Friday, December 25, 2009

Marvel Premiere #4

So, here we are. The story that I feel could have been the blue print for a thousand Dr. Strange stories. Stephen arrives at his Sanctum Sanctorum after his recent battle only to discover his study has an uninvited guest. Expecting another showdown, Strange flings back the curtain only to reveal a very unthreatening man named Ethan Stoddard. He has strangely helped himself to the doctor's fireplace as his servant Wong lay in slumber. This does not sit too well with Strange and he immediately sounds the gong which raises Wong to his post. After being treated to an uncharacteristic verbal thrashing by Strange(which he immediately stops Wong and apologizes for), Wong retrieves bandages for Stephen's wounds and tea for their uninvited guest.

Things settle down and Stephen learns of Ethan's reason for showing up to his home. Apparently Ethan's fiancee, Bethel Doan, has not been heard from in three weeks and his letters are being returned unopened. She had returned to their hometown of Starkesboro located somewhere in New England. Ethan and Bethel are in graduate school and Bethel was doing research for her thesis on the occult arts in America and she was a fan of some of the papers Stephen wrote. The library in Starkesboro is supposed to have many books on the subject found nowhere else, including a little something called the "Thanatosian Tomes" which an excerpt from was quoted at the beginning of this story. Stephen, being understandably apprehensive about the young man's story after recent events, gives Ethan the once over with the Eye of Agamotto and his story checks out. The probing renders Ethan unconscious and when he comes to, Dr. Strange has prepared an overnight bag and tells Ethan they are going to Starkesboro.

The bus stops at some truck stop type restaurant so the passengers can grab a quick bite. It is here that Ethan tells Stephen about his hometown. The townspeople are mostly descended from an obscure religious cult that fled England in 1670 to escape persecution much like the Puritans had. He goes on to talk about the group's leader, Caleb Starke when he realizes that Stephen is too distracted by the hot dog he is eating(awesome, I know)to pay attention to much of Ethan's story.

Fast forward to the evening, and Stephen and Ethan are the only passengers left on the bus as it rolls into the foreboding looking town of Starkesboro. At the same time in Manhattan, Wong invokes an incantation at his master's request to summon the Ancient One. Wong asks him to use his astral projection at midnight to visit Strange so he can ask the Ancient One about the Thanatosian Tomes and the Ancient One agrees. Strange and Ethan arrive at the only hotel in town and Strange makes note of the "odd timing of their worship service" as he looks out his window onto the church's steps and sees people spilling out. There is a great bit of foreshadowing here when Stephen notices all the townspeople seem to have the same features, but chalks it up to them all being descended from the same bunch of settlers.

The hour of midnight strikes and Stephen prepares himself for projection, but something is preventing him from rising from his body. Through sheer force of will alone he is able to break the hold and meets up with the Ancient One. He tells Stephen about "a cosmic obscenity that slumbers!" cults, and "lost races that wait for the day, the hour, to end that slumber!" He says he is fighting this war for humankind and tells Stephen he needs to do the same and their meeting ends.

The next day begins with an encounter as Ethan runs into someone he knew from childhood. The man looks not quite human and is none to happy to see Ethan. He does tell them where the library is located though, so Ethan is able to continue his search for Beth. Stephen decides to investigate the church since it is right next door and discovers as he passes the threshold to the church the spell that disguised him dissipates to reveal his Dr. Strange garb. He exerts his will and fights to keep his disguise going and soon comes upon an altar with an inverted cross and reptilian symbol on the wall behind it. Strange recognizes the symbol as the mark of Sligguth, who is supposed to be the God of "serpent folk of pre-cataclysmic Valusia".

Meanwhile, it appears Ethan is striking out at the library as he gets the cold shoulder from the attendant, but then spots who he thinks is Beth sitting at a table with her back to him. He calls out to her, but she does not respond at first. He approaches her and makes her look at him and he sees she has begun to transform and even speaks differently. Ethan runs to the church and finds Dr. Strange. They start to piece together what is going on when they suddenly find themselves surrounded by the townspeople outside the church. They begin chanting Ethan's name and the true reason for Strange being there comes to light: Ethan lured him there so they could destroy Dr. Strange! Ethan goes into a trance like state when he spills the beans and commences attacking Stephen. Stephen's power grows ever weaker as it is being depleted by outside forces and soon even his levitating cloak fails him. He plummets to the ground and the townsfolk break through the church door. Stephen seems powerless to stop them and they announce he is one of the hindrances that prevents their God from awakening. They plan to do something about and the story is to be continued.

Archie Goodwin takes over the writing chores and the mood he creates is quite unsettling with the use of foreshadowing. The art is credited to Barry Smith and Frank Brunner, but it looks to be mostly Brunner, which looks pretty terrific. Brunner would later take on art chores on the next Dr. Strange solo book and his stuff is pretty distinct.

This entire storyline just strikes me as the perfect scenario for Dr. Strange. I would love to see a series where he was more of a "mystic detective". This story gives credit to Robert E Howard, and I know authors back then played off of each other and shared ideas, but I am more familiar with Howard Phillips Lovecraft and this story is very much in that vein. The idea of some old town in New England with its villagers worshipping some entity from long ago is really creepy. I think it's a better fit for Dr. Strange to investigate things of this nature as opposed to the cosmic villains or the more super heroey stuff. He's currently had his power greatly reduced in the Marvel universe so I think him doing something similar to what's been going on in X-Factor would be a capital idea. Forget the epic clashes with Dormammu. Give me the impending horror that lurks just on the periphery of human view any day. That's the curtain Dr. Strange should be pulling back. Any ways, that's the end of that tirade, but I will be back with the low down on Marvel Premiere #5 very soon, hopefully.

Things to Come(A Word from the Author and a Review too)

Ok, I am gonna try this whole crazy blog review thing. I've been collecting comics in general for 20+ years(most of my life, in fact), and have always had a particular interest in comics from the 70's and early 80's(known in certain circles as the "Bronze Age"), but have only in the last year or so really pursued some of these great books.

I really only care for Marvel books from this time, too. I think, for the most part, DC books weren't so very good during this time(for me, the only exception being Kirby's Fourth World stuff which is outstanding). I'd originally taken to lesser known characters' titles(Black Goliath, Spider-Woman)or less familiar titles featuring A-list characters(Marvel Two-in-One, Marvel Feature) because they just seemed so oddly humorous to me. I've since started going after bigger game like The Avengers and Fantastic Four, but I still have a particular fondness for the not- as-popular characters.

Getting to the point, while researching storylines of older books, I've become engrossed with various blogs pertaining to bronze age comics. One in particular mentioned a disdain for Dr. Strange. The claim being he is an uninteresting character or writers have a hard time making him interesting. Well, I do love Dr. Strange(even what is currently happening to him)and it got me to thinking about a particularly cool storyline that ran in Marvel Premiere.
Dr. Strange resurfaced in Marvel Feature #1 with The Defenders after his previous series ended. Soon after, he had his own book(of sorts)in the form of Marvel Premiere. Things start off in #3 as the good doctor can't shake the feeling of impending doom following him around(boy have I been there). After nearly being hit by a truck, Strange makes his way home, but still he feels a sense of menace around him so he decides to do a little recon in his astral form. He quickly discovers some evil looking mist engulfing his sanctuary and so calls upon the Ancient One for answers which he delivers in a frustratingly cryptic way. Strange tries to make his way make to his body, but is somehow trapped in the room. He blasts his way out only to find his body being possessed by an unknown entity. Strange's astral form and physical form battle briefly and his body is returned to him after the entity possessing it unsuccessfully tries to escape through a thick plate glass window(ha!). Strange isn't out of harm's way yet, though, because his body having gone limp suddenly plummets out of the freshly shattered window. Strange's astral form speeds to recover his body and does so just in time, but when he lands, it is not on the same plane where he started. Amongst the foreign landscape, Strange encounters a version of himself trapped inside a tree(no, really)and it goes on to repeat the same thing the Ancient One said about how to find his quarry. It takes pretty much no time at all before Strange sees the threat who is quickly dispatched and reveals that he is only doing the bidding of another, but who? He's not saying, but rest assured thing only get more interesting after this issue.
Stan Lee does the dialogue from a plot and artwork by the great Barry Windsor Smith. Here, he is still honing his style and he no longer seems to want to be Jack Kirby. You can really see some flashes of what Smith will be doing in the next decade or two just as you could in some of his later Conan issues. Though this isn't one of my favorite issues, it does lead into what I think is some of the best Dr. Strange issues ever(though I've not read every Dr Strange book). Stay tuned!!!