For artist Frank Brunner and Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, the third time around would prove to be the proverbial charm.
As we’ve covered in previous posts, Brunner first brush with the Dr. Strange feature came with Marvel Premiere #4, for which he supplied finishes to pencilled art (mostly just layouts) by Barry Windsor-Smith. He returned four months later with Marvel Premiere #6, where his complete pencils were inked by Sal Buscema. But unhappy with writer Gardner Fox’s scripts, as well as with the overall H.P. Lovecraft-by-way-of-Robert E. Howard “cosmic horror” direction of the series (a direction we should note had been inaugurated by plotter-editor Roy Thomas in issue #4, and then continued by Fox), the young artist left again after only a single issue.
Evidently, however, Thomas was determined to get Brunner and Doc Strange together for a long-term relationship, no matter what it took. And so he offered the feature to Brunner one more time, with the added incentive that he could ask for anyone he wanted to write the book… or he could write it himself.
As the creator recalled in 2010 for his introductory essay in Marvel Masterworks — Doctor Strange, Vol. 5:
Even after I got the assignment to take over the art and stories on Doc’s new host title Marvel Premiere, I found it difficult to imagine my doing both the scripting and the drawing. I was having doubts, and certainly Dr. Strange was a character I did not want to mess up… either with deadlines or other distractions… I’d much rather be adding to the legend, and perhaps adding a new dimension (pun intended) to the already formidable efforts of Steve Ditko and Gene Colan.
…I looked around and took note of a young and new talent to the biz — writer Steve Englehart. He was too new to be jaded or have become a formula hack. Steve was conscientious and fast… and although he never studied the magical arts or any sort of mysticism he was a quick study! (Especially considering he grew up in suburban Indiana, where nothing mystical ever happens!)
In his own introduction for the same Marvel Masterworks volume, Englehart explained that he almost turned down the offer, as he was comfortable with the workload he had at the time — a workload that amounted to four and a half books a month (i.e., four monthlies and one bi-monthly). The timing was made even more dicey by the fact that the one bi-monthly title, Defenders, was about to go monthly as well for the duration of the upcoming “Avengers-Defenders War” crossover event, and Englehart was concerned about missing deadlines…
On the other hand, Frank Brunner, the proposed artist, had asked for me.
Frank and I knew each other sort of from a distance at that point. He was friends with guys who were friends of mine, so Frank and I would hit the same social events, and I knew from talking with him that he felt he had a lot more to offer on Doc than he’d been asked for on the two stories he’d drawn before. I didn’t know what that might be, but I respected his work and assumed it must be something.
So I rationalized. Doc’s book, Marvel Premiere, was bi-monthly, so it wouldn’t be much of an addition. And I already knew Doc from The Defenders…
Or did I?
Once I locked my brain around the idea of doing Doc on his own, I came to understand that I had been treating him as one part of a basically action-oriented team — but on his own, he lived in a more cosmic world. If I were going to write a credible Sorcerer Supreme, I would have to learn a little something about the cosmos. I couldn’t just do action stories and set them in another dimension and claim I’d done my job.
So this was going to require some work, and if I were going to add it to my load, I would frankly have to be sure it’d be worth the trouble. I got together with Frank to make sure my vision worked for him — and he explained his vision — and by the time we were done, I not only knew that we were very much on the same page, but that by throwing our visions together, we could create something greater than the sum of its parts.
And thus it came to pass that we readers of “Doctor Strange” opened the cover of Marvel Premiere #9 in April, 1973, to find ourselves greeted by the announcement not just of a new creative team — but of a whole new era:
“Ten years ago this month…” If you’re curious (as I was) as to whether Englehart accurately nailed the 10th year anniversary of Doctor Stephen Strange’s first appearance, allow me to assure you that he did. “Dr. Strange Master of Black Magic!”, a Lee-Ditko 5-pager that didn’t even rate a cover blurb, brought up the rear of Strange Tales #110 (July, 1963), which arrived on stands on April 9, 1963.
Also to be noted on this opening splash page is the credit — or, more accurately, the lack of credit — given to pulp author Robert E. Howard, which breaks precedent with the previous five issues. It’s an interesting choice, considering that both this issue and the next one will be devoted to wrapping up the extended storyline that has been running in Marvel Premiere ever since Stan Lee and Barry Windsor-Smith’s relaunch of the Dr. Strange series in issue #3, and that has carried a “featuring concepts created by” acknowledgement of Howard in every issue since #4 — and that will, in fact, continue to use Howardian concepts (or Howardian names, at least) like “Shuma-Gorath” and “Kaa-U” straight up to the very end. But Englehart and Brunner seem keen to establish a certain degree of independence from what has gone before right here, at the very start of their run; and editor Roy Thomas (who, as we’ve already noted, is the one who brought in the Lovecraft-Howard business in the first place) is evidently willing to oblige them.
“I shall levitate to the position of nirvana…” Doc Strange announces in the third from last panel above. And then does, just like that. Easy-peasy!
This moment serves as an early signifier of Englehart and Brunner’s mutual interest in bringing authentic elements of mysticism into the world of Marvel’s “Master of the Mystic Arts” — a world which, up to now, has largely been one of pure fantasy. One might well say that such a development was overdue in 1973, given the significant increase in public interest in alternative spiritualities that had emerged out of the countercultural movements of the 1960s. But while the creators’ intentions may have been pure, the casualness with which the very serious and complex religious concept of nirvana is handled here is a little troubling; it’s also a precursor of an even more problematic reference to Eastern religion we’ll get to a little further on.
UPDATE, 5/1/23: Over in the alternate dimension that is the Masterworks Message Board, commenter Blake Stone has just pointed out that Dr. Strange’s “Nirvana” line is a direct lift from one uttered by the Ancient One way back in Strange Tales #155 (Apr., 1967). Your humble blogger still believes that its re-use here reflects Englehart and Brunner’s intent to be more “kosmic” in their approach to the series than previous creators had been in general — but credit is nonetheless due Stan Lee for going there first.
The third member of this issue’s creative team, inker Ernie Chan, was not co-plotter/penciller Frank Brunner’s first choice of embellisher. As he notes in his Marvel Masterworks intro:
He [Chan] seemed dedicated… but he had a habit of making unfathomable changes to certain things in the pencils, like the trim design on Doc’s Cloak of Levitation. I spent the better part of a whole day up at the Marvel offices whiting it out and then re-drawing and inking it in as I originally submitted it. There was no time to take it back to my studio, the book had to go out to the engravers by 4 p.m. that day.
Setting aside the specific matter of the detailing on Doc’s Cloak, I have to agree with the artist that Chan-on-Brunner doesn’t make for the best look. My most basic and primal objection stems from the fact that the result of their collaboration simply doesn’t look enough like Brunner’s solo artwork to please me as a fan. (For an example of such work with which to make comparison, one need look no further than this very issue’s cover.) Another, and perhaps more subjective, concern is that Chan’s scratchily detailed rendering style — which I find quite effective on the more grounded fantasy of Conan the Barbarian (or Chan’s own later co-creation for DC Comics, Claw the Unconquered) — doesn’t work nearly as well for the surreal and hallucinatory milieu of “Doctor Strange”. (Naturally, your own mileage may vary on this point.)
All that said, I’m certain that, back in April, 1973, my fifteen-year-old self — who had few other examples of Brunner’s work with which to compare this story — thought that MP #9’s art looked just fine. Even in April, 2023, it’s really only in comparison with the later issues of the Englehart-Brunner “Doctor Strange” run — issues in which I feel the artist received more sympathetic inking — that the Brunner-Chan combo seems unsatisfactory.
“– it will perish in that explosion!” Luckily, Doc not only manages to re-enter his physical shell, but also has time to surround himself with a protective bubble of magical energy before the big blast…
Doc’s monologue is suddenly interrupted, as his force-sphere collides with a stream of colored objects that kinda look like jelly beans. Emerging from his bubble, our hero passes his hand through one of the objects, and immediately finds himself overcome by vertigo — though, thankfully, only for a few moments…
Dr. Strange quickly comes to recognize this monster as a demon that he and the Ancient One had fought and defeated together some years ago. (Despite the demon’s Ditkoesque design, it’s a brand-new creation of Englehart and Brunner, at least so far as I’ve been able to determine.) Baffled by the thing’s sudden appearance in deep space, Strange nevertheless fires off a few Bolts of Bedevilment to defend himself — only to see the fiend fade away as inexplicably as it had first arrived.
Before the sorcerer can even begin to work out what this might mean, another vision begins to manifest…
Once again, Dr. Strange finds himself alone amidst the stream of cosmic gumdrops…
We readers had last seen Clea and Wong hanging out in the fictional English town of Penwallow, Cornrwall, where Dr. Strange left them mid-Marvel Premiere #8 before proceeding alone to Stonehenge. Englehart and Brunner check in with the duo just long enough for Clea to declare that there’s nothing further that they can do to help Stephen, seeing as how his next challenge will be “a battle of masters” in which the two of them would be less than useless — so, hey, they might as well go home. Ah, well, at least the new creative team didn’t forget about the series’ only two supporting characters…
Our hero attempts to put a whammy on the two guards, only to find them already ensorcelled by someone else, which renders his spells useless against them. Even so, with a little help from his trusty Cloak of Levitation, Dr. Strange ultimately manages to overcome his foes by physical means…. and is therefore able to proceed unhindered into…
And now we come to the second and more problematic of our story’s references to real-world religion. I get where Englehart and Brunner are coming from in leaning into the whole Eastern mysticism vibe that the character of the Ancient One has exuded ever since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created him, but “the Living Buddha”? Really? One can hardly imagine the Marvel Comics of 1973 offering a similar character based on a religious tradition more familiar to Westerners — say, “the Living Christ”, or “the Living Moses” — especially when, as we’re about to see, this guy doesn’t exactly adhere to the core ethical principles common to all of the world’s great faiths.
But, of course, we’re still in the earliest days of the Englehart-Brunner run here, and we should probably keep that in mind. As Englehart himself acknowledges in his Marvel Masterworks intro, he still had a lot to learn about the cosmos at this juncture; fortunately, as Brunner notes in his intro, the writer would prove to be a quick study.
In 1973, very little of the background of the Ancient One, or of the history of his order, had been shared with Marvel’s readers; we didn’t even know his real name. (It’s Yao, if you need a memory jog.) So this was new and intriguing information. (Well, I was intrigued, anyway.)
The Shadowmen quickly swarm over Doctor Strange, who calls on his aged mentor for assistance…
If I recall correctly, I enjoyed Marvel Premiere #9 well enough when I first read it, half a century ago. I liked the Brunner-Chan art, and I also appreciated Steve Englehart’s way with words (although my fifteen-year-old self would probably have had a hard time trying to explain just what it was about Englehart’s scripting that made it an improvement over Gardner Fox’s). But I was also somewhat taken aback by the general downplaying, if not outright jettisoning, of the Lovecraftian plot elements that had dominated the story arc to this point. Shuma-Gorath was a creation of the Ancient One’s mind? That was rather reminiscent of a Thor storyline from a couple of years before (you’ll remember it, I’m sure — it was the one where the villainous Infinity turned out to be a dark portion of Odin’s soul)… but it didn’t seem very Cthulhu Mythos-y — at least, not to me.
Fifty years later, I probably like the art a little bit less (though, as I’ve already said, that’s really only by comparison with what would soon follow), and the story a good deal more. That revised assessment probably has just a smidge to do with the fact that Shuma-Gorath would in fact turn out to be rather more Lovecraftian than this issue’s cliffhanger implied; but it’s much, much more due to the fact of MP #9’s being the launching point for what is to this day (and will likely always remain) my single favorite run of post-Lee/Ditko Doctor Strange comics. What a long, strange (no pun intended) trip the next couple of years would bring — though a trip well worth the taking, for sure. I look forward to making the journey again in your company.
I missed this one when it was new, although I did fill in that hole years later, when I had the chance. I did get the follow issue. In the Marvel Masterworks Forum I mentioned how Captain Marvel #27 blew my 10 year old mind 50 years ago. By the time I got Marvel Premiere #10, I’d turned 11, but that issue likewise blew my mind with the writing and art. Stunning in the best way imaginable. Brunner’s art shines in M.P. #9 too, even through Chan’s problematic inking, but, yeah, with the assistance of the “Crusty Bunkers” on #10, Brunner’s work comes through that much more magnificently. Even though Englehart, Brunner & Starlin were all still fairly early in their careers, IMO they all helped produce some of the best comics of 1973, art & storywise. Sure, a few questionable bits, but overall still excellent work. Admittedly, 50 years ago, I wasn’t overly discriminating in purchasing my favorite titles when I had enough change in my pockets. Some of what entertained me sufficiently in 1973, I now look upon as dreck or maybe so so at best. But I was also beginning to appreciate better writing and artwork when I came across it. Brunner & Englehart made for an, ahem, magic pairing. Good on Thomas that he made the offer to Brunner to get him back on the title, and on Brunner for picking Englehart to write it, and on Englehart for upping his game to do the research and take the time to collaborate on creating even better stories than he’d done before.
And a very fine overview of this mag and the behind-the-scenes stories behind it, Alan!
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If it makes you feel any better, “buddha” is not a proper name, but a term, meaning “enlightened one.” Siddartha Gautama was born in Nepal and died in India, and was called “Buddha” – sort of like Mohandes Gandhi being called Mahatma (“great soul”) which was not his name.
Brunner’s drawings were still a bit wobbly at this time, but by #10 he was well-anchored by the Crusty Bunkers (and solely by Dick Giordano in the subsequent series).
The shadow men bear some resemblance to the green characters that Apu (Sabu) encounters in the landmark 1940 fantasy film, “Thief of Baghdad.” They also inspired some green gents in the 1973 “Golden Voyage of Sinbad.” I suspect Englehart and Brunner had seen both films.
I’m well aware that “the Buddha” is a title, rather than a proper name. The same can of course be said of “the Christ” (Greek for “the anointed one”). But I feel pretty confident that 99.9% of people will assume you’re talking about a specific individual whenever you use one of those titles.
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I discovered Brunner’s work on Doctor Strange a few issues into this run (don’t remember which one, but I’ll know it when I see it) after the addition of the Crusty Bunkers and I vaguely remember trying to express my love of the art work, by telling someone, “Look! He draws like Neal Adams!” Oh, from the mouths of babes and otherwise uninformed fifteen year olds, am I right? I wasn’t able to pick up every issue as it came out; the Jr. Food Mart that was my major source of comics had a small comics rack and it was never terribly well-stocked, but I got what I could and enjoyed them all. It was from Englehart and Brunner that I gained what knowledge I had of Doctor Strange and after their run, wouldn’t pick up the book again until Chris Bachalo got his hands on it many, many years later. Like I said last week, I follow the art.
As for this particular story, Englehart’s script seems to have a bit more meat on it than Fox’s did. More of a through line for both Stephen and the reader, as we are given a clear goal in what Doc has to do and a reason for doing it. Chan’s inking was interesting here. At times, he seemed to be trying to make the art look like Ditko’s, while in other places he came closer (and sometimes not so close) to Brunner’s actual style. Chan was certainly talented, but he and Brunner did not suit one another.
All in all, an enjoyable story and the beginning to one of my favorite runs on Doctor Strange. Thanks, Alan!
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Hey, Alan: I loved this run on Dr. Strange by Englehart and Brunner. I bought most of these when they were new, and I re-read them just a few years ago. But the first thing I thought when I started looking at this post was: Ernie Chua?! You’re kidding me! And you addressed this by echoing my exact thoughts. Yeah, Chua (or Chan) was good as an inker on Conan, and his pencils/inks on Claw were just fine. But I basically quit reading Batman when he took over the art chores. He was not a good fit for that character, and not a good fit for Brunner’s Dr. Strange. Fortunately, we’d see some much better inking on subsequent issues of this title and the rebooted Dr. Strange title that immediately followed it.
Despite that one complaint, this remains one my favorite comic book series (about 6 issues of Marvel Premiere and 4 issues of Dr. Strange) of all time. Marvel was on a roll during this period with Jim Starlin’s first Thanos saga in Captain Marvel (with some scripting help by Mike Friedrich and Englehart), Don McGregor’s Black Panther (with art by Rich Buckler and Billy Graham), Buckler’s Deathlok, Starlin’s Master of Kung Fu, and Englehart’s Celestial Madonna story arc in The Avengers. What a great era for comics, especially at Marvel (not dissing DC here, btw, but the Distinguished Competition had it’s peak starting in late 1970 and ending just as Marvel was getting re-energized with new creative talents in 1973).
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Englehart’s run on Dr.Strange really was incredible. Brunner was fantastic too but it was Englehart, all the way through that whole magnificent run up to Doc #18, I believe. Things like commenting on “Four days of nothingness! Four days!” , comments that made it seem more like something he’d actually experienced. Same with his comment “The destruction of a Planet!” Makes it seem more real, that sense of awe. I love the writer’s own acknowledgement that he’d previously just viewed Strange as a Superhero who “shoots rays out of his palms.” Now and in upcoming issues Doc would be more contemplative, more varied and nuanced in his approach, employing his mind, his astral projection far more than the “point and shoot ” motif. This is just the beginning folks, some of Comic’s best work ever being brought back to life in the coming months! Thanks Alan once again.
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While I still prefer Lee/Ditko, Englehart’s run is a solid second. I didn’t catch it originally — indeed a friend of mine and I were quite puzzled when one of Marvel’s calendars quoted a later issue (“Sise-Neg — Genesis — Is God!”). It was only in the age of TPBs that I found it.
I agree, “Living Buddha” makes me wince.
I had some problems with the following issue’s explanation of Shuma-Gorath’s plans but I’ll save it for that review.
I believe this is the first story to state that “Ancient One” is a rank of sorts and that the Ancient One was part of a fellowship rather than simply a really powerful, heroic sorcerer. It’s like a dry run for all the later stories that play up Swamp Thing, Iron Fist or the like as legacy heroes carrying on an ancient heritage.
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There was a cheesy sci-fi movie released in 1967 called “Dimension 5” in which Harold ‘Oddjob’ Sakata played a villain called Big Buddha. More cultural insensitivity from the West, I suppose.
Saw that one for a book I wrote on time-travel films. Yes, “Big Buddha” made me wince. On the plus side, Frances Nuyen.
“While I still prefer Lee/Ditko, Englehart’s run is a solid second.”
Actually, I feel the same way. Somehow, I added the qualifier “post-Lee/Ditko” in my head without actually writing it into the post. I’ve made that correction, now. 🙂