Last April, we took a look at Marvel Premiere #3 (Jul., 1972), which featured Doctor Strange starring in his first full-length solo adventure since the cancellation of his title back in 1969. In this issue, artist Barry Windsor-Smith and scripter Stan Lee introduced a mysterious new adversary for the Master of the Mystic Arts — a menace who was powerful enough to suborn one of the Doc’s oldest and most formidable foes, Nightmare, but who remained yet nameless and unseen at the episode’s conclusion.
More clues were forthcoming in the following bi-monthly issue, which we covered here last June. This one was drawn by Windsor-Smith in collaboration with relative newcomer Frank Brunner, while Archie Goodwin scripted from a plot by Roy Thomas; it saw the storyline take a turn towards cosmic horror, as Dr. Strange journeyed to the New England village of Starkesboro, whose half-human, half-reptilian inhabitants secretly worshiped the demonic entity Sligguth. However, Sligguth himself was no more than another servant of the same dark threat that our hero had first learned of in MP #3 — a threat that still remained nameless in this installment, though we at least learned a bit more about him — mostly courtesy of Doc’s mentor, the venerable Ancient One, who warned of the imminent return of “a cosmic obscenity that slumbers”. The issue ended on a cliffhanger, with Strange shackled to a stone altar, about to be sacrificed to Sligguth by the demon’s scaly celebrants:
Two months later, Mike Ploog’s cover for Marvel Premiere #5 indicated pretty strongly that this issue was going to pick up just where the last one had left off. Nevertheless, the splash page did bring us readers of August, 1972 a surprise, if only by way of the credits box — which informed us that Ploog wasn’t the only newcomer to the “Doctor Strange” talent pool. Indeed, virtually the entire creative team had been overhauled:
Replacing both the very familiar Windsor-Smith and rather less familiar Brunner on art chores were two talents I’m reasonable certain my fifteen-year-old self had never heard of before — mostly because the last time either of them had worked for Marvel Comics had been in the 1950s. “Irv Wesley” — the name was a pseudonym for Sam Kweskin — had spent the last decade or so working in other areas of commercial art, such as advertising. Don Perlin, on the other hand, had been turning out comics art — but for Charlton Comics, a company whose output I regularly ignored (to my later regret, but that’s the way it goes).
But while the writer of “The Lurker in the Labyrinth!” might be new to Doctor Strange, he was hardly new to your humble blogger; in fact, his name was probably as familiar to me as that of any other creator in the comics field, thanks to his work at DC Comics on such titles as Justice League of America., my hands-down favorite series in the formative years of my comic-book reading habit. I’d seen considerably less of his work in the last couple of years, however, since — as I’ve written about extensively in a previous post — DC had cut the veteran writer loose in 1968, severing a professional relationship that extended back to 1937. (To put it another way, Fox had been associated with DC longer than Superman had.) The break followed soon after Fox’s joining with a number of other freelancers (and one editor) in an unsuccessful effort to secure better working conditions; and while correlation isn’t the same thing as causation, it seems all but certain that Fox’s participation in this labor action was one major reason why his writing assignments at the publisher suddenly and completely dried up, even if it wasn’t the only factor.
However, Marvel’s Roy Thomas had been an admirer of Fox since his earliest days as a comics fan — he’d begun corresponding with the older writer in 1960, years before he entered the field himself as a professional. Upon finding himself in the position to offer Fox work at Marvel, Thomas did so; and the writer (who’d already sold several scripts to black-and-white comics publishers Warren and Skywald since being exiled from DC) agreed to give it a try. Subsequently, the 60-year-old veteran’s first script for the House of Ideas — the initial solo outing for the new Native American Western hero, Red Wolf — appeared in Marvel Spotlight #1, which arrived on stands in August, 1971. Soon after, Red Wolf was granted his own title, which Fox began writing with its second issue. That assignment was followed by Tomb of Dracula and, of course, “Doctor Strange” — with Fox’s first efforts on both features coming out on the same day: August 22, 1972.
Fox must have seemed to Thomas to be especially well-suited to the latter assignment — after all, Fox had co-created DC’s Doctor Fate was back in 1940, and, more recently, had scripted the early issues of that publisher’s mid-’60s revival of the Spectre — so he obviously knew his way around supernatural superheroes. That said, Marvel’s new editor-in-chief didn’t exactly hand Dr. Strange over to the elder scribe with no parameters as to what he could do with the character. For one thing, there was that shackled-to-an-altar cliffhanger from the end of Marvel Premiere #4 to be immediately dealt with; but beyond that, Thomas had set up a complex ongoing storyline with his plot for that issue, the scope and significance of which were indicated by the text that concluded MP #5’s credits box: “Featuring concepts created by: Robert E. Howard”.
As previously related in our MP #4 post, the conceptual basis for Thomas’ projected storyline actually had a lot more to do with Robert E. Howard’s fellow frequent contributor to the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales, H.P. Lovecraft, than it did to Howard himself — specifically, to the shared fictional background which linked many of the latter author’s horror stories, and would eventually come to be called (though never by Lovecraft himself) the “Cthulhu Mythos”. During Lovecraft’s lifetime, he’d invited several of his fellow writers of weird fiction — including Howard — to contribute to that Mythos through their own stories. And so, decades later, when Roy Thomas determined to take Dr. Strange in a distinctly Cthulhuoid direction, he arranged with Howard’s literary estate for Marvel to be able to draw on that author’s fiction for characters and concepts.
Perhaps the decision to tap the Lovecraftian well in this indirect manner, rather than simply license Lovecraft’s fiction outright, was driven by the sense that Howard — the creator of Conan the Barbarian — would be a bigger draw for Marvel’s readership than would Lovecraft himself Or perhaps the Howard people were easier (or cheaper?) to deal with than the Lovecraft people. In any event, this was the raw material that Gardner Fox — who himself had been a sometime contributor to the pulps (Weird Tales included), back in the day — was directed to work with as he came aboard Marvel Premiere as Dr. Strange’s new regular writer.
His first order of business, though, was still that cliffhanger. On the second page of Marvel Premiere #5, the identity of “The Lurker in the Labyrinth!” — actually, we’d better make that “lurkers” — is revealed:
Not to seem uncharitable, but our storytellers seem to be on shaky ground right out of the gate, as the very first glimpse they opt to give us of the sinister Sligguth is not only a long-range shot set within an ordinary sized panel, but is even further obscured by the presence of a secondary figure: Sligguth’s priestess, Ebora, whose very existence hasn’t been hinted at prior to this.
Still, this is obviously a big moment, as it’s in the second panel above in which the name of the storyline’s Big Bad — the “cosmic obscenity that slumbers”, as the Ancient One put it in MP #4 — is revealed for the first time. But just who or what is “dread Shuma-Gorath“? That’s just what Dr. Strange wants to know, as well (plus, the time Ebora will have to spend answering his question will give him a little extra time to figure a way out of his present plight)…
The name “Shuma-Gorath” — which I feel pretty sure was given to Fox by his editor, Thomas, rather than chosen by him — is indeed an authentic piece of nomenclature from the fiction of Robert E. Howard… though it appears only in an unpublished fragment of a tale rather than in a full-fledged story, and a King Kull story at that, rather than any of Howard’s works that are usually classed as Cthulhu Mythos stories.
Here’s the single paragraph in which Shuma Gorath (no hyphen, at least in the 2006 Del Rey edition) is ever mentioned by Howard. The name of the fragment from which it comes is “The Curse of the Golden Skull”, and the “He” referred to in its third-person narration is a sorcerer named Rotath, who’s just been dealt his death-blow by one Kull of Atlantis, and is presently lying on the floor cursing his fate:
He cursed all men living and dead, and all the generations unborn for a million centuries to come, naming Vramma and Jaggta-noga and Kamma and Kulthas. He cursed humanity by the fane of the Black Gods, the tracks of the Serpent Ones, the talons of the Ape Lords and the iron bound books of Shuma Gorath.
That’s it.* From the context, “Shuma Gorath” could be the name of a dark god or other demonic being — but it could just as easily be the name of another sorcerer. Or it might be a place-name. Indeed, it could even be the moniker of some modest mortal collector of “iron bound books”. Almost a century later, there’s no way for us to know. But it’s a good bet that whatever Bob Howard had in mind back in 1928 or thereabouts, the vast majority of people who might recognize the name Shuma-Gorath today would peg it as being that of a Marvel Comics supervillain of the cosmic-entity persuasion… and they’d be right.
But getting back to our story… Doc Strange hits on the stratagem of using his cloak of levitation to do what mere physical strength cannot — i.e., to lift him above the stone altar with enough force to pull his shackles free from the rusty bolts holding them in place. And whaddya know, it works…
It must be said that, for an ancient god-demon, Sligguth really isn’t all that. While he’s physically strong, and has enough magical mojo to temporarily make a fungus grow on Dr. Strange’s body (eww), our hero — whose mystic powers are at present supposedly severely dampened by the town of Starkesboro’s “evil aura” — is able to drive Big Green back into his labyrinth fairly quickly, employing such means as “the scarlet motes that are the Crystals of Cyttorak” to do so…
The half-human townspeople, who in Windsor-Smith and Brunner’s rendering were semi-scaly and eminently creepy, come across as cartoony to the point of being comical as depicted by Kweskin and Perlin; simply in visual terms, it’s a big letdown from the previous issue. Also, why doesn’t Ebora display any reptilian physical characteristics? The story offers no clues.
Ebora and the others make a hast retreat, leaving Stephen Strange alone in the desecrated church. But although almost entirely spent, physically as well as magically, the mystic master knows he has no choice but to pursue Sligguth into the labyrinth below. Meanwhile…
As with Shuma-Gorath earlier, “Kaa-u” comes from the writings of Robert E. Howard; mentioned briefly in the King Kull story “The Shadow Kingdom” (which had previously been adapted by Marvel for its Kull the Conqueror title), it had at least been specifically used as a place name (even if Howard himself never made any reference to “Shadowmen”).
For the record, this is Clea’s first appearance in her boyfriend’s solo feature since the cancellation of the Doctor Strange title in 1969, though she had turned up more recently in the “Defenders” series, in Marvel Feature #2 (Mar., 1972).
Clea quickly realizes that what she’s experienced is no ordinary dream, and goes immediately to Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Santorum. There, she and Strange’s servant Wong consult the Orb of Agamotto, and learn of the plights faced by both the Master of the Mystic Arts and his mentor…
The car? Jeez, if Stephen Strange had a ride available to him, how come he didn’t take it himself in the last issue, rather than traveling to Starkesboro by train? Oh, well, whatever.
Speaking of Starkesboro (not to mention Doc Strange), our hero continues to explore the tunnels deep beneath its surface, until…
Something that I didn’t really appreciate at the time I first read this story is that Perlin’s inking style recalls that of Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange’s co-creator and original artist — or at least it does in certain panels, such as the one above. I’m really not certain that this factor would have helped my younger self be more accepting of the change in artists from MP #3 if I’d noticed it then… but I suppose it might’ve, if only by a little.
Before Strange can fire off a spell, Sligguth slams him into a tunnel wall; and then…
Though I was generally disappointed by both the script and art in this issue back in ’73, I have to admit that this full-page splash packed a certain wallop, even then; after all, prior to this story, the Vishanti had been only a name. And though I’m not sure that I’d ever actually given any thought as to who they truly were, or what their “fleshly guises” might look like, I’m fairly certain that if I had, it definitely wasn’t anything like this.
The effectiveness of the Vishanti’s debut appearance is likely heightened by its brevity. But even though the “Eternal Ones” take their leave almost as soon as they’ve arrived, they do grant Stephen Strange one boon as they depart, by temporarily suspending “the evil aura that deprives the master of magic of his mystical strengths!” And it looks like that just might be enough to turn this thing around, since Doc is immediately able to summon the “Roving Rings of Raggador” — which he uses first to shatter the stone hands holding him, and then…
As the battle continues, Sligguth finds that neither his magic nor his physical might are enough to prevent Strange from binding him with those reliable ol’ Rings of Raggador…
Sligguth manages to break free of Raggador’s Rings, then slips away into the rising sea. When Strange attempts to prevent his escape, a crevasse opens beneath his feet. Almost immediately, it closes again, trapping the sorcerer from the waist down. And then, as the waters rise, threatening to drown our hero, here comes Ebora, prepared to bring on his demise even sooner by means of her pointy-tined trident…
Yes, it’s another cliffhanger. Of course, Gardner Fox set this one up himself, so it’s not like he had any basis for complaint.
The story continued two months later in Marvel Premiere #6, which featured another striking cover pencilled by Mike Ploog (though Frank Giacoia supplied the inks for this one), with interior art from penciller Frank Brunner (making a quick return after a one-issue hiatus) and inker Sal Buscema.
As we rejoin Dr. Strange, he’s hit upon the stratagem of ordering his cloak of levitation to rise and snatch Ebola’s trident right out of her grasp…
Strange makes it to the surface before his air gives out, but then is almost immediately pulled back down below by Sligguth…
Seems to me that it should be a little harder to end the life of an ancient demon-god than to simply hold its gills shut, but hey, I’m not a Master of the Mystic Arts. Another, perhaps more serious point of concern: Doc Strange is killing guys now?
When I first read this story arc back in 1972 and 1973, I had yet to read much of Robert E. Howard’s fiction outside of his Conan stories, and so I assumed that most, if not all, of the made-up names I encountered in these issues of Marvel Premiere were derived from Howard’s work. Such turned out not to be the case, however; as I’d eventually come to learn, “N’Gabthoth of the forgotten times”, like Sligguth before him, was purely a Marvel creation… though obviously inspired by the various demons and monsters of the broader Cthulhu Mythos, including the Big “C” himself.
Clea, Wong, and their new acquaintance Johnny Frames are quickly overcome by the sinister Starkesboroans, who carry them to a seaside cliff called N’Gabthoth’s Roost, there to be sacrificed to the very Shambler for whom the place is named. (Frankly, this whole situation reeks of redundancy. Shouldn’t one homicidal cult devoted to an an ancient demon-god be enough for Ebora and the other townsfolk? Sure, Sligguth’s dead now, but that just happened.)
Meanwhile, in the lost city of Kaa-u, the Ancient One has been sealed within a stone chamber. Even thus imprisoned, however, he’s able to reach out mystically to his disciple, Stephen Strange; and in doing so, he quickly senses…
Back in New England, Dr. Strange finally reaches dry land — immediately below N’Gabthoth’s Roost, as it turns out. Hearing chanting coming from the cliff top above, he levitates upwards until he sees Clea, Wong, and Johnny Frames lying shackled to a stone altar, awaiting the arrival of the Shambler from the Sea…
Y’ know, I can understand Frames being pants-wettingly terrified by N’Gabthoth’s approach, and even Wong, based on how he’d been characterized by Marvel’s writers up to this time. But Clea, who was born and raised in Dormammu’s Dark Dimension? I don’t think so.
Strange’s powers are still being suppressed by Starkesboro’s evil aura, and N’Gabthoth quickly blows him out of the sky. At that point, our hero figures that even if he doesn’t have the mystic might to defeat the Shambler, he can at least give the demon’s intended victims a fighting chance…
Ebola orders the Starkesboroans to subdue the escaping prisoners, and fisticuffs again ensue. Meanwhile, N’Gabthoth advances on the exhausted Dr. Strange, who figures his number has finally come up…
It may reasonably be said that Sal Buscema’s clean, direct inking style isn’t an ideal match for Frank Brunner’s more soft-edged, illustrative approach to rendering. Even so, there are plenty of individual pages in this story — the preceding one among them — which offer a glimpse of just how good Brunner’s “Doctor Strange” would become, not too many months in the future. And even the less impressive pages here represent a step up from the efforts of Kweskin and Perlin in the previous, issue, at least in my view.
Overwhelmed by the full might of the Master of the Mystic Arts, the Shambler turns and flees. With Dr. Strange in close pursuit, N’Gabthoth heads for the desecrated, and presently deserted, church; once there, he rips up some rotting floorboards…
The two adversaries set to battle once more, but it doesn’t go any better for N’Gabthoth this time than before; and so, after a page or two of magical pyrotechnics…
Are you wondering what the whole point of introducing Johnny Frames was, considering that he played no role in this issue that wasn’t quite adequately filled by Clea and Wong, and will never be seen gain after this? Yeah, me too. Considering that his whole shtick is an exact replica of Ethan Stoddard’s from Marvel Premiere #4 (a fact the story itself called out in an earlier footnote), I’m all but convinced that at some point during this issue’s construction, he actually was Ethan Stoddard — but then someone remembered that the unfortunate Ethan had gone scaly and evil in #4’s closing scenes, and thus he was transformed into the otherwise superfluous Johnny.
As for those now-vanished reptilian residents of Starkesboro — who presumably include the unfortunate Mr. Stoddard and his fiancé Bethel Doan, as well as Johnny’s betrothed, Deborah, and of course the human-presenting high priestess, Ebora — none of them appear to have ever turned up again in the Marvel Universe. The town of Starkesboro itself, on the other hand, would eventually reappear in a 1992 Captain America storyline, where it was revealed to now be overrun with werewolves. (Talk about a town that just can’t catch a break…)
Marvel Premiere #7 brought us readers of December, 1972 the next chapter of the saga, along with one more cover pencilled as well as inked by Mike Ploog… and another complete turnover in the interior art department, as three different inkers — Mike Esposito, Frank Giacoia, and Dave Hunt — applied their pens and/or brushes to finish the pencilled art of a young artist who, like Frank Brunner, was a relative newcomer to the field: P. Craig Russell.
The 21-year-old Russell, who wouldn’t start using his first initial “P” (for Philip) as part of his professional name for another few years yet, had only recently broken in at Marvel, via a brief apprenticeship working in the studio of former “Doctor Strange” artist Dan Adkins. At this point, Russell’s byline had appeared on a mere handful of stories: a couple of tales for the anthology title Chamber off Chills, two installments of the “Ant-Man” feature in Marvel Feature, and a single ill-fated issue of Conan the Barbarian.
The new creative team’s opening splash page of Marvel Preemiere #7 picks up right where the last issue left off, and doesn’t really provide us with any new information (unless you count the revelation that Dr. Strange was only speaking figuratively when he promised to send N’Gabmoth back into “that primal ooze” from whence he came, since that sure looks like the Shambler’s corpse lying there at our hero’s feet)…
Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist sharing this splash here, just because of Clea’s single line of dialogue: “What is it that disturbs you, Stephen?”
Three and a half years following the release of Marvel Premiere #7, Marvel published Doctor Strange Annual #1, featuring a 36-page story co-plotted by P. Craig Russell and Marv Wolfman, as well as drawn by Russell — whose artistic development in the intervening period had been considerable, to say the least. Some twenty-one years after that, in 1997, Russell collaborated with writer Marc Andreyko to re-work that story into a new 48-page graphic novel, which Marvel published under the title Doctor Strange: What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen?
For years, I’ve wondered why Russell chose that rather odd title for his 43rd opus; while the phrase does appear in Andreyko’s script (as the message in a Chinese fortune cookie), it doesn’t seem all that significant to the plot; and, indeed, it has no analogue in Wolfman’s script for Doctor Strange Annual #1. Naturally, my rediscovery of the phrase’s original appearance here — where it represents the first line of dialogue spoken on the very first page of published Dr. Strange art ever drawn by Russell — doesn’t exactly tell me why the artist borrowed the phrase from Fox’s script for his later work. Nevertheless, it at least provides me at last with its provenance — which is something to appreciate, a quarter-century down the road.
But to return to our narrative… At Wong’s suggestion, Dr. Strange decides to fly directly from Starkesboro to Stonehenge using his cloak of levitation, leaving Wong and Clea to follow after him using more conventional means of transport. Meanwhile, on the far side of the pond, sinister events are already afoot…
While I’m fairly certain that it’s not possible to copyright such a straightforward t linguistic construction as “Witch House”, I still feel obliged to note that Gardner Fox very likely picked the nomenclature up from a 1933 Cthulhu Mythos story by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”.
“Blondine”? Something tells me Gardner Fox didn’t exactly rack his brain coming up with a name for Uncle Jed’s… housekeeper.
Blondine shows Henry Gordon to his uncle’s study, inviting him to take a look through Jed’s impressive library of books on the occult arts while she goes to make him some hot tea…
This is the second appearance of Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults in this story arc, it having turned up previously in Archie Goodwin’s script for the Roy Thomas-plotted Marvel Premiere #4. As we discussed in our post about that issue, this imaginary tome is a genuine Robert E. Howard invention; we might also note that of all the Howard references used over the course of the saga, it’s probably the most authentically “Cthulhuoid”, seeing as how H.P. Lovecraft picked up on his friend’s creation and incorporated it into a couple of his own Mythos stories.
“Kalumesh” appears to be a coinage of Fox’s; its identity as a sunken land off the coast of Cornwall suggests that it may be inspired in part by Lyonesse in British legend, as well as by Lovecraft’s R’lyeh — not to mention other, better-known sunken realms such as Atlantis and Lemuria.
“Dagoth”, on the other hand, is straight out of Howard, though that bald fact really tells only part of the story. The name actually turns up a couple of times in Howard’s fiction, in both cases as part of a place-name: once in the Conan story “The Scarlet Citadel”, originally published in 1933, which briefly mentions (but doesn’t visit) “Dagoth Hill”; then again in a horror story unpublished in the author’s lifetime, “The Dwellers Under the Tombs”, which is set in part in the “Dagoth Hills”. In neither case does Howard explain the origin of the place-name, or indicate that it’s derived from that of a “demon-god”; and, indeed, the names are unlikely to have been intended by Howard to refer to the same place, as the first story is set in the imaginary Hyborian Age of Howard’s most famous hero, and the second in the modern American southwest. (Fox presumably picked up the name from the former tale, as “The Dwellers Under the Tombs” didn’t see print until 1976, four years after Marvel Premiere #7 came out.)
But while there’s no demonic entity named Dagoth in Howard’s fiction — or in Lovecraft’s, or in that of any other contributor to the corpus of prose Cthulhu Mythos stories, as far as I’m aware — there is a Dagon, who was first referred to in a story of the same name written by Lovecraft in 1917. Generally considered to be the first Cthulhu Mythos story, “Dagon” deals with a mariner’s experiences on a strange island thrown up from the ocean floor due to volcanic activity — experiences which include a sighting of a giant, vaguely humanoid monster that rises out of the sea. The name Dagon (which Lovecraft didn’t actually invent, but rather appropriated from that of an ancient Near Eastern god) later reappears in another Mythos story by Lovecraft, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936), where it refers to an aquatic deity worshiped by the half-human, half-fish hybrid residents of the fictional New England town of the story’s title. (As previously noted in our Marvel Premiere #4 post, Innsmouth and Dagon are obvious inspirations for Starkesboro and Sligguth in our present storyline.)
Did Robert E. Howard have his friend Lovecraft’s Dagon in mind when he came up with the name “Dagoth”? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But I strongly suspect that Gardner Fox did, when he developed the Marvel character to whom Howard’s coinage would be applied.
Returning now to our story… Realizing that it’s been over an hour since Blondine went to make tea, Henry Gordon leaves the study to go looking for her — and almost immediately finds something that leaves him stunned…
Henry begins to wonder if his Uncle Jed might have been a worshiper of Dagoth, and if he himself might have inherited his relative’s “evil taint“. But, after a good night’s sleep, he’s ready to look on the brighter side of things. Theorizing that Jed had been searching for sunken treasure in the remains of Kalumesh, Henry consults the books in his uncle’s library to determine the lost land’s likely location offshore. Accompanied by Blondine (who seems to take her responsibilities as a… housekeeper quite seriously indeed), he takes a small motorboat out to that area. Donning scuba gear, the two young people dive into the sea, and swim down into its depths. At first, it seems their search will prove fruitless, but then…
For my money, Russell’s Dagoth is the most effective and memorable character design we’ve yet seen in this whole storyline — and this splash, dominated as it is by the demon’s distinctive physiognomy, packs a wallop… despite it not really bearing much stylistic resemblance to the kind of work the artist would be producing after another year or two’s development.
Dagoth hurls a large stone at Doc Strange, intending to crush him — but our hero, no longer weakened by the evil aura of Starkesboro, uses his magic to toss it right back. The demon subsequently decides to take matters into his own hands, as it were…
Strange levitates himself and the two people he’s rescued out of the briny deep — and then, straight on to Witch House, in which he’s able to sense “dim traces of time-forgotten blasphemies!” Once they’re all safely inside, a semi-conscious Blondine begins to muurmur: “Great Shuma-Gorath! I hear thy call!” That’s Strange’s cue to open up the Eye of Agamotto that resides within his amulet, and then…
While Russell’s previous full-page splash panel, striking as it is, doesn’t give much of an indication of the kind of work the artist would be turning out in just a couple of years, this page’s dramatic, near-psychedelic layout offers a clearer glimpse of what was soon to come.
Exhausted, Blondine falls asleep. Dr. Strange tells a bewildered Henry Gordon that he should rest as well, while out hero keeps watch. Unfortunately, for some reason he doesn’t take the obvious precaution of making sure everyone stays in the same room…
“Kulthas” is another authentic Robert E. Howard coinage; in fact, it comes from the very same paragraph in “The Curse of the Golden Skull” as does Shuma-Gorath (and just as with the latter, Howard’s text offers no clues as to what or who Kulthas might be).
At this point, Clea and Wong — who for reasons not fully explained have driven to Penwallow in Cornwall, rather than Stonehenge in Wiltshire — arrive on the scene in their rental car…
Having rescued the people of Penwallow, Dr. Strange proceeds into the sea in pursuit of Dagoth…
“Yaggoth” appears to be another coinage of Fox’s, though it’s obviously derived from Lovecraft’s “Yuggoth” — the name of a planet on the edge of our solar system which may or may not be Pluto.
Meanwhile, beneath the waves… After another round of undersea rock-hurling, Dagoth once again hurls himself at Dr. Strange. This time, however…
“…never again to be seen in the lands of Earth“? Well, not quite. Proving that no Marvel Comics villain is so obscure or insignificant as to ever be completely forgotten, good ol’ Dagoth ultimately resurfaced a mere forty-nine years after his one and only previous outing, in the 2021 miniseries The Death of Doctor Strange. (He appeared to die in this miniseries as well… but hey, just wait another half-century or so, and see if he doesn’t make another comeback.)
And now, we’ve come at last to the ostensible main subject of this blog post, Marvel Premiere #8 — and hey, it’s only taken us a few more than 5,000 words to get here. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed the scenic route we’ve followed to reach this point.
“The Doom That Bloomed on Kathulos!” (no, not Kulthas; more on that in a bit) featured Gardner Fox’s fourth and final script for the “Doctor Strange” series. But while Frank Giacoia and Dave Hunt (though not Mike Esposito) remained on board as inkers, this latest installment of the Shuma-Gorath saga saw the arrival of yet another penciller: Jim Starlin, who also drew the cover. (For the record, the inks for the latter have been attributed to Tom Palmer.)
Like Brunner and Russell before him, the 23-year-old Starlin was a relative newcomer, both to the comics industry in general and to Marvel Comics in particular; that said, he was slightly better established than either of those peers. While several of his earliest Marvel assignments had (like theirs) been to illustrate short tales for Marvel’s anthology titles (Journey Into Mystery, in Starlin’s case), he’d also assisted with finishes for an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, co-pencilled an issue of Avengers, and fully pencilled three issues of Iron Man; more recently, as of Captain Marvel #26 (which like Marvel Premiere #8, came out in February, 1973), he was plotting as well as drawing the bi-monthly adventures of that title’s space-born super-hero.
Now, about “Kathulos”: Just like “Kulthas”, the name comes from Robert E. Howard’s fiction; its provenance, however, is a little more complicated. Howard’s first use of the name, at least as far as his published works go, was in the 1929 novella “Skull-Face”, where it belongs to an ancient Atlantean sorcerer. But then, in a 1930 letter to his fellow writer, H.P. Lovecraft opined: “It would be amusing to identify your Kathulos with my Cthulhu — indeed, I may so adopt him in some future black allusion.” And in a Cthulhu Mythos novella written that same year, though not published until 1931 — “The Whisperer in Darkness” — Lovecraft did indeed drop the name “L’mur-Kathulos”… though without explaining what or who that might be, or establishing any literal connection with his own Cthulhu. (As has already been noted, Howard himself used the name Kathulos at least one more time, in the posthumously published short story “Dig Me No Grave”, where its proximity to Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth strengthens its association with the Mythos.**)
Your humble blogger has no idea how much of this background Gardner Fox might have been familiar with; but I’d hazard a guess that the decision to replace “Kulthas” with “Kathulos” between issues #7 and #8 at least had something to do with the greater similarity in sound between the latter word and the name of the Great Old One who gives the Chtulhu Mythos its name, if nothing else.
Eventually, Doc and company make it safely outside — but our hero is certain that the danger won’t be over as long as Witch House still stands. And so…
Huh. Henry and Blondine have known each other for what… two days, tops? If I were Henry, I’d at least want a little more information about what the young lady’s duties as his uncle’s… housekeeper consisted of, exactly. But hey, maybe those two crazy kids will make it work.
Bidding Clea and Wong farewell, Dr. Strange takes once more to the air, levitating eastwards until he arrives at…
But almost immediately, Strange discovers that these demons’ “strange and awful blades” are able to cut through his “magical defenses” — which means he’ll need to go on the offense, and quickly…
Descending to earth in the middle of the stone circle, our hero soon notices a particular star “that is not quite a star” in the night sky. He recognizes it as “Kathulos — long felt to be a living entity in the occult world. Ancient tomes speak of it — as a wicked something beyond the range of mortal understanding!”
And as Dr. Strange finds himself first enveloped in, and then transported by living starlight, Gardner Fox’s storyline finally breaks the bounds of Earth — allowing Jim Starlin to cut loose with the kind of surreal, Steve Ditko-inspired imagery for which he’d soon become much better known. Or, to put it another way… we’re going cosmic, folks..
Gardner Fox may or may not have opted for the name Kathulos over Kulthas due to its greater phonetic resemblance to Cthulhu, but it must be said that, otherwise, “Kathulos of the Eternal Lives” bears little similarity to Lovecraft’s famous tentacle-headed, bat-winged, dreaming-in-the-depths-of-the Pacific creation. On the other hand, he does have certain qualities in common with one Vulthoom — an ancient and malignant Mars-dwelling entity created by Clark Ashton Smith for a 1935 story of the same name. In that tale, Vulthoom is described thusly:
Somehow, the thing was like a gigantic plant, with innumerable roots, pale and swollen, that ramified from a bulbular hole. This bole, half hidden from view, was topped with a vermilion cup like a monstrous blossom; and from the cup there grew an elfin figure, pearly-hued, and formed with exquisite beauty and symmetry…
OK, so the Venus flytrap-like construction at the end of Kathulos’ stalk isn’t exactly a “blossom”, and the being’s bald head is hardly an “elfin figure”. Nor is Vulthoom ever identified as being identical to the world his plant-self is growing on, as is Kathulos. Still, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate that the two entities share some imaginative DNA, given that Clark Ashton Smith was, like Robert E. Howard, not only a friend by correspondence of H.P. Lovecraft, but had also, like Howard, had made his own contributions to their friend and fellow author’s Cthulhu Mythos. (I should note here that although neither Smith nor Lovecraft ever explicitly linked Vulthoom to the Mythos themselves, later writers did in fact do so, according to Daniel Harms’ very useful Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia [Elder Signs Press, 2008].)
Kathulos once again attempts to strangle Dr. Strange with vines; but, even with his magical powers unavailable to him, our hero manages to break free, using his physical strength alone. The demon-planet is suitably impressed; still, he wastes no time in moving on to his next gambit…
Kathulos has perished; yet, Dr. Strange realizes that he can hardly claim victory. He’s now marooned on a dead planet, unimaginably far from home…
For my money, Marvel Premiere #8 is the most successful of the four comics we’ve discussed in this post, largely on the strength of Jim Starlin’s art (and in spite of Giacoia and Hunt’s inks being no more than adequate, at best). Indeed, the story works well enough that it might never occur to you to wonder what the whole deal was with that hidden coffer in Starkesboro — you know, the one with the old map showing Stonehenge on it, that N’Gabthoth was so intent on retrieving from under the floor of the desecrated church. I guess that maybe sometime in the past Shuma-Gorath had a premonition of Dr. Strange’s coming interference, and set all that business up just so he could eventually entrap the mage on Kathulos? That may seem like a stretch, I know — but frankly, it’s the best I can come up with without devoting a great deal more time and thought to the matter than I suspect Gardner Fox ever did.
Anyway, we’ve come to the end… not of our storyline, obviously, but rather of Gardner Fox’s four-issue stand as the writer of “Doctor Strange”. As best as I can recall, back in 1973 I wasn’t exactly sorry to see him go. As much affection as I had (and still have) for his 1960s DC work, his efforts here hadn’t quite done it for me. The ideas were OK, for the most part, as were the plot mechanics (with some obvious exceptions, such as the business discussed in the paragraph directly above), but the characterizations felt off — and, above everything else, the language was simply so purple and stilted that it was hard to get through. (I considered going through these issues page by page to count every time Fox uses the word “necromantic”, but thought better of it in the end.)
I’ve written at length elsewhere about the challenges that Fox faced in adjusting to the “Marvel method” of comic-book production after many years of working primarily for DC; and seeing as how this is already a lengthy post, I won’t rehash that material here. I will note, however, that one additional factor adversely affecting his Marvel Premiere run was what seems to have been an attempt on his part to emulate the overwrought prose style employed by H.P. Lovecraft in his horror tales; or, alternatively, the similarly over-the-top language of Stan Lee that may be found in the latter’s “Dr. Strange” collaborations with Steve Ditko. At least, that’s my best explanation for why Fox’s writing for Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts seems so turgid in comparison with his then still relatively recent scripts for DC’s Ghostly Guardian, the Spectre. (Maybe Jim Corrigan’s astral alter ego dropped the word “necromantic” a time or two, but I’d swear it didn’t show up every three pages or so.)
Gardner Fox continued to write for Marvel for several more months after leaving “Dr. Strange”, his work appearing in such titles as Red Wolf, Doc Savage, and Dracula Lives up through October, 1973 — and then he was pretty much gone, both from Marvel in particular and from the comics field in general. The sexagenarian author seems to have promptly redirected his time and energy straight into prose fiction (an area he’d always maintained as a sideline, even during his most prolific comics-writing years), turning out several straightforward “Conan” knockoffs (like the “Kyrik” novel whose cover is shown at right) over the next several years. If an interview he gave sometime later in the decade (eventually published in Amazing Heroes #113 [March 15, 1987]) is to be believed, he was actually pretty content with the way things turned out. I hope that’s true — both because of the deep affection I still hold for the author’s classic DC stories, and because at his age, he deserved not to have to worry about making a living. (Spoken as someone who was fortunate enough to be able to take a full and comfortable retirement at the age of 60, just so’s you know.)
As for Doctor Strange, his predicament at the conclusion of Marvel Premiere #8 would have to be resolved by a new team of creators, since Jim Starlin was making his exit at the same time as Gardner Fox. The next issue would see the third coming of none other than Frank Brunner, who’d be joined in his latest go at the series by another rising star — writer Steve Englehart, whose creative synergy with Brunner would ultimately result in a run of issues that still stands as one of the creative high points of Marvel Comics in the mid-Seventies. Like all great journeys, that run would begin with a single step — one we’ll be taking on this blog in two short months. I hope to see you then.
*In 1972, my younger self would have confidently told you that the name Shuma-Gorath also appears in another Robert E. Howard short story, “Dig Me No Grave”, which was published following its author’s death, in the Feb., 1937 issue of Weird Tales. I would have based this assertion not on my knowledge of the story itself, which I hadn’t read, but rather on my memory of the Marvel Comics adaptation of that story, which was written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Gil Kane and Tom Palmer. Appearing in the first issue of the second volume of Journey Into Mystery (Oct., 1972), this piece included a panel (shown at right) which is in fact the very first appearance of the name Shuma-Gorath in any Marvel comic, JIM #1 having beaten Marvel Premiere #5 to the stands by a whole month.
But here’s the thing; Howard’s original tale never mentions Shuma-Gorath at all. Here’s the relevant passage on which this panel is based:
“‘I could tell you things that would shatter your paltry brain! I could breathe into your ear names that would wither you like a burnt weed! What do you know of Yog-Sothoth, of Kathulos and the sunken cities? None of these names is even included in your mythologies. Not even in your dreams have you glimpsed the black cyclopean walls of Koth, or shriveled before the noxious winds that blow from Yuggoth!
“Yog-Sothoth” is a coinage of H.P. Lovecraft, as is “Yuggoth”, and one can see why Roy Thomas might have needed to steer clear of those names for legal reasons. But why not go with “Kathulos”, which is not only a proper Howardian name, but is one that would actually get used in a later episode of the current Marvel Premiere storyline, as we’ll see further on? My best guess is that Thomas already knew that he wanted Shuma-Gorath to be the main antagonist of the developing plotline, and figured that including it in this adaptation would help readers associate the name with Howard’s fiction… although of course it’s also possible that he simply preferred the sound of “Shuma-Gorath” to “Kathulos”.
**To make things even more complicated, Howard’s skull-faced Kathulos of Atlantis seems to be a reworking of another magic-working villain, Thulsa Doom, whom the author originally created for an unsold King Kull story named “Delcardes’ Cat” (which, as regular readers of this blog may recall, was adapted by Marvel in Kull the Conqueror #7 [Mar., 1973]). That story in turn featured a supporting character named Kuthulos (note the first “u”) — an enslaved scholar who also appears in “The Screaming Skull of Silence” (which was adapted by Marvel in Creatures on the Loose #10 [Mar., 1971]). It’s been theorized that Kuthulos may have originally been intended to be the main villain of “Delcardes’ Cat”, and that Thulsa Doom was a late addition to the story. (Is your head hurting yet? Well, join the club.)
Marvel Premiere #10 would be the first Dr. Strange comic I got, although I’d already become familiar with him from the Defenders. MP #10 was, IMO, a masterpiece of art & writing by Brunner, the Crusty Bunkers, and Englehart. Anyhow, much later I picked up most of the earlier .MP issues featuring the mystic mage, as well as 2 volumes of Essential Dr. Strange by which I got fully caught up at least through his 2nd self-titled series. A bit of a bumpy ride on MP before Englehart arrives and Brunner becomes the regular artist, their combo really bringing on the magic to the series. Kweskin’s and Perlin’s art didn’t do much for me, but Smith, Brunner, Russell and Starlin all provided some very fine artwork. Fox’s writing seemed a bit stodgy to me, but then so did Lee’s writing on MP #3 — I get the feeling that by his last year of writing comics regularly, Lee was pretty much just going through the motions, without the great zeal he seemed to have in the mid-60s. Much of MP 3-8 was a weird mix of older and newer talents, often seeming to be rubbing against one another. Still, Russell & Starlin made their two issues go over pretty well, IMO. Blondine & Henry’s relationship did seem a bit odd — in issue 8, Fox writes them as if they’d been together for years rather than having only recently met in the previous issue! Henry must have felt she was part of his inheritance. What a nice uncle to leave her for him! Or would she wind up sacrificing him for some nether god or other creature?
Enjoyed your overviews of this run, Alan.
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I was a baby comic reader and loved Defenders as soon as I found it and that transferred to Doctor Strange. I didn’t actually like this series though, not until Englehart took over. I had no idea yet who Fox was but bad is bad. Four of the artists however ren=main favorites to this day, Brunner, Perlin, Smith, and Starlin. Thank god I was a completist from the start or I might have missed Brunner blossoming in this series!
Oh and do I get a No Prize for suggesting Strange might have an aversion to cars following the accident that crippled his hands?
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Hmm… y’know, Steve, I think that just might work! 😀
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The switch from the moody, eerie introduction of Starksboro to the more action-oriented style of these next installments didn’t work for me either, much as I love most of Fox’s work. And yes, completely forgetting about Ethan and his brethren is odd too.
“Doom that bloomed on Kathulos” is a good finish though (and I love the sound of the title). I’d forgotten about Howard using the name in “Skull-Face” which is an excellent story. Though I think he owes more to Fu Manchu than Thulsa Doom.
My impression from reading the arc was that Sligguth & Co. were less servants than remoras to Shuma Gorath’s shark — he’s going to destroy everything, they hope to snatch up the scraps. But it’s been a while.
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I think the problem with Fox’s work on Dr. Strange is there’s no “flow” to it. Lee before him and Englehart after simply stated one of Doc’s many catch phrases as he unleashed some lightning bolt or other. There was no dense layering about the mechanics of the act. I was struck by how sort of monster/ horror the orientation of the whole Marvel Premiere series leading up to this point is. I think to myself no, no no, Dr. Strange isn’t horror and cults and monsters it’s supposed to be cerebral, thought provoking, incorporating metaphysical ideas. This is what made all those issues with Nightmare and Infinity stand out so much.
As far as the art it’s great to see Brunner’s early take on Strange, as you mentioned you can see it evolving into the masterwork it would become. Starlin is just made for a character like Dr. Strange as well and I was struck by how his version just immediately aligns with what’s been done before by Colan, Ditko, etc. Amazing.
Noticed a few trifling errors like Clea’s costume. I mean she’d been wearing the same outfit since the early 60’s. It was as standard a “super hero” outfit as anyone else’s. Yet several times by the various artists it’s depicted as a dress instead of tights and the colors are all wrong several times as well. Get it together, people!
A lot of the characterization of Strange seems off too. I don’t get the sense of the haughtiness, the brahmin sense of upper caste sensibility that Doc usually exudes. Especially hilarious is when, upon finding the ancient scroll at the end of issue 6 he exclaims “Hello!” Just so not doc.
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I don’t find him so much haughty as reserved. He’s a guy whose social biome as Stephen Strange World’s Greatest And Most Arrogant Doctor was probably not that great, then he spent decades of reclusive study with nobody but the Ancient One, Mordo, Hamir the Hermit and beings like the Vishanti to talk to. This is not a hill I would die on but it’s definitely a hill I will stand on.
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Decades? I always figured that Stephen’s initial sojourn with the Ancient One and friends lasted for a few months, at the most. Did I miss a retcon somewhere?
I think so to, months or maybe a year at most
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No retcon. Strange Tales 115 says his days of study became weeks, then months then years. Lost Generation established he began fighting evil years before the FF — the Marvel fandom wiki says seven years of study followed by a return to NYC in the 1970s.
OK, you got me on “years”, fraserman. Still, “years” is different from “decades”, which is what you asserted in your comment. 🙂
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You’re quite right. I was confusing the decades he’d spent as “master of black magic” — in contrast to the 15 years or so I believe the FF and Spidey have been around — with the time he’d spent studying.
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I don’t think Strange’s time training has ever been set in stone. I’m of the camp too that assumes becoming a master of the mystic arts would have to be a long process.
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I got these as back issues in the 90s. My first impression was that I really didn’t care for Fox’s work, but catching up on the details of it all here, it really doesn’t sound that bad at all. Not great perhaps, but not terrible either. Maybe Alan’s recap skipped a lot of purple prose, which made it better— do I dare go back and re-read it for myself?
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Marvel Premiere #10 stands head and shoulders above any of the other Issues. Even #9 doesn’t have the impact of #10, and #10 stands alone beautifully, even in a few moments recapping #9. It was a tour-de-force, and aside from a short framing sequence in #11, was a great lead-in to #1 – 5 of the series.
I think maybe you’ve forgotten about Marvel Premiere #12-14, Chris! 😉 Still a ways to go before Doctor Strange #1.
No, I recently reread them, but felt #10 and the framing sequence of #11, along with Dr. Strange #1 – 5 (though I believe the interior of #3 was reprint material), plus the covers and interior poster of the Dr. Strange treasury edition, were the height of the Englehardt-Brunner collaboration (aided and abetted by the Crusty Bunkers and Dick Giordano).
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Got it. Sorry, I misunderstood your earlier comment.
Thank you for another entertaining write-up, Alan. Since you mentioned P. Craig Russell’s efforts on Dr. Strange Annual 1 and his return to that story years later, I am surprised you didn’t mention that from Russell’s standpoint, he plotted the annual entirely on his own. The story has it he took his original art back and peeled off the word balloons to be returned as the writer’s share of the art. (This was during a period where Marvel gave a share of the art to the writer instead of returning it all to the artists.)
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Fox (and Howard Sherman)’s Dr. Fate had a lot of Lovecraft in its make-up,for example, The Fish-Men of Nyarl-Amen from More Fun Comics #65 in 1941, bad guys seemingly out of Innsmouth.
I think Thomas’s more “superhero-ish Dr Starnge from 1969 and ’70 probably borrowed a fair amount from the early, full-face Dr. Fate from 1940 and ’41.
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