Back in September, I wrote about buying and reading my first issue of Sub-Mariner, #20, a mostly done-in-one tale (in keeping with Marvel’s new “no continued stories” policy) which nevertheless ended on an inconclusive note — though Namor, Prince of Atlantis, had escaped the clutches of Doctor Doom, he was still a fugitive in New York City, hunted by the U.S. military as well as by the municipal police, and unable to escape to the ocean depths due to having had his gills surgically closed by a forgettable villain from outer space called (checks notes) the Stalker. I ended the post by asking the question: would my twelve-year-old self be invested enough in Namor’s plight to come back for issue #21? On the face of it, it seemed a dubious prospect, as I was becoming somewhat less interested in comics in general around this time. After all, if I was on the verge of dropping titles I’d been buying regularly for a year or more, including Avengers and Daredevil, what sense would it make for me to start getting involved with yet another series?
But, lo and behold, when October rolled around, I did buy the next issue of Sub-Mariner, which found regular writer Roy Thomas reunited with returning penciller Marie Severin (following #20’s fill-in by John Buscema) — as, with EC Comics great Johnny Craig on inks, they revisited one of the oldest tropes associated with the titular hero. Or, to put it in Thomas’ own wry words, from his 2010 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Sub-Mariner, Vol. 4: “When in doubt, have the Sub-Mariner’s people invade the surface world.”
Of course, there was a twist in this particular iteration of the decades-old theme, in that Namor himself was, for once, not leading the Atlantean invasion force. As we’d seen in issue #20, the Avenging Son had in fact sent word to his people (via the aquatic Inhuman Triton), commanding them to keep well away from NYC — however, Namor’s beloved, the Lady Dorma, couldn’t bear to think of her beau at the mercy of the surface-dwellers; and so, with the aid of Lord Seth (a young warrior secretly carrying a torch for Dorma), had led the forces of Atlantis on a rescue mission, regardless. Namor ultimately found himself in the novel position of trying to keep the peace between the two sides — a task which became substantially more difficult when Seth, under the mistaken impression that Dorma had been slain by the U.S. Navy, summoned a trio of giant, turtle-like sea monsters to assist in the Atlanteans’ attack. Despite the Sub-Mariner’s best efforts against these brutes, disaster appeared unavoidable until Lord Seth, realizing his error, sacrificed himself to return the monsters to the deep. The issue ended with a war thankfully averted, and with Prince Namor at last reunited with his people.
It was another done-in-one story, and (like issue #20 before it) a good one — though its conclusion did leave one “small” matter, Subby’s inability to breathe underwater, still unresolved. If I wanted to know how that was going to work out, I was going to have to pick up issue #22 in November.
And perhaps I would have, even if that issue hadn’t promised to feature Doctor Strange as a guest star — but, as that was in fact the case, I never had to put the notion to the test. because deciding to buy Sub-Mariner #22 was basically a no-brainer. After all, how else was I going to find out what the heck had happened to Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts?
The last time I had seen the Sorcerer Supreme-to-be had been at the end of Dr. Strange #182 (Sept., 1969), which itself had happened to be the conclusion of a three-part tale involving Nightmare, Eternity, and the Juggernaut. At that story’s conclusion, Strange had learned — courtesy of a newly-altered address on a telegram that had been delivered to his home earlier — that the omnipotent Eternity had gifted him with a brand-spanking-new secret identity, “Doctor Stephen Sanders”, by magically changing every single trace of his name either in writing or in people’s memories. But to learn what was actually in this mysterious telegram, we readers would have to come back for the following issue, #183 (Nov., 1969).
Which I’m pretty sure twelve-year-old me was planning to do, fifty years and three months ago. As I’ve written before, I’d originally become acquainted with Doc Strange via Avengers #61, in which he’d guest-starred just one month after the debut of his “new look” (courtesy of scripter Thomas and artists Gene Colan and Tom Palmer) in issue #177 of his own title. I then started picking up Doctor Strange with issue #179, which reprinted a Stan Lee-Steve Ditko classic teaming Strange with Spider-Man; my first “new” issue was #180, and by the time the three-issue storyline begun therein was over, I was a solid fan. That’s why I figure I simply must have never seen issue #183 on the stands; otherwise, I feel certain I would have bought it.
Of course, as things turned out, that issue was the last solo issue of Doctor Strange, at least until 1974 — though it probably took me at least another couple of months to realize that the bi-monthly series was indeed a goner. By the time Sub-Mariner #22 came out, however, I would have gotten the message, and I would have been quite keen to see what was up with Marvel’s sorcerous superhero.
Still, I could hardly begrudge Thomas and Severin for starting off their story by dealing with Namor’s present predicament, rather than immediately attending to the current whereabouts and activities of Stephen Strange…
Luckily for Namor, he’s got a really brilliant scientist in Atlantis, name of Ikthon, who’s already devised a procedure to restore the Prince of Atlantis to his old, water-breathing self:
Now there’s a cue for a flashback, if I ever read one…
Page 3’s interweaving of a recap of previous issues with the introduction of #22’s new plotline is a deft bit of comics storytelling on Thomas and Severin’s part. The device may have been inspired by the space constraints imposed by the single-issue story format, but that doesn’t detract from either its cleverness or its efficiency.
On pages 4 and 5, Thomas lays out the origins and history of the Undying Ones, whom he’d introduced in Doctor Strange #183. As the writer would explain decades later, in his 2009 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Doctor Strange, Vol. 4:
With #183, eager to garner a few additional readers and save Dr: Strange from cancellation, I began a story are inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who in many ways was the most important horror writer of the 20th century. Actually, I had only recently been introduced to that author’s body of work… [Before that] I had already begun to immerse myself in the fiction of Conan creator Robert E. Howard, and both REH and HPL had originally seen publication mostly in 1920s and ’30s pages of Weird Tales pulp magazine.
Lovecraft’s fiction is perhaps best known for what would later come to be called the “Cthulhu Mythos”, involving a race of malevolent cosmic entities called the Great Old Ones who once ruled Earth and were worshiped as gods — and who, though long exiled from our plane of existence, seek to return. In many ways, there had always been a Lovecraftian element to Dr. Strange’s adventures, with its myriad dimensions ruled by demons and other mystical beings who frequently seek to invade and conquer (or destroy) Earth — but with the Undying Ones storyline, Thomas leaned heavily into elements of Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” fiction that hadn’t gotten much play in Dr. Strange stories until now, such as the notion that these god-demons had once reigned on Earth, and that they’d had human cultists through the ages who sought to facilitate their return.*
Now that we readers know all about the Undying Ones, and so does Namor, it seems the next step should be to track down the sinister idol at the center of the just-ended mystical vision. Unfortunately, it would appear doubtful that said idol is going to be located anywhere on the ocean floor — so what’s the Sub-Mariner supposed to do?
It’s more than a little awkward to have the occasion of Namor’s water-breathing ability being restored pass by practically without notice (though the script at least seems to be aware of this, and even briefly calls attention to it). It also feels rather clunky to have Subby returning to the surface world almost immediately after escaping it, especially considering all the time and effort expended towards this goal over the last several issues. But, as we’ve already mentioned, this is going to be another done-in-one story, and time is of the essence. And, honestly, Thomas and Severin keep their narrative moving so quickly that the reader hardly has time to notice.
And, of course, it’s not New York that the Sub-Mariner finds himself visiting this time, but the city of Boston — a locale that takes its inspiration from Lovecraft, who set most of his stories in New England.
After quickly grabbing some appropriate garments from a “house of charity” (apparently a Salvation Army or similar thrift store) — for which he leaves payment in the form of “long-sunken gold” — a trenchcoated Namor hits the dark city streets:
Like the Boston setting, the name “Ward” is another nod to Lovecraft, whose short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was first published in 1941.
In giving his name to the young Ms. Ward as “Mackenzie”, Namor is invoking the parental side of his heritage, as his father was indeed a man of the surface world named Leonard Mackenzie (though as best as I can recall, my younger self knew next to nothing of the Sub-Mariner’s origin story at this point, so the non-footnoted reference must have gone right over my head).
The preceding action scene is, I think, a fine showcase for Marie Severin’s ability to incorporate “Kirbyesque” dynamics into her art without losing the distinctive fluidity and grace of her own unique style.
Returning to the hallway where he’d left Joella Ward, Namor finds that the young woman has collapsed. He revives her, then has to reassure her when she realizes he’s not quite the mere “Mr. Mackenzie” he first appeared to be:
Namor sets himself to dislodging the monument, so as to uncover whatever lies beneath — and despite the strange, debilitating force emanating from it, he’s ultimately successful:
As best as I’ve been able to determine, the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Strange had never met in person prior to this adventure (though they’d both appeared in Fantastic Four #27 [June, 1964] — Subby as the villain, Strange as a guest star — they never actually encountered one another in that story). Of course, even if they had seen each other before, Namor might well not have recognized the Doc with his new look.
On a similar note, though Marie Severin had significant experience drawing Dr. Strange prior to this comic — she’d illustrated his feature in Strange Tales from issue #153 to #160, back in 1967 — she might easily have felt that she was dealing with a new character here, considering that virtually everything about the hero’s visual identity had changed, with the notable exceptions of his Cloak of Levitation and Eye of Agamotto.
In the last three panels of page 14, Doc Strange offers a tidy little summary of what I had missed in the final issue of his own series (leaving out the parts about Kenneth Ward being alive when “Dr. Sanders” first arrived, and Strange’s subsequent battle with three demons masquerading as the explorer’s servants — but then, I didn’t really need to know any of that stuff).
“Few but you could have stood up to that demon’s attack!” Perhaps, though it still stretches credulity somewhat to posit that the Sub-Mariner would have been Doc’s first choice for this particular mission. But maybe the Thing, Thor, Iron Man, et al, were all unavailable?
Subby promptly throws down with the two-headed Nameless One, while Doc Strange contends with the not-really-a-housecat — which, while remaining feline, quickly grows into a very formidable and ferocious beast:
And that would seem to be that. With the dimensional portal now securely closed, and the all important idol stuck on its far side, one could reasonably assume that the Earth has been made safe once more from the depredations of the Undying Ones. I can recall my twelve-year-old self being somewhat disappointed by what appeared to be the more-or-less final fate of Dr. Strange, which seemed pretty dire to my mind, if somewhat ambiguous — but I also figured that would be the last we’d see of the character, at least for a good long while. It seemed clear that, with the cancellation of his title, Marvel had decided to let the Master of the Mystic Arts end his career with a big ol’ heroic sacrifice — though one that left the door slightly ajar for them to bring him back one day, if they so wished.
As it turned out, they’d bring him back quite promptly, indeed — though, due either to carelessness on my part, or simply to my growing general ennui in regards to comics, I missed the return of Doctor Strange in Incredible Hulk #126, published just two months later, in January, 1970.
Of course, if one just goes by this book’s cover, it’s easy to see how somebody could miss the fact that it’s a direct sequel to Sub-Mariner #22. Dr. Strange isn’t visible, or even mentioned, on the cover, and neither the Night-Crawler (no, not that one) nor the blonde young woman featured with the Hulk are characters previously seen in either S-M #22 or DS #183. True, the Nameless One and his fellow Undying Ones are depicted, but their figures are drawn so tiny as to be practically unidentifiable.
I would have had something to go on besides the cover, however. The Mighty Marvel Checklist for that month, which I would have seen in my subscription copies of Amazing Spider-Man #83 and Fantastic Four #97, did mention Dr. Strange in its entry for Hulk #126. In scanning over that same checklist, however,I ‘ve noticed that those two books were the only Marvel comics I acquired that month — and since they came through the mail, I can’t even be sure that I got to the spinner racks during the time Hulk #126 was on sale. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.
But, enough about my comics-buying habits of a half century ago. Here’s something I expect you’ll find more interesting — namely, a brief account of just what went down with Doctor Strange and his Undying nemeses in “…Where Stalks the Night-Crawler!”, by Roy Thomas with artist Herb Trimpe.
The story opens with the unconscious form of the Hulk’s other self, Bruce Banner, being abducted by a band of cultists under the leadership of a fellow named Van Nyborg:
The characters speaking here, Jack and Barbara are a married couple, who go by the surname Norris — though that’s information readers won’t actually learn for another three years.
Bruce comes to just in time to be aware that Van Nyborg and the other cultists are sending him by mystic rite to an alien dimension — though it’s not the realm of their masters, the Undying Ones, but rather that of their “greatest enemy“, the Night-Crawler.
Doc Strange is, thankfully, not deceased, though he’s obviously in trouble. Following this scene, however, we won’t see him again until page 18 — making this almost more of a cameo than a full-fledged guest appearance.
Meanwhile, Bruce arrives in the neighboring cosmos of the Night-Crawler. Van Nyborg’s plan is that a stressed-out Banner will transform into the incredible Hulk, who will then pulverize the big, dark, and brutish entity, whose realm the Nameless One and company can then use as their “alternate pathway” to our own earthly plane. Bruce, for his part, is determined not to play along, even if it means his own death.
But then the situation suddenly changes, as, back at the cultists’ sanctum, a conscience-stricken Barbara Norris tries to defy Van Nyborg, and is herself tossed into the Night-Crawler’s dimension for her trouble. When Bruce sees the malevolent being threaten the young woman, his will not to change is shaken, and the inevitable transformation at last occurs:
The battle rages for another six pages or so — this is Incredible Hulk, after all — until the Hulk claps his hands, sending the Night-Crawler’s own sonic energy bombardment rebounding against him, and consequently causing the demonic entity’s whole cosmos to begin to collapse. Everything in this world, including the rock the three figures are standing on, is (in Barbara’s words)…
Was the Night-Crawler the only living being in his whole now-disintegrating dimension? We’re not actually told, so we’ll just have to hope so.
And that really is that, this time, as Roy Thomas’ “Undying Ones Trilogy” reaches its unexpected conclusion — though, this being the Marvel Universe, no story ever truly ends, and so both Barbara (and even Jack) Norris and the Undying Ones will eventually return — with the first of those characters ultimately playing a highly significant role in the story of a woman warrior, and Defender, known as Valkyrie.
But that won’t happen until 1972, by which time Doctor Strange himself will be well and fully back, quite as if he’d never gone away in the first place. I didn’t actually get to read Hulk #126 until around that time, when the whole “retirement” thing was already a moot point, and I don’t recall exactly what I made of it then; today, however, the book’s final scenes definitely read rather strangely. What exactly was Roy Thomas up to, here? He’s said that he was trying to “keep the Mystic Master… in front of readers’ eyeballs”** with these appearances in Sub-Mariner and Hulk, presumably with the thought of bringing Doc back one day. Perhaps he was, though the endings of both issues feel like endings for the character as well, to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Thomas hadn’t originally planned to continue his Undying Ones storyline into Hulk #126 at all — but then, after completing Sub-Mariner #22, he’d had second thoughts about the bleak limbo he’d left Stephen Strange in at the end of that book, and decided that the hero deserved a happier ending.
But that second, happier ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, frankly. Dr. Strange feels that perhaps his services as the Master of the Mystic Arts are “no longer needed“, just because he’s thwarted the Undying Ones? Jeez, Steve, you’d never even heard of those guys until five months ago. What about Dormammu and Nightmare and Mordo and all the rest of them? And what’s this business about changing his clothes and then just leaving his house? What about the rest of his stuff? What about Wong? (Okay, so maybe Stephen was just trying to get Bruce out the door so he wouldn’t be obliged to ask him to stay over, and he merely walked around the block and then came back to pack his things properly. Still.)
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if Thomas didn’t necessarily want to “end” Dr. Strange’s career, but was told he had to, and what he subsequently came up with for Hulk #126 was simply the best he could manage in the time allowed. One way or another, however, it all became moot, as, not quite two years later, the writer would find himself scripting “The Return”, a ten-page back-up solo Doctor Strange story for Marvel Feature #1 (Dec., 1971) that was necessitated by… Doctor Strange’s return in that comic’s lead story, “The Day of the Defenders!” That story was of course the first installment in a new feature that found Strange forming a new “non-team” with the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner — a concept that had obviously, if inadvertently, germinated from seeds planted in Hulk #126 and Sub-Mariner #22.
And seeing as how we’ve come back around again to Sub-Mariner #22…
Back in November, 1969, I’d now read three issues of Subby’s series in a row, and though I’d enjoyed them, I hadn’t loved them so deeply that I felt obliged to keep going — especially not since the ongoing subplot of Namor’s exile and inability to breathe underwater had now been resolved. This was, after all, a time I was dropping series, not adding them.
But it wouldn’t be all that long, in the overall scheme of things, before I picked up another issue of Sub-Mariner — in fact, it was just one year. Come November, 1970, I was getting back into comics in a big way, and checking out virtually every Marvel superhero title on the stands — including Sub-Mariner #34, featuring “Titans Three!” by Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema — which, of course, just happened to be the next major stop (after Hulk #126) on the road to the formation of the Defenders.
Funny how things go, sometimes, isn’t it? Come back a year from now, and I’ll tell you all about that one.
*In 1972, Thomas would make an even more direct use of Lovecraftian themes in developing a plotline for the revived “Doctor Strange” series in Marvel Premiere — though by the rather convoluted means of securing rights to use concepts from Cthulhu Mythos stories written by Lovecraft’s friend Robert E. Howard, rather than from those of Lovecraft himself. Presumably, this avenue was taken since Marvel already had a relationship with the Howard estate, from which they were already licensing Conan the Barbarian (whose comic book adventures were also scripted by Thomas). That Thomas already had the Lovecraft-Howard connection on his mind as far back as 1969, however, is suggested by his having characterized “The Monarch and the Mystic!” as a “sunken sword-and-sorcery saga” on Sub-Mariner #22’s splash page. “Sword and sorcery” is a term frequently applied to the subgenre of fantasy typified by Howard’s Conan stories — but while there’s plenty of sorcery on hand in S-M #22, outside of a couple that show up in flashback on page 5, swords are rather conspicuous by their absence.
**”Introduction”, Marvel Masterworks – The Incredible Hulk, Vol. 6, 2011.