Friday, March 18, 2011

Wednesday Is Any Day For All I Care #100

Doctor Strange #169 (1968)
Dreadstar And Company #1 (1985)
The Sandman #19 (1990)
Watchmen #1 (1986)

Doctor Strange #169 (Marvel, 1968, $0.12)
Pardon my boldness, but I've long felt that there is a certain prestige associated with being a Doctor Strange fan. I'm not talking about guys who know him from The Defenders or guest appearances with Spider-Man, by the way. That's like pointing to George Harrison as a favorite Beatle based on "Got My Mind Set on You" or "My Sweet Lord." You've got to read the solo stuff, and there are cherries to be picked.

I was lucky in that I got my Ditko fix through latter-day Strange Tales reprints, along with a tidy run spanning Marie Severin through Strange's first short-lived spin-off, including Gene Colan's early work on the character. I missed out on most of the Brunner issues, but I did have Barry Smith's two-parter, and was back with Colan for his second run. Doctor Strange was never made for the masses, but was instead an artist's showcase and a place for Marvel writers to push the boundaries of sophistication within the medium. You can pick up most anything solo Strange through Roy Thomas' first year or so on the '90s Sorcerer Supreme series, but the character was sold out to crossovers, terrible artists, and ever-shifting "bold new directions" after that. Only occasionally has anyone gotten the character right sense, most notably with "The Oath" mini-series.

If I had to pick one comic to hand to the uninitiated to help explain why Doctor Strange is a cut above, it would probably by "The Coming of Doctor Strange" by Thomas and Dan Adkins. Writers often try to get Strange's origin the Frank Miller treatment, padding it out to several issues and bogging it down with unnecessary details like sympathetic motivations. A single comic's length is all you need, giving the story a bit more breathing room than Stan Lee was allowed in the first draft, but maintaining a tight narrative.

The issue starts with Strange undressing while offering a self-aggrandizing monologue that orients the reader to where this series picks up after the feature left Strange Tales. The art is lovely, with a clearly mature Strange looking rather dapper with his fine mustache, modern in a Wood/Colan sense, while still casting a glance back to guys like Hal Foster, Lou Fine, and of course Lee Falk. The third page in features a highly effective splash of Strange dreaming of Lovecraftian abominations, "a virtual phantasmagoria of menacing forms." As Strange thinks about the awesome weight of his responsibilities in keeping these nightmares out of our reality, an important first step in understanding Dr. Strange is made, in acknowledging what an egotistical prick he happens to be. It takes a man so deluded by and taken with his own grandeur to face such existential horror and avoid madness by twisting it into criteria for his own elevation.

Here is where Thomas and Adkins begin really working magic over Lee and Ditko. In flashback, Strange has never been more handsome, confident, or of his time, with a cigarette dangling from his lips following surgery. Master of the Universe, Strange is all about relishing his surgical prowess, earning potential, and sneering in the face of altruism. The reader is positively begging for something bad to happen to this guy, as he begins his hero's journey. Rather than being bitten by a radioactive spider, what defines Stephen Strange is his superhuman arrogance. After a mildly debilitating accident, it isn't enough that strange still has his looks, money, and the lion's share of his abilities. If he can't be the greatest thing in his own world, life just isn't worth living.

The standard, well trod origin is trotted out, but the space to allow Strange his trek across two pages of snow storm or to loiter at the Ancient One's temple helps sell it anew. Adkins can't sell the weirdness of a steel plate over flesh like Ditko, but the story benefits from his sense of mood, more deliberate pacing, and grounding reality.

If the story has any flaw, it's that it ends abruptly and a bit too soon. Perhaps I misspoke earlier about only needing the one issue, but I suspect with a little tighter pacing this could have still been a done-in-one that completed the job. Regardless, is a great looking and fun reading comic that illuminates an often mischaracterized hero. Unlike most of my childhood comics, I still have a yellowed and coverless copy of this one relatively intake to indulge every now and again.

Dreadstar And Company #1 (Marvel Epic, 1985, $0.75)
In 1983 or so, my uncle bestowed upon me much of his collection of late '60s through mid-70s Strange Tales and Doctor Strange comics. Jim Starlin's Warlock got started in the former, and I had a few issues of the spin-off title and Captain Marvel. It's safe to say Jim Starlin was my first favorite writer/artist, so when a new series by him landed on the small comic rack at my local 7-11, I pounced on it.

"New" is a dubious application here. DC was experimenting with a format where they would relaunch top titles like The New Teen Titans as direct market only with deluxe printing, then reprint the material cheap for the newsstands a year later. Marvel had pioneered taking mediocre selling books direct only, and offered the anthology Marvel Fanfare on cover stock to comic shops, but neither could be reworked into mainstream fare. Instead, Marvel took Jim Starlin's bimonthly, Mando format creator owned Epic series Dreadstar, along with Elfquest and Groo the Wanderer, and revisited it as a cheap monthly under the Marvel banner.

Dreadstar was basically Star Wars as processed through the anti-Catholic, Kurtzman loving, cosmically attuned mindset Starlin had popularized in the '70s. To some degree, it was also the sober and more commercial version of the under-appreciated shambolic schizo-junkie-iconoclast paranoid fantasy masterpiece Warlock (along with Starlin's hazy output of the time at Warren and elsewhere.) Greatly benefiting from ignorance of the wealth of related material like The Metamorphosis Odyssey, The Price, and the original Dreadstar graphic novel, Dreadstar And Company opened with a nine page recap that to the uninitiated seemed like a sweeping prologue. A centuries old war between the Monarchy and the idealogues of the Instrumentality had left enough causalities in its wake to inspire a small revolutionary force of such character and ability that they could potentially challenge both intergalactic empires. Led by the mysterious Vanth Dreadstar, the band consisted of a wizard, a cat man, and the token female.

Vanth was a young Obi-Wan with the grit and some of the fashion sense of Han, as well as his own variation of a lightsaber. Syzygy Darklock was his alien Merlin, looking like Jonah Hex by way of J'Onn J'Onzz. Willow was Jean Grey, and Oedi was the wise and serene feline, except when the claws came out. The art was among the best of the period, especially as of its initial 1982 release, and Starlin's scripts read much more naturally than his earlier heavy melodramas. The story that followed the recap was perfunctory, introducing characters and their powers through a plot constructed to serve that purpose. Today it reads like a fun diversion of an action piece, but as a kid it was the best thing since ever.

The series would improve greatly on that starting point, from Willow's sad story of childhood abuse to the nuclear horrors of Chichano to the political intrigue of the Hand of Darkness. The final two issues were comparatively lightweight, and diluted somewhat by the use of inkers. I was so impatient between issues that I was constantly concerned I must have missed one, because it always seemed to take a whole season for a new issue to come out. I was fairly crushed to learn the experiment would end with the sixth issue, possibly related to the breakdown in Starlin's relationship with Marvel that saw him move the comic to First Publishing.

In retrospect, Dreadstar And Company was cheesy, but it still had more heart and dazzle than much of what was on the stands at the time. The first twelve issues hold up very well, as evidenced by Dynamite's lovely reproduction of that run in hardcover a few years back. It looks worlds better than the substandard reprints I grew up on, although new (sometimes better) covers did come of the enterprise, and I wouldn't have the same enduring love without them.

The Sandman #19 (DC, 1990, $1.50)
After having seen house ads and read positive buzz, I bought my first issue of The Sandman at the rarely visited book store/comic shop my brother frequented. It was the epilogue to "Season of Mists," so I was more than a bit lost, but still intrigued. I picked up most of the three issue "Distant Mirrors" anthology run at Third Planet, then the biggest (and furthest) comic shop in Houston. I loved them, and when I lucked into moving near a shop outside Denver, I began buying the series forward and backward. I got Preludes & Nocturnes and A Doll's House in trades, so I never bothered to buy the shop's copy of Death's debut for $12, as I was busy trying to complete my run of Rob Liefeld New Mutants at about $16 a pop, and those would hold their value better than some mature readers DC title, right? I completed "Season of Mists" as single issues, but petered out in buying the teens with "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

I like Billy Shakespeare as much as the next guy, but I really hated this issue. It won the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, prompting the committee to strike all comic books as ineligible from then on. I can see their point, as prose and sequential art are very different mediums, and this story was kind of lame in either one. At least a third of the script is taken directly from the Shakespeare play, as are most of the characters, so who exactly should the award go to? A standard comic script would seem rather slight if printed out and compared to an actual story, and even on the art front, this was not Charles Vess' best work by a fair margin.

I chalk a lot of the attention this story got up to the post '80s high of comics as pretentious modern art. It reminds me of those episodes of Star Trek where each cast goes back in time to revisit the "Trouble with Tribbles" episode from the first series, but less funny, more laden with metatext, and targeting theater geeks instead of Trekkies. Any one of those "Distant Mirrors" shorts would have made a better choice.

I didn't care for "A Game of You" at first, but it grew on me over time. The various short stories that came afterward were usually solid, but I broadly disliked the extended arcs, and was relieved to finally see the title end. Maybe it's like that theory about rock music; that what you hear at the most receptive point in your teens is the best music ever, and the basis for all comparison. 1991 was my Sandman year, against which all others paled, and my purchase of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was the tipping point of my perception of a long decline.

Watchmen #1 (DC, 1986, $1.50)
Fucking limeys. The British just cannot write straight super-hero comics, like they're embarrassed to be working in the medium, so they play everything so goddamned tongue-in-cheek. Take this Alan Moore cat. He opens the book with an ultra-conservative screed, so overtly lampooning the right that it beats the humor lifeless. It's like Gary Trudeau's name written on the face of a sledgehammer. Flashbacks to a man falling to his death have overlapping dialogue about "falling from grace" and such. When a couple of retired super-heroes call it a night after drinking and reminiscing, one passes a garage advertisement that proclaims "Obsolete Models A Specialty." My ribs were sore from all the elbow nudges. Yes Mr. Moore, I get the "sly jokes" in silent panels where I've been trained by decades of comics to read everything within a panel. How droll... how clever... Is there something in your eye causing all that winking. Bit of fur fly off your face?

The main character is a Question rip-off called Rorschach, which is right up there with Charybdis as a name you should never give a main character. I can't even spell that shit, much less pronounce it. Rourke-- Rourse-- fuck it: Mr. A has this extremely annoying speech pattern full on onomatopoetic grunts and clipped excerpts from the most purple of Don McGregor captions. We see the costume of a bondage creep super-hero called the Comedian, who was part of a team called the Minutemen that are so poorly designed, you'd think they were from a Don Simpson book. As with the Comedian, you never see Nite Owl suited up. Otherwise, I would have had to double check the cover for the DC bullet in expectation the Charlton heroes had never left Americomics.

This is another one of those dystopic near future tales, or rather a parallel present for a mid-80s comic. Ozymandias (3rd worst name possible) appears to be a cut rate Bruce Wayne, while Dr. Manhattan is clearly Dr. Solar. Like a lot of current creator owned properties, this is just another collection of blatant swipes and foreshadowing to a shoddy plot that was probably rejected by the editors of whatever first generation heroes Moore unsuccessfully pitched. I don't feel the need to pay twice a standard cover price to read costumed geeks cursing or Dave Gibbons hewing to a nine-panel grid more religiously than Keith Giffen.

There's a six page text piece at the back of the book purporting to be an excerpt from the autobiography of an ex-superhero. There were actually a couple of (fictional) books written like that back in the '70s, and I suppose the novelty hasn't worn off of the practice yet. It's a damned sight better than the comic story that preceded it.

One final note: What kind of asshole wears a smiley face pin on a bathrobe? That stretch in logic took me right out of the story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Simply awesome. And here I thought my generation was the first to master dry wit. Seems I was wrong. ;)

R, Aron
here's my site too


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