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Friday, November 4, 2016

Cover Story - Top 15 Doctor Strange Covers

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So, today marks the premiere of the long-awaited Dr. Strange movie.  After months of online dialogue over the whitewashing of the Ancient One and the questionable idea of adapting a character so steeped in Orientalism the day is finally upon us.  As such, I’ve decided to mark this auspicious occasion by dedicating one of my two weekly columns to the good Doctor because that’s the whole reason they exist- thanks, hashtags.  

To be fair, I’ve actually long wanted to devote a Cover Story to Dr. Strange if only to showcase what a unique place he holds in comic book history.  Strange has always been an outlier even within Marvel’s stable of characters, and his covers have actually reflected that along with some of the best oddball art you’re likely to find in a superhero comic.  That’s just what happens when you make a book about weird wizards and inter-dimensional magic.  

While I usually do this to mock them, I have to draw attention to that inter-title because it’s excellent.  There’s something deeply evocative about that phrase “If A World Should Die,” made all the more ominous by the lack of a question mark.  It’s not wondering what could happen, it’s an immediate and dangerous accusation more than anything else.  I will come down on the weird, amorphous yellow shape that’s holding the eye of agamotto, I think it’s a skeleton creature, but I really can’t tell with this shading.  

If you’re wondering why Dr. Strange has a mask on in this cover, it’s that for a time in the ‘70s he adopted a masked look to hide his identity from the Sons of Satannish, a cult he was fighting.  The blue mask look really stands up as one of the better costume redesigns in comics alongside black suit Spider-Man and gray Hulk, and we’ll be seeing more of it on this list.

I like that this inter-title, “Dr. Strange Meets…Death,” is still ominous but way less so given it’s the Marvel Universe.  I mean yes, there’s that great “spooky” typeface they’ve written “Death!” in but in the Marvel universe Death is just a short little skeleton lady in purple whose primary job is to shoot down Thanos’ romantic overtones.  Actually, the MCU is kind of unique in how many different iterations of death there are, mainly because they include Gods of Death like Hela and Pluto as well as both male and female personifications of the entity.  

As for the rest of the cover, if you’re getting the impression this is more like a psychedelic rock or fantasy metal cover that’s pretty much exactly the aesthetic Dr. Strange was shooting for at the time (late ‘60s, early ‘70s.)  The big thing to remember about Marvel in its infancy was that it may have been a business but was much closer to a modern day start-up with a lot of the creative decision working off of whatever the creators were interested in at the time. So, if the guy working Dr. Strange was big into the Grateful Dead or whatever that month it ended up in the covers somehow. 

We’re getting shockingly modern with his cover tie, but that’s only because Dr. Strange has only had like 3 ongoing series in his entire career.  This most recent series, out under the ‘All-New All-Different’ branding initiative and written by Jason Aaron, is a lot more horror-oriented than his previous series but it stands up damn well if you’re curious and this artwork is a good example of why.  They’re both decidedly macabre images that still feel uniquely modern.  

That’s mainly because we’re living in an age now where what counts as horror imagery is so ingrained in the modern psyche directors have figured out how to drape anything in scary elements.  In this case, there’s something about blending images like creepy roots, disembodied body parts, spooky houses, and dark holes together to make something new that’s reminiscent of The Conjuring or Insidious.  It sends a much darker and more mysterious sense of the supernatural into the series than the otherworldly out there nature of the classic books.

Before I get into the educational part of this paragraph let me just say covers like this are why Marvel thrived so well.  It’s a brilliant cover that manages to be serious and high concept all at once, which was why they managed to fill the gap for older readers when they premiered.  

The dim lighting, spooky d├ęcor, and great visage of the looming Astral Dr. Strange are a great combo that says “yeah, it’s weird and cool but we aren’t joking about it.”  Also, that inter-title of “Now unto us is born…the Magician” is incredibly cool, right up there with “The Batman, who he is and how he came to be.”

Now, the more detail oriented in my audience probably picked up on the fact this is issue #169 and they’re only just now premiering Strange’s origin story.  That’s because Dr. Strange didn’t premiere with Dr. Strange #1, he actually first appeared in Strange Tales #110.  This was still 1963 so Marvel was finding its feet with new properties to turn into monthly comics.  

They’d started out in the late ‘50s with weird science and strange fiction anthology comics and didn’t go full superhero till the Fantastic Four turned into a hit.  So, when Dr. Strange became another hit for them after several appearances in Strange Tales they eventually just started his comic with the same numbering as Strange Tales rather than publish a new #1, which they didn’t think would sell too well. 

This is an interesting comparison cover to the #13 tied spot if only because it’s such a classical vision of what constitutes horror imagery.  Nowadays, when we talk about horror visuals there’s an understanding it has to include creepy dolls, spooky houses, and usually some kind of chalk white old-timey ghost, ideally with a screwed up face.  

However, this cover goes in hard for the gothic horror style and pulls it off masterfully.  A big part of that is the skulls, this more cartoonish depiction of the skull is straight out of the gothic horror playbook rather than the more yellowed and creepy versions we push nowadays. 

What actually sells this as a great slice of gothic horror is the atmosphere and structure, like that giant moon, fog, and bats screams gothic horror.  This is Umar, incidentally, if anyone was curious as to who this character is, she’s a sporadically featured supernatural bad guy who does spooky magics.  

Actually, I called the flying creatures “bats” but I’m not sure that’s what they are, their snouts look like some kind of pterodactyl or an evil Dr. Seuss character.  Incidentally, Umar’s green costume is a good example of how often superheroes rely on blue and red color schemes against primarily green ones. 

I told you you’d see more of the blue mask covers on this list; what’s more this is one of the spookiest typeface logo we’ve seen so far.  On that subject, I honestly don’t know why the Dr. Strange logo has gone through so many discrete iterations and changes over the course of his comic runs.  I definitely prefer the blockier look with that dripping line work that speaks to a ‘50s spookiness in favor of the sharper, curvier modern logo.  Anyway, this cover is a pretty great blend of visual elements with color balance and monster design.  

The setting is mezzo-American as you can tell by those awesome ziggurats in the background but, interestingly, there’s no attempt to make the monster or statue match-up with that theme.  That’s actually pretty typical for the classic Dr. Strange series, which did its best to focus on surrealist cosmology rather than ethnically distinct cultural mysticism.  

I’m pretty glad they did too because this monster design is great, like if Lovecraft designed Legend of Zelda monsters.  There’s something about the evil eyes and pointy ears with that tube mouth that’s shockingly memorable, also having its wings form the background was a really sharp move. 

Now that is how you do scary skeletons.  Seriously, the visual design of these skeletons is one of the best realized monster looks I’ve ever seen.  They completely eschew the clean lines and sharp, almost cartoon, definition of the skulls in #11 for this crunchy, crumbling visual design.  A lot of that is the result of odd perspectives on the skeletons making them seem a lot less human.  Looking at the two most prominent skeletons on the left under the logo, the way their skulls are framed they protrude like animal skulls.  

There’s this hulking, predatory look to the skeletons that’s really creepy and the detail put into their teeth is very off-putting.  It’s most reminiscent of what would become the standard aesthetic of a lot of ‘70s Italian horror movies, except this was published in the mid ‘60s.  I’m not terribly clear on what the background is supposed to be as it seems like an oddly warped city block but I’m willing to let that slide because of how fresh and creepy the skeletons are, especially that one with hair and a neckerchief. 

Damn Doctor Strange just crushes it at inter-titles, seriously “…a gathering of fear” is yet another perfectly coded phrase between ominous dread, sincere threats, and evocative wording.  As for the content, I can only assume the monster at hand is some kind of green version of the evil jam from Ghostbusters 2.  In all honesty I really like the more urban fantasy horror look of this cover compared to the psychedelic, gothic, and supernatural designs we’ve seen so far.  

There’s something about that green, old-fashioned lamppost design that gives it a uniquely retro feeling that I really like.  The green ooze is also really cool, it actually reminds me of the freaky unfortunate souls that Ursula had in Little Mermaid, like monsters made of cartilage.  Incidentally, for the curious, the woman next to Dr. Strange is Clea, a woman from an alternate dimension that Strange took on first as an apprentice then later as a girlfriend before she disappeared without explanation.

Free comic book cover fact- the more inter-titles and blurbs they put on a cover to convince you what’s going on the less likely it is to be true.  So the fact they’ve got 4 blurbs here trying to convince us Dr. Strange has died in his 12th issue means it’s probably not true.  

This is another one of the quirks of older comics, because they were harder to produce you were way less likely to find series end after a few issues like they do nowadays simply because they couldn’t afford to produce that many issues of a comic if it wasn’t successful. 

As for the actual cover, this is a good example of how much environmental detail can inform a cover.  Sure, the visual of Strange’s costume on a skeleton is pretty unnerving, especially with another one of those creepy Giallo skulls, but what actually sells the cover is all the background details around that.  

The line work on the wind is really striking as it manages to imply an icy, gusting wind without obscuring the core visual at all.  Also, in case you couldn’t tell, that dark blob on the bottom of the page is meant to be the shadow of a figure, you can tell if you spot the shadow hand over Strange’s crotch. 

Hey, I promised Strange Tales covers earlier in this list and now I’m delivering, and boy is this tale strange.  So, the big golden genital-less monster hulking against the red sky is called the Living Tribunal.  The Living Tribunal is one of several big, weird cosmic entities that pepper the Marvel universe like Death and Eternity with humble origins like this.  

See, when the Marvel Universe was getting started they weren’t setting out to form a longstanding shared universe and had no idea what would actually prove popular so they just did whatever.  Later, in particular the ‘80s, they started arranging this kind of thing into hierarchy and canon, bringing characters like the Living Tribunal back from obscurity to serve as key players. 

As for the rest of this cover, it’s probably the most classically surreal of the bunch.  It’s something about that sparse and oddly decorated background that affords the cover a dreamlike quality.  Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko always excelled at embodying a Dali-esc bent for surrealism and this is a superb example of it.  

My favorite part is easily the random hunk of Stonehenge in the background backed up by the random hourglass in the foreground.  Though I will admit the most well drawn part of this cover is probably the weird energy coil spinning around Strange himself, though the Tribunal’s mitten hand is pretty fun. 

These three penultimate entries are all going to be pretty heavy on the arcane cosmic beings.  That’s partially because these kind of characters tend to sport really weird and out there visual designs, which is why they all pop up in the Doctor Strange mythos.  The main reason, though, is that it’s way easier to just explain who characters like “the In-Betweener” are than delve into what makes this cover great.  

Speaking of, this cover is great for a combination of the expert linework and shading combination on the two figures giving them a level of detail and clarity that’s striking and memorable while the background energy work is both dynamic and unique in a very Kirby style.  As for the In-Betweener, he was a servant of Lord Chaos and Master Order, a pair of floating giant heads that represent chaos and order in the universe, with the In-Betweener meant to be a being that keeps the balance for them.  The more you know. 

And now the last and grandest in our cosmic entities series- Eternity, sporting this fabulous cover.  So, Eternity is basically all of reality in the Marvel universe.  Actually that’s a bit misleading, Eternity is the sentient personification of the main Marvel Universe with other universes like the Age of Apocalypse or Marvel Noir existing as separate Eternities.  

He’s one of the most powerful beings in the entire Marvel canon even if his power often renders him useless in the face of major smackdowns as humans are like amoeba to him.  Dr. Strange is one of the few exceptions as his job is literally to protect Eternity from mystic threats. 

As for this cover, it’s such an odd creation I really have no idea how it came about.  If you can’t tell, the background is a black and white photo of the real New York City with both Dr. Strange and Eternity pasted over it.  Photo covers were a thing in the past and sporadically pop up these days but they’re usually just photos, not this weird blend.  

I don’t know why they went this route but I’m pretty glad they did because it’s just so unique and well composed.  Eternity’s texture is especially well realized, even if the star clusters are “unrealistic” they’re still really cool. 

This is the other Strange Tales entry on my list, which is nice as I can address why Nick Fury’s logo is also in the title.  See, to make their anthology books still profitable in a time when superheroes were coming into vogue Marvel would double stuff them with two stories, so Dr. Strange ended up sharing marquis space with Nick Fury, who was also very popular at the time as part of the growing spy craze.  As for this cover, it’s kind of impressive how cool and evocative it is without any actual impact on mythos or the like.  

The freaky, ghost of Christmas future looking monster that’s menacing Strange isn’t a named being or re-occurring menace, it’s just a monster of the month but an expertly made one.  Actually, with the weird grayness of the shade and the people behind him this whole scene looks a lot like Hell.  

I especially like the creepy cave wall texture and structure that adds to that sense, even while accepting the gray color work here was most likely a cost cutting measure.  I do have to admit this cover makes Strange look uncharacteristically evil, seriously look at his face here, he looks like Dracula- especially with that giant collar. 

Alright, folks don’t get your jimmies in a rustle here, but yes, there wasn’t actually a woman Dr. Strange, just a very bizarre issue that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The idea that someone else could fill Strange’s shoes has actually been a cornerstone of the mythos since the word go.  Strange may be the sorcerer supreme but that’s a position with a time limit, a role passed on from master to apprentice through the centuries to ensure there’s always someone to protect reality from mystic threats.  

What’s more, Strange has actually lost the title on occasion, most notably in the mid 2000s when Brother Voodoo took up the name and became Dr. Voodoo.  However, becoming the new Sorcerer Supreme doesn’t mean gaining Strange’s full outfit like what’s happening here, in fact I’d honestly believe what we’re seeing here is Strange reincarnating as a woman but I really don’t know.  All I know is that it’s a great attention grabbing cover that actually fits the mythos and character as well as being well-drawn.

This probably seems like an odd cover to select for the number 1 spot but considered that, within the context of Dr. Strange covers, this was up there with the premiere of the black Spider-Man costume.  The truth is I absolutely love the blue Doctor Strange costume (which is part of why I liked the film’s visual redesign so much) so it was always going to be key to my number 1 pick.  

The big reason I love it so much is that it basically solves most of Dr. Strange’s nagging problems.  The character has been plagued with issues of white saviorism and orientalism from the get go when Marvel editorial forced creator Steve Ditko to downplay the fact the master of the mystic arts was meant to be an Asian hero.  

Not only does the blue mask set-up remove any clear indications of denominational visual cues, it also makes him look completely inhuman, which is why I think it works beyond just removing the whole “white guy co-opting Asian culture” angle.  Dr. Strange is supposed to be weird and out there, a surreal and bizarre figure among a great big STRANGE universe so having him just be some lounge lizard surgeon always struck me as deeply unfaithful to that vision.  Shedding those roots for a full on blue demon look is a great way to take this character to the next level, hence why even the logo changed to reflect this.  

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