This was another issue of DOCTOR STRANGE that I bought out of my local drug store’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics, books which had been reported destroyed via the Affidavit Returns system but which had instead been sold by some unscrupulous operator to the drug store chain. Not great for the comic book publishers, but good news for me, as it was a regular source of recent back issues of the Marvel persuasion. For whatever reason, I must have been on a Doctor Strange kick, as I picked up this book shortly after acquiring issues #21-22 on an earlier trip. I think one of the things that appealed to me about DOCTOR STRANGE was the low issue number, of all things. It seemed feasible that I might be able to get them all.
The title was being written by Steve Englehart at the time, who had been doing interesting things with it. DOCTOR STRANGE was always a bit of a tough sell, but the rise of interest in the occult and supernatural in popular culture in the early 1970s made it a fertile period for the character, and Englehart steered right into those interests. While not discounting anything, his Doctor Strange was a bit more plugged into the counter-culture occult scene in a way that the earlier Lee/Ditko incarnation had not been. That said, this was Steve’s second to last issue on the book, as he quit Marvel completely after a disagreement with new Marvel editor Gerry Conway over deliveries. And unfortunately, Englehart had started a new multi-part story arc in this issue that got derailed thanks to his departure.
1976 was the Bicentennial of the United States, you see, and a big rallying point in the culture. So Englehart embarked on a storyline that would see Strange and his disciple and girlfriend Clea traveling back in time to the days of the founding of the nation. It was a bit of a weird subject for a DOCTOR STRANGE story, but I have little doubt that, had he been present to bring it to a conclusion, Englehart would have made it work. He was backed up here by artist Gene Colan, with whom he’d been collaborating for some time. Colan was worlds away from Steve Ditko, but his photo-realistic and shadow-imbued style was a nice fit for the DOCTOR STRANGE of this era, with its Gothic flourishes.
The story opens on a bit of a dogleg, cleaning up a dangling subplot from prior issues. Strange is in pursuit of James Mandarin, who had petitioned to become Strange’s disciple and was rejected. In the absence of the Master of the Mystic Arts, mandarin was able to purloin some mystic texts from Strange’s library, and the Sorcerer Supreme wants them back. Strange and Clea corner the fleeing Mandarin on the streets of New Jersey, and zap him back instantly to the Sanctum Sanctorum, where the Doctor can reclaim his property. Strange off-handedly mind-wipes Mandarin and casts him away–but he’s disquieted by the fact that Clea asks him about the Bicentennial while he’s paging through one of the stolen books, relating to New Atlantis.
There’s a legend connecting the two that Strange heard when he was but a student of the mystic arts himself, so he uses this momentary bit of clairvoyance as a rationale for himself and Clea to do a bit of mystical time traveling. They arrive not in 1776 as you might expect, but rather in 1618 London, where they seek out Sir Francis Bacon, the author of New Atlantis. Only the first half of the manuscript was ever published, the back half, describing Bacon’s ideals for a new Utopian society, was believed lost. But Strange, of course, has read a copy. Along the way, he and Clea are attacked by brigands in the service of the sorcerer Stygyro, who sense the magical power of the pair. This serves to get a small bit of Marvel action into an otherwise talky issue.
Strange and Clea have dinner with Sir Francis Bacon, and exposit further on the importance of the unpublished portions of New Atlantis. sir Francis is more than happy to allow Dr. Strange to read it, and he is fascinated by its contents. However, that evening, he and Clea are set upon once again by Stygyro, this time in person along with his minions. While Dr. Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme of the 20th Century, Stygyro is th3e Sorcerer Supreme of the 17th, and so the two are evenly matched. So despite Strange and Clea’s best efforts, they are unable to prevent Stygyro from making off with half of the manuscript, the unpublished portion.
Seems like Strange has mucked everything up then, right? Well, it turns out that Sir Francis hadn’t intended to ever publish the whole of his manuscript in the first place, so he used Strange and Clea as stalking horses to draw out his enemies. Bacon has also been recently put in charge of the Crown’s colonization efforts in the New World–which Bacon intends to use to attempt to put his utopian ideals into practice. (Sadly, we all know how that one turned out.) And that’s where this issue ends–though what any of this has to do with anything is a bit of a mystery. As a young reader, I wasn’t all that interested in 1612 or Francis Bacon–that all felt like history class homework to me.