In the late ’80s and early ’90s, comics were undergoing a massive shift. The industry was scrambling to understand what its readers really demanded; was it high-minded fantasy with literary ambitions? Was it gritty tone poems of anti-heroes and extreme violence? Or was it that inevitable slip-slide into the extreme? The eventual splintering off of the Image bros and the increased pressure of competition that would eventually lead to the speculator crash meant that every book and character at Marvel had to be reconsidered, if not out and out reinvented.
In that period of uncertainty, some books were handed off to untested new creators, with some creators being slowly edged out to make way for a new style, creative vision, or base gimmick. Other characters underwent incredibly rich rebirths, creating new mini-mythos of their own, while still other long-standing runs blossomed into seemingly endless sagas.
The third tact, as seen in Doctor Strange Epic Collection: The Vampiric Verses, was to hand the reins over to already celebrated legacy creators. A sense of pedigree might stabilize a character who had essentially been spinning his wheels, particularly when the Distinguished Competition had introduced a much more compelling, mature British Invasion take on the character archetype.
It should be noted that the previous volume of Epic featured the return of Marvel legend Roy Thomas to Doctor Strange with issue #5. Thomas had written Strange in the decades previous, taking over Strange Tales for a time, starting in 1968(!). Thomas had, of course, a long and impressive career with lauded, character-defining runs on most of the Marvel roster of the 1970s, even spearheading rights negotiations for Conan and pinch-hitting and creating a wild variety of characters as diverse as Man-Thing and Ultron.
That brief stint on Strange Tales ended in cancelation — not Thomas’s fault — and so most of his work on the character was done elsewhere, primarily Defenders, where Strange shared the spotlight.
So what did he bring to the character in the ’90s?
Surprisingly little. The Vampiric Verses, despite having some incredibly solid parts, does a shockingly small amount of work for the character or his mythology. Thomas seems to be primarily babysitting the book until someone else comes along to make it work, first half-heartedly tying up previous writer Peter Gillis’ dangling plot threads (Steve has a brother, and that brother is a vampire) and then ticking old, rerun boxes with Dormammu, Satannish, and Mephisto appearances. No one story impacts any other, depriving the book of any narrative gravity.
It’s also important to note that Roy’s wife, Dann, was writing the book with him — something that, just maybe, balanced the narrative in a way that made these issues more personable, less Big Moment to Big Moment and more interpersonal, with side characters developing relationships and rivalries. The narrative’s strongest moments are therefore quiet, delicate, but easily overlooked.
Roy does his damnedest to smother even those small victories, however, with textbook-heavy backup features that work as history lessons of Strange’s world. Roy was well known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel Universe — only Mark Gruenwald challenged his scholarly powers — which means these lectures are dense, exhaustive, and ultimately flow-stopping.
The highlight of the Vampiric Verses is the artwork in the first half of the book, done by Butch Guice, who has a sort of catalog-model realism to his characters that feels more in line with portions of Hellblazer than a trans-dimensional romp filled with body horror. He better matches the delicate Dann Thomas character work, and occasionally stretches into uncomfortable giant monster territory with real gusto.
The three most striking moments of the book, however, have nothing to do with the main Doctor Strange stories. First off, we have the famed Amy Grant lawsuit, wherein Guice incorporated a deeply Christian singer’s face onto the cover of an issue of his dirty, satanic comic book, and got the publisher sued. The cover has been altered, in the book, but its history is interesting enough to note here.
Next up is the inclusion of a crossover issue of Ghost Rider, written by Howard Mackie and perfectly, moodily drawn by iconic GR artist Javier Saltares (and inked by likewise iconic Ghosty artist Mark Texeira). That the highlight is a different, much better book perfectly illustrates how poorly Marvel’s attempts to revitalize the character were going.
Don’t worry, I’ve saved the worst for last. Issue #25 of the series, guest written by usually not problematic Fabian Nicieza and drawn by legend Ron Lim, features Native American characters Red Wolf and Black Crow. . . and some of the most offensive, Eurocentric wrongheaded thinking about the Native condition I think I’ve ever experienced in a comic book.
Nicieza was, around this same time, writing a few of Marvel’s few other Native characters over in Alpha Flight without being accidentally racist, and so this deep misunderstanding is all the more baffling. Essentially, the issue introduces some Cheyenne gods (and the dead ancestors who “worship” them) that are — and quite justifiably — enraged about the long, systematic, and ongoing cultural murder of their people. In a world where Canada was sterilizing Natives as recently as 2017, US Natives have skyrocketing suicide rates, and Native protesters are constantly and succinctly silenced, our “hero” Doctor Strange patiently and violently insists that Native anger is, in fact, bad and wrong and stop it, please.
“It’s a shame you cannot see the error of your ways,” says heroic, $700 million box office-grossing protagonist Doctor Strange. “It is that simple. That sad. . . Their acts of violence will now end because the Cheyenne have been shown that in order to ever succeed. . . they would have to do to us over the course of centuries. . . what we did to them.”
In what is meant to be some sort of progressive, inclusive move, the issue manages only to invalidate and condescend. It seems to say, “yeah, Europeans murdered you all and successfully suppressed your way of life, but if you try to stand up against the onslaught you’ll only be as bad as your oppressors”. It’s truly, deeply upsetting.
The issue then ends with some racists throwing Red Wolf out of a restaurant. So, you know. Progress.
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