Saturday, October 24, 2009

Strange Tales #116:
"Return to the Nightmare World"

Nightmare returns to menace Doctor Strange once more in Strange Tales #116. Doc was still being described as the 'Master of Black Magic' in these stories and this was the second story after his 'panel time' increased from five pages to eight in the book.

One quick note before we begin. I've mentioned before that I am not that big of a fan of Joe Quesada's Marvel. Over the last several years I've watched characters I've loved since the mid-70's get written completely out of character just to fit a writer or editor's whim. And I dislike the new "Screw you, fans!" attitude Quesada's Marvel has towards anyone who dares to criticize this direction or who doesn't somehow get the genius behind any of it. But that dates back to Quesada's early days under former publisher Bill Jemas. I post a lot at Brad Douglas's Spider-Man Crawl Space message boards (I am even an honorary moderator there) and I have often pointed out how Marvel went from the welcome, embracing sense of family that Stan Lee created (the Marry Marvel Marching Society and Stan's Soapbox days) to the "Just shut the @#*% up and give me your money!" days of Quesada's Marvel.

Why do I bring this up? Because reading Doc's Strange Tales #116 story reminds us of what's been lost between Marvel and its readers. Look at this blurb from Stan in this story to Marvel's fans:

Note the part about how the readers are the real editors of Marvel's mags. This is an acknowledgment from the company to the readers that their opinion counts. You won't find this attitude from Quesada's Marvel today. It's been replaced by an "up yours if you don't like it because this is how WE want it - just keep buying it" mindset. Under Quesada's Marvel both the fans and the characters head to the back of the bus to make room for the more important writers & editors.

That being said - on with the review.

Here we find Nightmare hatching an insidious plot to trap people in their sleep within his corner of the Dream Dimension so he can learn how to defeat humanity. Back on Earth (or Midgard for my Asgardian readers) this leads to a rash of victims falling into a coma-like sleep, prompting the authorities to contact Doctor Strange as a "last resort."

I really like the authorities, both from law enforcement and the medical world, coming to consult with Doctor Strange. I sometimes mention here how I enjoy the Sherlock Holmes aspect the character develops and having authorities consult him on a case is very reminiscent of Inspector Gregson or Inspector Lestrade heading to 221B Baker Street to ask for the Master Detective's discreet help with something. It should also be noted here that the doctor who asks for Strange's help mentions that Strange is world famous and that "leading scientists" respect his reputation.

Doc's Lesser Eye of Agamotto quickly reveals that magic is afoot and he consults the Book of the Vishanti 'on panel' for the first time. He finds an incantation that will lead him through the planes (later referred to as the Everdimensions in the Marvel Universe) to the source of this new menace. This is interesting in that it's showing the difference between what the Lesser Eye can do and what this incantation from the Book allows; whereas the Lesser Eye could be used to track down a source of evil on Earth or in Doc's vicinity, referring to the Book of the Vishanti allows him to track this power through different dimensions. In fact, once Doc arrives in Nightmare's realm the Lesser Eye shows him the true path towards the evil, allowing Doc to avoid Nightmare's traps.

When Doc manages to locate the sleeping souls that Nightmare has trapped Nightmare attacks Strange with a monster he calls a Spinybeast, which quickly corners Doc on a cliff overlooking an even more hideous and tentacled threat right out of the pages of an H.P. Lovecraft story.

Displaying the quick thinking that made him 'Master of Black Magic,' Doc uses the Lesser Eye on Nightmare, causing the villain to inadvertently destroy his own Spinybeast. Nightmare rides out cursing Doc while the sorcerer and the victims escape out of Nightmare's realm.

Overall? Not a bad story but it feels like one that was created before the last two, possibly in the two months that Doc didn't appear in Strange Tales (#112 & #113). What really makes me think that is that Steve Ditko's art reflects the earlier Asian looking Strange. Some elements of the story don't hold up. While reading from the Book of the Vishanti Strange considers how dangerous the incantations are if they're misread or misspoken, even in the slightest - then reads something that sounds a lot like everything he's called on so far in the story (Dormammu, Hoggoth, etc) so any sort of danger or tension deflates. While a good story this one feels a bit pedestrian compared to the earlier Mordo battles and the origin story that took place in the preceding issue.

The Doctor Strange 2007 animated movie may have borrowed an element from this story. Whereas this tale had adults trapped in a coma-like sleep by Nightmare the cartoon had kids trapped in a similar state but by Dormammu and Mordo.

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