish collector of souls Tazza

On defeating the scheme, Strange returns to Earth and almost dies at the hands of far weaker, but sneakier, wizard Mister Rasputin in a yarn scripted by Dennis O’Neil. The spy and swindler uses meagre mystic gifts for material gain but happily resorts to base brutality ‘To Catch a Magician!’

All previous covers had been Kirby S.H.I.E.L.D. affairs but finally, with Strange Tales #146, Strange and Ditko won their moment in the sun. Although the artist would soon be gone, the Good Doctor remained, alternating with Fury’s team until the title ended.

Ditko & O’Neil presided over The End …At Last!’ as deranged Dormammu abducts Strange before suicidally attacking the omnipotent embodiment of the cosmos called Eternity.

The cataclysmic chaos ruptures the heavens over infinite dimensions and when the universe is calm again both supra-deities are gone. Rescued from the resultant tumult, however, is the valiant girl Strange had loved and lost. She introduces herself as Clea, and although Stephen despondently leaves her, we all know she will be back…

This sideral swansong was Ditko’s last hurrah. Issue #147 saw a fresh start as Strange went back to his Greenwich Village abode under the auspices of co-scripters Lee & O’Neil, with comics veteran Bill Everett suddenly and surprisingly limning the arcane adventures. More of that next time.

Before that though there are still treats in store, beginning with a pinup published in 1967’s Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #10 before we revel in one last Lee/Ditko yarn to enthral and beguile: Although a little chronologically askew, it is very much a case of the best left until last.

In October 1965 ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’ (from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2) was the astonishing lead feature in an otherwise vintage reprint Spidey comic book. The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the webslinger to arcane adventuring and otherworldly realities as he unwillingly teams up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed wizard Xandu: a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the purloined Wand of Watoomb

After this story it was clear Spider-Man worked in any milieu and nothing could hold him back – and the cross-fertilisation probably introduced many fans to Lee & Ditko’s other breakthrough series.

But wait, there’s even more! Wrapping up the proceeding is a contemporary T-shirt design by Ditko, and the briefest selection of original art.

Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star of the Marvel firmament. This glorious grimoire is a magical method for old fans to enjoy his world once more and the perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration to enjoy the groundbreaking work of two thirds of the Marvel Empire’s founding triumvirate at their most imaginative.
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