I must confess I've always been in two minds about HP Lovecraft.
On the one hand, I've always liked the idea of old, evil things lurking in slumber, ready to rise at any moment to once more claim the world that they see as being rightfully theirs.
On the other hand, I've always found his actual stories to be fairly hard going, with far too many adjectives flung in and not enough characterisation and dialogue.
Then, of course, there's the whole issue of certain 1920s and 1930s social attitudes that no longer look quite so clever in a world that learned from Nazi Germany where ideas of racial purity and inherent racial decadence might lead.
Still, despite such reservations, I have always had a soft spot for The Whisperer in Darkness and At the Mountains of Madness. Thus it is that I'm always going to be grabbed by the idea of Dr Strange coming up against Lovecraftian menace.
I'm not sure if Marvel Premiere #4 was the first time he ever came up against such menace but it was certainly the first time I became aware that he was doing it, when I first read the tale in Marvel UK's Avengers mag. It was 1975. At the time, I was on a coach, on my way to the seaside. What could better prepare you for the English seaside than a tale of eldritch dread?
What happens is this. Returned home from his most recent fight with Nightmare, the good Doctor discovers he has a visitor, in the form of one Ethan Stoddard who's worried about his girlfriend who's in his hometown of Starkesboro and getting more and more obsessed with all things evil.
Needless to say, it's not long before Ethan and Strange are on their way to Starkesboro to find out what's happened to her.
When they get there, it's obvious the duo are not exactly welcome and that the locals have a somewhat reptilian shift about them.
And it's not much later than that that Strange and Ethan find themselves trapped in the local church, surrounded by malevolent locals, as Strange finds his powers being drained by the town's aura of ancient evil.
And there's a sacrificial altar just waiting for him!
The first is - despite a splash page credit for Robert E Howard - an obvious debt to Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In fact, at times it practically feels like plotter Roy Thomas has simply inserted Strange into that tale.
The second thing is that it's drawn by Barry Smith who does an excellent job of creating a tale that's far moodier than we're used to from Marvel. The usual Marvel house-style of high-octane action is abandoned in favour of something far more subtle and slow burning.
Oddly, as the issue progresses, Smith's influence on the tale starts to wane, just as surely as Dr Strange's powers do, as Frank Brunner increasingly takes over the art chores until, by the last few pages, there's very little if anything left of Smith still visible.
That's not exactly a disaster - as Brunner is himself one of Dr Strange's great artists - but it would have been nice to see Smith maintain control of the art all the way through the issue.
Overall, it's not a bad serial. In fact, it's perfectly entertaining. It's just that, looking at Smith's work, you get a feeling of just how good it could have been.
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