On the last day of November 1988, my mother died after a drunken tumble down a flight of stairs and my father was sent up to the VA hospital to get his head back on straight. He eventually moved on to a series of halfway houses in South Boston while he started a new career an a machinist in a print shop.
My brother and I defaulted to the custody of my maternal grandmother, but we would take the bus into Boston every Saturday to spend time with the old man. (I say “old man,” but the truth is that he was younger then than I am now, which is madness to contemplate.)
How we spent the day depended on our available pool of cash and the weather, but these weekly visits always started off with a stop at the New England Comics store in Malden Square. It was the first time in years that I’d made regular trips to a funnybook retailer, and the availability and selection of titles on display drew me back into the hobby.
Prior to that point, my “regular” buys were down to John Byrne’s West Coast Avengers run (which began right around my mom’s death), some Viz manga offerings, Captain America (picked up for my brother), Zot (when I could find it), and Justice League International. That soon expanded to include the “Outback Era” X-Men, Iron Man, Avengers, and a couple of other series I decided to give a try.
In most cases, my interest turned out to be short-lived. Too much water had flowed under those particular bridges and the post-Shooter status quo felt fuzzy and unfocused to a kid whose Marvel fandom peaked in 1984. The only book that became a consistent follow was the “Five Years Later” relaunch of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Most fell by the wayside after a couple of months…as was the case with Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme.
I had been a big fan of the character and his bi-monthly ongoing during middle school, staring with the tail end of the death of Dracula arc and continuing through the stunning Roger Stern/Paul Smith and Peter Gillis/Chris Warner runs.
After the book was canceled (on a fairly grim note, with the Doctor’s world in tatters), I didn’t bother making the leap to the relaunched Strange Tales he shared with Cloak and Dagger or his later direct market ongoing series…
…at least, not until something about the cover of issue #9 caught my eye.
The first few pages of the story were presented as a prose magazine excerpt (remember, Watchmen was still recent history) from a tell-all book written by one of the Stephen Strange’s exes and a skeptic’s rebuttal by J. Jonah Jameson.
It was a nifty touch and played to Roy Thomas’s (who co-wrote the series with his wife, Dann) strengths as veteran continuity fixer. It also ably established the Doctor’s new status quo as he dealt with the fallout caused by his faked death and now-public re-emergence into the Marvel Universe.
Much of it feels clunky and overwritten by modern standards (shocking for a Roy Thomas work, I know), but the Thomases did a solid job at humanizing a character who’d historically been presented as a fairly flat Inscrutable Being of Great Power.
The notion of Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme indulging in vernacular idioms and popcult references might be utter anathema to more puritanical fans of the character, but the writing team did walk the line fairly well on that front, building upon the developmental arc established by their predecessors. And truth to tell, it was very much in keeping with Marvel’s long tradition of (super)humanist melodrama.
The series followed-up on that issue with a Morbius guest-appearance which set-up the return of vampires to the Marvel Universe and featured one of my favorite funnybook smackdowns ever….
The series’ regular programming was then pre-empted for three bi-weekly issues (a thing that Marvel tried for a while before realizing that the hot new crop of artists had a tough enough time getting one issue a month to the stands on time) by a string of “Acts of Vengeance” tie-in stories.
While that event’s resolution in the Avengers‘ titles may have turned out to be a damp squib, Roy and Dann took the core premise — villains switching off against their usual opponents — and had a ball with it. Pitting the Doctor against Hobgoblin, the Enchantress, and Arkon was a nifty and entertaining way of showcasing the character outside his usual trippy-mystic domain.
The same could be said for Jackson “Butch” Guice’s artwork on the run. It may have been awkward, obviously photo-referenced and waaaaaaaaay too heavy on the inappropriate cheesecake front…
…yet it did mesh well with the overall tone of a more down to earth Doctor and more modern stylistic approach. (And again, I’d hazard the demands of a bi-weekly schedule were the source of most of the art problems that didn’t involve every female character constantly making “fuck me” poses.) Plus he included ample shots of a bare-chested Stephen Strange in all his pseudo-Selleckian glory (which I know some of you out there would truly appreciate).
The end of the “Acts of Vengeance” stories marked the end of my following the series. I can’t remember the reason why I dropped the book, but the cover dates do line up with the closure of the hospital where I worked and the subsequent finance-driven culling of my buy pile.
These days, the Thomas/Thomas/Guice run on Doctor Strange is (barely) remembered for turning Christian singing sensation Amy Grant into a vampire and the out-of-court settlement which ensued. That’s a shame, because I got more enjoyment out of the three months I followed the series than I’ve gotten from most multi-year runs on other titles.