The subject of today’s post, in addition to being another fine installment in writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema’s original run on The Avengers, also happens to have been my first real encounter (outside of a couple of cameos) with Marvel Comics’ Master of the Mystic Arts, Doctor Strange — or, at least, I think it was.
The problem here is that I know that, once upon a time, I owned a copy of Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #19 — a terrific, double-sized reprint book that not only included a classic early Doctor Strange tale (from Strange Tales #128), but also an equally-classic Fantastic Four story (from the 27th issue of that team’s title) that guest-starred the good Doctor. A double dose of Doc, if you will. And since that book would have been on sale in November, 1968, it would necessarily have been my first Strange-featuring comic — if I’d bought it new off the stands, that is. Which I have no truly compelling reason to believe I didn’t.
Still — and allowing for how vague many of my comics-buying memories are after half a century’s passage — I somehow don’t believe that was the case. When I reread both these books now, Avengers #61 simply feels like it was my first Dr. Strange comic, and MCIC #19 … doesn’t. So I’ve decided, for the purposes of this blog, that I probably came into possession of my copy of the reprint book some time later, probably via trade with (or sale by) a friend. If I’m wrong — well, we’ll never know, right? (Besides which, nobody but me likely cares all that much.)
But even if Avengers #61 wasn’t the first comic book I ever read that featured Dr. Strange, it was certainly the first non-reprint book to include the hero that I ever picked up. Without it, I might well not have taken to the character as much (and almost certainly not as quickly) as I did; for, immediately following my reading this issue, I became a regular purchaser of the Doctor Strange series — and I’d remain a faithful reader of the title for years to come, sticking around through its rather frequent cancellations and revivals, with its star ultimately becoming my second favorite Marvel character (right after Thor).
Which is pretty much just what Roy Thomas and his colleagues at Marvel hoped would happen, when they decided to guest-star Doctor Strange in Avengers back in late 1968.
Before attempting to explain that statement, however, I’d like to pause here and note that, looking back, it’s a little surprising to me that I didn’t respond to the doc’s appeal somewhat earlier than I did. After all, I was a devoted fan of the closest equivalent offered by Marvel’s largest competitor — namely, DC Comics’ Spectre. Even without actually picking up an issue of Doctor Strange, it was clear from Marvel’s house ads and Bullpen Bulletin blurbs that their Master of the Mystic Arts worked the same defender-against-dark-magical-forces side of the superheroic street as did DC’s Ghostly Guardian. And with Doc spinning out of Strange Tales into his own book in early ’68, just about the same time that I started buying Marvel’s books on a regular basis, I’d been given a great jumping-on point. So why did it take me almost a whole year to give him a shot?
Quite honestly, I think it was his look. As I’ve noted in previous posts, my younger self was pretty conservative in his reading habits, and tended to gravitate to what was already familiar. And with no offense intended to Steve Ditko’s original character designs, which I would grow to love in time, Doctor Stephen Strange, with his mustache, graying temples, and blousy tunic, just didn’t look enough like what I thought a superhero was supposed to look like — cool cape (okay, okay, cloak) notwithstanding. Sure, the Spectre might have possessed the pallor of the dead, but he also sported those green trunks, y’know?
So, back in December, 1968, when I picked up the latest issue of Avengers — by now, one of the Marvel titles I was buying every month, more or less, along with Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four — I was probably not much more than mildly curious regarding Doctor Strange’s guest appearance. Of course, if that guest appearance hadn’t been plugged in the previous issue‘s letters page, as well as in the current month’s Bullpen Bulletins, I might not have realized that the sorcerer-hero was even in the issue, given the dramatic John Buscema – George Klein cover’s lack of any text beyond that required by the book’s trade dress — and also given the fact that Doctor Strange was sporting a brand-new look on that cover, with no mustache or blousy tunic in sight. But of course I had seen those plugs, and I’d probably also noted the costume change in house ads for Doctor Strange #177, even if I had no clue what the “in-story” rationale for the change was.
And, as it turned out, when my eleven-year-old self finally got around to opening that cover, there was no sign of Doctor Strange on the first page, anyway:
Or on the second page, for that matter:
This two-page sequence — the first use of consecutive splash pages to open a story that I can ever remember seeing in a comic book (and now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve seen that many since) — was a knockout when I first saw it in 1968, and it still is. It also has the distinction of being a symbolic splash page (or pair of pages) at a time when Marvel had pretty much abandoned the use of such. The title — integrated into the illustrations in a fashion ultimately derived from Will Eisner, though in 1968 probably more closely associated with Jim Steranko, at least by younger fans — is another one of the literary references that former English teacher Roy Thomas loved to slip into his comics writing. This time, the reference is, of course, to Robert Frost’s 1920 poem “Fire and Ice”, quoted in its entirety below:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
A brilliant, sharp-edged little jewel of a poem — which, naturally, I have never been able to read or hear at any time in the last half-century without thinking about these two comic book pages. (Though I’m really not complaining, to be perfectly honest. I mean, they’re great pages!)
The story properly gets underway on page 3:
The Black Panther begins to explain to Hawkeye how their teammate Vision’s android body absorbs solar energy through the jewel in his forehead, but the expository discussion is abruptly cut short, when…
Yeah, not only did the Avengers have no idea that Dr. Strange “had — such power!” when they schmoozed and imbibed non-alcoholic punch with him at the recent Wasp-Yellowjacket wedding, but he looked kinda different then, too (and I’m not referring to his present translucent state).
The dialogue in this scene is a good reminder that, at this stage in Marvel history, the Master of the Mystic Arts hadn’t done all that much mingling with the other heroes of the Marvel Universe — we were still several years out from the founding of the Defenders, and decades away from Doc being a part of the Avengers, in any iteration. (Which makes you wonder, in retrospect, just how he scored that invitation to the Van Dyne-Pym nuptials in the first place.)
The Avengers follow Strange’s ethereal form to a cemetery, where they witness the astral projection’s eerie re-merging with the sorcerer’s physical body. (Brrrrr, spooky!) They then accompany him inside a mausoleum, where…
The footnote in the third panel above refers to the issue of Doctor Strange then on sale, #178 — but the storyline involving the sinister cult calling themselves the Sons of Satannish had actually started all the way back in #174, which was the first to mention the demonic entity Satannish by name. The Sons themselves came on stage in #175, then proceeded to bedevil the doc through #176 and #177. In the latter, the leader of the cult, a warlock named Asmodeus, mystically transformed himself into a doppelganger of our sorcerous hero, which required Strange in turn to conjure up a new appearance for himself — hence the new skintight threads and “mask” (which, according to Roy Thomas’s introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Doctor Strange, Vol. 3, was actually supposed to be a mystical transformation of the mage’s whole head!).
Strange managed to defeat Asmodeus (who turned out to be an old medical colleague from Stephen Strange’s pre-hero days, named Benton), after the cult leader had already helpfully, if treacherously, betrayed his confederates by stealing their power and banishing them to another dimension. In the throes of mystic combat, Asmodeus/Benton’s weak heart succumbed to the strain, and he perished — but not before he intoned “the Spell of Fire and Ice”, which, as he’d explained earlier in the issue, would free “Ymir, the last of the loathsome Frost Giants — and Surtur, the fearsome, flaming Fire Demon!” from the extra-dimensional prison in which the All-Father of Asgard, Odin, had imprisoned them ages ago. In the next issue, with less than an hour remaining until these mythical menaces were released, Dr. Strange determined that his best course of action was to bring the Sons of Satannish back from the dimension to which their leader had consigned them — which just so happened to be the domain of Tiboro, a one-off villain introduced by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Strange Tales #129. Before jaunting off to Tiboro’s realm, however, Doc opted to secure the services of a fellow mystic to make sure he’d make the return trip OK. Thus, he headed for Britain, where dwelt his friend Victoria Bentley — but, prior to making the trip via astral projection, he resumed the “new look” he’d mystically adopted to battle Asmodeus — stating (with the revelation of Dr. Benton’s duplicity doubtless weighing on his mind) that the battle just ended “taught me how dangerous it is for other humans to know the identity of the mystic who walks among men!” Well, that makes as much sense as most rationales for superhero costume changes do, I guess.
Arriving at the castle home of Ms. Bentley, Strange encountered not only her, but also her guest — an American named Dane Whitman, AKA the Black Knight, whom he’d actually seen before when they were both guests at the Yellowjacket-Wasp wedding, although (as a footnote helpfully informed readers) “they were never formally introduced!” Sensing the magical power of the Black Knight’s Ebony Blade, Dr. Strange asked the other hero for assistance, and of course the Knight said yes.
Despite my being a fairly faithful reader of Avengers by this time, I’d somehow managed to miss all of Dane Whitman’s appearances in that title to date (with the exception of the aforementioned wedding guest cameo). My very first issue of the book had actually been #45, but then I hadn’t picked up another one until #53 — so I’d missed Dane’s debut in issues #47 and #48, which established that he’d inherited the gear and persona of the Black Knight from his villainous uncle, Nathan Garrett, but was himself a good guy. And then I managed to miss both #54 and #55, so I didn’t know how he’d pretended to join the latest incarnation of Uncle Nathan’s old gang, the Masters of Evil, just so he could turn on them and help the Avengers smack ’em down. At that point, I’d quite naturally opted to pass on the Knight’s solo outing in Marvel Super-Heroes #17 (Nov., 1968), which extended his heritage back to Marvel’s original Black Knight, an Arthurian hero whose adventures the company had published in the 1950s. It was in this story (scripted, as had been all Dane Whitman stories to date, by his creator Roy Thomas) that Whitman inherited the Ebony Blade, a sword that had been enchanted by the wizard Merlin — an accoutrement that made him a particularly appropriate ally for Dr. Strange in his quest to retrieve the banished Sons of Satannish.
Doctor Strange #178 concluded with the two heroes triumphant over Tiboro, and on their way back to their own home dimension with the Satannish cultists in tow… and that, of course, is where Doc Strange picks up the narrative himself, back on page 6 of our current tale. After relating to the Avengers how Marduk cravenly attacked and injured the Black Knight, Doc goes on to tell them how he then subdued the rogue cultist, and forced him to explain that the mysterious weapon he’d used, the Crystal of Conquest, does indeed have the power to reverse the Spell of Fire and Ice, and to save the world. The Avengers agree that saving the world is totes important — but first, they need to attend to their fallen comrade-in-arms, Dane Whitman:
I can recall reading this page for the first time in 1968, and being mildly startled by the revelation that Doctor Strange was — or at least had been, at one time — an honest-to-goodness medical doctor, unlike any other costumed character with “Doctor” or “Doc” as part of his name that I was then aware of (with the probable exception of DC’s Doctor Mid-Nite, who, as Justice League of America #46 had shown me, carried his “cyrotuber” gadget in a medical bag). The page also, of course, gave me a hint of the mysterious magician’s origin story, as well as providing a striking bit of characterization for a hero who wasn’t even one of the book’s headliners; though, of course, the fact that Roy Thomas was the regular writer of Doctor Strange as well as Avengers made that relatively easy for him to do, with no worries about stepping on another creator’s toes.
Although the story in Avengers #61 jumps ahead here to immediately after the Master of Mystic Arts finishes his exposition, I think it’s safe to assume that the information he provides his allies would track pretty closely to what was chronicled by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in two early “Tales of Asgard” episodes, which ran in Journey into Mystery #98 and #99, respectively. Readers in 1968 who recalled those stories (as well as those who’d read Doctor Strange #177 and/or #178, of course) would know that Odin was responsible for the banishment of Ymir and Surtur, way back “in the days of the gods.” For my part, however, all I knew in December, 1968, was that both menaces had something to do with Asgard (which, since I was just beginning to get into Thor, was pretty cool all by itself).
Dr. Strange divides the Avengers-plus-one into two teams, whose job it will be to keep the Frost Giant and Fire Demon from wreaking too much havoc while Strange himself works up the magic needed to send them back where they came from. So, while Hawkeye and the Black Knight hurry to confront Surtur in Antarctica, the Vision and the Black Panther jet to Wakanda, to face Ymir:
The two Avengers aim their quinjet straight at the Frost Giant, then bail out. The impact shatters Ymir into “a million fragments!” — but, mere moments later, he’s already reconstituted himself, and is hurling ice spears at our heroes. Ulp.
Meanwhile, in Antarctica…
Hawkeye does as the Knight suggests, but Surtur swallows the blast arrow whole, with no ill effects. Again, ulp.
Next up, the Black Knight takes a swing at the demon — but the Ebony Blade just passes through Surtur’s fiery body without doing any harm. Hawkeye then tries a fire-extinguishing foam arrow, but…
The swordsman manages to catch the bowman before the latter goes splat, but the heroes still don’t know “how to fight a guy… who might burn up the world!“, as Hawkeye puts it.
It’s pretty clear that both teams are way outmatched — but, of course, the whole idea of the current enterprise is to buy enough time for Dr. Strange to deal with things. Luckily, back at Avengers Mansion, the doc has completed his study of the Crystal of Conquest, and is ready to put his new knowledge to work:
The gambit of magicking the two menaces together to face (and fight) each other reminds me of how Green Lantern pulled a similar trick on Blockbuster and Solomon Grundy back in Justice League of America #47 — and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Roy Thomas, a big JLA fan both before and after he turned pro, “borrowed” the basic idea from that book’s writer, Gardner Fox.
And there you have it — the explosive, sorry, implosive conclusion* to my younger self’s first comic book story featuring Doctor Strange. From that moment on, I was a fan of the Master of the Mystic Arts — which, as I mentioned earlier, is exactly what Roy Thomas and company were hoping for.
As Thomas put it in the Marvel Masterworks intro I referenced earlier, Doctor Strange was “a lackluster seller from the get-go”, despite the enthusiasm that both he and his new artistic collaborators, penciler Gene Colan and inker Tom Palmer, were bringing to the title. In hopes of goosing sales, Thomas worked with editor Stan Lee on several initiatives, beginning with a change to a “creepier” logo with issue #176, which was immediately followed by #177’s considerably more drastic costume change. A month later, “the super-heroization of Dr. Strange” (to use Thomas’ phrase) continued, with the almost-an-Avenger Black Knight’s guest appearance in #178 paralleled by the doc’s own guest appearance in Avengers #61.
And while I don’t recall my eleven-year-old self paying much attention to the book’s logo change (at least not consciously), and I didn’t care much one way or another about the Black Knight (at the time, anyway), the other two gambits — the costume change and Avengers guest shot — were both quite effective, so far as I was concerned. Indeed, to this very day, I have a soft spot for the Gene Colan-designed “new look” for Doctor Strange. Yes, yes, I know that Steve Ditko’s original designs were brilliant; and yes, I also know that giving a rhyme-chanting, fingers-waving sorcerer a beefed-up, ripped physique didn’t make much, if any, story-sense. What can I say? This is where I came in as a Doctor Strange fan, and that’s just the way it is, folks. (Besides which, that blue hairless head with the bright yellow eyes and mouth simply looks flat-out cool, and you know it.)
Ironically enough, when next I got the chance to buy a new issue of Doctor Strange (I don’t know if I went back to my usual comics-buying haunts after reading Avengers #61 to see if I could find a copy of #178 still on sale, but if I did, I was unsuccessful), the “new look” didn’t enter into it at all. Nor did the talents of Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, or Tom Palmer.
Because Doctor Strange #179 turned out to be a reprint issue; though, all in all, I’d say I still got my twelve cents worth from that book, and then some. But to learn more about how that all went, you’ll have to check back here in January.
*As Doctor Strange notes, neither Ymir nor Surtur is destroyed in the implosion; rather, they have been “returned to that nether world from whence they escaped!” And, as most of this blog’s readers probably already know, neither mythical menace was gone for good. Both would eventually return to bedevil the Marvel Universe anew, usually in the pages of Thor. (In fact, Surtur would return hardly more than a year later, in the final multi-part story Jack Kirby would draw for the Thunder God’s series.)
Interestingly, over the decades Marvel’s writers have tended to favor the Fire Demon over the Frost Giant for some reason, with the result that Surtur has appeared in a significantly greater number of stories — the best-known probably being the extended saga by Walt Simonson that ran for the first fourteen issues of that creator’s legendary Thor run. For lack of any better explanation, I guess we’ll just have to assume that Marvel’s creators “hold with those who favor fire”, to borrow Robert Frost’s phrase. Or something like that.