Review by Graham Johnstone
The chronological completeness of Marvel’s Masterworks volumes doesn’t seem such a good thing on this fourth collection of Doctor Strange. Nine issues by Roy Thomas and the acclaimed Gene Colan/Tom Palmer art is team split across the previous and current volume. Here we get only their final three stories before a rapidly revolving door for artists and writers.
Thomas’ writing had become stronger, and here he takes foes from the Ditko years, Nightmare and Eternity, and casts them in different roles. Colan’s art is literally breathtaking. If Ditko created a window into other worlds, Colan throws us into them and some of the most dynamic artwork and wildest layouts seen in the medium create a dizzying rush. Palmer’s inks add film noir lighting and an almost photographic realism to the characters and real-life elements. In 1968, this combination may have added up to the best legal high to be had. It may have been too much for some readers though, as the series was cancelled at this point.
Perhaps chasing sales, Thomas had moved the focus from alternative dimensions to earth threatened by Lovecraft inspired ancient evil. He continued this narrative across other titles he was writing: Sub-Mariner, The Incredible Hulk, and into the launch of The Defenders. An additional short in the latter served to bring Doctor Strange back out of retirement, and while Thomas deserves credit for his enterprise in keeping the character in print, the compiled result is a patchy read. Artists on these Marie Severin, Herb Trimpe, and Ross Andru were all rated in their day, but quite different in style, and tone from Colan/Palmer and no match in quality. The less subtle colours on these episodes are also exaggerated by Marvel’s ‘faithfully’ restored colouring not allowing for the effect of the better paper and printing.
The relaunch proper of Doctor Strange suggested investment in the character, with Lee himself scripting the first story – Barry Smith’s stylish take on an old adversary. Smith had grown into an impressive artist over the early issues Conan, adding an elegance to the barbarian stories actually more impressive in hindsight. After this, the mood returns to the Lovecraft model of the later Roy Thomas stories. Smith contributes once more – he’s good on Strange and the magical effects, but less so on the everyday scenes required. After this, we’re back to the revolving door of writers and artists. Early art by Frank Brunner and Craig Russell hints of their future success on the title, though Jim Starlin’s more monumental style better survives the heavy inking. Irv Wesley (Sam Kweskin) recalls Bill Everett and Marie Severin’s charming work in volume 2, but collected here seems off-key. Gardner Fox stops the writers’ door revolving, to drag us through routine encounters with a string of followers of off-stage evil Shuma-Gorath. The latter is from Robert E Howard’s Kull stories, which may interest some, otherwise these become a chore to get through.
The Colan/Palmer run is a high-watermark for Marvel, and collected would be a desirable item. It’s available, along with all of this and the previous volume, in the black and white Essential Doctor Strange volume 2. The quantity of weaker work here, and the inflated prices currently sought for both these out of print editions, though, will deter all but the staunchest fans. More editions may follow the film.
Doctor Strange Epic Collection: A Different Reality is already scheduled, and includes all of volume 4, and part of volume 5, strangely stopping immediately before the return of Colan.