As this post goes out on April 30, 2022, we’re a little less than a week away from the premiere of the second multi-million dollar motion picture from Marvel Studios starring Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts.
But fifty years ago, in the last week of April, 1972, Marvel Comics was just hoping that maybe the good Doctor might be able to sustain his own solo comic book series again, his last such having been canceled in 1969. Although they were hedging their bets a little by bringing him back not in his own title — not yet, anyway — but in the tryout book Marvel Premiere.
Of course, you could argue that Dr. Strange had never had that long a run in his own title in the first place. The final issue of his original series, Doctor Strange #183 (Nov., 1969), had, despite its impressively high issue number, been only the fifteenth issue released under that title; before that, the superheroic sorcerer had held down half (actually a bit less than that, in the strip’s early years) of the page count of Strange Tales, starting with issue #110 (Jul., 1963) and continuing on through #168 (May, 1968). At that point Strange’s fellow headliner Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. had moved into his own brand new title, and the mystic master had expanded into the newly available space, as Strange Tales became Doctor Strange — only to cease publication altogether, a year and a half later.
Since then, the way that Marvel had handled Dr. Strange as a character could be taken to imply that the company considered him a failure, as they formally took him off the Marvel Universe board as an active player not just once, but twice. Sure, Marvel associate editor and writer Roy Thomas had made a point of wrapping up his unfinished Undying Ones plotline from the final issue of Doctor Strange in two other series he was then writing, Sub-Mariner and Hulk — but in issue #22 of Subby’s book, Thomas had trapped Stephen Strange on the far side of a dimensional barrier, where we last saw him fighting valiantly but hopelessly against the Undying Ones; then, perhaps deciding that such a final fate was a little too grim for one of Marvel’s longest-established heroes, Thomas had him rescued in Hulk #126 (Apr., 1970)… only to then retire from his sorcerous ways at the end of the story. Either way, it seemed Marvel was done with Doctor Strange, at least for the foreseeable future.
As things turned out, they weren’t; so maybe all that “trapped, then retired” stuff was just about resting Doc Strange on the players’ bench for a while, as opposed to laying him to rest forever in a pine box. In any event, Stephen Strange’s “retirement” lasted all of eighteen months (coincidentally, the same amount of time he’d held down his solo title) before he was brought back in Marvel Feature #1 as a member of an unlikely new super-team, the Defenders, alongside his recent allies Sub-Mariner and Hulk. That same issue also included, as a back-up, a solo 10-page Doctor Strange story that explained his decision to come out of his never-very-convincing retirement — and perhaps tested the waters for a more permanent solo headlining gig, as well.
The Defenders did well enough in Marvel Feature (which they also headlined in issues #2 and #3) to graduate to their own series in the spring of 1972; and it seems likely that the team’s success made it inevitable that the one member who didn’t currently have his own ongoing series would get another crack at same. Another likely factor in this decision was that Marvel was trying to expand its line rapidly at this time — over the course of 1972, the company would essentially double the number of titles it was publishing regularly, from roughly 20 per month to 40 — and the features for those new books had to come from somewhere. So, it made sense to give Doctor Strange a second shot at solo stardom; and since the “tryout” format seemed to be working well for launching new features, it also made sense to bring him back in one of those titles.
Dr. Strange might well have slipped into the slot in Marvel Feature that the Defenders had just vacated; but, for whatever reason, Marvel Feature #4 ended up being a showcase for Ant-Man, while Strange moved into another tryout book which had suddenly had some space open up. This was Marvel Premiere , whose previous tenant, Adam Warlock, had just graduated to his own title after headlining that book for two issues. As announced on the Bullpen Bulletins text page appearing in Marvel’s April-shipping comics:
DR. STRANGE is back! Ol’ STAN [Lee] has joined forces with baneful BARRY [Windsor-Smith] to spin a whole new series of black-magic yarns about the most mysterious hero in the history of comix, in the now-on-sale ish of MARVEL PREMIERE!
For my fourteen-year-old self, this was great news. As I’ve related in previous posts, I was a latecomer to the Doc Strange party, not picking up an issue until #179 (which was a reprint), then buying the next three, then somehow missing the one after that, which also turned out to be the last. But supernatural superheroes had been my jam ever since my discovery of DC’s Spectre and Doctor Fate back in 1966; and once initiated (so to speak), I’d quickly become a big fan of Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts. As such, I’d been sorry to see him taken out of service in 1970, only to be delighted at his comeback in 1971, even if only as one-third of a team. Needless to say, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss his new attempt at solo stardom — especially not when it was being produced by an “A”-team that was so unexpected, yet also so undeniably impressive, that Marvel took what was then the very rare step of heralding it in a blurb on the book’s cover: “By Stan Lee and Barry Smith“.
Barry Windsor-Smith’s involvement with the new “Dr. Strange” strip came in the wake of his leaving Conan the Barbarian (the first time), and wasn’t all that surprising on its own; honestly, it’s hard to imagine another established Marvel property better suited to the ornately decorative, fantasy-friendly style the artist had developed over the past couple of years. But Stan Lee? Sure, Marvel’s editor-in-chief had been Strange’s first scripter, helping to develop and refine the character from the core concept that had sprung from the imagination of artist Steve Ditko in 1963. But Lee had significantly scaled down the amount of comics scripting he was doing over the past couple of years, so that by April, 1972 the only titles he was still writing regularly were the company’s two flagship books, Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man. For him to take on a new ongoing assignment — and the Bullpen Bulletin announcement certainly implied that he was on board for a “series of black-magic yarns”, not just a one-off — was a development few industry observers are likely to have predicted.
Perhaps, as Roy Thomas suggests in his 2009 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — Doctor Strange, Vol. 4, Lee was motivated by a desire to work with Windsor-Smith, arguably the hottest artist Marvel had working for them regularly at that time (at least if one measures “heat” in terms of the acclaim of other comics professionals and hardcore fans, rather than by newsstand sales) — and an artist whom Lee had taken a chance on back in 1968, when the very young artist was serving up a technically shaky (if highly energetic) main course of Jack Kirby with a side of Jim Steranko. Or perhaps he was simply feeling a little nostalgic for Stephen Strange, whom he also utilized in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man around this same time. Perhaps it was something of both, or even something else altogether. We’ll likely never know.
However it came about, the creative team was set, and Windsor-Smith proceeded first to plot, then to draw, a “Doctor Strange” story. So far, so good; but then, after the pencilled pages were sent in to Lee to be scripted, things went somewhat awry — at least from the artist’s perspective.
As Windsor-Smith recalled in 1998 for Comic Book Artist #2 in response to a question regarding whether he and Lee had actually “collaborated” on the story, or whether the writer had simply dialogued Windsor-Smith’s story from the latter’s pencils:
No, “collaborate” isn’t the word. Not only did Stan dialogue the story after I had created it but, marvel of marvels, he ignored my plot and wrote another story entirely over my staging. Remarkable feat, actually.
To the best of my knowledge, Windsor-Smith has never elaborated on this statement, or otherwise provided any further details about how his original plot differed from Lee’s eventual script. So, all we have to go on is the published story itself, as produced by those two creators (along with inker Dan Adkins) in whatever capacity, and to whatever degree, each contributed.
And as it turns out, that story was — and is — pretty damn good. Your humble blogger thinks so, at any rate. But, hey, see what you think…
Desiring seclusion, Strange returns home to his good ol’ Sanctum Sanctorum…
No one who’d been reading Conan the Barbarian for the last couple of years, and had followed its titular hero through any number of opulent palaces and temples, could have been surprised by the discovery that Barry Windsor-Smith was, hands down, the best interior decorator that 177A Bleecker Street had seen since the days of Steve Ditko.. (That included readers like my younger self, who, although coming to Marveldom too late to have experienced the Lee-Ditko “Strange” tales when they were first published, had nevertheless been exposed to them via reprints, whether in Marvel Tales or the aforementioned Doctor Strange #179 [which, coincidentally, had featured a brand-new cover by Windsor-Smith].)
Is this giant crystal ball supposed to be Dr. Strange’s famous Orb of Agamotto? If so, Windsor-Smith has given Steve Ditko’s original design (see below) a major overhaul…
I guess maybe that wasn’t the Orb of Agamotto after all, since if it was, our hero just smashed it to smithereens, and I know it turns up intact in lots of later stories. On the other hand, we don’t see any red or yellow glass shards amongst the rubble, so… hmm…
Fighting back against his own possessed body, Dr. Strange finds that he’s able to touch his adversary — something he shouldn’t be able to do in his astral form. When he remarks on this out loud, his other self becomes agitated. “No! No!” he cries. “You come too close to the truth — too close to the answer!”
By the top of the next page, the ground is back — but it’s a grassy landscape, rather than the streets of Greenwich Village. Still, Doc sees little choice but to set out in search of “the one who has worked this evil miracle.”
Nightmare, of course, is one of Doctor Strange’s oldest foes — actually, his very oldest foe, at least in order of publication, having made his debut alongside Doc himself all the way back in Strange Tales #110. Your humble blogger hadn’t been around for that one, obviously, but I was still quite familiar with the master of the Dream Dimension, as he’d been the primary antagonist in Doctor Strange #180-182.
The medical staff attending Stephen Strange are mystified by his delirium, as he’s only suffered a few minor cuts and bruises. Meanwhile, within the dreamscape, the Master of the Mystic Arts is able to fend off Nightmare’s initial magical attacks without very much trouble, and he quickly figures out why: “You let me learn who you were — too soon! Your secret is your power! But now — your secret is out! And so — your power fades!”
As the battle continues, Strange slowly presses Nightmare back, but still can’t pry loose the secret of his master’s identity…
And that’s that. Back in April, 1972, I’m pretty sure that I thought this was the best single Doctor Strange story I’d ever read; and half a century later, it still feels like a high point in the character’s history, especially on the artistic side. Would it have been a better comic book, if Stan Lee’s script had followed Barry Windsor-Smith’s plot more faithfully? Perhaps, but we’ll never know; and I, for one, am grateful for what we’ve got.
Another, perhaps related question, is: who was the mysterious puller of Nightmare’s strings supposed to be, as imagined by Lee and/or Windsor-Smith (assuming that such a mystery was even part of the original plot in the first place)? By the time we get a full answer, it’ll be fourteen months, seven issues, four writers, four pencillers, and Oshtur only knows how many inkers later; and whatever the original response to Dr. Strange’s demand of Nightmare, “I must know the plan!“, might have been, it’s unlikely to have had a great deal of similarity to the revelations ultimately offered up by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner in Marvel Premiere #10. Of course, considering how common a seat-of-the-pants approach to plotting was at Marvel at this time, it’s entirely possible that when Lee wrote Strange’s last-page line, “A nameless menace threatens the world,” he was being completely literal — the menace was indeed “nameless”, simply because Lee himself didn’t yet know who, or what, it would turn out to be.
In any case, Lee wouldn’t be around to figure it out, at least not as the “Dr. Strange” feature’s writer. By the time the next bi-monthly issue of Marvel Premiere was in the works, Marvel’s editor-in-chief had been promoted to president and publisher, and henceforth would no longer be writing comics on a regular basis. Roy Thomas, who’d step into Lee’s previous editorial role, would plot (though not script) the next chapter of Stephen Strange’s saga, which would be (mostly) drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith in his last go at the character. Then they, like Lee, would be gone, to be followed by… ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot to say about Marvel Premiere #4, and we don’t want to give it short shrift. So — see you back here in two months, OK?