Spider-Man: Fever


By Brendan McCarthy & Steve Cook, with Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel)
ISBN: 987-0-7851-4125-9 (TPB)

Peter Parker was a smart, alienated kid when he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a school trip. Developing astonishing abilities – augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the boy did what any lonely, unappreciated, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: try to cash in for girls, fame and money…

Hiding behind a home-made costume (in case he fails and makes a fool of himself), Parker becomes a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief flees past him one night, the cocky teen doesn’t lift a finger to stop him. When the boy returns home that night, he learns that his beloved guardian uncle Ben Parker has been murdered.

Crazed with a need for vengeance, Peter hunts the assailant who made his devoted Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, and discovers, to his horror, that it is the self-same felon he neglected to stop. The traumatised boy is fixated on the fact that his irresponsibility resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and swears to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night he has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them…

It wasn’t too long after his spectacular launch that Stan Lee & Steve Ditko’s astonishing Spider-Man proved himself a contemporary hero who fitted every possible milieu and scenario; equally at home against cheap hoods, world-busting super-menaces or the oddest of alien incursions, and this superbly outré modern masterpiece – available in trade paperback and digital formats – celebrates that astounding versatility by reprising one of the most brilliantly bizarre team-ups from the early Marvel Age.

The legendary classic first meeting of Mystic Master and Wondrous Wallcrawler occurred in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 and it’s rightly included at the end of this beguiling tome featuring über-imaginatively narrative art trendsetter Brendan McCarthy’s tribute to Ditko’s dazzling graphic magic.

London-born McCarthy came to prominence in comics on 2000AD before branching out into international comics stardom whilst pursuing parallel careers in film, television and design. His most notable works range from Strange Days and Paradax to Judge Dredd, The Zaucer of Zilk, Zenith, Skin, Rogan Gosh, Dream Gang and innumerable stunning covers. His moving media credits include The Storyteller, Highlander, Lost in Space, Reboot, Mad Max 4: Fury Road and so much more.

Collected here is a digitally-psychedelic, intoxicatingly appealing 3-issue miniseries from 2010 and produced for the mature-audience Marvel Knights sub-imprint. Written and illustrated by McCarthy with lettering and additional colouring from old comrade Steve Cook, it begins with the web-spinner battling frequent flyer archfoe The Vulture even as Sorcerer Supreme Stephen Strange explores a few Outer Realms and inadvertently activates an ancient trap set in an old grimoire – the Lost Journal of Albion Crowley

The “webwaze” energy escapes into the very architecture and infrastructure of New York City, finding its way to the cornered Vulture: possessing the bad old bird before passing through him, permeating and infecting the Friendly Neighbourhooded one…

When Strange further examines the cursed chronicle, he discovers the sorry tale of Crowley and his unlucky acolyte Victor Neumenon, whose long ago trans-dimensional forays led them into fateful contact with cosmically peripheral spider-demons dubbed Arachnix, lurking in the darkest corners and crannies of Creation.

Both were subjected to unimaginable atrocity at the many hands of the hairy horrors, but only Crowley returned to recount his experiences, and spin their adventures his way…

Meanwhile, ensorcelled Spider-Man, reeling in delirious torment, has instinctively crawled into the bathroom of Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum where his now-tainted soul is suddenly snatched away by arcane Arachnix-Hunter Daddy Longlegs, who drags the essence of the hero to its hideous homelands to be devoured by the ghastly King Korazon

Arriving too late to assist, the Master of the Mystic Arts gives chase through increasingly impossible planes of existence, following the ethereal webwaze paths in his frenzied attempts to save his old friend from utter horror and eternal damnation…

Along the way the wizard meets keenly helpful void-dwellers Fetch Doggy Fetch and Pugly, even as Peter Parker’s enmeshed spirit faces consumption by the Eight-Legged Tribe. Somehow, however, the hero’s dual nature confounds the beasts. They cannot determine if he is Spider – and therefore kin – or Man, and thus the most appealing meal ever presented to any Arachnix…

To decide his prey’s future fate Korazon despatches the befuddled soul-shell through the Insect Gate to catch the fabled feast known as the Sorror-Fly from the home dimension of all arthropods. If the arbitrary man-spider can snare the elusive treat he is their brother, but if he returns empty-handed, he’s just lunch…

Whilst the englamoured hero hunts in the insect realm, Strange rescues fellow Earth-born traveller Ms. Ningirril, long-trapped during her own dimensional Walkabout. In gratitude, the Antipodean wanderer provides the mage with useful intelligence, sound advice and a safer, swifter means of navigating his search for Spider-Man…

In a fantastic City of Termites our befuddled hero has succeeded in his task and is dragging the woeful Sorror-Fly back to the Arachnix: further succumbing with each passing moment to the inexorable, bestial allure of his Spider side, even as his garrulous meal relates the dread history of the insect dimension and a prophecy of telling magnitude.

When the Sorcerer Supreme and his allies fortuitously arrive, the Fly transforms back to a form he has not held for over a century, presaging the redemption and cure of the fallen Wall-crawler and a spectacular end to an infinitude of eight-legged terrors…

Bold, ambitious and visually compelling and off the wall, this superb magical mystery tour is perfectly augmented here by that aforementioned first meeting…

In 1965 Steve Ditko was blowing away audiences with another oddly tangential, daringly different superhero. Amazing Spider-Man King Size Annual #2 revealed ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’: introducing the webslinger to other realities after he accidentally interrupts an attack by wannabe wizard Xandu upon the Master of the Mystic Arts.

The villain had stolen the puissant Wand of Watoomb from Strange to achieve ultimate power, and when that pesky, interfering Spider-Man butts in, the power-crazed dilettante exiles him to an alien dimension – but not before the hero’s webbing snatches the arcane artefact from Xandu’s hand and takes it with him…

Cue an involuntary incredible journey to phantasmagorical, mind-bending worlds pursued by unstoppable zombie slaves and a desperately determined Doctor Strange in a dimension-hopping masterpiece of mystery and imagination…

Moody, creepy and staggeringly engrossing, this eerie eldritch escapade also includes the author/artist’s ‘Notes on the Design and Story Ideas for Spider-Man: Fever’ – a selection of commentary, roughs and sketches offering a fascinating glimpse of into the creative process of a truly unique talent, as well as a selection of Ditko pinups detailing the M.O.’s of The Circus of Crime, The Scorpion, The Beetle, Jonah’s Robot and the Crime-Master

Here’s another superb and crucial selection starring the timeless teen icon, superhero symbol and big screen superstar fans just cannot afford to do without
© 1965 and 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Strange Epic Collection volume 1 1963-1966: Master of the Mystic Arts


By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, with Don Rico, Roy Thomas, Dennis O’Neil, George Roussos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1138-6

We lost some grand masters of our art form this year, including arguably the biggest name left in the pantheon in American comics, Stan Lee. Also gone is certainly the most influential and least understood of American comics’ true greats: Steve Ditko. Despite their infamous acrimonious later working relationship, Lee & Ditko literally made magic together.

Here’s a recently-released collection with them at their very best and most groundbreaking…

When the budding 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 mention of magic or the supernatural – especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk – were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time – almost a decade after a public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – all 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 horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low-key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilit troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of rational, civilised society.

Capitalising on of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Lee had quickly spun off the youngest, most colourful member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s untouchable “Big Three” superstars.

Within a year of FF #1, anthology title Strange Tales became home for the blazing boy-hero (beginning with issue #101, cover-dated October 1962): launching Johnny Storm on a creatively productive but commercially unsuccessful solo career.

Soon after, in Tales of Suspense #41 (May 1963) current sensation Iron Man battled a crazed technological wizard dubbed Doctor Strange, and with the name successfully and legally in copyrightable print (a long-established Lee technique: Thorr, The Thing, Electro, Magneto and the Hulk had been disposable Atlas “furry underpants monsters” long before they became in-continuity Marvel characters), preparations began for a new and truly different kind of hero.

The company had already – recently – published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-paganed?) 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 ruled). Droom was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate and precursor for Stephen Strange’s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme…

Nevertheless, after a shaky start, the Marvel Age 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 and realms…

That might not have been the authors’ intentions 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 – collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #110, 111 and 114-146 plus a titanic team-up from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2; spanning July 1963 to July 1966. Moreover, although the Good Doctor was barely cover-featured until issue #130, it also magnanimously includes every issue’s stunning frontage, thus offering an incredible array of superbly eye-catching Marvel masterpieces from the upstart outfit’s formative heyday by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, John Severin and others.

Thus, without any preamble, our first meeting with the man of mystery comes courtesy of a quiet little chiller which has never been surpassed for sheer mood and imagination.

Lee & Ditko’s ‘Doctor Strange Master of Black Magic!’ debuted at the back of Strange Tales #110 and saw a terrified man troubled by his dreams approach an exceptional consultant in his search for a cure…

That perfect 5-page fright-fest introduces whole new realms and features deceit, desperation, double-dealing and the introduction of both a mysterious and aged oriental mentor and devilish dream demon Nightmare in an unforgettable yarn that might well be Ditko’s finest moment…

A month later in #111 the good Doctor was back, ‘Face-to-Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo!’ which sensibly introduced a player on the other side…

The esoteric duel with such an obviously formidable foe established Strange as a tragic solitary guardian tasked with defending the world from supernatural terrors and uncanny encroachment whilst introducing his most implacable enemy, a fellow sorcerer with vaulting ambition and absolutely no morals. In the astounding battle that ensued, it was also firmly confirmed that Strange was the smarter man…

Then things went quiet for a short while until the letters started coming in…

Strange Tales #114 (November 1963) was one of the most important issues of the era. Not only did it highlight the return of another Golden Age hero – or at least a villainous facsimile of him – by Lee, Kirby & Ayers. Here’s a quote from the last panel. “You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” We all know how that turned out…

Nevertheless, for many of us the true treasure trove here was the fabulously moody resurrection of Doctor Strange: permanently installing an eccentric and baroque little corner of the growing unified universe where Ditko could let his imagination run wild…

With #114, the Master of the Mystic Arts took up monthly residence behind the Torch as ‘The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo!’ (uncredited inks by George Roussos) finds the Doctor lured to London and into a trap, only to be saved by unlikely adept Victoria Bentley: an abortive stab at a romantic interest who would periodically turn up in years to come.

The forbidding man of mystery is at last revealed in all his frail mortality as Strange Tales #115 offered ‘The Origin of Dr. Strange’, disclosing how Stephen Strange was once America’s greatest surgeon. A brilliant man, yet greedy, vain and arrogant, he cares nothing for the sick except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted, drunken car-crash ends his career, Strange hits the skids.

Then, fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale which led him on a delirious odyssey or, perhaps more accurately, pilgrimage to Tibet, where a frail and aged mage changed his life forever. It also showed his first clash with the Ancient One’s other pupil Mordo: thwarting a seditious scheme and earning the Baron’s undying envious enmity…

Eventual enlightenment through daily redemption transformed Stephen the derelict into a solitary, dedicated watchdog for at the fringes of humanity, challenging all the hidden dangers of the dark on behalf of a world better off not knowing what dangers lurk in the shadows…

‘Return to the Nightmare World!’ sees the insidious dream predator trapping earthly sleepers in perpetual slumber until the doubtful authorities asked Strange to investigate. The hero’s invasion of his oneiric enemy’s stronghold is a masterpiece of moody suspense and is followed here by ‘The Many Traps of Baron Mordo!’: apparently showing the malevolent mage devising an inescapable doom, which once more founders after Strange applies a little logic to it…

The wildness and infinite variety of Strange’s universe offered Ditko tremendous opportunities to stretch himself visually and as plotter of the stories. In ST #118 the Master of Magic travels to Bavaria to combat ‘The Possessed!’, finding humans succumbing to extra-dimensional invaders neither fully mystic or mundane, whilst ‘Beyond the Purple Veil’ has Strange rescuing burglars who have stolen one of his deadly treasures from ray-gun wielding slaver-tyrants…

Strange Tales #120 played with the conventions of ghost stories as a reporter vanishes during a live broadcast from ‘The House of Shadows!’ and the concerned Doctor diagnoses something unworldly but certainly not dead…

Mordo springs yet another deadly trap in ‘Witchcraft in the Wax Museum!’ but is once again outsmarted and humiliated after stealing his rival’s body whilst Strange wanders the world in astral form…

Roussos returned as an uncredited inker for #122’s ‘The World Beyond’ wherein Nightmare nearly scores his greatest victory after the exhausted Strange falls asleep before uttering the nightly charm that protects from him from attack through his own dreams.

Strange hosts his first Marvel guest star in #123 whilst meeting ‘The Challenge of Loki!’ (August 1964 by Lee, Ditko & George Roussos as George Bell) as the god of Mischief tricks the earthly mage into briefly stealing Thor’s hammer before deducing where the emanations of evil he senses really come from…

Strange battles a sorcerer out of ancient Egypt to save ‘The Lady from Nowhere!’ from time-bending banishment and imprisonment, and performs similar service to rescue the Ancient One after the aged sage is kidnapped in ‘Mordo Must Not Catch Me!’, after which Roussos moves on whilst Lee & Ditko gear up for even more esoteric action.

Strange Tales #126 took the Master of the Mystic arts to ‘The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!’ as an extra-dimensional god seeks to subjugate Earth. In a fantastic realm Strange meets a mysterious, exotic woman who reveals the Dread One operates by his own implacable code: giving the overmatched Earthling the edge in the concluding ‘Duel with of the Dread Dormammu!’

This sees Earth saved, the Ancient One freed from a long-standing crippling curse and Strange awarded a new look and mystic weapons upgrade…

Restored to his homeworld and Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village, Strange then solves ‘The Dilemma of… the Demon’s Disciple!’ by saving a luckless truth-seeker from an abusive minor magician and – after a stunning pin-up by Ditko – defeats a demonic god of decadence stealing TV guests and execs in #129’s ‘Beware… Tiborro! The Tyrant of the Sixth Dimension!’ (scripted by Golden Age great Don Rico).

Doctor Strange got his first star cover slot for Strange Tales #130 to celebrate the start of an ambitious multi-part saga which would be rightly acclaimed one of the mystic’s finest moments.

‘The Defeat of Dr. Strange’ opens with an enigmatic outer-dimensional sponsor entering into a pact with Baron Mordo to supply infinite power and ethereal minions in return for the death of Earth’s magical guardian…

With the Ancient One assaulted and stuck 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 whilst trapped aboard a jetliner in ‘The Hunter and the Hunted!’ expands into cosmic high gear in #132 as Strange doubles back to his sanctum and defeats the returning 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, the relentless pursuit resumes as Strange re-crosses hostile dimensions to take the fight to his foes in ‘Earth Be My Battleground’.

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

As the world went super-science 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 just unlike anything anyone had ever seen or depicted before…

‘Eternity Beckons!’ when Strange is lured to an ancient castle where an old ally seeks to betray 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 forced to test his strength against the Ancient One’s formidable psychic defences to learn the secret of Eternity in ‘When Meet the Mystic Minds!’ After barely surviving the terrible trial, he translates himself to a place beyond reality to meet the embodiment of creation in ‘If Eternity Should Fail!’

The quest for solutions or extra might bears little fruit and, as he despondently arrives on Earth, the Doctor finds his mentor One and his unnamed female friend prisoners of his worst enemies in anticipation of a fatal 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 and drags the whole show into his home 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!’ and is again bathed in ultimate humiliation as the mortal’s wit and determination result in a stunning triumph in concluding episode ‘Let There Be Victory!’

As the universes tremble, Doctor Strange wearily heads home, blithely unaware that his enemies have laid one last trap. The weary victor returns to his mystic Sanctum Sanctorum, unaware that his foes have boobytrapped his residence 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 ready for one last 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 mage and imprison 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 quickly 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 carried out by devilish collector of souls Tazza

On defeating the scheme, Strange returns to Earth and almost dies at the hands of a far weaker, but much sneakier wizard dubbed Mister Rasputin. The spy and swindler utilises meagre mystic gifts for material gain but is happy to resort to base brutality ‘To Catch a Magician!’ (scripted by Dennis O’Neil).

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 Nick Fury’s team until the title ended.

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

Before that though there are a few treats still in store, beginning with 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 comicbook.

The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the webslinger to arcane adventure and otherworldly realities as he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed wizard Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the purloined Wand of Watoomb.

After this story it was clear that Spider-Man could work 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 selection of original art beginning with an unused pencil sketch of a master and student pinup plus a completed pinup published in 1967’s Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #10 and the original art for it.

Following those is a contemporary T-shirt design, a cover gallery of Marvel Tales #1 and Doctor Strange Classics #1-4 (by John Byrne & Al Milgrom, including text pages by Roger Stern) all nicely rounded off by a re-presentation of previous Ditko collection covers modified by painters Dean White & Richard Isanove as well as Alex Ross’ epic Doctor Strange Omnibus cover.

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.
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Strange Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Dennis O’Neil, Roy Thomas, Raymond Marais, Jim Lawrence, Dan Adkins, Bill Everett, Marie Severin, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1737-7 (HB)                    978-0-7851-6770-9 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Modicum More Merry Seasonal Magic… 9/10

When the budding 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 mention of magic or the supernatural – especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk – were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time – almost a decade after a public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – all comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though the 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 horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low-key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilit troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of rational, civilised society.

Capitalising on of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Lee had quickly spun off the youngest, most colourful member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s untouchable “Big Three” superstars.

Within a year of FF #1, anthology title Strange Tales became home for the blazing boy-hero (beginning with issue #101, cover-dated October 1962): launching Johnny Storm on a creatively productive but commercially unsuccessful solo career.

Soon after in Tales of Suspense #41 (May 1963) current sensation Iron Man battled a crazed technological wizard dubbed Doctor Strange, and with the name successfully and legally in copyrightable print (a long-established Lee technique: Thorr, The Thing, Magneto and the Hulk had been disposable Atlas “furry underpants monsters” long before they became in-continuity Marvel characters) preparations began for a new and truly different kind of hero.

The company had already recently published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-paganed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961). He was a balding psychiatrist, sage and paranormal investigator who tackled everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans. He was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate and precursor for Stephen Strange’s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme…

Nevertheless, after a shaky start, the Marvel Age 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 and realms…

That might not have been the authors’ intentions but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the kids-stuff ghetto…

This magnificent confabulation (available in hardback, trade paperback and digital reincarnations) collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #142-168, (spanning March 1966 to May 1968) and – despite the Good Doctor barely cover-featuring until #130 – kindly includes every issue’s stunning frontage: thus offering an incredible array of superb eye-catching Marvel masterpieces from the upstart company’s formative heydays by not only Ditko but also Jack Kirby, Bob Powell, John & Marie Severin, Bill Everett, Jim Steranko and Dan Adkins.

The sorcerous super-shenanigans commence after the traditional jocund reminiscences by Stan Lee in his Introduction, after which mystic mayhem resumes at full pelt and breakneck pace. This time-period, leading up to a full-blown Marvel expansion and solo-star status, saw the magician achieve his greatest triumphs under Ditko before entering a period of great creative insecurity under a welter of substitute writers and artists after the originator abruptly left the company at the height of his fame and success in early 1967.

The previous volume had seen Dr. Stephen Strange defeat his sworn nemesis Baron Mordo and extra-dimensional dark god Dormammu after an epic serial saga. The weary victor had then returned to his mystic Sanctum Sanctorum, unaware that lesser enemies had boobytrapped his residence with mundane explosives…

Scripted by Lee and plotted and illustrated by Ditko, Strange Tales #142 revealed ‘Those Who Would Destroy Me!’ as Mordo’s unnamed disciples ready for one last 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 mage and imprison him with a view to plundering all his secrets. It’s a big mistake as in the Roy Thomas scripted sequel ‘With None Beside Me!’, Strange quickly outwits and subdues his captors…

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

On defeating the scheme, Strange returns to Earth and almost dies at the hands of a far weaker, but much sneakier wizard dubbed Mister Rasputin. The spy and swindler utilises his meagre gifts for material gain but is happy to resort to base brutality ‘To Catch a Magician!’ (scripted by Dennis O’Neil).

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 would remain, alternating with Nick Fury’s team until the title ended.

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

The cataclysmic chaos ruptures the heavens over infinite dimension 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 Strange despondently leaves her, we all know she will be back…

This cosmic swansong was Ditko’s last hurrah. Issue #147 saw a fresh start as Strange returns 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.

From the Nameless Nowhere Comes… Kaluu!’ sees sagacious mentor The Ancient One rush to his pupil’s side mere moments before an ancient enemy launches a deadly attack from beyond the unknown. O’Neil & Everett then tread new ground by revealing ‘The Origin of the Ancient One!’ even as the mysterious foe intensifies his siege of the Sanctum in #149’s ‘If Kaluu Should Triumph…’

Roy Thomas then steps in to write concluding battle bonanza ‘The Conquest of Kaluu!’ as Master and Student defeat the overwhelmingly powerful intruder through grit and ingenuity. ST #150 then wraps up on an ominous note as with Dormammu gone another ancient evil begins to stir in the Dark Dimension…

Throughout his despotic reign the Dread One had apparently been keeping captive a being every bit his equal in power and perfidy and his superior in guile and cruelty. She was his sister and in #151 ‘Umar Strikes!’ Returning scribe Lee & Everett document her assumption of the throne, revenge on Clea and plans for Earth before plunging Strange ‘Into the Dimension of Death!’ in #152.

Naturally, she too has underestimated the puny mortal and Strange begins his retaliation even as he finds himself traversing outer dimensions and eventually ‘Alone, Against the Mindless Ones!’ This episode is notable for the illustrative debut of the magnificent Marie Severin, who applies a sense of potent wonder and film-inspired kinetics to the storytelling.

Strange Tales #154 has Lee, Severin & Umar declare ‘Clea Must Die!’, but the task proves harder than imagined after Strange finds macabre and unlikely allies in the demonic dictator’s own dungeons.

Winning temporary reprieve, Strange and Clea voyage to Earth where the Ancient One ruthlessly moves her beyond Umar’s reach forever but ‘The Fearful Finish…!’ only escalates the goddess’ determination and wrath. In #156 she resolves to dirty her own hands and all too soon, ‘Umar Walks the Earth!’ She is too late as Strange’s mentor has despatched him to a distant realm beyond all worlds on a suicide mission that could endanger all creation…

Artistic super-star-in-waiting Herb Trimpe signed on as inker for #157’s ‘The End of the Ancient One!’ as Strange and his unleashed secret weapon arrive back in time to see off Umar, but only at an unforgivable cost…

Bereft and aghast, Strange must face alone the monster he has unleashed, unaware that his liberating of the beast Zom has not only sparked an awakening of mystic force all over the world but also invoked the draconian assessment of supernal arbiter The Living Tribunal who rules that Earth must die…

With Thomas scripting, the Cosmic Judge manifests ‘The Sands of Death’ to eradicate the destabilising wild magic infesting the planet but grudgingly accepts Strange’s plea bargain to save the universe from ‘The Evil That Men Do…’

This constant ramping up of tension proceeds as Strange enlists old foe Mordo, who magnanimously agrees to absorb all the evil energy the Doctor siphons from a legion of newly-empowered sorcerers.

In Strange Tales #160 Raymond Marais, Severin & Trimpe reveal what a bad idea that is as ‘If This Planet You Would Save!’ sees the powered-up Baron turn on his benefactor, before exiling him to a fantastic alien cosmos in #161’s ‘And a Scourge Shall Come Upon You!’ (by Marais & new star-turn artist Dan Adkins).

In that uncanny other realm Strange meets former romantic entanglement Victoria Bentley before both are accosted by a macabre mystic tyrant who offers aid against the nigh-omnipotent Mordo for a price…

From the Never-World Comes… Nebulos!’ (scripted by James Bond writer Jim Lawrence & rendered by Adkins) sees Strange pull all the stops out: crushing Mordo, outwitting Nebulos and stymying The Tribunal’s ‘Three Faces of Doom!’ just in time save Earth.

As his reward he is despatched by the Grand Arbiter into a ‘Nightmare!’ pursuit of Victoria, arriving on a monster-ridden planet ruled by a techno-wizard named Yandroth, who declares himself to be the Scientist supreme of the universe…

The subject of a case of hate at first sight, Dr. Strange endures more gadget-laden peril in issue #165 as Yandroth inflicts testing to destruction on ‘The Mystic and the Machine’. Defeated by the hero’s courage and magic the bonkers boffin activates his doomsday scenario, stating ‘Nothing Can Halt… Voltorg!’ (Lawrence, George Tuska & Adkins) until science proves him wrong…

Big things were happening at Marvel in 1968. After years under a restrictive retail sales deal, The House of Ideas secured a new distributor and were finally expanding with a tidal wave of titles. “Split-Books” such as Strange Tales were phased out in favour of solo series for their cohabiting stars and, for the Master of the Mystic Arts at least, that meant a bit of rapid resetting…

O’Neil & Adkins teamed up in ST #167 for ‘This Dream… This Doom!’ in which Strange returns to Earth, indulges in a spot of handy resurrecting and proceeds to track down the still missing Victoria Bentley. This excursion takes the wizard of Greenwich Village deep into the realm of imagination where Yandroth is waiting for him…

The end comes suddenly in #168 as ‘Exile!’ apparently sees the end of the villain and a quick return to home in time for a bold new start…

That’s it for this exemplary exhibition of ethereal escapades – unless you include one last treat in the form of a stunning Ditko pin-up originally seen in Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #10 (August 1967) – but there’s more magical marvels to come in your future…

Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star of the Marvel firmament. This glorious grimoire is a miraculous means for old fans to enjoy his world once more and the perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel’s Avengers – Infinity War Prelude


By Will Corona Pilgrim, Tigh Walker, Jorge Fornés, Chris O’Halloran, with Jonathan Hickman, Jim Starlin, Jim Cheung, Ron Lim & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0943-7

With another eagerly anticipated Marvel Cinematic Universe film premiering around the world, here’s a timely trade paperback and eBook edition to augment the celluloid exposure and cater to movie fans wanting to follow up with a comics experience.

Comprising selected reprints and new digital material designed to supplement the movie release, these Prelude editions have become a traditional part of the dissemination and build-up and this compilation contains Marvel’s Avengers Infinity War Prelude #1-2 plus material starring the ultimate arch-villain Thanos taken from Infinity #1 and Thanos Annual #1.

This original 2-part miniseries sets the scene for the film blockbuster: written by Will Corona Pilgrim and based on the Captain America: Civil War screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. It was realised by illustrator Tigh Walker, colourist Chris O’Halloran and letterer Travis Lanham and reveals how the knowledge that Captain America’s old ally Bucky (AKA Winter Soldier) assassinated Tony Stark’s parents splits the Avengers into two warring teams…

After a ferocious battle, Cap’s allies – Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man and Hawkeye – are broken out of prison by the renegade Sentinel of Liberty and take refuge in Wakanda where the advanced technologies of the Black Panther deprogram Bucky even as in America an isolated Stark reconfigures his armour in advance of an overwhelming threat heading to Earth from the depths of space…

The second chapter – with Jorge Fornés as artist – features new movie maven Dr. Strange, coming to terms with his role in a terrifying universe of appalling unknown forces and deadly dangers.

As advisor Wong regales the wizard with tales and histories of the Infinity Stones and how they have shaped events (as seen in many previous MCU films), Thor and Loki return to Earth to consult the mage in the matter of the sudden disappearance of Asgardian All-Father Odin

In space, the Guardians of the Galaxy are also gauging a growing threat as cosmic overlord Thanos turns his avaricious eyes upon Earth…

Of course, all these plot threads get knotted together in the movie…

The supplemental classic appearances then open with the first chapter of mega publishing event Infinity #1 (August 2013), scripted by Jonathan Hickman.

In the aftermath of the blockbuster Avengers versus X-Men war, the company-wide reboot MarvelNOW! reformed the entire overarching continuity: a drastic reshuffle and rethink of characters, concepts and brands with an eye to winning new readers and feeding the company’s burgeoning movie blockbuster machine…

Moreover, numerous story strands were slowly building and combining to kick off the Next Big Thing with the cosmically revamped Avengers titles forming the spine of an encroaching mega-epic.

The intergalactic Hammer of Doom finally fell as a two-pronged, all-out attack which saw an impossibly ancient threat materialise to wipe out life in the cosmos, whilst Earth itself was targeted by an old enemy with a long memory and monstrous agenda…

What Came Before: In recent Avengers episodes an impossibly ancient trio of galactic “Gardeners” – robotic Aleph, seductive Abyss and passionate Ex Nihilo – attempted to remake Earth into something special. To that end they bombarded the world with “Origin bombs”, seeding locations with bizarre, exotic and uncompromising new life-forms.

When the Avengers went after them, the invaders claimed to have been tasked by The Builders – first species in creation – and their Mother of the Universe to test and, whenever necessary, eradicate, recreate and replace life on all worlds.

Although the World’s Mightiest Heroes defeated the intruders and set about mitigating the effects of the O-bombs on Earth, it seemed increasingly futile as global threats seemingly multiplied without surcease. Evidence also indicated that the very structure and celestial mechanics of the multiverse were catastrophically unravelling.

And then rumours began of an incredible alien armada heading directly for Earth…

It all starts here with the miniseries’ first issue as ‘Infinity’ (illustrated by Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, John Livesay & David Meikis) focuses on Saturnian moon Titan where death-driven despot Thanos dispatches his diabolical Outrider to demand ‘The Tribute’ from another newly enslaved world in his growing interstellar empire. Some of the Dark Lord’s most effective agents are already on Earth, stalking the planet’s greatest champions and ‘Constructing Apocalypse’

Sixty thousand light-years away, an even bigger threat is mopping up the puissant Space Knights of Galador. Various varieties of Builders – of the same ancient order that spawned Aleph, Abyss and Ex Nihilo – have razed the planet whilst unearthly new Avenger Captain Universe (whom the Gardeners call “Mother”) can only look on with despair as her wayward children destroy another world tainted by contact with Earth…

‘Orbital’ finds Captain America and Hawkeye cleaning out a nest of Skrulls in Palermo, but these invaders are far from the arrogant, treacherous warriors they’re accustomed to. The shapeshifters are scared, cowering refugees, fleeing and hiding from something incomprehensibly bad…

‘What was Hidden, Now Uncovered’ then focuses on the Inhumans’ floating city Attilan, currently parked above Manhattan, where Outrider prepares to extract secrets from the brain of slumbering monarch Black Bolt.

Even as the supremely powerful Inhuman foils the ghastly intrusion, the Avengers have regrouped following Captain Universe’s return with warnings of an oncoming impossibly vast Builder Armada. It merely confirms what Earth’s deep space monitoring array already shows: The fleet is bearing directly on Earth and any race or empire in the way is summarily destroyed as the invaders move ever closer.

The once unbeatable Kree are only the latest to fall…

When a distress call arrives from the rulers of the Galactic Council representing Kree, Skrulls, Badoon, Spartax, Brood and Shi’ar, the Avengers are soon ‘Outbound’, resolved to stop the fleet long before it reaches Earth.

Severely wounded, Outrider returns to Titan to inform Thanos that the thing he seeks most in the universe has been hidden on Earth by Black Bolt, prompting an invasion by the Titan’s own fleet long before the Builders can arrive. Moreover, almost all the planet’s infernal metahuman champions have left for Kree space…

If that whetted your appetite, you’ll need to see the two volume Infinity collection…

Here, however, we move on to Thanos Annual #1 (July 2014) as a defeated, comatose Mad Titan recalls an early turning point in his life. Written by Jim Starlin, pencilled by Ron Lim and inked by Andy Smith, ‘Damnation and Redemption’ begins after his first defeat by Captain Marvel and the Avengers, when he used a Cosmic Cube to become God before being stripped of everything through his own arrogance.

At this low ebb he is tempted by arch demon Mephisto but saved by his own future self, using the Infinity Gauntlet’s Time Gem to correct an almost irrevocable error…

Shown his potential future, the Titanian plotter thinks he is on the rise but has not counted on the interference of true cosmic gods such as the Living Tribunal…

This selection also includes a cover and variants gallery by Adam Kubert, Dale Keown & Ive Svorcina, Skottie Young, Marko Djurdjević, Lim & Smith and Starlin & Al Milgrom.

From such disparate seeds movie gold can grow, but never forget that the originating material is pretty damned good too and will deliver a tempting tray of treats that should have most curious fans scurrying for back-issue boxes, bookshop shelves or online emporia…
© 2013, 2014, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Epic Collection Volume 4: Behold… The Vision


By Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, Sal Buscema, Gene Colan, Frank Giacoia, Howard Purcell & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9165-0

One of the most momentous events in comics history came in the middle of 1963 when a disparate gang of heroic individual banded together to combat an apparently out of control Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the intervening decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in the Marvel multiverse has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

The Avengers always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in on single basket can pay off big-time. Even when all Marvel Royalty such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, the founding stars always regularly feature due to a rotating, open door policy ensuring most issues include somebody’s fave-rave. After instigators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby moved on, the team prospered under the guidance of Roy Thomas who grew into one of the industry’s most impressive writers, guiding the World’s Mightiest Heroes through a range of adventures ranging from sublimely poetic to staggeringly epic…

This fourth trade paperback compilation – also available in eBook iterations – collects Avengers #57-79, plus a solo saga starring a soon to be recruited addition from Marvel Super-Heroes #17 collectively covering October 1968 to August 1970.

This all-action extravaganza opens with the introduction of a new character with John Buscema and George Klein illustrating the 2-part introduction of possibly the most intriguing of all the team’s roster.

‘Behold… the Vision!’ and the concluding ‘Even an Android Can Cry’ retrofitted an old Joe Simon & Jack Kirby hero from the Golden Age (an extra-dimensional mystery-man) into a high-tech, eerie, amnesiac artificial man with complete control of his mass and density: playing him as the ultimate outsider, lost and utterly alone in a world that could never, never understand him.

After attacking the team but inexplicably stopping short of killing the human heroes, the then-nameless “Vision” led the Avengers into astounding adventure as the enigma of his creation unfolded.

It was revealed that he/it had been built by the relentless, remorseless robotic Ultron-5 to destroy the Avengers and especially his own creator Henry Pym. Furthermore, the mechanical mastermind had used the brain pattern of deceased hero and fallen Avenger Wonder Man as a cerebral template. Perhaps that was a mistake since the synthetic man apparently overruled his programming to help defeat his maniac maker…

Avengers #59 and 60, ‘The Name is Yellowjacket’ and ‘…Till Death do us Part!’ (the latter inked by Mike Esposito moonlighting as Mickey DeMeo) saw Goliath and the Wasp finally wed after the heroic Dr. Pym is seemingly replaced by a new insect-themed hero, with a horde of heroic guest-stars and the murderous Circus of Evil in attendance, followed here in swift succession by another of Marvel’s increasingly popular and commonplace crossovers.

‘Some Say the World Will End in Fire… Some Say in Ice!’ concluded a storyline from Doctor Strange #178 wherein a satanic cult unleashed Norse demons Surtur and Ymir to destroy the planet, with occasional ally the Black Knight adding his recently acquired mystic prowess to the defence of the realm.

He hung around for ‘The Monarch and the Man-Ape!’ in Avengers #63; a brief and interlude in hidden nation Wakanda and a brutal exploration of African Avenger Black Panther’s history and rivals – most notably a usurping super-strong trusted regent declaring himself M’Baku the Man-Ape

The next issue began a 3-part tale illustrated by Gene Colan & Klein whose lavish humanism was intriguingly at odds with the team’s usual art style. ‘And in this Corner… Goliath!’, ‘Like a Death Ray from the Sky!’ and ‘Mightier than the Sword?’ (the final chapter inked by Sam Grainger) was part of a broader tale; another early crossover experiment intersecting with both Sub-Mariner and Captain Marvel issues #14, wherein a coterie of cerebral second-string villains combined to conquer the world by stealth…

Within the Avengers portion of proceedings, Hawkeye revealed his civilian identity to be circus performer Clint Barton and recounted his origins before forsaking his bow and trick-arrows to become a size-changing hero and subsequently adopting the now-vacant name Goliath. Along the way the team scotched a terror satellite scheme cooked up by Egghead and enforced by the sinister Swordsman

Another triple-chapter story-arc followed; giving new kid Barry (Winsor) Smith a chance to show just how good he was going to become.

Inked by the legendary Syd Shores, ‘Betrayal!’ (#66) reveals how the development of new super metal Adamantium triggers a long-dormant back-up program in the Vision who is slavishly compelled to reconstruct his destroyed creator…

As ‘We Stand at… Armageddon!’ (Smith & Klein opens), adamantium-reinforced Ultron-6 is moments away from world domination and the nuking of New York when a now truly independent Vision violently intercedes before dramatic conclusion ‘…And We Battle for the Earth’ (illustrated by young Sal Buscema & Sam Grainger) sees the team – augmented by Thor and Iron Man – prove that the only answer to an unstoppable force is an unparalleled mind…

In Avengers #69 ‘Let the Game Begin’ (Thomas, Sal Buscema & Grainger) finds the team – Captain America, Yellowjacket, Wasp, Goliath, Vision and Thor – called to the hospital bedside of ailing Tony Stark just in time to prevent his abduction by the grotesque and gargantuan Growing Man. After battling boldly against the unbeatable homunculus, the team are summarily and collectively snatched into the future by old enemy Kang the Conqueror who co-opts the team to act as pieces in a cosmic chess-game with an omnipotent alien called the Grandmaster.

If the Avengers fail – Earth would be eradicated from the cosmos…

Issues #70 and 71 began a fertile period for writer Thomas as he introduced two new teams who would, in the fullness of time, star in their own stellar series: Squadron Supreme and The Invaders.

‘When Strikes the Squadron Sinister!’ sees the Avengers returned to their own time to battle a team of deadly villains (mischievously based on DC’s Justice League of America) before ‘Endgame!’ – guest-starring the Black Knight – finds the Vision, Black Panther and Yellowjacket dispatched to 1941 to clash with the WWII incarnations of the Sub-Mariner, Human Torch and Captain America…

After foiling Kang’s ambitions and surviving his betrayal the team victoriously return to the present where Avengers # 72 offered a guest-appearance from Captain Marvel and Rick Jones.

Did You Hear the One About Scorpio?’ also debuts malignantly menacing super-mob Zodiac, after which ‘The Sting of the Serpent’ (illustrated by Frank Giacoia & Grainger) pits the Panther against seditious hate-mongers determined to set New York ablaze, leading to a spectacular and shocking clash between Avengers and the Sons of the Serpent in ‘Pursue the Panther!’; the first in a string of glorious issues illustrated by the artistic dream team of John Buscema & Tom Palmer.

Long-missing mutant Avengers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch resurfaced in #75, desperate to warn of and stave off extra-dimensional invasion and nuclear Armageddon by Conan prototype Arkon the Magnificent in ‘The Warlord and the Witch!’ before the staggering threat is finally extinguished in ‘The Blaze of Battle… the Flames of Love!’

As the tone of the times shifted and other titles entered a period of human-scaled storytelling dubbed “Relevancy”, a far more mundane and insidious menace manifested as billionaire financier Cornelius Van Lunt manoeuvres to bankrupt Avengers sponsor Tony Stark, compelling the team to become the mystery magnate’s ‘Heroes for Hire!’

With the end of the book fast approaching here, Sal Buscema popped in to pencil ‘The Man-Ape Always Strikes Twice!’ as the team are targeted by a coterie of vengeful villains competing to join a new league of evil, spectacularly culminating in a grand clash with the aforementioned anthropoid, Swordsman, Power Man, Living Laser and the Grim Reaper in ‘Lo! The Lethal Legion!’, which concluding chapter also heralded the artistic return of Big Brother John….

Chronologically adrift but adding plenty of bonus thrills, the comics adventures end for now with ‘The Black Knight Reborn!’ by Thomas, Howard Purcell & Dan Adkins from try-out title Marvel Super-Heroes #17 (November 1968). Here American part-time superhero Dane Whitman inherits an English castle and discovers through ghostly intervention that he is the last descendent of King Arthur’s trusty comrade Percy of Scandia – history’s first Black Knight and Merlin’s last resort against all forces of evil.

Gifted with a mystic ebony blade that can cut through anything, Dane readies himself to fight the good fight in modern times. He soon becomes painfully aware that the malign ghostly spirit of vile Modred is also abroad and empowering dupes such as French derelict Le Sabre with magical weapons to end his crusade before it can even begin…

Unceasingly enticing and always evergreen, these timeless sagas defined and cemented the Marvel experience and are a joy no fans of Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction should deny themselves or their kids.
© 1968, 1969, 1970, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Strange & Doctor Doom: Triumph & Torment


By Roger Stern, Michael Mignola & Mark Badger, Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Bill Mantlo, Kevin Nowlan & various(Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8454-6

This occult odd couple concoction is perhaps one of the very best Marvel Universe yarns from the post-Kirby years and tells a powerful tale by contrasting the mandatory origin sequences of the two doctors to produce effective motivations for and deeper insights into both characters.

Adding even greater interest and incentive, this collection from 2016 – also released as an eBook – offers loosely associated material from Astonishing Tales #8, Doctor Strange #57 (February 1983) and Marvel Fanfare #16 and 43…

Victor Von Doom is a troubled gypsy genius who escaped the oppression of his homeland on a scholarship to America. Whilst there he succumbed to an intense rivalry with young Reed Richards, even then perhaps the most brilliant man alive.

The arrogant Von Doom performed unsanctioned experiments which marred his perfect features, leading him down a path to super-science and an overwhelming hunger for power and control. His mother, a sorceress, burns in hell for the unholy powers she used in life, powers which her son also possesses.

Steven Strange was America’s greatest surgeon, a vain and arrogant man who cared nothing for the sick, except as a means to wealth and glory. When a drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids until an overheard barroom tall tale led him to Tibet, an ancient magician, and eventual enlightenment through daily redemption. He battles otherworldly evil as the Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystic arts.

When a magical call goes out to all the World’s adepts offering a granted wish to the victor in a contest of sorcery, both Doom and Strange are among the gathered. After mystic combat reduces the assemblage to the two doctors, Doom’s granted wish is to rescue his mother’s soul from Hell…

A classic quest saga, Triumph & Torment sees the two mages storm the gates of the Underworld in a mission of vain hope and warped mercy, battling the hordes of Mephisto and their own natures in a mesmerizing epic of power and pathos.

Roger Stern is at his absolute writing peak here and the unlikely art team of Michael Mignola and Mark Badger defy any superlatives I could use. The art is simply magical, especially the mesmerising colouring, also courtesy of Mr Badger.

High drama, heroism, perfidy and plenty of surprises wrapped in superb craftsmanship typify all that’s best in the “Marvel Style” and this tale has it all aplenty.

The bonus material kicks off with ‘… Though Some Call it Magic!’ by Gerry Conway, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer: a tense vignette from Astonishing Tales #8 (October 1971) which first revealed details of the arcane annual ritual in which the metal-shod monarch of Latveria battled with the King of Hell for possession of a gypsy witch’s soul, after which Doctor Strange #57 (February 1983) revealed Roger Stern’s first stray thoughts on the forthcoming Triumph & Torment epic…

Although the story mainly dealt with other acolytes trying to become the sorcerer’s latest apprentice, ‘Gather My Disciples Before Me!’ – illustrated by Kevin Nowlan & Terry Austin – saw Doom attempt to swallow his gargantuan pride and also petition Stephen Strange to become his tutor in the ways of magic…

The story portion of this graphic grimoire concludes with a brace of salty sea tales starring Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner both illustrated by then callow newcomer Mike Mignola and scripted by Bill Mantlo. The undersea action opens with ‘A Fable’ (Marvel Fanfare #16, September 1984) with the Sea King striving to save a beautiful beast from the callous cruelty of sailors whilst from MF #43 (April 1989) ‘Time After Time’ – inked by P. Craig Russell – sees the Sub-Mariner fall through time to an age of piracy and share a brief, overpowering passion with a ferocious female freebooter…

Sweetening the pot is a full cover gallery, Mignola Namor pin-ups, a Marvel Age article on Triumph & Torment (by Peter Sanderson) and a couple of delicious Mignola parody ads. Also included are Mignola sketches, and a gallery of pin-ups by Austin, Carl Potts, Ken Steacy, Ian Akin & Brian Garvey, Bret Blevins, Bob Layton, Gregory Wright, Craig Hamilton, Mike Machlan, Joe Sinnott, Kerry Gammill, Nowlan & Paul Ryan.

Sheer comic enchantment, this a book no lover of the fantastic fiction can afford to ignore.
© 1971, 1983, 1984, 1989, 2013, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange volume 1


By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Don Rico, George Roussos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4564-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Little Seasonal Magic… 9/10

When the budding 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 mention of magic or the supernatural (especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk) were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time all – almost a decade after a public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though the 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 horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilight troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of society.

Capitalising on of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Lee had quickly spun off the youngest, most colourful member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s untouchable “Big Three” superstars.

Within a year of FF #1, anthology title Strange Tales became home for the blazing boy-hero (with issue #101, cover-dated October 1962), launching Johnny Storm on a creatively productive but commercially unsuccessful solo career.

Soon after in Tales of Suspense #41 (May 1963) current sensation Iron Man battled a crazed scientific wizard dubbed Doctor Strange, and with the name successfully and legally in copyrightable print (a long-established Lee technique: Thorr, The Thing, Magneto and the Hulk had been disposable Atlas “furry underpants monsters” long before they became in-continuity Marvel characters) preparations began for a new and truly different kind of hero.

The company had already published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-paganed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961). He was a balding psychiatrist, magician and paranormal investigator who tackled everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans and was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate 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 authors’ intentions 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 – collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #110, 111 and 114-141 and a titanic team-up from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2; spanning July 1963 to February 1966. Moreover, although the Good Doctor was barely cover-featured until issue #130, it also magnanimously includes every issue’s stunning frontage: thus offering an incredible array of superbly eye-catching Marvel masterpieces from the upstart outfit’s formative heyday by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, John Severin and others.

Following a fond reminiscence and commentary from Dean Mullaney our first meeting with the man of mystery comes courtesy of a quiet little chiller which has never been surpassed for sheer mood and imagination.

‘Doctor Strange Master of Black Magic!’ by Lee & Ditko debuted at the back of Strange Tales #110 and saw a terrified man troubled by his dreams approach an exceptional consultant in his search for a cure…

That perfect 5-page fright-fest introduces whole new realms and features deceit, desperation, double dealing and the introduction of both a mysterious and aged oriental mentor and devilish dream demon Nightmare in an unforgettable yarn that might well be Ditko’s finest moment…

A month later in #111 he was back, ‘Face-to-Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo!’ which introduced a player on the other side…

The esoteric duel with such an obviously formidable foe established Strange as a tragic solitary guardian tasked with defending the world from supernatural terrors and uncanny encroachment whilst introducing his most implacable enemy, a fellow sorcerer with vaulting ambition and absolutely no morals. In the astounding battle that ensued, it was also firmly confirmed that Strange was the smarter man…

Strange Tales #114 (November 1963) was one of the most important issues of the era. Not only did it highlight the return of another Golden Age hero – or at least a villainous facsimile of him by Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers. Here’s a quote from the last panel. “You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” We all know how that turned out…

Nevertheless, for many of us the true treasure trove here was the fabulously moody resurrection of Doctor Strange: permanently installing an eccentric and baroque little corner of the growing unified universe where Ditko could let his imagination run wild…

With #114 the Master of the Mystic Arts took up monthly residence behind the Torch as ‘The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo!’ (uncredited inks by George Roussos) found the Doctor lured to London and into a trap, only to be saved by unlikely adept Victoria Bentley: an abortive stab at a romantic interest who would periodically turn up in years to come.

The forbidding man of mystery was at last revealed in all his frail mortality as Strange Tales #115 offered ‘The Origin of Dr. Strange’, disclosing how Stephen Strange was once America’s greatest surgeon. A brilliant man, yet greedy, vain and arrogant, he cared nothing for the sick except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids.

Then, fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale which led him on a delirious odyssey or, perhaps more accurately, pilgrimage to Tibet, where a frail and aged mage changed his life forever. It also showed his first clash with the Ancient One’s other pupil Mordo: thwarting a seditious scheme and earning the Baron’s undying envious enmity…

Eventual enlightenment through daily redemption transformed Stephen the derelict into a solitary, dedicated watchdog for at the fringes of humanity, challenging all the hidden dangers of the dark on behalf of a world better off not knowing what dangers lurk in the shadows…

‘Return to the Nightmare World!’ saw the insidious dream predator trapping earthly sleepers in perpetual slumber until the doubtful authorities asked Strange to investigate and invade his oneiric enemy’s stronghold after which ‘The Many Traps of Baron Mordo!’ apparently saw the malevolent mage devise an inescapable doom, which once more foundered after Strange applied a little logic to it…

The wildness and infinite variety of Strange’s universe offered Ditko tremendous opportunities to stretch himself visually and as plotter of the stories. In ST #118 the Master of Magic travelled to Bavaria to combat ‘The Possessed!’ and found humans succumbing to extra-dimensional invaders neither fully mystic or mundane, whilst ‘Beyond the Purple Veil’ found him rescuing burglars who had stolen one of his deadly treasures from ray-gun wielding slaver tyrants…

Strange Tales #120 played with the conventions of ghost stories after a reporter vanishes during a live broadcast from ‘The House of Shadows!’ and the concerned Doctor diagnoses something unworldly but certainly not dead…

Mordo sprang yet another deadly trap in ‘Witchcraft in the Wax Museum!’ but was once again outsmarted and humiliated after stealing his rival’s body whilst Strange wandered the world in astral form…

Roussos returned as an uncredited inker for #122’s ‘The World Beyond’ wherein Nightmare nearly scored his greatest victory after an exhausted Strange fell asleep before uttering the nightly charm that protected from him from attack through his own dreams.

Strange hosted his first Marvel guest star #123 whilst meeting ‘The Challenge of Loki!’ (Lee, Ditko & George Roussos as George Bell from August 1964) as the god of Mischief tricked the earthly mage into briefly stealing Thor’s hammer before deducing where the emanations of evil he sensed really came from…

Strange battled a sorcerer from ancient Egypt to save ‘The Lady from Nowhere!’ from time-bending exile and imprisonment, and performed similar service to rescue the Ancient after the aged sage was kidnapped in ‘Mordo Must Not Catch Me!’ after which Roussos/Bell moved on whilst Lee & Ditko geared up for even more esoteric action.

Strange Tales #126 took the Master of the Mystic arts to ‘The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!’ as an extra-dimensional god sought to subjugate Earth. In a fantastic realm Strange met a mysterious and exotic woman who revealed the Dread One operated by his own implacable code: giving the overmatched Earthling the edge in the concluding ‘Duel with of the Dread Dormammu!’ which saw Earth saved, the Ancient One freed of a long-standing curse and Strange given a new look and mystic weapons upgrade…

Restored to his homeworld and Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village, Strange solved ‘The Dilemma of… the Demon’s Disciple!’ by saving a luckless truth-seeker from an abusive minor magician and – after a stunning pin-up by Ditko – tackled a demonic god of decadence stealing TV guests and execs in #129’s ‘Beware… Tiborro! The Tyrant of the Sixth Dimension!’ (scripted by Golden Age great Don Rico).

Doctor Strange got his first star cover slot in Strange Tales #130 to celebrate the start of an ambitious multi-part saga which would be rightly acclaimed one of the mystic’s finest moments. ‘The Defeat of Dr. Strange’ opens with an enigmatic outer-dimensional sponsor entering into a pact with Baron Mordo to supply infinite power and ethereal minions in return for the death of Earth’s magical guardian…

With the ancient One assaulted and stuck in a deathly coma, Stephen Strange was forced to go on the run: a fugitive hiding in the most exotic corners of the globe as remorseless, irresistible forces closed in all around him…

A claustrophobic close shave whilst trapped aboard a jetliner in ‘The Hunter and the Hunted!’ expands into cosmic high gear in #132 as Strange doubles back to his sanctum and defeats the returning Demon only to come ‘Face-to-Face at Last with Baron Mordo!’ Crumbling into weary defeat as the villain’s godly sponsored is revealed, the hero is hurled headlong out of reality to materialise in ‘A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time!’ and confront tyrannical witch-queen Shazana.

Upon liberating her benighted land the relentless pursuit resumes as Strange re-crosses hostile dimensions to take the fight to his foes in ‘Earth Be My Battleground’. Returning to the enclave hiding his ailing master, he gleans a hint of a solution in the mumbled enigmatic word “Eternity” and begins searching for more information, even as, in the Dark Dimension, a terrified girl attempts to sabotage the Dread Dormammu’s efforts to empower Mordo…

As the world went super-science 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 with its recreational drug experimentation subculture. With Ditko truly hitting his imaginative stride, it’s not hard to see why. His weird worlds and demonstrably adjacent dimensions were just unlike anything anyone had ever seen or depicted before…

‘Eternity Beckons!’ when Strange is lured to an ancient castle where an old ally seeks to betray him and, after again narrowly escaping Mordo’s minions, the Mage desperately consults the aged senile Genghis in #136 and makes 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 forced to test his strength against the Ancient One’s formidable psychic defences to learn the secret of Eternity ‘When Meet the Mystic Minds!’ and after barely surviving the terrible trial translates himself to a place beyond reality to meet the embodiment of creation in ‘If Eternity Should Fail!’

The quest for solutions or extra might bears little fruit and as he despondently arrives on Earth he finds The Ancient One and his unnamed female friend prisoners of his worst enemies in anticipation of a fatal 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 and drags the whole show into his domain…

Intent on making a show of destroying his mortal nemesis, Dormammu convenes a great gathering in which he will smash Strange in a duel using nothing but ‘The Pincers of Power!’ and is again bathed to ultimate humiliation as the mortal’s wit and determination result in a stunning triumph in the concluding ‘Let There Be Victory!’ As the universes tremble Doctor Strange wearily heads home, blithely unaware that his enemies have laid one last trap…

To Be Continued…

After all that tense suspense there are a few treats still in store, beginning with 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 volume.

The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the webslinger to arcane adventure and otherworldly realities as he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed wizard Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the purloined Wand of Watoomb.

After this story it was clear that Spider-Man could work 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 more! Wrapping up the proceeding is a selection of original art pages and contemporary T-shirt designs, a cover gallery from the 1970’s reprint revival of “Strange Tales” volume 2 with art from Gil Kane, Ed Hannigan, Dan Adkins, Klaus Janson, Frank Giacoia, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer, all nicely rounded off by a re-presentation of this collection’s previous Ditko/Dean White cover and informative ‘Biographies’ of the creative stars featured herein…

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.
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Strange: Season One


By Greg Pak & Emma Rios, with Alvaro Lopez, plus Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6387-9

Much as I’d love to believe otherwise, I know that the Cold War, transistor radio, pre-cellphone masterpieces of my youth are often impenetrable to younger fans – even when drawn by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett or Don Heck.

Radical perpetual change – or at least the appearance of such – is the irresistible force driving modern comics. There must be a constant changing of the guard, a shifting of scene and milieu and, in latter times, a regular diet of death, resurrection and rebirth – all grounded in relatively contemporary terms and situations.

Even for relatively minor or secondary stars the process is inescapable, with increasing supra-comicbook media adjuncts (film, TV, games, etc.) dictating that subjects be perpetually updated because the goldfish-minded readers of today apparently can’t understand or remember anything that’s more than a week old.

Alternatively, one could argue that for popular characters or concepts with a fifty-year pedigree, all that history can be a readership-daunting deterrence, so radical reboots are a painful but vital periodic necessity…

Publishing ain’t no democracy, however, so it’s comforting to realise that many of these retrofits are exceptionally good comics tales in their own right and anyway, the editors can call always claim that it was an “alternate Earth” story the next time the debut saga is modernised…

Released in 2012, Doctor Strange: Season One was the fifth all-new graphic novel in a hardback series designed to renovate, modify and update classic origin epics (following Fantastic Four, X-Men, Daredevil and Spider-Man) and, despite clearly being intended as story-bibles for newer, movie-oriented fans and readers, mostly managed to add a little something to the immortal but hopelessly time-locked tales.

Once upon a time Steven Strange was America’s greatest surgeon, a brilliant man, yet vain and arrogant, caring nothing for the sick, except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted drunken car-crash mangled his hands and ended his career, the arrogant Strange hit the skids, big time.

Then, fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale which led him on a delirious odyssey – or perhaps pilgrimage – to Tibet, where an impossibly aged mage and eventual enlightenment through daily redemption transformed the derelict into a solitary, ever-vigilant watchdog for frail humanity against all the hidden dangers of the dark. Now he battles otherworldly evil as a Sorcerer Supreme, a veritable Master of the Mystic arts…

Putatively set in the period following his automotive Armageddon, this fast-paced mystic buddy-movie traces Strange’s first days and months under the tutelage of the puissant Ancient One and, after exposing the perfidy of senior disciple Mordo, his quest to prove himself worthy of the exalted station and inner peace he sought.

Still plagued with the tantalising dream of healing his shattered hands, regaining his status as a superstar surgeon and resuming his life of glamorous, sybaritic luxury, Strange struggles to master the most basic disciplines of magic, constantly competing with fellow postulant Wong – a flashy, smart-mouthed martial artist and life-long devotee of the cult of Kamar-Taj – the Ancient One’s mysterious homeland.

Because the students despise each other so vehemently their aged guru forces them to train together…

Their tempestuous cloistered life is soon shattered: first by a demonic assault and subsequently by the arrival of museum curator Sofia di Cosimo, who has discovered that three antique rings scattered around the world have the power to compel and command the astounding might of the hallowed trinity of gods known by sorcerers as the Vishanti. Whoever holds the rings has ultimate power in their hands, and someone very bad is obviously trying to find them…

When the Ancient One refuses to aid Sofia, Wong and Stephen sneak away with her, determined to save their complacent master and unsuspecting mankind from appalling horror…

And thus begins a smart, sharp and extremely engaging quest that takes the fledgling heroes to a corrupt politician in Salem, Massachusetts, a modern-day saint in the slums of Cairo, and a mad old biddy in the British Museum, all the while dodging demonic assaults, escaping angry, disdainful deities, foiling arch-foes and slowly becoming the people Earth needs them to be…

Also included in this attractive and compelling hardback is the tantalising first chapter of the then-new Defenders comicbook title wherein Strange, Sub-Mariner, Red She-Hulk, Silver Surfer and Iron Fist reluctantly reunite to help the Hulk destroy his eldritch antithesis in ‘Breaker of Worlds part 1: I Hate Myself and Want to Die’, by Matt Fraction, Terry & Rachel Dodson.

Be Warned: the tale is extremely addictive but concludes elsewhere…

Also included are nine pages of design sketches and many examples of the art production process from pencils through inks and beyond by Rios, making this a superbly enticing and entertaining package for both newcomers and returning readers alike.
© 2011 and 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sensational Spider-Man


By Dennis O’Neil, Frank Millar, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-514-0

Here’s a masterfully moody little lost snippet of full-on Marvel Madness from the early days of graphic novel compilations that might amuse and will certainly delight all-out aficionados and neophyte Spidey fans alike.

Released in 1989, but still readily available and affordable, this full-colour 80 page compendium collects two supremely impressive Amazing Spider-Man Annuals (#s 14 and 15) by veteran scripter Dennis O’Neil and then rising star Frank Miller, yet still finds room for a classy classic from the Astounding Arachnid’s earliest days (Amazing Spider-Man #8) by Marvel’s triumvirate of top creators.

Inexplicably the action starts with Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 (1981) with Klaus Janson inking ‘Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?’ wherein maniac vigilante Frank Castle (five years before the Steven Grant/Mike Zeck miniseries catapulted him to anti-heroic superstardom in The Punisher) returns to the Big Apple and becomes embroiled in a deadly scheme by Doctor Octopus to poison five million New Yorkers.

It’s not long before both Peter Parker and his colourful alter-ego are caught in the middle of a terrifying battle of ruthless wills in this tense and clever suspense thriller, which perfectly recaptures the moody mastery of Steve Ditko’s heydays.

Next up is the previous year’s summer offering: a frantic magical mystery masterpiece wherein Doctor Doom and extra-dimensional dark god Dread Dormammu attempt to unmake Reality by invoking the Arcane Armageddon of The Bend Sinister.

‘Vishanti’, inked by Tom Palmer, sees an unsuspecting dupe capture Doctor Strange for the malevolent masterminds and nearly unleash cosmic hell with only the Amazing Spider-Man left to literally save the world; a fascinating magic and mayhem romp that once more deeply references and reverences the glory days of Ditko, particularly ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’, the legendary team-up of web-spinner and wizard from Spidey’s second annual.

As if that brace of brilliant yarns was not enough high-quality comic excitement, this slim tome also includes ‘Spiderman Tackles the Torch!’, a masterful, light-hearted 6-page vignette written by Stan Lee, drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko wherein a younger, boisterous and far more carefree wall-crawler gate-crashed a beach party thrown by the flaming hero’s girlfriend, leading to a clash with the entire Fantastic Four with explosive and thoroughly entrancing consequences.

The most enduring and effective component of Spider-Man’s success was always the soap opera continuity element, but this rare collection of stand-alone stories perfectly demonstrates the character’s other star properties: sharp humour, heroic ingenuity, incredible action and beguiling empathy with the readership.

Sensational Spider-Man is one of the best individual collections of the hero ever assembled and makes a perfect primer for anyone looking to discover the magic for the first time.
© 1988 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa – Marvel Graphic Novel #23


By J.M. DeMatteis & Dan Green (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-559-0 or ISBN13: 978-0-87135-166-1

Once upon a time Marvel published far more all-original graphic novels than reprint collections or assorted compendia of past glories, utilising new formats and print innovations to tell “big stories” on larger than normal pages (285 x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) featuring not only licensed assets like Conan, high profile movie adaptations and creator-owned properties, but also proprietary characters the company owned lock, stock and barrel.

One such spectacular home-grown special event is this quirky, lyrically lovely visual and philosophical diversion starring the company’s own New Age Astral Avenger…

Steven Strange was once America’s greatest surgeon, a brilliant man, yet vain and arrogant, caring nothing for the sick, except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids.

Then, fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale which led him on a delirious odyssey – or perhaps pilgrimage – to Tibet, where an impossibly aged mage and eventual enlightenment through daily redemption transformed the derelict into a solitary, ever-vigilant watchdog for frail humanity against all the hidden dangers of the dark. Now he battles otherworldly evil as the Sorcerer Supreme, a Master of the Mystic arts.

After years of unceasing battle, a momentary lull in the eldritch crusade allows Strange time for contemplation and reminiscence. His thoughts return to the beginning of his second life amidst the misty crags of the Himalayas. He is often troubled by his long-departed mentor’s more impenetrable teachings and questions, even doubts begin to cloud the wizardly warrior’s sense of mission and purpose…

Visiting the Ancient One’s abandoned abode, Strange meets again his past master’s devoted body servant Hamir the Hermit and takes possession of his mentor’s final gift: a puzzle-box which defies his every effort to discern its true meaning.

Just as Strange’s frustration peaks he is summoned by the puissant and (seemingly) benevolent Lords of Shamballa and press-ganged into undertaking a global odyssey to jump-start the spiritual evolution of humanity and thereby mid-wife the Golden Age of Mankind.

But for that joyous miracle to occur the Doctor must perform three drastic and draconian feats of mystic surgery; in South America, India and England, harried each time by an unknown and deeply malevolent adversary.

However, no matter how far he travels or bravely he strives Stephen Strange cannot solve his most urgent internal dilemma: what kind of transcendent world can be built only on the corpses of three-quarters of humanity…?

Challenging, allegorical and elegiacally moving, Into Shamballa offers a far more mature and spiritual experience than most comics tales whilst still maintaining the thrill and wonder so necessary to lovers of graphic narrative.

Enticingly scripted by Searcher into the Mysteries J.M. DeMatteis and stunningly painted by Dan Green, this off-beat gem typifies all that was great about the bold and innovative middle-period of “the House of Ideas”.
© 1989 Marvel Entertainment Group/Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.