Back in April, we took a look at Marvel Premiere #3, which relaunched Doctor Strange as an ongoing solo feature following a 32-month absence. That comic, featuring a script by the Master of the Mystic Arts’ original writer, Stan Lee, and art by rising young star Barry Windsor-Smith, inaugurated a story arc centered on a mysterious new menace — someone as yet both unseen and unnamed, but powerful enough to compel the service of Nightmare, one of Dr. Strange’s mightiest foes. The issue ended with the sorcerous superhero returning home to his Sanctum Sanctorum following his defeat of Nightmare, unaware that a silhouetted stranger waited there for him.
Two months later, Marvel Premiere #4 picked up exactly where the previous episode left off — but with a significantly changed creative team. In his 2009 introduction to Marvel Masterworks — Doctor Strange, Vol. 4, Marvel’s then new editor-and-chief (and once and future Dr. Strange scripter) Roy Thomas provided this explanation:
At precisely this time… Stan got himself kicked upstairs from being “merely” Marvel’s editor to being its president and publisher, and his new duties didn’t allow time for scripting. So he asked me to plot and write Marvel Premiere #4. Well, I got as far as the plotting but since I was in the process of becoming the company’s new editor-in-chief and thus had to start coming into the office five days a week instead of two or three, I turned over Barry’s art (which I believe consisted primarily of layouts rather than full pencils) to Archie Goodwin to script… The inking (finished art?) was provided by young newcomer Frank Brunner — who would soon loom far larger in Doc’s legend.
In the summer of 1972, 23-year old Frank Brunner was indeed a newcomer — at least as far as my younger self was concerned. While the artist’s first credit in a Marvel comic had appeared as early as 1969 (for inking a “Tales of the Watcher” backup story in Silver Surfer #6), most of his published work to date had appeared in such black-and-white horror comics such as Web of Horror, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. Though I was an occasional reader of those latter two titles (and had been such of Silver Surfer as well, prior to its 1970 cancellation), I’d so far managed to miss any of the comics that carried Brunner’s artwork — with the single exception of the cover of Conan the Barbarian #17, for which he’d inked Gil Kane’s pencils.
Frank Brunner seems to have had a greater affinity for the genres of fantasy, horror, and science fiction than for superheroes (a quality he shared with several other talented artists of his generation, such as Bernie Wrightson and Michael W. Kaluta). But he liked Doctor Strange — he’d first broken in at Marvel after submitting a tryout page featuring the character* — and when offered a chance to work on the newly revived strip, he was happy to take it. As he told Comic Book Artist‘s Jon B. Cooke in a 1999 interview:
Roy [Thomas] called me up—he’d seen my Warren work—and he said, “Hey, you do great monsters, we’re doing ‘Dr. Strange’ with a Lovecraft motif, where he’s battling various monsters. Would you like to do the book?” I said, “Sure.” I was actually delighted! I did an issue of Marvel Premiere, #4. I was finishing off a story that Barry Windsor-Smith had started. Smith got sick or something, and basically he did the first five pages, and I was sticking to his layouts, and completed that book, penciled and inks.
According to the Grand Comics Database (which cites the 1976 book The Brunner Mystique as the source of its info), Windsor-Smith did full pencils for the first three pages, and layouts for the remaining seventeen, while Brunner did everything else for the 20-page “The Spawn of Sligguth!” That, as well as the recollections of both Brunner and Roy Thomas, jibes nicely with the joint credit for “Barry Smith and Frank Brunner” as “artists”, which we find upon turning past MP #4’s cover (itself of uncertain provenance)** to our story’s opening splash page:
Along with the story’s artists (and letterer John Costanza), the opening page’s credits box names all the other folks mentioned in Roy Thomas’ Marvel Masterworks intro — publisher Stan Lee, scripter Archie Goodwin, and, of course, Thomas himself, as the tale’s plotter and editor. But then there’s an added note: “Featuring Concepts Created by: Robert E. Howard“.
Robert E. Howard? Isn’t he the sword-and-sorcery writer who created Conan and Kull? What could he have to do with Doctor Strange?
Again, in the words of Roy Thomas:
About my plot: Harking back to the Undying Ones/H.P. Lovecraft storyline, and to the success Marvel was having with Robert E. Howard’s Conan, I decided to split the difference… and I concluded a swift agreement with REH literary agent Glenn Lord to allow us to use some more or less Lovecraftian concepts of that author’s as the basis of an ongoing story arc. In the end, over the next few issues, not an awful lot of either HPL or REH was utilized, but we did get some great Howard names to toss around, including Sligguth, Kaa-U, Kathulos, and, best of all, Shuma-Gorath.
For readers not thoroughly conversant with the lives and works of American pulp authors of the first half of the 20th century, some elaboration upon Thomas’ comments may be in order here. Let’s begin with H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), perhaps the most influential horror writer of the last hundred years or so. Many if not most of Lovecraft’s fictions are built on the premise that our Earth was once ruled by immensely powerful, virtually immortal, and utterly inhuman entities from “Outside” — beings who are at the very least extraterrestrial, and are probably actually extradimensional — who down to the present day have been worshiped by cultists eager to see these “Old Ones” returned to their majesty. This premise is the basis of what many call the “Cthulhu Mythos”: a corpus of lore originally invented by Lovecraft, involving a host of fictional deities, texts, locales, et al, that he not only added to himself throughout his relatively short career, but also invited his writer friends — most of whom, like him, were regular contributors to the pulp magazine Weird Tales — to augment with their own imaginings. It all made for an early example of what we’ve come to think of as “shared universe” fiction.
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) — whom Lovecraft never met in person, but corresponded with frequently — was one of those writers. Along with incorporating a general element of “cosmic horror” into many of his sword-and-sorcery stories, Howard also wrote modern era-set weird fiction that included names originating in Lovecraft’s tales, as well as coining several new ones that Lovecraft then happily appropriated for his own writings.
My fourteen-year-old self was actually pretty well up on this stuff in June, 1972 — not only had I read a number of Lovecraft’s stories by this time, I’d even bought and read Lin Carter’s Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos, a nonfiction work that Ballantine Books had published in February. That book not only discussed the contributions of Howard and other writers to Lovecraft’s imagined lore, but even included a helpful checklist of every Mythos story published to date (or at least every one that met Carter’s somewhat arbitrary definition of “Mythos story”), which I enthusiastically used for its intended purpose (my copy still bears copoius pencil marks) So, once I understood what Thomas, et al, were up to, I was all on board, and quite keen to see Doc Strange mix it up with a few Old Ones — even if only those few that had been invented by Howard.
Perhaps I might have taken a rather more jaundiced view had I known then that this storyline — which would ultimately run for eight bi-monthly issues of Marvel Premiere — would ultimately utilize (in Roy Thomas’ words) “not an awful lot of either HPL or REH”. But in the summer of ’72, it was all systems go, as far as I was concerned.
While Stephen Strange’s prompt apology to Wong saves him from coming across as a complete ass in this scene (if only barely), the “good master-faithful servant” vibe is still pretty cringeworthy, at least by 2022 standards.
“Starkesboro” falls firmly in the Cthulhu Mythos tradition of made-up New England towns (the best known of which is probably Arkham) — though it should be noted that while this device was a regular feature of Lovecraft’s stories, I’m unaware of it cropping up in any of Howard’s.
The second panel above features the second reference in Archie Goodwin’s script to the “Thanatosian Tomes“, a work previously quoted in the epigraph that opened the story. It’s just the kind of imagined repository of eldritch lore that Lovecraft, Howard, and other Mythos writers liked to drop references to in their stories (Lovecraft’s famous Necronomicon being the model for all that followed), and in 1972 I probably assumed that the name came from one of Howard’s yarns. As best as I’ve been able to determine, however, the Thanatosian Tomes is original to this story, and thus was presumably made up by either Goodwin or Roy Thomas.
After Dr. Strange finishes probing his mind, Ethan falls into slumber; upon awakening the next morning, he finds his new acquaintance already packed and ready for a road trip to Starkesboro. Following a quick stop at Ethan’s rooming house for him to pack his own bag, the two men board an interstate bus: “Destination: Boston… and points beyond.”
Some time later, the bus stops for lunch, and Ethan fills Doc in on further details regarding Starkesboro. The place is isolated in ways beyond the strictly geographical sense, he explains; it’s a very clannish community, whose residents rarely leave. “Beth and I both lost our families young. Otherwise we’d probably never have left.”
Returning to the bus, the men watch the hours as well as the miles roll by, and as darkness falls at last, the scene shifts briefly back to the Sanctum Sanctorum, where Wong mystically contacts the Ancient One to arrange for a midnight confab between the latter and Dr. Strange. Then it’s back once more to the bus, which finally arrives in Starkesboro; by this time, Strange and Ethan are virtually the last passengers remaining…
Following yet another mention of the Thanatosian Tomes, the Ancient One drops the names of a couple more “hellish volumes” — and while the “Black Sea Scrolls” appear to have been made up for this story, just like the T.T., “Von Junzt’s Unausprechlichen Kulten“ actually is an honest-to-Crom creation of Robert E. Howard, who wrote about it in three stories: “The Children of the Night” (1931) (full text available online here), “The Black Stone” (1931) (full text here), and “The Thing on the Roof” (1932) (full text here). H.P. Lovecraft subsequently mentioned the accursed codex (also known as Nameless Cults, or the Black Book) in his “Out of the Aeons” (1935), written in collaboration with Hazel Heald (full text here), and “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936) (full text here).***
As the astral assignation between Dr. Strange and his venerable mentor winds down, the Ancient One tells Strange that forces intent on awakening the “cosmic obscenity that slumbers” are on the move all over the world; he himself is already engaged in battle with them, and he suspects that his disciple soon will be as well. “May the Vashanti [sic] guide us both!” declares the aged Sorcerer Supreme, as Strange’s spirit-self heads back to the Starkesboro hotel room where his body awaits…
Approaching the altar, Dr. Strange takes grim note of the attached chains, as well as the “dark, deep stains on its surface, which betray its blasphemous purpose.”
“…the shadowy serpent-folk of pre-cataclysmic Valusia!” Here we have our story’s second straight-from-R.E. Howard concept — one which regular readers of this blog (or fans of 1970s sword-and-sorcery comics in general) may well recognize, even if they don’t know their Cthulhu from their Tsathoggua. Because the serpent-folk are the bad guys in Howard’s 1929 “King Kull” short story “The Shadow Kingdom” (full text here), which had been adapted by Roy Thomas and Marie and John Severin in 1971 for the second issue of Kull the Conqueror. As to the scaly ones’ connection to the Cthulhu Mythos: following their appearance in Howard’s yarn, Lovecraft made an offhand reference to them in the aforementioned 1935 story “The Haunter of the Dark”, thereby neatly folding them into his own burgeoning mythology.
But what about Sligguth? you ask. Didn’t Thomas include Sligguth on his Marvel Masterworks intro’s short list of the “great Howard names” Marvel’s deal with Glenn Lord gave them the license “to toss around”? Well, yes, he did, but I’m afraid Mr. Thomas’ memory seems to have failed him on this point. As best as I’ve been able to determine, the name “Sligguth”, while reminiscent of Lovecraftian coinages like “shoggoth” and “Yuggoth”, is original to this story — and thus must have been invented either by Thomas himself, or by Archie Goodwin, just like the Thanatosian Tomes, the Black Sea Scrolls, and the twown of Starkesboro.
Windsor-Smith and Brunner’s handling of the revelation of the changed Bethel Doan is extremely effective, in my opinion — especially when you consider that the actual physical modifications to her countenance are quite subtle. It’s the expression on her face that conveys a sense of horror, as much or more than the suggestion of scales and the like.
The distraught Ethan Stoddard runs next door to the church, where his shout alerts Dr. Strange before the latter can proceed through the mysterious doorway. After hearing what’s happened, our hero asks his companion whether he’s ever been in this church before today…
This is probably as good as time as any to acknowledge what may of you reading this have already sussed out: namely, that the whole situation in Starkesboro — indeed, the whole underlying premise of our story — is pretty much lifted wholesale from Lovecraft’s novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (full text here), which was first published in 1936. That story depicts a small, isolated New England seaport whose natives have, over a period of many years, interbred with fish-like beings known as the Deep Ones — beings who bear malign intent towards us humans of the surface world — thereby producing a hybrid race. Simply swap out Starkesboro for Innsmouth, the Serpent Men for the Deep Ones, and Sligguth for the Lovecraft story’s aquatic deity Dagon, and you’ve got the makings of a Marvel Studios production of Dr. Strange Goes to Innsmouth.
Returning to our narrative, we find Ethan beginning to panic as the chanting from outside the church continues. He begs Strange to use his magical powers to save them, but the Doc says that’s not possible at the moment: “The evil miasma blanketing this building, this town — weakens my mystic strength, Ethan. It must be conserved for the moment we need it most.”
Doc heads up towards the rafters, hoping to break free of the church — but outside, the townspeople, Beth Doan now among them, intensify their efforts, joining hands as they concentrate:
And that brings us to the end of Marvel Premiere #4. If you were counting, the number of “concepts created by Robert E. Howard” on view in this story amounted to all of two — Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, and the Serpent Men of Valusia — though the Lovecraftian vibe was obviously quite strong throughout. One is driven to speculate that editor-plotter Roy Thomas would have preferred to go straight to the original source for his Cthulhuoid lore, but found the Lovecraft estate less amenable to this sort of thing than Howard’s (although Marvel had adapted individual Lovecraft stories prior to this, and would continue to do so). Still, in the end, so little “authentic” Mythos material comes through that you have to wonder why Thomas even bothered in the first place? Why not just resurrect the Undying Ones? (Yes, it’s true that Steve Englehart had already moved in that direction in the first issue of Defenders, published in May — but you have to figure that Thomas could have overruled the fledgling writer there, had he really wanted to.)
Not that my fourteen-year-old self had any of these concerns back in June, 1972. Already enthusiastic about the Cthulhu Mythos, I thought that connecting it with the Marvel Universe was a cool idea (and the concurrent implication that R. E. Howard’s imagined pre-history of Kull and Conan was also part of the Marvel Universe was perhaps even more cool). And it wasn’t like I’d read all of the Howard stories on Lin Carter’s checklist at this point, so I really didn’t have a firm grasp of which story elements were taken from his work versus being made up by Marvel. Yes, having already read “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, I was pretty sure that the whole Starkesboro business was simply a pastiche of Lovecraft’s tale — but the Thanatosian Tomes, Sligguth, etc., all could have been straight out of Howard, as far as I knew at the time.
As for the art, while I’d somewhat preferred the full Windsor-Smith pencils (as inked by Dan Adkins) that graced Marvel Premiere #3, I was still quite happy with the look of the book. (In retrospect, I think that my preference for #3’s art was driven primarily by my lack of familiarity with Brunner’s style, as well as by the relatively more mundane settings and situations that dominated issue #4’s action.) As far as I was concerned, the future of “Doctor Strange” in Marvel Premiere looked very bright indeed.
Of course, I might well have felt differently had I but known that, with the exception of editor Thomas, the entire creative team was about to change. In his 1999 CBA interview, Frank Brunner explained what transpired in the aftermath of his turning in his work for “The Spawn of Sligguth!”:
Next thing I know, I’m already late for the next book! I had only two weeks to do that. Archie had left, and Gardner Fox was the writer, he sent me a script, and I read it, and I said, “I’m not going to kill myself for this script!” Gardner was not working Marvel style, he was working DC style, and the story was dull! …It wasn’t just that it was full scripts; I just didn’t like the story, the way he was handling Dr. Strange. It wasn’t “cosmic.” It was like Dr. Strange was a detective who had magical powers.
In fact, although Brunner didn’t draw Marvel Premiere #5, he was nevertheless destined to return to the book before the whole Cthulhu Mythos-inspired arc was done — not just one, but twice. But further discussion on that topic — as well as on the eventual revelation of “the great one who slumbers“, Roy Thomas’ “best of all” of those “great Howard names” — i.e., Shuma-Gorath — will have to wait for future posts.
NEWS ‘N’ PLUGS:
This post is going up on Wednesday, June 28th. Usually, there’d be a second post this week, published on Saturday — but seeing as how we have the Fourth of July holiday coming up, your humble blogger is opting to take the weekend off in observance of the nation’s birthday, as well as my own. (Insert your own grim joke here about how many more birthdays either of us should expect to see, the way things are going.)
Our next post will be published ten days from today, on Saturday, July 9th. But if you just can’t bear going without “Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books” content for that long a stretch, please be advised that the second in a series of “Back to 1972” episodes of Ronald-Thomas Fleming’s Fantastic Comic Fan Podcast, featuring yours truly, is now available for your listening pleasure. (The first in the series is also still available, as is a Neal Adams memorial episode on which I appear along with several other guests.)
Have a great Independence Day, everyone! I’ll see you back here next weekend.
*Dan Johnson, “He’s a Magic Man: Frank Brunner’s Doctor Strange”, Back Issue #24 (Sep., 2007), p. 39.
**The GCD credits Windsor-Smith for the cover’s pencils, while Mike’s Amazing World of Comics attributes them to Brunner. Both, however, agree that the illustration was inked by Tom Palmer (which is the only bit of that information that your humble blogger would be willing to lay good money on).
***Three of these stories were adapted by Marvel Comics, as follows:
- “The Thing on the Roof” in Chamber of Chills #3 (Mar., 1973); script by Roy Thomas, art by Frank Brunner.
- “The Haunter of the Dark” in Journey into Mystery #4 (Apr., 1973); script by Ron Goulart, art by Gene Colan and Dan Adkins.
- “The Black Stone” in The Savage Sword of Conan #74 (Mar., 1982); script by Roy Thomas, art by Gene Day.