As regular readers will recall, we’ve begun the last two Marvel-focused posts on this blog with excerpts from the Bulletin Bulletins page that ran in the company’s comics published in July, 1971 — and we see no reason to break that run with this installment. Especially since the very next Bulletin following those we’ve already shared is specifically about the subject of today’s post.
Coming after a Roy Thomas editorial and “ITEM!” that dealt with Lee’s decision to take a brief sabbatical from comics writing (and what that meant for the series he usually scripted, such as Amazing Spider-Man) — and directly preceded by another item announcing the move of several Marvel titles (including Conan the Barbarian) to a larger, 25-cent format — this Bulletin caught the attention of readers (well, this particular fourteen-year-old reader, at any rate) with a graphic by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer from Doctor Strange #180, featuring that book’s titular star — a hero who, in the wake of the cancellation of his series with issue #183, had been conspicuous by his absence from the Marvel Universe ever since a late-1969 guest appearance in Incredible Hulk which had effectively retired the character:
Dr. Strange was coming back? As a fan of the character (even if a late-arriving one, whose own first issue of his late title had been the all-reprint #179), this was great news, and probably enough in and of itself to send me racing to my nearest Tote-Sum (we didn’t have newsstands in my neighborhood) to look for Marvel Feature #1 — even before I got a look at Neal Adams’ terrific cover for the book.
And my interest remained high, even after I saw that cover, and realized that — assuming the cover was reflective of the comic’s interior content — the more superheroic “new look” for the Master of the Mystic Arts that Thomas, Colan, and Palmer had introduced late in Doctor Strange‘s run, hoping to boost sales (a look I’ve gone on record as appreciating, both then and now), was evidently history. Oh, well. You win some, etc.
According to the introduction he wrote in 2008 for Marvel Masterworks — The Defenders, Vol. 1, Thomas had no intention of creating a new superhero group when he first teamed Doc Strange with the Sub-Mariner in issue #22 of the latter’s series, or with Bruce Banner’s angry alter ego in in Hulk #126; he was just trying to tie up loose ends from Strange’s cancelled series. Similarly, his subsequent assembling of Subby, Hulk, and the Silver Surfer as the “Titans Three” in Sub-Mariner #34 and #35 was a simple one-off, as far as he was concerned.
But those two issues of Sub-Mariner evidently sold pretty well; and so Stan Lee asked Thomas to develop “Titans Three” into a new series, to be called “The Defenders” (a name coined by Lee) — though he asked him to sub in Dr. Strange for the Silver Surfer, a character whom Marvel’s editor felt possessive about. As Thomas recollected in 2008, though he was initially disappointed in his boss’ decision, he eventually came to feel that it had been the right call:
Each of the original trio wielded considerable power, even if the Surfer’s consisted primarily of hurling bolts of energy, rather than punching and stomping. Doc’s hurling of magical spells was superficially similar, but he was a less imposing figure physically than Namor and Ol’ Greenskin. And, though Stephen Strange, too, had generally been a loner, somehow it worked out perfectly for him to be not exactly the “leader” of the team, for neither of the other two would ever have admitted to “following” anybody, but at least the glue that held it together… the brain that directed the conclave’s two brawny pairs of arms.
And so “The Defenders” was born as a series, in the pages of a comic book Stan dubbed Marvel Feature…
Marvel Feature was the second to appear of three “tryout” books Marvel would launch over the course of 1971. The idea of the tryout book was to introduce a new feature, let it run for a few issues, and then spin it off into its own title if sales justified such a move; it was an idea pretty much lifted wholesale from DC Comics’ Showcase (which, ironically, had ceased publication just one year before, following a fourteen-year run). Marvel Feature had been preceded by Marvel Spotlight, which had debuted in June; it would be followed in November by Marvel Premiere.
I’d passed on Marvel Spotlight #1, which presented the origin of the new Western hero Red Wolf, because I didn’t read Westerns. But Marvel Feature #1 was obviously a different matter; while the return of Dr. Strange was probably the single largest draw, I also liked the Hulk and Sub-Mariner, and had enjoyed those “Titans Three” issues of the latter’s series. Sure, it would have been cool to have the Silver Surfer in the Defenders too (and, of course, we eventually would see him there), but this trio had plenty of appeal all on their own.
The interior art for the Defenders’ debut was, unsurprisingly, not by the very busy Neal Adams, but rather by Ross Andru (pencils) and Bill Everett (inks); it’s a rather unusual job in the context of both veteran artists’ careers, for reasons Thomas explained in his Marvel Masterworks intro:
Bill Everett, a true original who in 1939 had created, written, and drawn the Sub-Mariner, was doing more inking than penciling by 1971… and very good at it he was, too! …Wild Bill, though, didn’t like inking Ross Andru. Ross’s penciling style had an unpolished, even unfinished look to it. That’s because, in Ross’ eye, his penciling never was totally finished. He’d lay down a pencil line for, say, a muscle… then he’d have another thought of what that muscle might look like… and he’d draw that one, too. His inkers particularly Mike Esposito, Ross’ major inker for many years—would have to choose which line to embellish, and the other(s) would be erased.
Bill, however, found that approach sloppy. And, being in a cantankerous mood that month, he decided that if Stan was going to make him ink Andru, he’d ink all of Andru—or at least most of it. Thereby assuring, perhaps, that he’d never again be asked to ink Ross Andru! Thus, in contrast to his usual inkline, which had not only long graced the Sub-Mariner but had made a number of pros feel that he was the best inker ever for Jack Kirby’s Thor, Bill applied ink to virtually all the lines Ross had put to paper… resulting in an unpolished, even unfinished appearance to the completed job.
To say that Stan was unhappy when he saw Bill’s inking of Marvel Feature #1 would be an understatement. He was livid… But there was no time to do anything about it, so the issue went out pretty much as Bill had turned it in and its scratchy look still, today, comes just about the closest possible to looking like Ross’ pencils.
I realize I’ve quoted Thomas at some length here, but I find this anecdote fascinating — mostly because I’ve never counted myself much of a Ross Andru fan, and I actually like the artwork in “The Day of the Defenders!” more than I do the majority of his stuff. So maybe Everett knew what he was doing all along — at least when it comes to appealing to someone with my particular tastes.
But why don’t we move on ahead with our story, and let you see (and decide) for yourself?
Doc quickly realizes that what he’s hearing is actually “a mystic call” and sends his astral body out to investigate…
As I hadn’t bought and read Hulk #126 when it came out, I’m not certain that my fourteen-year-old self even realized that Dr. Strange’s return to active duty needed to be explained. But if I had somehow managed to glean such knowledge, then I must have been relieved by the editorial footnote assuring readers that the how and why of the matter would be revealed via a backup feature later in the issue — because it’s exactly the sort of thing that would have pestered me throughout the rest of this story, otherwise.
As “Stan and Roy” seem to have forgotten to include a footnote on this page, please allow me to inform you that Yandroth, the self-styled “Scientist Supreme” from the extradimensional planet Yann, had first appeared in Strange Tales #164 (Jan., 1968). A creation of writer Jim Lawrence and artist Dan Adkins, the villain had bedeviled our sorcerous hero through five ten-page installments of that title’s “Dr. Strange” feature before Adkins and new scripter Denny O’Neil sent him plummeting to his apparent doom in ST #168, just as shown in the fourth panel above. (Incidentally, the latter comic was also the final “split format” issue of Strange Tales; the Master of the Mystic Arts took over the whole title [and issue numbering] with Doctor Strange #169, which also happened to be the issue with which Roy Thomas took over as Doc’s writer.)
Dr. Strange’s astral body heads to the hospital’s staff lounge, where he ensorcells a group of doctors and a nurse to go try to save Yandroth’s life via emergency surgery. This seems like it shouldn’t actually be necessary (wouldn’t a patient slipping into a coma show up immediately on the hospital’s monitors?) — and maybe not a good idea, regardless (would you want your surgeon operating on you while they’re in a mystical trance?) — but, ultimately, it’s a moot point…
Returning home, Doc’s astral body reunites with his physical one, and then he immediately takes flight for Maine:
I doubt I thought twice about this particular plot point back in 1971, but re-reading the story in 2021, I have to wonder why, if our good doctor thought he needed help on this one, he didn’t bother to call on the Fantastic Four, Avengers, or X-Men — all of whom he’s already personally acquainted with, and all of whom have known addresses, besides. Oh, well.
How can Dr. Strange be so “doubtless” regarding Thor’s current unavailability? He doesn’t seem inclined to share, but I suppose we might assume he has some sort of automatic magical tracking system for the godly types who normally reside on our mortal plane. Yeah, that’ll work.
Doc doesn’t mention to the Hulk that they’ve met before — which makes sense, I suppose. After all, he wasn’t “astral” at the time, and was in his blue-faced, spandex-wearing phase to boot, so it’s not like he could expect ol’ Jade-Jaws to recognize him. Nevertheless, it’s a little odd that their previous “team-up” is never acknowledged by the script in any way.
The three new “friends” proceed on to Doc Strange’s original destination of Port Promontory, Maine…
Namor’s bristling at being given orders by Strange is the first overt sign of the (admittedly predictable) dysfunctional group dynamic that will pretty much define the Defenders for much of the team’s original run.
The scene shifts briefly back to the Hulk, whom we see crawl under the flames to grab and wreck the flame-throwers — and then returns to Dr. Strange, who once more emits his astral form so that he can penetrate the Omegatron’s mystical shields…
Smarting at having been played, but also knowing that he doesn’t have the power to stop his allies in his astral form, Strange zips back to pick up his physical body, then swiftly returns to the Omegatron — arriving just as the Hulk and Namor are about to commence pounding on it:
The Omegatron compliments Strange on his “clever if desperate ploy“, but claims it’s all for nothing, stating, “…even the very vibrations of such a clash of titans will soon feed my circuits the power they need to detonate those atomic piles.” He continues: “With each blow, the moment draws nearer — ever nearer–”
“But,” retorts Dr. Strange, “it shall never come!”
Regardless of your knowledge of later Marvel Universe history, I doubt you’ll be surprised when I tell you that Dr. Strange’s “slow down the clock but not actually stop it, and then throw a blanket of illusion over the whole mess” solution to the menace of the Omegatron proved to be somewhat less than permanent… but for now, at least, it did the job. One could say something similar about the role of the menace itself within the story, which did the job of providing a reason for these three disparate figures to come together… if not, in the end, to stay together. The tableau shown in the fifth panel above — i.e., Namor and Hulk stalking away from Strange, neither having any intention of ever getting together again — would provide the template for similar scenes in many adventures to come. It would also, over time, transcend its obvious origins as a high-concept gimmick, as the Defenders’ “non-team” dynamic proved to have a compelling quality all its own.
Revisiting “The Day of the Defenders!” a half-century after its original publication, its flaws as a standalone story are evident — besides the rushed, vaguely inconclusive climax, there’s the fact that neither the Hulk nor the Sub-Mariner, two of Marvel’s heaviest hitters, ever actually fight anyone (with the exception of each other), which can’t help but feel like a letdown. But you have to start somewhere, right? One might never guess it from this initial outing, but The Defenders would in just a few years time, grow to become one of Marvel’s finest series of the era — even, perhaps, the defining Marvel superhero series of the Seventies, at least as far as your humble blogger is concerned. Or, to put it another way — the true “day of the Defenders” was yet to come.
One factor that probably contributes to the sense of a rushed ending for Marvel Feature #1’s lead feature is that the story is a mere 19 pages — which was indeed Marvel’s standard length for “regular-sized” comics at this point in time, but seems a little chintzy in the first issue of a new title launched as a giant-sized 25-center. (Compare, for example, the concurrently-released Conan the Barbarian #10, whose lead story didn’t fill the whole book, but nevertheless managed to come in at 23 pages).
Though I have no non-circumstantial evidence to back up the notion, my distinct impression is that Marvel Feature was originally planned to be a 15-cent comic (which is the format its sister title Marvel Spotlight had debuted in in June, after all), but got folded into Marvel’s staggered transition to the larger 25-cent size — though only after the first “Defenders” story had already been written and drawn.
Which may be one reason why the first issue of a brand-new (emphasis on new) title featured a reprint, plopped down right in the middle of the book:
I’m not sure if this story — reprinted from Sub-Mariner (1941 series) #40 (Jun., 1955), and written and drawn by Subby’s creator Bill Everett (who, as you’ll remember, also inked the Defenders’ debut that preceded it in MF #1) — was my first full exposure to the pre-Silver Age Namor, but it well may have been. But whether it was through this yarn or another, I know that this “bit less regal” version of the character, prone to such expressions as “Sufferin’ shad!” and “Neptune’s noggin!” (both of which appear in this 7-pager) took some getting used to. As did the 1955 version of the Atlanteans (not yet identified as such, incidentally), with their green skin and decidedly less human appearance.
To be honest, I’d completely forgotten this story prior to re-reading it for this post, but from my present-day perspective, it’s a pretty good yarn. What first looks like it’s going to be a standard “Namor versus the surface world” scenario takes a surprising turn when the ships he’s sure are full of warmongers turn out to belong to a peaceful scientific expedition, “in search of uranium for America”. (Look, that stuff’s not just for nuclear weapons, OK?) Unfortunately, Namor’s ploy of moving icebergs to create a trap for the ships backfires, ultimately causing an underwater avalanche that flattens the water-breathers’ city — though, thanks to the timely warning of the American scientists, Namor and his people have time to safely evacuate before the disaster hits. The story ends on a decidedly uplifting note…
…which I’m sorry to say has been soured just a smidge for yours truly by my checking out the 1955 comic in which it originally appeared, and noting that the cover touts another story in the issue in which “Sub-Mariner Defies the Commies!”. Erm, what was that about “peace on earth at any cost”, again?
Still… you have to start somewhere, right?
The final story in the issue gives us, at last, the promised answer to the question of how and why Dr. Stephen Strange has returned to his old master-of-the-mystic-arts ways:
As I’ve already mentioned, I hadn’t bought Hulk #126, the comic in which Stephen Strange hung up his cloak of levitation (metaphorically as well as literally) to begin a new life as a medical consultant, so the “why” of his having done such a thing in the first place was unknown to me. Truth to tell, however, I wouldn’t have been all that more enlightened even if I had read that story, as the decision didn’t seem terribly well motivated even in that original context (as I’d discover when I eventually did pick up Hulk #126 as a back issue).
In any event, a year and a half later in “real world” time, Steve doesn’t seem all that happy with his major life change… though maybe he’s just in a “mood” tonight…
In any event, our hero is shaken out of his reverie after his meanderings bring him to the door of his good ol’ Sanctum Sanctorum, which looks just like it did when he moved out… and he realizes that it shouldn’t:
The powerless Stephen tries to put up a fight against his uncanny twin — but whoever this impostor is, he has mystical abilities very much like those the “real” Doctor Strange did, and so, the outcome is never really in doubt…
The faux Strange leaves the real one where he lies, leading a somewhat bemused Wong away so that the latter can attend to the more important matter of getting his master’s dinner on the table…
I’m going to pause the narrative for just a moment here to make the observation that whatever penciller Don Heck’s strengths as a graphic storyteller may have been, hand-to-hand magical combat really wasn’t in his wheelhouse. And Frank Giacoia’s solid but literal inking does little to enhance the mystical atmosphere, either.
On the other hand, perhaps the idea was to make Gene Colan’s 1968 redesign of Doctor Strange look so unappealing that no one would miss it after this story — in which case, Marvel may well have succeeded.
Yeah, of course it’s Mordo. Who else? Though you’d think that Dr. Strange’s oldest foe (and surely a solid second place in the ranking of his arch-enemies, following Dormammu) would be a little harder to take out so decisively. Oh, well, we’ve only got ten pages for this one, right?
It’s also a little disquieting to realize that Mordo has managed to fool Wong for… days? weeks? months, even?… with no more than a cloth mask. This makes Wong seem even more clueless and inept than the story has already — though it’s pretty typical of how the character was written at the time (and how he would continue to be for several years to come, regrettably).
Stephen’s moroseness at having once again taken on the responsibility of defending the Earth against hostile mystical forces might go down better if his abandonment of that responsibility back in Hulk #126 had been better thought out in the first place (seriously, who did he think was going to respond the next time Dormammu or Nightmare invaded our reality?). And if he hadn’t been so mopey about his “normal” life on the first couple of pages of this very story, to boot (although that could have been at least partially due to Mordo’s sinister influence, per Strange’s comment to Wong in the first panel above).
Still, as with the Omegatron in this issue’s lead story, “The Return” does its job — in this case, the job of getting Dr. Strange back into his grimoire-gazing Greenwich Village groove. Oh, there are some notable loose ends — his “Stephen Sanders” secret identity (introduced at the conclusion of Doctor Strange #182), for one; the as-yet-unexplained absence of his girlfriend, the exile from Dormammu’s Dark Dimension known as Clea, for another — but I’m sure they’ll be addressed in time. As already noted, there’s only so much you can get done in a ten-page story.
Of course, that begs the question: why just a ten-page story? After all, with the Defenders’ debut coming in at only 19 pages, it’s not like there wasn’t room. Wouldn’t those seven pages used for a 1955 Sub-Mariner reprint have been put to better use fleshing out the tale of Dr. Strange’s return?
It’s quite possible — even probable — that there simply wasn’t time; that, as with Conan the Barbarian #10, the adoption of the new 25-cent format came about too quickly for Marvel’s creative personnel to have time to craft all of the content needed to fill Marvel Feature #1’s pages, and ten pages of Dr. Strange was all that could be produced by deadline. But in re-reading “The Return!” in preparation for writing this post, another possibility occurred to me.
It’s a possibility suggested by the blurb on the first page of the story, which, in Marvel’s typically breathless fashion, announces that “The Return!” represents “the glorious re-birth of one of its [i.e., Marvel’s] most unique, most-honored series!” To me, that sounds a lot like the way you’d blurb the first installment of an ongoing feature, rather than a one-shot created specifically to fill in the gaps between Hulk #126 and Marvel Feature #1’s lead story.
So, maybe the idea was that Dr. Strange would run as a regular 10-page backup to the lead Defenders story in every issue of Marvel Feature. The fact that that didn’t actually happen (rather, MF #2 would go to press with a new 28-page Defenders tale, backed up with another ’50s Sub-Mariner reprint; and with issue #3, the book would shift away from the giant-sized format entirely) doesn’t necessarily mean that that wasn’t the original plan.
Or maybe the notion of an ongoing 10-page Dr. Strange strip goes back even further. If Marvel Feature was indeed originally supposed to be a standard-sized 15-cent comic featuring the Defenders, as we speculated earlier, then maybe Doc Strange was intended to make his solo comeback in one of Marvel’s two “split” books — either Amazing Adventures (where the Black Widow strip had ended its run in June, with issue #8) or Astonishing Tales (where Dr. Doom bowed out with #8, published in July). Again, that didn’t happen — the following issues of both of those titles saw them abandon the double-feature format — but it could have been in the works at some point.
Obviously, all of this is pure speculation on my part — and probably only of interest to the most obsessive of comic book historians and bibliographers (the ranks of whom obviously include your humble blogger). But if that was the plan, I have to admit that I’m kind of glad that things didn’t work out that way — at least, not if the strip would have continued with the same creative team.
Again, no disrespect intended either to Don Heck or to his fans — but I think that the Master of the Mystic Arts was ultimately better served by Marvel’s deciding to wait nine months before bringing him back as the star of his own full-length feature in Marvel Premiere #3 (Jul., 1972), in a tale drawn (and co-plotted) by artist Barry Windsor-Smith.
Not that that issue was the beginning of any kind of extended run by Windsor-Smith, alas, either with the book’s co-plotter and scripter, Stan Lee, or with someone else. But the saga of Dr. Strange’s long and fraught quest to regain successful solo stardom is, naturally, a topic best left for discussion in future posts; I hope you’ll come back around for them.
UPDATE 7/29/01, 12:30 a.m.: Many thanks to my friend Neill Eisenstein, who not only recalled having read a Bullpen Bulletin about Don Heck drawing a Dr. Strange strip that appeared months before Marvel Feature #1 was published, but even went to the trouble to look it up. Here is that “ITEM!”, as it appeared in Marvel’s comics released in the month of April, 1970:
Assuming that this “brand new version of DOC STRANGE” is the same job as “The Return!” — and I don’t know why we wouldn’t — this means that the story not only predates Marvel Feature #1 by over a year, it even predates the two Marvel “split” books that I earlier speculated it might have been intended as a replacement strip for, as Amazing Adventures and Astonishing Tales didn’t make their debuts until the following month, May, 1970. Very interesting, no? Thanks again, Neill!
(Incidentally, I feel obliged to note that April, 1970 also just so happens to have been the one and only month in the last 55 years that I didn’t buy a single comic book. Obviously, this is the only reason why I didn’t remember this particular Bullpen Bulletin. [Never mind that I’ve since bought a number of that month’s Marvels as back issues and would have read the Bulletins in them at that time. This is my story and I’m stickin’ to it.])