My Misspent Youth — Marvel Premiere by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that a lot of creative teams didn’t quite know what to do with the sorcerer supreme. Created mostly because Marvel Universe founding father Steve Ditko wanted an excuse to draw trippy shit. The character was hard for other creators to wrap their pencils around, leading to oddball adventures where he encountered, say, a giant robot or an imposing slug. After being given the task of anchoring the series Marvel Premiere, Stephen went through a procession of writers and artist in his first few issues, none really demonstrating a passion for the master of the mystic arts. Then Frank Brunner came along.

According to Brunner, he’d been trying to get art assignments at Marvel for some time before Roy Thomas, recently elevated to the editor role, gave him a shot. He did some fill-in work on an early issue of Marvel Premiere, but found he wasn’t synching with the writers assigned to it. Evidently sensing that Brunner was the right penciler for the role, Thomas asked Brunner if he had any suggestions for a writer he’d like to work with on the title instead. By chance, Brunner had recently met Steve Englehart, and the two had chatted about the untapped potential of Doctor Strange. Starting with Marvel Premiere #9, cover-dated July 1973, Englehart and Brunner were locked in as the creative team for Doctor Strange, and a panel on the opening splash page formally touted the arrival of a new era: “THE PASSWORD HAS JUST BECOME: KOSMIC!”

To be fair to the new team’s mildly maligned predecessors, the incoming duo was set up to go kosmic. They inherited a cliffhanger that had Doctor Strange stranded on a distant planet, the dire threat of a thus far unseen being called Shuma-Gorath looming. But having a good launching point is one thing. Firing up the rock is another. It didn’t take long before Englehart and Brunner were taking Doctor Strange into wild places, such as an excursion within the brain of his vaunted mentor, the Ancient One.

Englehart and Brunner weren’t interested in having Strange engage in conventional superhero battles, using his mystical powers as glorified laser blasters. They wanted wild invention, reality-wraping wonders, and existential tomfoolery. Also, Brunner clearly wanted to draw big, gooey monsters. Luckily, the pair were charged with revealing exactly what Shuma-Gorath looked like.

Officially and indisputably, Doctor Strange was created by Steve Ditko (with all-around Marvel impresario Stan Lee pitching in, of course, though he often, and uncharacteristically, gave Ditko almost all of the credit). But Marvel characters have a veritable multiverse of parentage, and its clear that the version of Doctor Strange that endured across decades all the way to the big screen truly came into being in these comics. Englehart and Brunner were the right creators and the right moment, conjuring up mind-bending adventures that suited the Marvel devotees who had aged into their intellectually alert alert (and often substance-enhanced) college years. They took the good doctor from an afterthought in clearinghouse title always on the verge of cancellation to a new, bimonthly publication all his own within a year. That’s magic, true believer.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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