As I mentioned yesterday, I bought two consecutive issues of DOCTOR STRANGE from my drugstore’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics, and this was the second one. It had one thing in common with the previous issue: like it, the cover illustrated not the contents of this story, but the one in the following issue. Apparently, covers on DOCTOR STRANGE must have been way ahead since it was a bimonthly book and there should have been plenty of time to sort this mess out, at least on this issue. Either way, it’s a pretty strong cover by Frank Brunner.
I had a difficult time getting into modern Doctor Strange stories, to be honest. And some of that is the interests of the period. In the early-mid 1970s, there was a renewed focus on supernatural themes and mystical philosophies–and this sort of quasi-gothic, quasi-rococo sensibility informed what was being done in DOCTOR STRANGE. But this often meant that the stakes and the rules of engagement were often fairly abstract, and even the menaces being fought or the situations being encountered were a bit on the esoteric side. I never had any problem enjoying the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Doctor Strange stories, but by this point they weren’t truly my cup of tea. It wouldn’t be until Roger Stern and Marshall Rogers began their run on the title that I’d begin following it with any regularity.
Writer/editor Marv Wolfman inherited DOCTOR STRANGE under not the best of circumstances, and he did the best he could to sort his way through his earliest issues. Previous writer Steve Englehart had left Marvel abruptly after conflicts with new EIC Gerry Conway (said conflicts largely revolving around Steve’s inability to get his work completed on time) and so Marv was forced to hit the ground running, in the midst of a multi-part storyline that Englehart had begun. In addition, there were aspects of Englehart’s story that people in the Marvel editorial offices didn’t like or agree with, and so those beats had to be shown as something other than what they had seemed to be, on the fly. Additionally, Marvel had to dance around a DR STRANGE ANNUAL that was also in production. It was a bit of a mess, but he did his best to get through it all.
The artwork on this particular story was produced by Rudy Nebres, one of the hyper-talented Filipino artists who had entered the American comic book field a short time earlier. Like many of his fellow artists from that region, Nebres didn’t possess an innate understanding of the specific sort of exaggeration that made super heroes look good–he wasn’t a terrific super hero artist. But what he could do was literally everything else. His brushwork was lush and full–it would have looked even better, I expect, in black and white. As DOCTOR STRANGE was only nominally a super hero title, it was a good fit for his talents. Somehow, though, he had missed the deadline on what was meant to be issue #21, necessitating an emergency reprint be dropped in.
As this issue opens, Marv picks up from the outcome of recent issues and the Annual. Strange is in a far-off mystic dimension and making his way home in search of his disciple and lover Clea (and that situation is troubling all on its own, especially to modern eyes.) He’s lost the title of Sorcerer Supreme and the extra power that came with it–one of the many times he’d lose that gig only to regain it again, ad absurdum. Anyway, Clea vanished, and Strange is in search of her. He gets to fight off some incidental space dragons along the way, but finally he makes his way home, only for Wong to tell him that Clea has not shown up. Meanwhile, downtown, Clea is on Earth, she’s just gone a little bit around the bend. She’d apparently been incarcerated but used her sorcery to break jail, as a result of which the police are after her in force. With her mind scrambled, Clea doesn’t have any compunctions about turning her magic on regular people.
Strange shows up just in time to intercede. But Clea doesn’t recognize him other than as a threat, and so she hurls her own mystic power against him. Losing his Sorcerer Supreme title and power must have taken a lot out of Doc, because his apprentice’s spells keep him on the back foot for most of the issue. And it isn’t enough for Strange to stop his errant girlfriend–he needs to cure her as well, bring her back to herself. And so, there’s a somewhat esoteric battle sequence, where Clea conjures champions and menaces to fight on her behalf and Strange needs to work his way past all obstacles. It isn’t a bad combat sequence, but it does suffer, as so many Doctor Strange stories do, from a sense that the two combatants can do whatever the plot requires them to be able to do at any given moment.
The cause of Clea’s madness is s spell cast upon her by Xander, and so Strange is forced to enter her mind so as to psychically remove the “tumor” of malevolence that Xander caused to take root there. This he does, of course–talking all the way about how dangerous this all is in order to keep a sense of jeopardy up. But, yay, Clea is cured and the day is saved! But as the two move to return home, they have no idea that they are being watched by a strange female figure, one that self-identifies as Apalla, Queen of the Sun! No doubt she’s going to cause some difficulties for Doc in the next issue. But this is where we get off, at least until the following release.
The letters page in this issue ran a correspondence from Peter Sanderson, who would go on to become a comic book historian of some renown, and contribute mightily to such projects as the OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE. As the response to this letter indicates, the entirety of what Peter had to say wasn’t printed, for all that it’s still a lengthy piece of prose. Such talents would serve him in good stead when it came time to encapsulate the decades-log histories of assorted Marvel characters.