Saturday, 4 March 2023

Captain Marvel: Part 2

MARVEL COMICS MIGHT HAVE OWNED THE NAME CAPTAIN MARVEL, but I'm not entirely sure writer Stan Lee quite knew what to do with the character, after publisher Martin Goodman insisted the superhero be added to the company's lineup. After writing the first appearance himself, with the ever-capable Gene Colan on art, he handed the reins over to Roy Thomas, for me an indication that Stan didn't have a great deal of faith or interest in the project.

The first appearance of Captain Marvel in Marvel Super-Heroes 12 was scripted by Stan Lee. With the second appearance, Roy Thomas took over as writer.

For the origin and background of Captain Mar-Vell, Stan drew on the concepts of the Kree, an alien race first mentioned in Fantastic Four 64 (Jul 1967). And in setting up the background for Mar-Vell's story, he fell back on one of his favourite devices, the three-way romantic triangle - The Captain, his love interest Medic Una and the dastardly commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg. 

There's not a great deal of plot in the first Captain Marvel story ... what there is is pretty well outlined in the above two pages.

The Captain's here to investigate the destruction of Kree Sentry 459 at the hands of the Fantastic Four, and if necessary, punish the guilty. But the Captain's presence inadvertently interferes with a missile test and within moments he has the US Army hunting him. He disguises himself as a human and registers at a nearby seedy motel under the name of "Marvel" ... and that's pretty much it. Make something of that, if you can, Roy Thomas.

There's a lot more going on in Roy Thomas' take on Captain Marvel - Mar-Vell gets a secret identity, we meet Carol Danvers and witness the return of Sentry 459.

And to be fair, Roy does a bit better than that. Though he has an expanded page count (increased to 20 from the previous issue's 15), he still manages to pack every page with action, plot advancement and menace ...

Colonel Yon-Rogg's enmity towards Mar-Vell accidentally becomes the means by which Captain Marvel acquires the human persona of Walter Lawson. Yon-Rogg tries to blast Mar-Vell with the Kree ship's laser cannon, only to destroy the light aircraft bringing Lawson to the US Army missile base to take up a post as head of research. Lawson is killed in the blast, allowing Mar-Vell to assume his identity. Entering the base as Lawson, Mar-Vell meets Carol Danvers, who will loom large in later iterations of the Captain Marvel saga. It's also revealed that the remains of Sentry 459 have been transported to the base from the Pacific island where it had its fatal encounter with The Fantastic Four.

The only thing I wasn't mad keen on was Paul Reinman's inking, ill-suited to Colan's punchy and atmospheric pencils and not a patch on Frank Giacoia's inks in the previous issue.

If you bought Marvel Super-Heroes 14 for the next episode of Captain Marvel, then you were destined for disappointment. You got an inventory Spider-Man story from Ross Andru and Bill Everett instead.

At the end of the instalment, there's the standard Next Issue blurb, telling us to expect more of the same in Marvel Super-Heroes 14 ... except that's not what we got. With the sudden and dramatic expansion of the Marvel line in the spring of 1968, Martin Goodman evidently felt that boosting Captain Marvel into his own title would further reinforce his claim to the character's name (and he was also looking to expand the comics line so he could get more money from the prospective new owner of Marvel, Marty Ackerman) ... so that's what happened. I've discussed the 1968 Marvel explosion elsewhere in this blog, so I won't go over the same ground again, but instead of putting the next Captain Marvel story in Marvel Super-Heroes, Goodman ordered Editor Stan Lee to prepare an additional title, Marvel's Space-Born Super-hero, Captain Marvel, which debuted on 8 Feb 1968, cover-dated May 1968, the same month that Iron Man and Sub-Mariner got their own titles.

Despite having a full two months to prepare Captain Marvel 1 (May 1968) for publication, the whole affair feels very rushed, both storywise and artwise.

Roy Thomas and Gene Colan continued the story started in Marvel Super-Heroes, though this time, Colan's pencils were inked by Vince Colletta, probably one of the least sympathetic inkers on Marvel's roster. But somehow, this time, there doesn't seem to be enough story the fill the 21 pages allocated to the last chapter of the story. Essentially, it mostly a battle against the Sentry, peppered with jump-the-shark lines like "He doesn't realise I modified my [jet] belt." and "I did indeed modify the uni-beam". There's also a quick scene back on the mother-ship where Medic Una tries and fails to escape her bonds, and in the latter half of the battle outside the missile base, Captain Mar-Vell once again meets Carol Danvers, the base's Head of Security.

Despite 16 pages out of the 21 pages being taken up with battle action, Roy Thomas still manages to squeeze in scenes with the two important female characters.

Needless to say, The Sentry is defeated, Mar-Vell is accepted as a hero and the title is on the schedule as a monthly. Given that Colan's art does looked awfully hurried , you have to wonder what issue 2 is going to look like.

Tick,tick,tick ... Mar-Vell must defeat the Super Skrull if he's to prevent his own nuclear briefcase from annihilating the US Army missile base and everyone on it.

Well, to be honest, it looked a lot like the previous issue. Vinnie Colletta was still there on inks, doing as little as he could get away with, but Roy Thomas was gamely trying to include more story and less fighting. The plot had the nosey night clerk from the motel "Walter Lawson" was staying at - the one who was snooping around in Mar-Vell's room and finding the standard-issue Kree attache case - deciding that he should turn the case over to the military. What he doesn't know is that in fiddling with the case, he's armed a nuclear device that will destroy everything in a ten mile radius within two hours. Meanwhile, the Skrulls are wondering what a high-profile Kree warrior like Mar-Vell is doing on a backwater planet like Earth, and despatch the Super-Skrull to find out. Yes, you guessed it ... the Super-Skull tries to force Mar-Vell to explain himself, preventing our hero from disarming the nuclear explosive in his attache case. So Roy wasn't altogether unsuccessful here. Penciller Gene Colan does some great action sequences, but there's a lot of three and four-panel pages, to stretch the still rather thin material out to 20 pages.

Mar-Vell finally defeats the Super-Skrull by using the same method Mr Fantastic used in FF2 ... (spoiler alert!) he hypnotises the alien into forgetting who he is ...

Captain Marvel 3 (Jul 1968) has more of the same ... capturing Mar-Vell, the Super-Skrull takes his prisoner to his Skrull ship and tries to extract the secret of Mar-Vell's mission - though it's little more than a three-page recap of the previous chapters of the Kree warrior's story. But Mar-Vell breaks free and leads his enemy up to the edge of Earth's atmosphere, where Mar-Vell's jet-belt begins to fail. Thinking his foe doomed, the Super-Skrull returns to Earth to recover Mar-Vell's attache case (remember that?), while Mar-Vell manages to reach the invisible Kree ship. There's some more obligatory argy-bargy with the mean Yon-Rogg, then Mar-Vell wins permission to return to Earth and beat down on the Super-Skrull some more.

Captain Marvel finally defeats the Super-Skrull - using the time-worm hypnosis trick -and disarms his nuclear briefcase. And that's it for another month.

The following month, in Captain Marvel 4, our hero finds himself trapped in an almost identical plot, except this time the one preventing him from saving the Earth is Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.

My guess is that at the beginning of the Captain Marvel run, Stan had mandated that he battle a few established Marvel characters first to help with sales and to show the readers where in the power pecking-order Mar-Vell stood ...

Namor is on his way to seek help tracking down his enemy Destiny from, of all people, Reed Richards (see Sub-Mariner 3, Jul 1968). At the same time, a test missile is being launched from the base where Mar-Vell poses as Dr Walter Lawson. The missile will carry bacteria into orbit to test their resilience to cosmic rays. But the missile goes off-course and crashlands in the sea close to New York. Mar-Vell hurries to destroy the payload before all of New York is drenched in deadly microbes, and The Sub-Mariner sort of gets in the way.

These last few issues have seemed a bit "by-the-numbers", as though Thomas and Colan were just trying to get a task off their to-do list as quickly as possible. I suspect Stan Lee may have mapped out the course for the first few issues, which Thomas just had to follow. Likewise, it's far from Colan's best work. Compare what he was doing over on Daredevil at the same time (issue 43 came out the same month as CM4) and it's a very different kettle of artwork. And adding to the pressure was the 25 pages of artwork Colan turned in for the Madame Medusa story in Marvel Super-Heroes 15 (Jul 1968). Colan had already dropped Iron Man from his workload a couple of months earlier, and Captain Marvel 4 would be his last issue. The following month he'd take over Doctor Strange from Dan Adkins and that was an assignment that really played to Colan's strengths. Besides, it would have sublime Tom Palmer inking.

Just some of the highlights of Drake's stint at DC ... the Jerry Lewis comic with camp counsellors as Nazis caused less furore than you might imagine.

Captain Marvel was not to be stopped, though. Issue 5 came with a change of personnel. The scripting was assumed by Arnold Drake, who'd toiled for 15 years at DC on strips like Challengers of the Unknown, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and most notably Doom Patrol. It was Drake who had confronted Irwin Donenfeld back in the early 1960s, when Marvel was making inroads on DC's sales. Drake had tried to explain to the DC Editorial Director that times were changing and so were the comic audiences. DC needed to change with them if they were going to complete with Marvel Comics. The DC management still weren't listening as Marvel Comics overtook them in sales, and Drake left DC - quit or was shoved, accounts vary - and started working for Marvel around the beginning of 1968.

On paper, Drake probably looked like a good fit to Stan, who was in dire need of experienced writers to help with Marvel's virtually doubled-overnight output. But as I noted in my earlier piece, Drake had realised that Marvel were doing something right, but he struggled to articulate exactly what that was. "Pitch the books at an older readership" is a manifesto, not an instruction manual.

Experienced though Arnold Drake was, he couldn't quite put his (typing) finger on the authentic-sounding Marvel "tone", and as a result, his third scripting job under Stan's editorship rings a little bland.

So it's not surprising to me that Captain Marvel 5 (Sep 1968) could easily have been published by DC. I mean, there's nothing wrong with it ... the story moves along and the dialogue is serviceable, if a little ponderous in places, like a not-very-good pastiche of Stan's writing. But Drake is just finding his feet here - this is his third script for Marvel after Captain Savage 5 and X-Men 47 - so it wouldn't be fair to be too harsh, at this point.

On the other hand, the Don Heck art job was extremely serviceable. At this point in Marvel's history, poor Don had been abandoned to a certain extent. After losing his regular Avengers gig to John Buscema with issue 40 (May 1967), probably under the pretext that he had the 54 pages of Avengers Annual 1 (Sep 1967) to pencil. He returned to Avengers for a fill-in on issue 45 (Oct 1967) and was then assigned to X-Men, one of Marvel's poorest selling titles, from 37 - 55. We know this because when Marvel managed to hire Neal Adams, he asked Stan, "which is your worst selling title?" ... and when Stan said, "X-Men", Adams said, "I'll draw that, then." When Adams took over X-Men, Heck was left with pencilling Amazing Spider-Man 57-64 & 66 (Feb - Nov 1968) over John Romita layouts, Captain Marvel (reassigned to Gil Kane with issue 17, Oct 1969), Captain Savage (reassigned with issue 17, Nov 1969). It's almost as if someone had decided that Heck's services were no longer needed at Marvel. So by the end of 1969, Heck would pack up his pencil and head off to DC where he was better appreciated, drawing great female characters like Batgirl, Rose & Thorn and Wonder Woman.

The monsters come thick and fast in Captain Marvel 6 ... it reads a little like Drake delivered a story synopsis front-loaded with too much story and Stan added the action sequence to kick things off.

The following month, Captain Marvel 6 (Oct 1968) gave us not one, but two monsters of the month, behind the Don Heck cover. The first was featured in a spurious action sequence opener for the issue where Mar-Vell battled a simulated monster in a Kree virtual battle exercise. The second is the solar energy generated Solam, and energy beast created by a visiting scientist's ill-considered "tampering with the unknown" style experiment. Captain Marvel defeats the second monster by over-feeding it with energy, a tactic that's been used before in the Marvel Universe ... a No-Prize for the first reader who can identify where.

Captain Marvel's persistent thwarting of evil Yon-Rogg's plan are a bit more interesting than the battle with the obligatory monster ... this month, Quasimodo.

Captain Marvel 7 (Nov 1968) cover-starred Quasimodo (last seen battling the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four Annual 5 (Nov 1967) drawn by John Romita, but Drake's script brought a bit more of Mar-Vell's melodrama to the proceedings. First, Captain Marvel faces the accusations of Yon-Rogg (again) for helping the Earthlings defeat last issue's Monster-of-the-Month. Yet, even Ronan the Accuser is unable to make the charges stick. Next up, Yon-Rogg, tiring of Carol Danvers' ongoing investigation of "Walter Lawson" resolves to disintegrate her with a blast of cosmic rays from his ship's cannons ... but Mar-Vell contrives to save her. The rest of the issue has Mar-Vell battle Quasimodo and thwart Yon-Rogg's orders to wipe out a random Earth community with a deadly virus, by appearing to "kill" Quasimodo's humanoid robots with the bacterial sample ...

This was the first issue where I felt that Drake was daring to develop the characters and the backstory a bit ... exposing the real Walter Lawson as a bit of a shady character. Nice to see Gene Colan back on the cover art.

Captain Marvel 8 (Dec 1968) opens with a battle between an interloping alien species called The Aarak and Yon-Rogg's Kree expeditionary force. Though Yon-Rogg is wounded in the battle and is recovered by Captain Mar-Vell, he shows little gratitude, relentlessly pursuing his vendetta against his junior officer. After the battle, Mar-Vell returns to Earth and begins to investigate the life of the Earth man he's impersonating, Dr Walter Lawson. Lawson's home is more lavish than a research scientist could aspire to. And beneath the house, Captain Marvel discovers an extensive and well-equipped laboratory. The evidence suggests Lawson had created a large robot, though for what purpose is not disclosed. The mystery deepens when two costumed gunmen enter Lawson's home and start shooting at Captain Marvel. It appears that Lawson had created the robot for some criminal organisation and now the murderous machine is on the loose, cuing up yet another battle between Captain Marvel and a monster. Inevitably, a five-page battle ensues and Captain Marvell apparently destroys the giant robot

Last issue the giant robot didn't seen to have a name, being referred to as "robot" or "cyberton" This time out, he calls himself "Cyberex" and everyone else follows suit. Sounds like an editorial correction to me. And another nice Colan cover.

But we're not done with the Aakon - or the robot - yet ... they're all back in the following issue. And because of Yon-Rogg's reckless attack, a retaliation by the Aakon threatens to expose Mar-Vell's Kree mission on Earth. So, here's an abbreviated version of the plot ... Carol Danvers goes snooping around "Walter Lawson's" motel room. The giant robot turns up and takes her as bait for "Lawson". The robot reveals that Lawson is not his creator. Inexplicably. Captain Marvel knows that the robot is holding Carol captive and rushes to rescue her. Yon-Rogg remotely activates Mar-Vell's wrist monitor so the Aakon know where he is ... and of course they attack. Cue the three-way battle between Captain Marvel, the Aakon and the giant robot (who now calls himself Cyberex) lasting a slightly excessive nine pages. It's all a bit humorless and po-faced. I'm not getting the sense, here, that Arnold Drake was able to grasp what it was that made Stan's scripts so memorable. Interestingly, that issue's Bullpen Bulletins bigs up the new Marvel scripters, Archie Goodwin and Arnold Drake. Stan (or maybe Roy) even touts some forthcoming work by Atlas veteran Ernie Hart. In the end that turns out to be the solitary dialoguing job Hart did on Nick Fury 8 (Jan 1969), before disappearing from Marvel for the final time.

Captain Marvel 10 plods its way through Arnold Drake's plot. But Heck delivers some nice work here. I really like his layout on page 10.

In Captain Marvel 10 (Feb 1969), we begin to learn a bit more about The Organisation, the criminal outfit that sent the Cyberex robot after "Walter Lawson", and its leader, Number One. Mar-Vell, too, is destined to discover more about his underhanded foes, as Ronan the Accuser orders him to gather information on The Organisation in case The Kree have to "deal with" them one day. However, The Organisation captures Carol Danvers and invites "Walter Lawson" to surrender to them. Captain Marvel goes in his place and initially pretends to be interested in an alliance, but slips a gas capsule to Carol that she can use to escape. Then all heck breaks loose and Mar-Vell finds himself facing an aging ray, apparently created by the real Lawson. Mar-Vell turns the ray on The Organisation and pretty much cleans their clock. But there's unexpected fallout from his victory. Yon-Rogg orders Captain Marvel's immediate execution.

And that pretty much closes the door on The Organisation, a kind of bargain-basement AIM, without the interesting bee-keeper outfits. I wasn't terribly sorry to see the back of them. I was a bit sorry to see Heck leave the book, though ...

Why the Barry Smith cover and the rushed Dick Ayers interior art? I'd speculate that the inexperienced Barry was supposed to do the insides but ran into scheduling problems and Ayers had to bail Marvel out. But pure guesswork on my part.

Captain Marvel 11 (Mar 1969) sported an interesting Barry Smith cover, one of his first works as Marvel. Channelling Kirby, Smith's art is is even more extreme, and it might have been more interesting if Smith had drawn the interior art. But what we got was a very rushed-looking Dick Ayers pencil job, not helped by Vinnie Colletta's usual slapdash inking. Arnold Drake's script takes Mar-Vell in a completely new direction. I don't know what went on behind the scenes. Perhaps sales weren't all that Stan was hoping for, but with this issue Drake brings in some sweeping changes. He kills off Medic Una, which I think was for the best. That storyline wasn't going anywhere. He also gets rid of Mar-Vell's weapon, the Uni-Beam, and gives our hero actual superpowers - through the agency of Zo and his conveniently lovely gaggle of handmaidens.

The way in which Captain Marvel gets a makeover is all a bit contrived ... can it be a coincidence that "Zo" is Oz backwards? Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain ...

The catch is that going forward, Captain Marvel will become a tool of the alien intelligence Zo and that may or may not involve some tough moral choices ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

A hugely better art job from Dick Ayers in Captain Marvel 12, almost as if he's trying to blot out reader's memories of last month's lacklustre art, but the pace of Arnold Drake's storytelling is glacial.

So, as Captain Marvel 12 (Apr 1969) gets under way, Mar-Vell returns to Earth and tries to resume his Walter Lawson identity. I'm not sure why, as he's no longer under any obligation to carry out his Kree mission. And posing as Walter Lawson won't conceal his presence from Yon-Rogg .. but as "Lawson" returns to the missile base a plastic robot, The Manslayer, attacks and Captain Marvel ventures forward to defend the base. In another location, Natasha Romanova, The Black Widow, is stalking the controller of the robot, presumably on a SHIELD mission. Though The Widow manages to stop the robot, she's captured by the bad guy controlling the robot, to be held as a hostage against some future threat.

This would be the last issue from Arnold Drake and Dick Ayers. In fact, shortly after this, Drake would finish up his run of Captain Savage, with issue 16 (Sep 1969), pack up his typewriter and move over to Gold Key. It wasn't a memorable run, and I don't think Drake ever really understood the Marvel way of doing things.

Arnold Drake: 1 Mar 1924 - 12 Mar 2007

Drake would spend the rest of his comics career writing a variety of titles for Gold Key, contributing a long and memorable run on Little Lulu, and even returning to DC where he scripted Phantom Stranger and wrote a few stories to DC's war titles, most notably Weird War Tales. Drake had pretty much retired from comics around 1985, and died in 2007 after a short battle with pneumonia.

But that wasn't the end of Captain Marvel's publishing troubles. Marvel Comics would continue to struggle to find a strong commercial direction for Mar-Vell, and I'll be looking at the rest of his rocky early progress in the next instalment of this blog.

Next: A superhero in search of a USP

Saturday, 7 January 2023

Captain Marvel: Part 1

THE ORIGINS OF CAPTAIN MARVEL ARE MIRED in a minefield of trademark and copyright legal battles, some ill-advised, most poorly handled. But that acrimonious history between DC Comics' Harry Donefeld and Jack Liebowitz, sleaze publisher Myron Fass and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman ultimately brought us to the Carole Danvers version of the character.

Marvel's version of Captain Marvel has undergone a long and complicated evolution before becoming the female warrior best-known to modern audiences, starting in 1967, with the alien spy, Captain Mar-Vell.

It was 1967, and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman had noticed a superhero comic on the newsstands called "Captain Marvel". Though Goodman had no legal case against "Captain Marvel" publisher Myron Fass, it must have irked him to see his by-then hugely success "Marvel" trademark being used by a low-level bottom-feeder like Fass ... especially given the involvement of Carl Burgos, who was engaged in suing Goodman over the ownership the Human Torch character.

Captain Marvel ceased in 1953, after losing the will to battle DC's lawsuit that claimed Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman. In 1966 opportunist publisher Myron Fass figured he'd use the name for his comic character. Marvel's Martin Goodman launched his Captain Marvel in 1967.

So Goodman first tried to negotiate with Fass to see if he could acquire the name legally. Fass turned down Goodman's offer of $6000. It's hard to know why because Fass later admitted to the Wall Street Journal that the comic was selling an average of 100,000 per issue from a 250,000 print run, a rather poor 40% sell-through (and significantly below breakeven).

In any event, Goodman wasn't deterred and, probably thinking that Fass didn't have any trademark on the character, ordered Marvel Stan Lee to come up with a Marvel take on the character name. Still strait-jacketed by the unfavourable distribution deal he'd been forced to sign with Jack Liebowitz and Independent News, Goodman had nowhere to park his Captain Marvel except within the pages of his reprint title Fantasy Masterpieces. Hastily rebranded as Marvel Super-Heroes, a title he'd published a year earlier to tie-in with the Marvel Super-Heroes animated tv show, the new Captain Marvel hit the stands in October 1967. Fass must've gotten wind of Goodman's plans and had quickly printed the final issue of his Captain Marvel ("... Presents the Terrible Five") in September 1967, exactly a year after the character had last been on the stands.

As it turned out, Fass had taken out a trademark registration, and sued Goodman (also naming Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, Gene Colan and Eastern Color Printing, along with Independent News) for infringement. The matter was finally resolved out of court, with Goodman paying Fass $4,500 for the Captain Marvel trademark. Shoulda taken the six grand, Myron ...


The acrimony surrounding the comic character name of "Captain Marvel" goes back a lot further than Martin Goodman and Myron Fass. Dial back to 1939. A new character from Detective Comics Inc, Superman, was already setting the publishing word alight. Sales were booming, despite the doubts of Detective Comics publisher Harry Donenfeld, who had ordered the character off the covers of Action Comics after issue 1. By the time he realised his mistake, Action Comics was already up to issue 7 (Dec 1938)

The first few covers on Action Comics depicted rather mundane subject matter without, it has to be said, much action. But when National Publisher Harry Donenfeld saw the sales figures, he ordered Superman be on every cover going forward.

If the other comics publishers needed some sort of sign that the future was in long-underwear characters, Donenfeld had just given them one. Even so, Detective Comics was slow to act on its own intelligence. Superman didn't return to Action covers until issue 13 (Jun 1939). It was that same month that Superman 1 appeared. The character next showed up on the cover of Action 15 (Aug 1939), and with 16 (Sep 1939), Superman began appearing in the top left corner of every Action cover. And that was likely the catalyst that galavanised Fawcett Publications into pulling together their own answer to Superman.

There had already been a couple of Superman copycats ... earlier in 1939, Will Eisner had cobbled together a quickie rip-off character for Fox Comics, Wonder Man. The character managed one appearance in Wonder Comics 1 (May 1939, on sale in mid-March) before the wrath of Harry Donenfeld came crashing down upon them, and Wonder Man was never seen again.

You could probably make a case for Will Eisner's Wonder Man being a swipe of Superman, but it's a bit of stretch to claim the same of Bill Everett's Amazing Man, whose powers seem more like The Shadow's than Superman's.

The other superhero from around this time was Amazing Man, often mentioned as another Superman clone, though I don't see it. Created by Bill Everett, for Centaur Comics, with some input from art director Lloyd Jacquet, Amazing Man first appeared in Amazing Man Comics 5 (Sep 1939, on sale mid-August). The character's origin sounds more like Doctor Strange than Superman (trained to superhuman level by Tibetan monks) and his power seems to be just invisibility. The claim that he was a Superman clone probably comes from a quote from a letter written by Everett's mother Grace that says, "I’m going to spend all day tomorrow at the Public Library, doing some research work for Bill. He has a new character, for a strip which Jacquet wants him to do in competition with the new one now being syndicated – called the 'Superman' I think. We’ve wracked our brains for a new kind of character; and all I can think of now is to back over some old folk tales, foreign ones if necessary, and try to find some unusual character around which we can build an unusual story for these modern times." Amazing Man would continue, undisturbed by Donenfeld's litigious Detective Comics until Amazing Man Comics 26 (Jan 1942). Fawcett's stab at a superhero wouldn't be quite so lucky ...

Fawcett Publications was founded in 1919 by by Wilford "Capt Billy" Fawcett, with their first publication, Capt Billy's Whiz Bang. Pretty soon, the company had a monthly circulation of 10 million per month, spread across several publications, including Mechanix Illustrated, Family Circle and True Confessions. And in 1939, Fawcett decided to get into the comics business.

Newly-installed staff writer Bill Parker began mapping out a roster of characters that would feature in the company's first 64-page anthology title, tentatively titled Flash Comics. The initial lineup included Dar Dare (no relation), Scoop Smith, The Golden Arrow and Lance O'Casey, along with costumed characters Ibis the Invincible and Spy Smasher. But for the lead slot, Parker planned to showcase a team of superheroes, the first in comics, each granted his single power from one of the mythical Greek gods. Fawcett Executive Director Frank Daigh wasn't keen, preferring to have just the one hero with multiple powers, so Parker re-tooled his team into a single character, Captain Thunder, and Charles Clarence "C.C." Beck was hired to create a look for the character.

"When Bill Parker and I went to work on Fawcett's first comic book in late 1939, we both saw how poorly written and illustrated the superhero comic books were," Beck told Tom Heintjes in a 1980s interview. "We decided to give our reader a real comic book, drawn in comic-strip style and telling an imaginative story, based not on the hackneyed formulas of the pulp magazine, but going back to the old folk-tales and myths of classic times." And that's an important point for later ... Superman was very much a science fiction character and Captain Marvel was rooted in myth and magic.

And ashcan copy of the new Flash Comics, sporting Captain Thunder on the cover, was prepared to secure copyrights on the titles and characters, but DC beat Fawcett to the punch by getting their ashcan of Flash Comics out first.

Back in the early days of comics, "ashcan" editions were published, sometimes just the single copy, to secure a legal claim to a title by virtue of being first.

Undeterred, Fawcett revamped their Flash Comics into Thrill Comics and tried again. But guess what? Yup, another publisher, Ned Pines' Better Publications, came out with Thrilling Comics.

Though different, Fawcett management probably thought Thrill Comics was too close to Thrilling Comics and, ironically, wanted to avoid a lawsuit.

But third time's a charm, right? Another change of logo and artwork and Fawcett finally came out with Whiz Comics, featuring Captain Marvel on the cover in an alternate take on the famous Action Comics 1 cover art.

Accident or design? Both characters' first appearances involved them hurling automobiles, a surefire way of letting readers know that the character was stronger than any normal human.

The early Superman stories in Action Comics concentrated on societal ills. Superman was shown slapping a wife-beater around in the very first ever story. By contrast, Captain Marvel went with whimsy and this fresh take was an instant hit with younger readers.

The first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures was unnumbered and hastily drawn by Jack Kirby, presumably because Beck was tied up with the art for Whiz Comics. Issue 2 followed three months later. By issue 6, it was monthly.

Six months in and Captain Marvel had his own title, something it took Superman nearly twice as long to achieve. Captain Marvel Adventures went monthly with its sixth issue (Jan 1942). Superman remained bi-monthly until the beginning of 1954, when it went to eight times a year. So you can see why National Periodicals might feel a bit threatened by this upstart.

Even more galling for DC/National ... when Republic Studios came looking for a superhero to feature in one of their Saturday morning chapterplays, DC were playing hard-to-get, so what should have been a Superman serial became The Mysterious Dr Satan, featuring a substitute hero, Copperhead.

DC/National clearly had an unrealistic view of the importance of Superman in the real world. After two attempts to bring Superman to the screen, Hollywood studio Republic gave up on DC and went with Fawcett's Captain Marvel instead.

Strangely undeterred, Republic took another swing at a Superman serial, but DC/National's executive editor Whitney Elsworth proved as difficult to deal with as ever, and finally losing patience altogether, Republic simply approached Fawcett and licenced Captain Marvel for a serial instead ... and that, more than anything else I think, triggered the start of the DC lawsuits in 1941.

Fawcett also created spin-off characters - Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel were the most successful - but there were also the Three Lieutenants Marvel, Uncle Dudley Marvel and even Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.

After a lot of back and forth - and probably thousands in legal fees - the case came to trial in 1948. In 1951, the presiding judge decided that because DC/National had failed to secure the correct copyrights on their newspaper strips of Superman, they were deemed to have abandoned the ownership of the Superman character, and Fawcett were free to continue with Captain Marvel.

National appealed, of course, and in reviewing the case a new judge ruled that though he didn't consider Captain Marvel, per se, an infringement on Superman, some of Marvel's super-feats could be, and sent the matter back to the lower courts for retrial.

It took him a few years, but Superman editor Weisinger did transform his Superman franchise into the kind of multi-book affair that the Marvel Family had commanded in the previous decade.

But with sales in post-war decline, Fawcett took the decision to settle with National and withdrew Captain Marvel - and the legion of spin-offs and related characters - from the newsstands in 1953. Could it be coincidence that around the same time, DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger began expanding the Superman mythos to include super-pets and super relations, like Krypto, Supergirl, and giving supporting characters Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane their own books?

DC/National eventually bought the rights to publish Captain Marvel themselves, but when they brought out the revived character in 1973, they couldn't call the book "Captain Marvel" as Marty Goodman's Marvel Comics owned the trademark on that name.

Which sort of brings us full circle ...

Next: Will the real Captain Marvel please stand up?

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Marvel, Magic and Strange Tales: Part 3

BACK IN THE MAGICAL DAYS OF MY YOUTH, Steve Ditko was my favourite artist and Spider-Man was my favourite comic. While I can certainly remember the earliest Doctor Strange strips in the back of Strange Tales, the later ones remain a little hazy in my recollections. This may be because the first few Strange stories were self-contained and had punchy - if a little familiar - plots by Stan Lee. The later Doctor Strange tales were darker and labyrinthine affairs created mostly by Steve Ditko and merely dialogued by Stan.

Though Doctor Strange began his run in Strange Tales 110 (Jul 1963), he wasn't cover-mentioned until Strange Tales 117 (Feb 1964), and wasn't shown on a cover until Strange Tales 118 (Mar 1964), making him one of the most obscure back-up features in Marvel Comics.
I say "merely", but anyone who has read earlier editions of this blog will know that, as a writer and former editor myself, I am one of the last to minimise Stan Lee's contributions to the Marvel machine. Few critics understand the sea-change that Stan brought to the industry when he decided to switch from plot-driven storytelling to character-driven. But in the back half of 1964, it was plain that Stan had struggled to come up with the right plotting approach for Doctor Strange, and would take a step back and leave that task to Ditko. What Stan does deserve credit for is the unique and engaging catch-phrases and mythos of the Doctor Strange strip. As the series progressed from the earliest five-pagers to the more substantial ten-pagers that started with Strange Tales 125 (Oct 1964), you could see more and more of the now-familiar tropes emerging. We see "The Master" renamed "The Ancient One" (ST115), "Vishanti", "Hoggoth" and "Dormammu" mentioned, and Mordo established as the main threat.

What is striking is the thematic similarities between Dr Strange and Steve Ditko's other project, Spider-Man. Both are outsiders, largely separate from society, and from the other Lee-Kirby heroes (there are cross-overs, but they seem forced and artificial). And both have ageing, frail relatives that they need to take care of. And, perhaps because the style and themes of Doctor Strange don't sit comfortably alongside the more mainstream Lee-Kirby comics, Stan stands a little further back from the character and lets Ditko steer the magician's career, and "merely" adds polish and some degree of characterisation in the dialogue, but not much.

Strange Tales 125 montage
Though the inking is still supplied by Roussos (I'm guessing to give Ditko space to finish up on the Spider-Man Annual), the storyline in Strange Tales 125 seems to have more Ditko input than Lee, despite the co-plot credit awarded by Grand Comicbook Database.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales 125 (Oct 1964), which acts as a kind of prologue to the mega-epic to come. When Strange is attacked by "three followers of Mordo" in his sanctum, he renders them insubstantial with a gesture and wonders why Mordo would order such an obvious feint. As if by magic, Mordo himself appears to tell Strange that The Ancient One is Mordo's captive, and that without his mentor's aid, Strange is now vulnerable to Mordo's magic. Thus begins a globe-spanning chase with Doctor Strange fleeing before Mordo, and taking in the landmarks on the way.

For much of the story, Doctor Strange appears to flee in fear of Mordo, but he's merely fooling his foe and searching for a way to free The Ancient One from Mordo's power.
But it turns out that Strange's running was only a surreptitious way of searching the globe for a trace of his Master. Once he's located the Ancient One, Strange feels free to defeat Mordo using the power of his amulet and to liberate The Ancient One from the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak. The story ends with Master and Pupil safe, though unsuspecting to the terrible ordeal that awaits them in the very next issue.

Unusually, Doctor Strange gets almost a third of the cover artwork space this time, his biggest cover appearance to date. It does suggest that Stan's soft-selling of the strip had little to do with it being Steve Ditko's baby, as this seems to around the time that Ditko was asserting his ownership of the feature.
With Strange Tales 126 (Nov 1964), Steve Ditko was back and firmly in the driving seat. He was again inking his own pencils and it really showed. There was a massive uptick in the quality of the art, and you really had the feeling that there was something Important about to happen. And, of course, there was. 

With Steve Ditko back on inking, you can see the huge improvement in the quality of the art. Here, the texture of The Ancient One's skin looks authentically aged, the shadows and the two-source lighting finely rendered.
Though, mentioned only the dialogue previously, this is the first time we actually get to see Dormammu. Though known mainly for having a head that resembles the FF's Human Torch, in this first appearance, Dormammu is coloured blue.

Dormammu was, for this ten-year old, a genuinely terrifying figure. Devoid of humanity and shockingly powerful, I really did fear for Doctor Strange's safety.
But there are other interesting aspects to this Doctor Strange instalment. It marks the first appearance of another Strange regular, Clea ... here portrayed as a naive if decent citizen of Dormammu's realm. She will try - and fail - to warn Doctor Strange away from his confrontation with Dormammu.

I think Steve Ditko drew beautiful women, and Clea was one of my favourites. And it's a testament to Ditko's talent that he makes Clea seem somehow more than human, but less than alien.
Clea will feature large in the legend of Doctor Strange, but for the moment, she has no more than a cameo appearance. And the episode ends on something of a cliffhanger, with Strange and Dormammu posturing, but not actually fighting ... for that we would have to wait a month for Strange Tales 127 (Dec 1964).

Dr Strange and Dormammu featured on the cover. Clea a captive. And the Mindless Ones set to invade and destroy all who live under Dormammu's rule. I'd buy that for 12c.
The second part of Doctor Strange's first meeting with the Dread Dormammu sees the two foes-to-be join in battle. But even before the confrontation begins, Clea reveals that even in the unlikely event that Doctor Strange should prevail against Dormammu, then all the inhabitants of his realm are doomed ... for it is only the sheer willpower of Dormammu that holds the Mindless Ones at bay, behind an invisible barrier. Should Dormammu fall, then all his subjects will perish.

And that's pretty much what happens ... all except for the perishing bit. For Dormammu's battle is no easy one. Doctor Strange is stronger than he anticipated and as he gives more and more attention to the fight, his control over the Mindless Ones begins to erode, until finally, they are free to invade Dormammu's realm. 

I really like Ditko's plotting here, very typical of his style. Dr Strange must battle and defeat Dormammu. But if he prevails, the people of Dormammu's realm will die. His perfect opportunity to win is when Dormammu give his attention to the invading monsters, but instead he helps his foe.
Almost contemptuously, Dormammu turns his back on Strange to halt the advance of The Mindless Ones. It's Doctor Strange's chance to strike. Yet he holds back. For the Mindless Ones threaten Clea and her people too. So, like the hero he is, Strange joins with Dormammu to stop The Mindless invaders. Thus, he defeats Dormammu without defeating him. Now the Evil One is in Strange's debt, even worse than defeat for one such as Dormammu.

Typically, the triumphant Doctor Strange doesn't get the girl ... but he does get a Cloak of Levitation and a new and improved amulet.
When Doctor Strange returns to his own world, The Ancient One rewards him with a Cloak of Levitation and a new, upgraded mystic amulet (though it's not made clear how this is better than his old one).

"The Dilemma of the Demon's Disciple" is a bit of a non-story. The central idea is weak, there is no sense of danger and nothing terribly interesting happens. There's not even a Dilemma to solve. This appears to be a Ditko plot, but Stan the Editor ought to take some of the blame.
The next couple of Doctor Strange adventures are a bit of an anti-climax after the Dormammu battle. Strange Tales 128 (Jan 1965). As a foe, The Demon is a bit of a non-starter. An upstart magician with a solitary disciple, The Demon never really poses a threat to Doctor Strange, and because of that, the story lacks menace. The only neat bit of plotting here is that the Cloak of Levitation, bestowed upon Doctor Strange last issue by The Ancient One, is his means of escaping The Demon's final trap. So there's that ... but otherwise an unmemorable tale.

"Beware Tiboro" is awfully reminiscent of those old Lee-Ditko fantasy tales in the back of every Marvel fantasy anthology ever. And what's with the strange felt-marker inking on the story's splash page?
The Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales 129 (Feb 1965) is a bit of an odd fish. It's another Ditko solo plot, with a script by Timely and Atlas veteran Don Rico ... and it's pretty bad. Stan had trailed it cheerily enough in the previous month's "Strange Mails" letters page: "... one of the old-time greats of comicdom, Don Rico, who used to work with Stan a zillion years ago in the Golden Age of Comics, has come back to the fold. And, for his very first new appearance in this, The Marvel Age, Don will do the script for Dr Strange. We're very anxious to get your reaction to it - and we predict you'll flip over his fast-paced style! And Stan couldn't be prouder of his old buddy."

There's a lot of striking again going on in this Iron Man two-parter, which introduced the Black Widow (as a coutured Russian spy, rather than a super-heroine). Plotted by Stan and scripted by Don Rico under the name "N. Kokok", this material was published at a time when Stan was experimenting with other writers on the Marvel line.
I have to take issue with Stan's claim that this is Don Rico's first Marvel work. It isn't. Rico had scripted another Marvel story a few months earlier, a two-parter in Tales of Suspense 52 & 53 (Apr & May 1964), which featured the first appearance of Soviet agent The Black Widow. And as proud as Stan may have been of his old buddy, Rico was quick to pour scorn on Stan a few years later in a 1974 joint interview with Jack Kirby for the comic fanzine Mysticogryfil, "Stan Lee to my knowledge was not even a writer when he began. He was a kind of editor and then discovered if you put some words together, you got a story out of it, you found a formula. It's still working for him. It worked for him in the old days, and it's working for him now." Thanks, old buddy.

At the end of the "Strange Mails" letter column in this issue, Stan again trails the next issue: "Dr. Strange begins a new, different type of series next month! Just for a change, Stan asked Steve to dream up a real far-out plot, and if you hadn't guessed it before, you're about to learn that sterling Stevey Ditko has one of the most inventive, off-beat imaginations anywhere! Don't say we didn't warn you! The next one's gonna be DIFFERENT!" So confirmation, if any were needed, that Ditko is plotting the Doctor Strange series by himself by this point. 

Can all five letter writers be wrong? Should Doctor Strange be the lead strip in Strange Tales? Or is Stan just cherry-picking comments from readers to boost Doctor Strange and contradict his earlier notion that Doctor Strange was "nothing special"?
It's also interesting that every single letter in this column is praising Doctor Strange and insisting it becomes the lead strip. So if Stan had any doubts about the character, surely they've been dispelled by now ... whatever conclusions we draw, Stan was right about one thing. The next run of Doctor Strange stories - in reality one 17-part epic - would be a fitting capstone to Steve Ditko's time at Marvel.

The next five Doctor Strange stories would form a kind of first act to the overall drama of what would come to be known as The Eternity Saga. The first three episodes would form an initial battle against Mordo and his silent partner Dormammu, as they force Doctor Strange onto the back foot and chase him across this world and others. The fourth episode would be a break from the main plot where Doctor Strange would overthrow the despotic ruler of another dimension, then return to face Mordo again and ensure the safety of The Ancient One.

While Stan does acknowledge the importance of the new Doctor Strange storyline, he still gets Jack Kirby to do the cover ... and it's not a scene that appears in the story. It's an odd choice because, at the time, I think Torch and Thing in Beatles wigs may have been a better-selling cover.
In the telling of these Ditko-plotted stories, we'd see Stan take a slightly less active part, and begin crediting Ditko as solo-plotter. Ditko's art - perhaps energised by his new freedom - also goes up a few notches in quality. But I did find myself wondering whether Ditko might also be scripting - with Stan adding a few editorial flourishes - as the dialogue doesn't scan like Stan's work at all.

Strange Tales 130 has Doctor Strange harassed by Mordo (backed secretly by Dormammu, here coloured green) and his lesser followers, fleeing from country to country across the globe while trying to figure out why Mordo is suddenly so powerful.
"The Defeat of Dr. Strange" begins in Strange Tales 130 (Mar 1965), and it's established immediately who the main players are. Bound by a vow never to attack Doctor Strange or Earth, Dormammu is using gullible Mordo as a tool through which to remove Strange as an obstacle to his conquest of our world. Arrogantly, Mordo believes it's an equal partnership, though I don't think anyone told Dormammu that.

Having parked The Ancient One safely somewhere in the Himalayas, Strange is now free to formulate a plan to put a stop to Mordo's nonsense. His first stop is Hong Kong, where he contacts The Ancient One's accountant and obtains papers and a passport so he can travel conventionally and incognito. But that goes awry, when Mordo's followers spot him and give battle. Doctor Strange barely manages to escape and is once again on the run.

Once more, Steve Ditko's splash page is a more dramatic and effective piece of art than the actual cover of Strange Tales 131.
In Strange Tales 131 (Apr 1965), Doctor Strange tries to wrong-foot his pursuers by escaping from Hong Kong by conventional means. He boards an aircraft bound for New York. But one of Dormammu's wraiths finds him and a battle ensues aboard the plane unnoticed by Strange's fellow passengers.

One of my favourite Doctor Strange scenes. Airline passengers sit oblivious in a physical plane as a mystical battle rages around them on the astral plane.
Vanquishing the wraith, Strange takes the creature's place just long enough to signal to other pursuing wraiths that Strange is not on the plane ... and thus he escapes successfully to fight another day.

This episode doesn't really extend the story very much. It's more of an incident, details some inconclusive mystical skirmishes and a fortunate escape for Doctor Strange. At some point he's going to have to stop running and stand his ground. But there's more to come.

After several initial appearances coloured green, The Dread Dormammu finally appears as a redhead. It always amused me that he looked like an evil cousin of the Human Torch ...
Strange Tales 132 (May 1965) sees Doctor Strange back in New York, seeking to use the Eye of Agamotto to discover who is helping his foe, but Mordo has left one of his minions encamped within the Sanctum at Bleeker Street. Strange must deal with the guardian without Mordo's knowledge, a seemingly impossible task.

This is some of Steve Ditko's finest art on the series. The rainy gloom of nighttime New York is perfectly captured here, and Ditko packs in a lot of story with his nine-panel grids. But just who is the obnoxious midget challenging Doctor Strange?
How Dr Strange gets past Mordo's watchdog is silly but amusing ... and it's counterbalanced by a feverish Ancient One repeatedly mentioning "Eternity", as though that is the answer to Doctor Strange's challenges.

Say his name ... the penny drops for Doctor Strange.
The big face-to-face showdown with Mordo comes at the end of the episode ... and though Doctor Strange finally recognises who is the Power behind Mordo, he doesn't voice the name. Which is odd, because we, the readers, already know that Dormammu is the real baddy here ... but for Strange, the realisation comes too late. Staggering under Mordo's onslaught, Doctor Strange begins to literally fade away.

An interlude for Doctor Strange, facing another foe in another dimension. The cover to Strange Tales 133 is credited to Jack Kirby, but it sure doesn't look like it to me. Kirby layout perhaps, and Mike Esposito finishes?
Strange Tales 133 (Jun 1965) is a bit of a pause in the main storyline. For Doctor Strange didn't simply disappear moments before his destruction at the hands of Mordo, but actually escaped into another dimension ... a dimension ruled by a despotic sorceress know as Shazana. It's not a bad story, by any means, but I should imagine that most readers were eager to get back to the war with Mordo and Dormammu. But even in his weakened state, Doctor Strange is able to defeat Shazana and free the people of her dimension from her tyranny. In the process Strange appropriates Shazana's power and, recharged, prepares to return to our world for his showdown with Mordo.

I'm a little surprised that Stan let this cover go through. To me it looks like "Strange Enter Tales" featuring The Watcher. Very hard to see Johnny and Ben among all the visual noise. If ever there was a case for Doctor Strange making a better cover, surely this is it.
When Doctor Strange returns in Strange Tales 134 (Jul 1965), he's only marginally better off. Though fortified with Shazana mystical energies, he's still no match for Mordo wielding Dormammu's power. Learning of The Ancient One's warning about "Eternity" Doctor Strange thinks he may find the answer among his master's arcane scrolls. But a moment's carelessness means Strange is spotted by one of Mordo's wraiths and within seconds Mordo is alerted and arrives to finish Strange off.

I really like the little "atomic" swirls dancing around Mordo and Doctor Strange, a very effective way of portraying solar energy. Notice how Stan is bigging up Steve Ditko in the final caption box.
Yet, as the battle rages, back in Dormammu's realm, Clea determines to help Strange by once again releasing the Mindless Ones. Distracted, Dormammu leaves Mordo to battle Doctor Strange alone and the tide turns. Strange lures Mordo towards the sun, knowing that its broad spectrum of radiation can harm even ectoplasmic forms. Mordo lacks the courage to follow and once again, Doctor Strange escapes defeat, bringing the first act of the saga to a close.

This is the first time that Steve Ditko is officially acknowledged by Stan as plotter in the credits, though it's pretty certain that he's been creating the plots by himself as far back as Strange Tales 130, perhaps even earlier.
The next episode, in Strange Tales 135 (Aug 1965), has Doctor Strange travel to England to consult with an old friend and fellow disciple of The Ancient One who may have some information about "Eternity". This kicks off the middle section of the extended storyline where Stephen Strange begins to come closer to learning the secret of "Eternity". 

The mystical battle with Mordo and his minions is fun, and I love the clever way Ditko has Doctor Strange animate the suit of armour, so they think he's hiding inside it.
Of course, it turns out that Sir Baskerville is no longer a disciple of The Ancient One, but one of Mordo's allies. But before Mordo can be summoned again and another battle kicks off, we see Dormammu discover that it was Clea who summoned forth The Mindless Ones, thereby saving Doctor Strange just a few episodes earlier. The episode closes out with Doctor Strange making another hairsbreadth escape from Mordo, but leaving him no closer to the secret of "Eternity" than he was before.

Doctor Strange's next appearance, chronologically, would be in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2 (on sale 1st June 1965), where he teams up with Guess Who. However, that story makes no mention of the bigger quest Doctor Strange is on, so I don't see much point in covering that story here. In fact, I think the Marvel Annuals deserve their own posts, something I'll get round to some time later. 

That's a great splash page to the story, bound to suck in even the most casual of readers. And Ditko's design for the "transposed" Doctor Strange is eerie and striking.
Strange Tales 136 (Sep 1965) shows Doctor Strange stepping up his desperate quest for the secret of Eternity. He roams the globe, contact one mystic after another, asking each the same question. None have an answer, except for one crazy old galoot who hands Strange an ancient scroll. Following the spell in the scroll, Strange is transported to another dimension where he encounters another loopy, unnamed ruler who steals his form and his magic. But the dopey dictator reckons without the Cloak of Levitation and is speedily despatched, and Doctor Strange is once again, back in our realm with still no clue about the secret of "Eternity". Now, his only course is to probe the mind of the comatose, Ancient One, as task that could be fatal.

It's a bit of a shame that Ditko gave us another filler episode, but I have to admit, the artwork is rather brilliant. And I like the tantalising glimpses we get of other mystics dotted around the world. How much fun would it have been if they'd all had larger roles to play in the story?
This instalment is not a million miles away from the Shazana tale back in Strange Tales 133, and I'm sure it's intended to fulfil exactly the same purpose - to give readers a meaningful pause before the next intense battle in Mordo and Dormammu's war against Doctor Strange. And I don't think that's a bad thing in itself, but I would have liked to have seen a different idea for the between-battles-breather, rather than having a previous one re-hashed.

However, the sub-plots add interest, with Clea's efforts to aid Doctor Strange uncovered by Dormammu and device of having the secret of "Eternity" locked inside the dormant mind of The Ancient One ... and of course, Ditko incredible sense of design and pacing. So any complaints I might have a minor niggles.

Desperation can something precipitate reckless acts. Here, Doctor Strange attempts the dangerous process of joining his mind with that of The Ancient One ... which results in dire consequences.
Strange Tales 137 (Oct 1965) marks the halfway point of the epic. And is no more than Doctor Strange trying to pry the secret he's so long sought from the mind of his master. But this is a Steve Ditko tale, and we already know how he can take a simple event and spin it into pages of dramatic conflict. And it's the same with this ten-page sequence. Doctor Strange overcomes one mystic barrier after another as the comatose Ancient One's subconscious mind strives to protect itself from Doctor Strange's probing. But the deadlock is broken through Strange's insight and thus the secret of "Eternity" is revealed. It only remains for the Master of the Mystic Arts to step through the portal generated by his amulet and Strange's goal is at last won.

Or so it would seem ...

Finally, Doctor Strange finds himself in the realm of Eternity. And it turns out to be one of Ditko's best dimensional landscapes.
"If Eternity Should Fail" seems a bit of a pessimistic title for the Doctor Strange story in the November 1965 issue of Strange Tales. You'd think that after everything he's been through, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee could give him a bit more hope. Yet Doctor Strange finds himself in one of the strangest realms so far ...

Hard to believe, isn't it, that any human mind could conceive of such weirdness? But Ditko pulls out all the stops and gives us a mystic vista that simply astonishes ...
And in that realm, Doctor Strange finally comes face-to-face with "Eternity", a being of unimaginable power, whose very form embodies the Universe. And Ditko's portrayal of it doesn't disappoint. If you've made it this far into the story, you are rewarded by Steve Ditko's single page portrayal of Eternity. And such is Eternity's power that Doctor Strange doesn't even need to ask the question ... Eternity gives the answer. "You already possess the means to defeat your foes. Power is not the only answer. Events have occurred which require a key. And wisdom is that key."

When Doctor Strange finally comes face to face with Eternity, the effect is pretty spectacular, amply meriting the full-page that Ditko devotes to it. It's a shame, then, that the plot doesn't match up to the visuals.
It's a bit of a Wizard of Oz moment. Seems that Doctor Strange always had the power to Go Home ... he just wouldn't have believed if we'd told him.

Resigned to the idea that that's all he's going to get out of Eternity, Doctor Strange heads back to Earth, only to discover that Mordo has abducted The Ancient One ... and so confident is Mordo, that he has his wraiths direct Strange to where The Ancient One is held captive. The only saving grace is that Dormammu prevents Mordo murdering the ancient One as "Only by threatening the life of his aged master can we make" Doctor Strange reveal what he learned from Eternity.

When I bought this issue of Strange Tales, way back in 1966, I didn't even notice the figure of Doctor Strange squeezed into the left side of the cover. So I never wondered why The Master of the Mystic Arts was watching Nick Fury on television.
But in an odd misstep of continuity, that's not how it plays out in Strange Tales 139 (Dec 1965). In fact, when Dormammu asks Doctor Strange for the secret of Eternity, Doctor Strange cheerfully admits that he learned nothing from the dimension-spanning entity.

All he has to fight the might of Mordo and Dormammu is a pep-talk from The Ancient One. "The final chapter is not yet written. There are forces at work which even you cannot yet fathom. You must fight on."  Good chat, thanks for that.

However, The Ancient One does add one useful nugget. "Where they employ Power, you must apply Wisdom," he says. "The Wisdom of the just, the righteous, the fearless." Isn't that also what Eternity said?

Great mystical battling between Doctor Strange and Mordo. Note the larger panels that Ditko's using here, a long way from his customary nine-panel grid.
As spectacular as the battle with Mordo is, Strange substitutes strategy for power and is able to out-manoeuvre Mordo at almost every turn. This enrages Dormammu so much that the evil one decides it's time for him to take a personal hand in the war.

No ... not The Pincers of Power! Okay, it's a bit of a daft title, but it's the only way Doctor Strange can confront Dormammu directly without being squashed like a bug.
And, as promised, Strange Tales 140 (Jan 1966) features the long-awaited showdown between Doctor Strange and Dormammu. And it doesn't disappoint. With Doctor Strange hopelessly outmatched by Dormammu's power, the evil one hatches a plan to ensure that his defeat of The Master of the Mystic Arts will be a fair one. 

For all Dormammu's talk of a fair fight, it's something of a disappointment when Doctor Strange is struck down from behind by the treacherous Baron Mordo.
The two will battle hand-to-hand, armed only with the Pincers of Power. And battle they do with - incredibly - Doctor Strange just beginning to gain the upper hand, when Mordo treacherously strikes him down from behind and Strange lies helpless at the feet of Dormammu.

It does seem awfully contrived that an evil baddie like Dormammu would be annoyed because his greatest enemy has been knocked to the ground by Mordo's sneaky bolt in the back. A lesser villain would just shrug and own the win.
Of course, that kind of underhanded cheating doesn't sit well with Dormammu. Evil though he might be, he's not without some sense of honour. So as Strange Tales 141 (Feb 1966) opens, Dormammu is not best pleased with his erstwhile ally, Mordo.

So, with only a short pause to banish Mordo to some unnamed netherworld, Dormammu once again takes up his battle with Doctor Strange, via the slightly silly Pincers of Power, probably not his smartest strategic decision.

And because this is Marvel Comics and we readers expect our heroes to win, Doctor Strange prevails and defeats Dormammu with his own choice of weapon. In front of witnesses.

With Dormammu defeated with his own weapon, Doctor Strange extracts an oath that Dormammu will never again threaten the realm of men. Yet, Dormammu had previous vowed never to attack Doctor Strange, and we all saw how that turned out.
At last, it seems as though Dormammu is done-for and Doctor Strange and The Ancient One can finally relax. But Dormammu has one last treacherous move left in his arsenal. The (still) unnamed girl - who we'd later know as Clea - is banished by Dormammu to some uncharted Hades, so that Strange will never find her. This is the last vengeance of Dormammu.

And now it's the aftermath. Dormammu defeated and Mordo banished to an unknown nether-dimension, Doctor Strange still has to mop up the minions of Mordo, a task that proves slightly more difficult than we might imagine.
But what of Mordo? Does he have some revenge lined up as well? As it goes, we find out in Strange Tales 142 (Mar 1966). Unknown to Doctor Strange, Mordo's remaining acolytes have planted a rather mundane bomb in the Sanctum of Doctor Strange, and someone is about to press the detonator. Almost too late, Doctor Strange realises the danger and tries to fling the explosive device far enough away. But the explosion dazes him for a moment and the nearby followers of Mordo and able to capture and imprison Strange with a peculiar blinding mask and cuffs that render his hands useless.

Once again, using his ingenuity, Doctor Strange, still blinded, manages to elude his captors. but without his sight and his weapons, the next battle will be dangerous indeed.

I don't really think this epilogue is necessary to the overall saga, and while it does tie up a few loose ends, it feels a little like Steve Ditko is treading water here.

I love the trap Ditko places Doctor Strange in. And the look of the bizarre mask on Strange is eerie and effective.
The epilogue continues in Strange Tales 143 (Apr 1966), in which Doctor Strange's physical form is re-captured by Mordo's disciples and Strange is forced to fight them in his weaker Astral form.

That Doctor Strange would prevail is never in doubt and I'm inclined to think that this tying up of loose ends could have been dispatched in a single episode.

More importantly, this seems to be the point where Stan distances himself from Steve Ditko. Never a huge fan of dialoging Doctor Strange, Stan hands off the scripting duties to his new deputy Roy Thomas, so that he is only now working with Steve on Amazing Spider-Man.

Roy Thomas had just started working at Marvel, initially dialoguing Millie the Model and the western comics with the January 1966 issues. He took over Sgt Fury and Doctor Strange in the April 1966 issues, and X-Men with issue 20 (May 1966).

Another oddly composed cover. The floating head of Doctor Strange makes it seem as if Strange is battle The Druid and his magical Porche. And Ditko's splash page here is just a "Story so far" recap.
Roy Thomas would continue dialoguing Doctor Strange in Strange Tales 144 (May 1966). Unfortunately, Ditko didn't give him very much to work with. The storyline is almost identical to tales in issues 133 and 136. Doctor Strange journeys to a mystical dimension and finds a despotic mystic rule in charge. There's a battle and Doctor Strange defeats them. It's helped a little by the fact that Doctor Strange is there looking for Clea, and it would have read a great deal better if you'd never seen a Doctor Strange story before.

Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen. Steve Ditko marks some further time here while he psychs himself up for the landmark conclusion to the grandiose Dormammu-Doctor Strange war that had been running for a year and a half.
With Strange Tales 145 (Jun 1966), Roy Thomas was re-assigned by Stan and new Marvel recruit Denny O'Neill came in to write the dialogue for Doctor Strange. The story has a lesser magician, Mr Rasputin (a descendent of the legendary "adviser" to the Russian Czarina) using his meagre mystical talents to steal state secrets and build a power base to, well, rule the world. It seems such an unrealistic expectation that Stan (or perhaps Denny) even comments on it in his splash page intro. When tracked down by Doctor Strange, it's evident that his power is no match for the Master of the Mystic Arts, so he pulls out a gun and shoots Strange. It only remains for our hero to figure out how to defeat the baddie from his hospital bed.

I quite like the story. It feels a bit different from what's gone before, though maybe it was a bit of a waste to try to tie it to the Rasputin of history, who used very different methods to attain his goals. There probably is a good story to be told, pitting Doctor Strange against Rasputin or one of his heirs, but I don't think this was it.

The final chapter of Steve Ditko's epic 17-part, when it finally appeared, was slightly underwhelming. It's apparent that this really should have been at least a two-parter, but Steve Ditko just couldn't wait to get out of Dodge.
The Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales 146 (July 1966), however was a big shock on so many levels. Denny O'Neil was still providing dialogue over a Steve Ditko plot, but where in the past Ditko had been taking his time, adding little flourishes and sidebar exposition scenes, and generally creating an epic feel to the whole 17-part tale of the war against Dormammu, here the whole saga gets tied up in a very hasty-feeling ten pages. And two of those pages are full page splashes ... terrific, but still indicating a Ditko who is trying to be done with the whole Doctor Strange project and, by extension, Marvel.

This is one way to fill some space and expand and eight-page intsalment to ten pages. These are magnificent splash pages, but did we really need two?
I also have the feeling that Ditko's decision to quit was sudden. Like it happened while Ditko was drawing this story. He'd had ample opportunity to create a grander finale for the saga. For example, he could have jettisoned the filler episodes like the Taza and the "Son of Rasputin" tales. Those didn't add anything to the epic. But I think it indicates that at the time he created those stories, Ditko wasn't expecting to be leaving.

But, by the time he came to work on "The End at Last" I believe the decision was made. Not only did Ditko choose to wrap up the Dormammu war in one episode, he telescoped it down to eight pages or so by adding two splashes and lots of big panels, a direct contrast to his past work on the strip where he'd routinely used nine-panel pages to cram in as much story as possible.

Sadly, Steve Ditko is just phoning in the inking here. What a shame that he felt so hard done-by by Marty Goodman and Stan Lee that he allowed his farewell to Doctor Strange be less than his best work.
The last couple of pages of the story really show us how disengaged Ditko was, the inking is barely there. Ditko has added outlines to the faces and figures on the page, but almost no hatching. He clearly wanted out, and as quickly as possible.

There's plenty more to be said about the reasons why Steve Ditko felt aggrieved with Marvel and in particular Stan. But, as with the case of Jack Kirby, I really don't think Stan can bear all - or even most - of the blame for Steve Ditko's feeling he'd been treated unfairly. Surely, the lion's share of that must lie at the feet of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. For it was Goodman who promised a share of the merchandising and reprint money to both Ditko and Kirby and then reneged. Yes, Ditko probably created Doctor Strange pretty much by himself, and Stan's input - beyond a few catchy catchphrases - was minimal. And I don't think even my own argument about Stan bringing much needed characterisation to Marvel heroes holds much water in this case. The dialogue in Doctor Strange singularly lacks character. Because I think Ditko was writing the dialogue as well as plotting and I think Stan was just doing a little editorial polish ... fixing grammar and smoothing out the bumps.

Think about if for a moment ... we know who Spider-Man is. We recognise his personality and we can hear that his dialogue sets him apart from Iron Man or Captain America. It's the same with The Hulk, Mr Fantastic and Nick Fury. Each has a distinct personality and we can easily tell one from the other.

Doctor Strange, on the other hand, talks more like a DC character. We know that he was a surgeon, and we know that surgeons are often portrayed as the epitome of arrogance. And we know that people don't really fundamentally change in personality, no matter how life-changing the events in their lives. So, for even a fictional character to undergo a "Christmas Carol"-style transformation is just not believable. How much more credible would it have been for Doctor Strange to show us glimpses of his old arrogance?

And Stan's Marvel characters are, for the most part, similarly consistent. Peter Parker changes temporarily to a selfish twat when he first gets his super-powers, but is snapped back to his old, decent self when Uncle Ben is killed.

So while there a great argument to be had about who created Spider-Man, there isn't really much wriggle-room when it comes to Doctor Strange.

Yet for all this, Ditko's run of Doctor Strange stories remains one of my all-time favourites. It goes beyond "original" and traverses into the realm of "odd", a bit like H. P. Lovecraft's body of work.

Do I wish Steve Ditko had continued with Doctor Strange? Sure, but not at the cost of his own artistic satisfaction. Could Stan have handled it better? Probably, but there's nothing he could do about the heartless and cavalier way Goodman treated the creative talents that made his millions for him. In that Stan's hands were tied.

It was never going to end well ...

Important note

It's been seven years, now. More or less monthly I've been posting exhaustively-researched blog entries, often ratcheting up 3000 words plus per instalment (this one's over 6,700!). And I'm tired. So that's going to be it for a while. I'm going to take a break, maybe posting occasionally, but simpler entries with more pictures than words. I need to recharge my batteries and put some work into other, much-neglected projects.

I don't know when I'll be back in full-on Marvel historian mode ... so be sure to check in now and again, and if you need to contact me, leave a comment ... that'll get my attention.

Next: Wait and see ...