Sunday 26 October 2014

Marvel Premiere #4 - Dr Strange meets the spawn of Sligguth!

Marvel Premiere #4, Dr Strange v Sligguth
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?

Marvel Premiere #4, Dr Strange has a hotdogWhat 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!

Marvel Premiere #4, Dr Strange goes ectoplasmic
There are two obvious things that stand out about his tale as you read it.

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.

Marvel Premiere #4, Dr Strange finds the altar of Sligguth
Looking ahead, it's also a shame that Smith doesn't stay on the strip beyond this issue, as he clearly has a handle on how to do this kind of thing and it would have been great to watch him see it through to the end. Instead, after this issue, the serial goes through a string of artists, robbing it of the visual cohesion that would have benefited it greatly.

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.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Steve, that Lovecraft/Howard approach to Dr Strange was real mistake; but of course, its the Barry Smith artwork that makes this issue worth while.

I loved his stuff when I was a kid, but looking at it now.... you can see elements of the better artist Smith became, but theres still a bit of that earlier second-rate Kirby clone going on, which is an awkward mix. You really get the sense that he was pushing against his limitations.

Which actually makes me like his work even more. To go from those Avenger comics he did to Conan 24 or Red Nails - over what, 5 years or so? - in the poorly paid format of early 70s US comics is pretty amazing.


Anonymous said...

Is Dr. Strange eating a hot dog in that first panel ? I've never read any HP Lovecraft but I've heard Shadow Over Innsmouth and At The Mountains Of Madness read on the radio and "too many adjectives" is a very good way of putting it - there was far too much description of things and the stories were just dull and stodgy in my opinion. I've never wanted to read any Lovecraft anthologies if those two stories are an example of his work. I read the entire run of the Marvel Premiere Dr. Strange stories in a Marvel Essentials volume in 2007 and they didn't half drag the whole thing out, I thought.

Steve W. said...

He is indeed eating a hot dog in the first panel. Fighting evil is clearly good for the appetite.

Dougie said...

This story has stayed with me since I first read it as a b/w reprint about four decades ago- so much so that I bought the original comic a few months back. I especially like seeing the Kirby-isms juxtaposed with the Art Nouveau elements.
Today I asked S1 to write Hallowe'en stories and deliberately put "eldritch" in the word bank.

Steve W. said...

I hope you also demanded they use the word, "Gibbous." I do feel that modern schoolchildren don't use the word, "Gibbous," enough.

Anonymous said...

Are modern schoolchildren like that annoying bunch we have to endure on Doctor Who every week ? We'd never have to see them if Clara would only live in the Tardis permanently like the companions used to do.

Anonymous said...

Dougie - Have you read the Young Gods thing that Windsor-Smith did around the mid 90s or so? Its his return to full on comic book Kirbyisms (in a Thor/ Fourth World vein) as a more accomplished artist.