I seem to recall that I got this issue of DOCTOR STRANGE at some non-regular comic buying location, a candy store or stationary store in the same mall as a far-off grocery store that my Mother went to in order to get something specific. I expect that the pickings must have been pretty slim for me to have alighted on this book, as in the previous stories that I’d read involving him, I’d felt no connection with Doctor Strange. Even more so, like so many others, I found most mystical characters vexing in that the “rules” that applied to the powers and abilities of other characters didn’t appear to apply to them. Because they used magic, it seemed to me like they could do whatever they needed to in order to blink their way out of a given situation–and sometimes they couldn’t because that’s what the story required. I liked my super heroes a bit more solidly defined than that.
That all said, from an art side it’s a pretty issue, though a bit more fussy than what my tastes during this era preferred. That’s a nice cover by Frank Brunner, and the interior art by Tom Sutton is similarly ornate. Sutton is one of those artists who was more comfortable depicting horror stories than super heroes, so the hybrid that was DOCTOR STRANGE really suited him. And the issue was written by Roger Stern, one of the few writers of the modern era who ever got me to care about Stephen Strange (although those stories were still a few years in the future.) Roger was one of those writers who was adept at pulling together the myriad strands of the Marvel Universe in a way that made sense and seemed natural, and while he was still in the process of transferring over from being an on-staff editor to a full-time writer, his name would turn up in the credits boxes with increasing regularity.
This particular issue opens up with Roger doing a lot of continuity bookkeeping, either on his own or because he had been asked to. Doctor Strange and Clea are relaxing at the Doc’s Sanctum Sanctorum headquarters when a messenger arrives asking Strange to get in contact with the Avengers. When he does, Yellowjacket asks Strange about the whereabouts of the Black Knight’s petrified body, which had been in Strange’s custody–in a recent issue, the Avengers had been attacked by a stone statue of the Black Knight, and it turns out here to have been his reanimated body, unbeknownst to Strange, who really ought to be better about keeping an eye on his magical stuff. There’s also a short dogleg in the conversation here to take care of a reference to Thanos that had come up the month before. Here, the Beast tells Strange of the Avengers’ recent clash with Thanos which ended in the Mad Titan’s demise. So the call ends–but before Strange and Clea can get back to canoodling, there’s a rap on the window, and it’s Doc’s Defenders teammate Nighthawk looking for a consultation.
It seems that one of Kyle Richmond’s investments is in a company that’s building a prototype star-drive, but the project has been troubled of late. When Richmond questioned the lead scientist on teh project, Dr. Thatcher, the man told him that they were being haunted by demons or ghosts–and as soon as Kyle left the locked room, the man was somehow killed. Suspecting there might be something genuinely supernatural going on, Kyle as Nighthawk turned to his Defenders partner Dr. Strange to help get to the bottom of things. Strange and Richmond journey to the research facility, where they interrogate Thatcher’s assistant, who tells them little. But Strange probes the man’s unconscious, and learns that at night, his dreams are being haunted by the spirit of what appears to be Dr. Thatcher.
That evening, Thatcher’s assistant is driven by his dreams to deliver another component of the project to what he thinks is Dr. Thatcher’s spirit. But Nighthawk and Strange are there, and they unmask the would-be ghost as Death-Stalker, a mysterious villain who had bedeviled Daredevil for a number of years. Relatively little was known about Death-Stalker at this point–in his many appearances, he intimated that he was a true supernatural being, but that had never been definitively proven. Not was his identity or motives completely understood. In other words, he was a mystery in search of a solution–but we wouldn’t get that solution in this story.
Death-Stalker has been haunting the various scientists of this project in order to get them to complete a new weapon for him, one that he feels will give him much greater power. but now Nighthawk and Strange have foiled his operation. But Death-Stalker makes short work of Nighthawk, dispatching him with ease. Strange, though, isn’t such a cake walk, and teh sorcerer is able to parry the beam from Death-Stalker’s new weapon, causing it to create a portal through dimensions. Seeing a way out, Death-Stalker leaps through the portal away from his attackers–and when Strange moves to follow him, Death-Stalker grabs the sorcerer and uses his death-tough, killing Strange. Or so he thinks. Strange has unleashed his astral form, and now he proceeds to haunt Death-Stalker claiming to be the ghost of the slain magician.
But Strange pushes his impersonation too far, and Death-Stalker loses it. He goes bananas, eventually aiming his weapon at Nighthawk and Strange’s own physical form. In desperation, Strange unleashes the Eye of Agamotto from his amulet, and the Eye blocks Death-Stalker’s beam–forcing it back into the weapon’s chamber where it causes the gun to explode. Little is left of Death-Stalker but his hat, but Strange intuits that the world has not seen the last of him. And he’s right, he’d be back in the pages of DAREDEVIL in a couple of months. But the hauntings at Richmond’s research plant have been stopped and its technology secured, so for the moment the good guys have won the day.