Sunday, August 8, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Dr. Strange Classics #2

I've already mentioned that by the time I resumed following comic books in 1997, my town's comic shop had gone out of business. While I frequented convenience stores and gas stations to collect the few new titles I was interested in, I'd always had a love for back issues. Finding that comics were now almost $3, back issues became even more attractive to me - more bang for my buck. Also, having felt burned by a lot of the titles I bought in the 1990s, I tried to support quality titles with my dollars and quality seemed to be brimming over in the previous decade.

Fortunately, when the local shop went out of business they sold their stock to a sports card shop. The supply was mostly 80s titles which I'd gone over dozens of times in the years I'd been there, but with so few options and my tastes ever-evolving, I scoured the boxes again to see what caught my eye.

In terms of back issues, I was (and am) particularly fond of reprints as a way of seeing old/classic stories at an affordable price. I owned only a handful of genuine Silver Age comics, so finding a cheap Silver Age reprint always felt like a minor victory. At the time, trade paperbacks were few and far between and mostly expensive. But the market for Silver Age material produced some interesting books in the 1980s direct market; such a book was Dr. Strange Classics, a four-issue mini-series which reprinted a classic set of stories from Strange Tales by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. In the local shop, I found issues #2-4.

Writer: Stan Lee Artist: Steve Ditko

This is a truly epic tale in which Dr. Strange's top foes Dormammu & Baron Mordo join forces. Dr. Strange is alone, with Mordo's agents hunting him across the globe. Outnumbered and overpowered, Strange has to use his wits to stay alive and find the secret of "Eternity" to stop Dormammu.

Dr. Strange Classics had a few things going for it beyond the material itself. Each issue had a wraparound cover by John Byrne & Al Milgrom, doing their best Ditko impression. The comic itself was printed on top-quality paper, better than the original printing. The stories were also recoloured vibrantly by Christie Scheele, meaning that, among other things, there was issue-to-issue consistency on the colours of the cast's clothing.

Prior to Dr. Strange Classics I had seen Steve Ditko's artwork in a few places (mostly on inventory stories from Marvel Comics Presents). However, this reprint series is where I fell in love with his work. Perhaps the recolouring in this series helped, but Ditko's oustanding panels with odd angles and bizarre landscapes would have won me over regardless. However, I can pinpoint the exact panel where I became a Ditko fanatic, and it's nothing too elaborate:

Specifically, it was the details in the background of these castle scenes, the weird statues barely glimpsed around the edges of the frame. This entire storyline had great moments which expanded Dr. Strange's world, with Strange's allies and enemies lurking around every corner. When Strange would meet some old friend we'd never seen before, Stan's dialogue would refer to a preexisting relationship we knew nothing about. Similarly, Ditko's backgrounds hinted at other stories to be told, from the decor of Sir Baskerville's castle to the ever-lovin' Sanctum Sanctorum itself. The world as drawn by Steve Ditko seems like a larger place.

Soon after reading these stories, I found the first volume of Essential Spider-Man, a new series of Marvel trade paperbacks which offered Silver Age stories on cheap paper for less than $1 per issue. The Essentials quickly supplied me with the Silver Age tales I thought I'd never obtain, notably those Ditko issues of Amazing Spider-Man.

So far I've talked about how I became a Marvel fan, stayed a Marvel fan, quitting comics, coming back to comics and becoming a follower of art. But there was one major step I needed to take as a comic book for more in subsequent entries.

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