THE UNFORGETTABLE DOCTOR STRANGEFATE
We all remember how gloomy things were for Marvel and DC Comics back in the last decade. There’s really no need to repeat how direly bankrupt the Big Two were in terms of creativity — quarter boxes and landfills across the country serve as a testament to how worthless the great majority of these books remain. Every cheap gimmick and cheesy plot devise was used to get your consumer dollar and those of the vultures speculating and scavenging for short-term windfalls. Soon the ante was raised as killing and physically scarring iconic characters became fashionable. Having exploited all of their heroes, gimmicks and resources by the mid-Nineties, with no other place to turn to for new bankable books, Marvel and DC decided to finally team-up and give the public the crossover slugfest event they always wanted to see: “DC vs. Marvel” (or “Marvel vs. DC” for the politically correct). Unlike prior DC and Marvel collaborations, this four-issue mini-series actually had opposing company characters duking it out instead of chumming around; some of the victors of these matches were decided from the votes of action-hungry Marvel and DC fanatics. This little mini-series was a huge hit and the perfect epitome that anything could happen in this industry during the 1990s. All hope seemed lost.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the conclusion of “DC vs. Marvel,” something that for a change was some kind of wonderful in 1996: The Amalgam Comics line. With little fanfare or overbearing hype, DC and Marvel editorial jointly orchestrated twelve individual issues of one-shot titles that combined the personas of popular DC and Marvel heroes into brand new amalgamated personages. Even more intriguing to the experiment was the fact these superhero comics were the only superhero books that the Big Two released the week they arrived to shops. The Amalgam line was a success for those comics readers beginning to lose hope in superhero titles. Such sportsmanship, ingenuity and jovial fun would never be seen again in any crossover from Marvel and DC before or after Amalgam. Whether the books were good (“Bruce Wayne: Agent of Shield” and “Super-Soldier”), bad (“Assassins” and “Bullets and Bracelets”), or ugly (“Speed Demon” and “Magneto & The Magnetic Men”), I and others bought all of them because there was some refreshing imagination being put forward; finally there was something that was spun differently. And of all the Amalgam titles, the very finest was “Doctor Strangefate” #1.
Masterfully told by writer Ron Marz, penciler José Luis Garcia-Lopez and inker Kevin Nowlan, “Doctor Strangefate” is indeed one of the finest comic books from the last decade. This title has everything you should expect from a twenty-two-page story: suspense, action, intrigue, sexiness, comedy and much more. Nothing is wasted, nor is anything spared. There aren’t six pages of stagnant car chases or twelve pages of talking heads in a room without backgrounds. It’s a tremendous tale with a world unlike anything else we’ve seen. Just a compelling story jam-packed with some of the best art you’ll ever discover. The enjoyment that I’ve gotten out of this one book over the years, from repeated reading and art viewing, is more bliss than probably all the combined efforts of DC and Marvel this year. For all these reasons, POP! recently reunited the three principals of “Dr. Strangefate” for the first time since the book was released for this article.
The beginnings of “Strangefate” started in the initial talks of the then-secret discussions that plotted “DC vs. Marvel” and its interconnected Amalgam books. Writer Ron Marz explained to POP!, “It all came about from me doing ‘DC vs. Marvel’ and knowing from the first meeting, they didn’t want anybody in either office, Marvel or DC, to even know that there was a meeting about this going on. It was Mike Carlin, Mark Gruenwald, me, and Peter David, and that was it. We met at Mark’s apartment uptown in the city, and then went for lunch. And to me the coolest thing that came out of it was the Amalgam stuff, because that was part of it from the beginning. It was the payoff between issues three and four, which I thought was a really cool, clever way to do something other than a bunch of superheroes fighting each other.”
Here’s a “CliffsNotes” recap of the “DC vs. Marvel” limited series that led to “Strangefate” #1: The Amalgam universe appears when the two entities that house the respective Marvel and DC universes merge into one “Amalgam” universe. A character named Access is introduced as the only character that can travel between Marvel and DC, and so it is his destiny as the keeper of this transdimensional gateway to use his power so that the Amalgam world ceases to exist. Before the great merger happens, Access hides the keys that can restore everything within Batman and Captain America. On the newly formed Amalgam world, Access runs for his life as Doctor Strangefate, the most powerful being in this new universe, searches for the keys in order to ensure the survival of his realm, the only existence that he’s ever known.
The meta-fiction aspect of merging Dr. Strange and Dr. Fate was architected by Mike Carlin and Mark Gruenwald as they designed the parameters of the gigantic company crossover. Although the initial wave of Amalgam one-shots would be penned by a variety of notable writers outside of ones scripting the main event, Marz recalled being offered first crack at working on one of the twelve books. Without a sweat, Marz volunteered to work on “Doctor Strangefate” due to his great admiration towards the original source characters.
One of the titles overseen by the DC offices, “Strangefate” was assigned to editor Dan Thorsland, a former Dark Horse editor [Note: Thorsland is not an amalgamation of Thor and artist Greg Land]. “I sat down in Dan’s office,” the writer recalled about his initial meeting with Thorsland, “and I said, ‘Look, I don’t give a crap who you get to pencil it, just get Kevin Nowlan to ink it.’ And he said, ‘Well, how about I call José Luis Garcia-Lopez?’ And I was like, ‘Well, okay.’ That, to me, was just a brilliant pick to see how those two would mix together.”
Marz continued, “I’ve known Kevin [Nowlan] for years, and he’s certainly one of my favorite artists, ever, easily. He’s a lovely guy, and way too humble for the masses of talent that he has. I’ll work with Kevin on anything, anywhere, anytime. And I believe this was the first time that Kevin and José [Garcia-Lopez] had worked together, and obviously José was a guy that Kevin really appreciated his work. So it was a really cool pairing, because José draws so well, and so fluidly, that, yeah, sometimes Kevin will get an inking gig and the editor will say, ‘Look, we want you to do your thing.’ They want him to overpower somebody. And, frankly, most pencilers want to be overpowered by Kevin. Most pencilers want the Kevin Nowlan treatment, and are kind of disappointed when they don’t get it. So this was a really interesting exercise to see where there’s a little bit more José, and where there’s a little bit more Kevin.”
Legendary artist José Luis Garcia-Lopez explained to POP! that he was very impressed with Nowlan’s inks on “Strangefate.” Garcia-Lopez disclosed, “I believe [Nowlan] was one of the best inkers I've ever had. I did the pencils with him in mind, playing with lights and shadows and putting a lot of detail because I knew he was going to do justice to the pencils and at the same time imprinting his own distinctive style. I was very happy with the result.”
For the more than formidable talents of artist Kevin Nowlan, he recalled the anxious thrill he had in just seeing Garcia-Lopez’s pencils and methods upfront. Nowlan told POP!, “I don't remember approaching them any differently than I would another penciller, other than I knew I'd have to slow way down. His pencils are dense and you can't rush through them. I used a really fine quill pen for most of the rendering. In some areas I tightened the pencils a bit before I started with the inks. The structure and construction lines were all there but José Luis finishes his drawings in the inking stage and uses a lot of white out. I try to avoid corrections like that as much as possible so I needed a little more finishing before I started.”
Interestingly enough, the artwork in the book is a beautiful balance of the strengths of both artists. Nowlan’s inks aren’t overpowering, but boldly bring out even more of the storytelling Garcia-Lopez penciled into the board. Nothing is over-rendered, nor is the script overwritten. There’s just a perfect symmetry to the book. Perhaps part of the reason for that was because Marz, one of the best comics writers to arrive last decade, sat down to write a full script that would allow both artists a chance to shine at what they do best and flex their muscles within the story. But writing the script was a challenge in itself for the writer. Marz commented, “Well, obviously I knew who I was writing for, so I sat around for about two weeks and didn’t write anything, frankly, because it’s Kevin Nowlan and José Luis Garcia-Lopez. I was shittin’ a brick.”
The penciler of the book also recalled taking his time staging the book. Garcia-Lopez stated that he spent more time than usual for a story that was only twenty-two pages. Garcia-Lopez quipped, “I guess the idea of being inked by Kevin motivated me to do more sharp pencils than I used to do.”
Equally impressed with his artistic collaborator on this assignment, Kevin Nowlan replied, “José Luis’ ability to animate figures is unique. The pencils aren't overly rendered so you start working on the inks and busy yourself with texture and details. Then when you finish a page you step back and look over the final results. The first thing that jumped out at me was the movement. His people have a lot of life in them, even if they’re just standing around talking, they're doing something with a gesture or body language. He doesn’t rely on stock poses. He also does a lot of research so every setting is full of authentic props and details. He did a story set in Kansas once and I had a chance to see the pencils, even though someone else ended up inking it. As a character traveled down the road from Denver to Central Kansas, José Luis not only drew road signs with the correct mileage between the real-life Kansas towns, he drew the terrain correctly, as if he’d made the trip himself. It impressed the hell out of me. It also annoyed me when the editor arbitrarily changed the signs to fictional towns.”
In designing the characters and world inhabiting “Strangefate,” modern master Garcia-Lopez said, “As you know I'm pretty familiar with all the DC universe but completely illiterate about Marvel’s world, so I was provided with the Marvel characters and designed new ones combining elements from both. I did a couple of sketches they approved very fast. There was only one character I had to create from scratch, [Access], the one with short hair. I had to design him first because they had to use him in other related stories.”
To read “Strangefate,” to really enjoy the beauty of this gem, you don’t really need to be too well-versed in the “DC versus Marvel” storyline. (Personally, I don’t even remember what happened in the “DC versus Marvel” book.) All you need to know is in this one comic. The tale begins with Access on the run from Abominite (Marvel’s Abomination/DC’s Hellgrammite) as he learns to use his teleportation powers in the new Amalgam world. In the hunt for Access and the magic keys, Doctor Strangefate rounds up his three best agents: Shulk (Bruce Banner), Jade Nova (Frankie Rayner), and the luscious White Witch (Wanda Zatara). The agents are instructed to capture and return the boy alive to Strangefate. Where Jade Nova and Shulk fail, the White Witch doesn’t as she uses her beauty and those enchanting lips to lure in Access. Strangefate confronts the young man trying to destroy his universe, but discovers that the keys are beyond his reach since Access has hidden them. When the apparent hero escapes from Arkham Tower, Strangefate understands that his failure has inevitably doomed the existence of everything he knows. In the closing moments, he removes his Dr. Fate helmet to reveal to the reader that the man behind the iron mask is shockingly Charles Xavier.
The revealing of Xavier being a part of the Strangefate equation made for a great ending since all the Amalgam character were only mixes of two characters. And to be honest, this was probably the last time that a mainstream DC or Marvel title had a cliffhanger that really worked and surprised me. “I liked the idea that,” agreed Marz, “because we had a character with a helmet on through the entire issue, that it could be anybody. So the revelation of who it actually was seemed like it should be something important in the story.”
Not surprisingly, that ending almost didn’t happen. Marz said, “Yeah, a lot of the characters were spoken for already, who they were going to be amalgamated with, and as I looked through the final list as it was prepared, I noticed that Xavier wasn’t on there anywhere. He was not spoken for yet. So I asked Dan [Thorsland] if we could have Xavier in a mask. And it took quite a while to actually get an okay from Marvel, because initially they didn’t want to do it. And I don’t know why, but they were very hesitant to let Xavier be the guy under the mask. There were probably some backdoor negotiations to get it to come to pass. Finally, Marvel signed off on it and said okay, but there was a time there where it looked like we might actually have to change the last page of the story because they weren’t going to let us use Xavier.”
Another fascinating aspect to this comic is how refreshingly interesting the characterizations and backstory are for the players of this saga. Sure, I understand that all of the personas are based on already established heroes and villains, but there’s something rejuvenating and bold when you turn something upside down and discover something unique. Any reader will be intrigued by all the nice little details that went into the history these characters have for a mere one-shot. For example, it’s fairly entertaining to see how White Witch teases the ever serious Strangefate about their past exploits. And it isn’t just the White Witch, but I can only imagine that Marz’s backstory for Shulk has to be better than any typical Hulk story. This is the kind of comic that really tickles the imagination.
Regarding the backstory, Marz added, “I think this was true for all the books, and it’s certainly the way I approached this one. We wanted to make it seem like there had been a lot of backstory, that a lot of tales had already been told with these characters, that we didn’t necessarily want it to read like ‘Dr. Strangefate’ #1. The story could have been, like, ‘Dr. Strangefate’ #86, so we wanted there to be a sense of past history with these characters. So it became a question of how much do you hint at, and how much do you actually reveal. You wanted the stories to sort of hint at the past stories that these characters had had, but you didn’t want it to end up reading like an encyclopedia.”
“Doctor Strangefate” is probably the single greatest thing to ever emerge out of any effort from any DC & Marvel collaboration in the last thirty years. Sadly, the Big Two these days don’t exactly see eye-to-eye or play nice together on anything, so one can pretty much rule out that the good doctor will ever return, since he’s a property of both companies.
“You know,” Marz said, “if Garcia-Lopez was available, and Kevin (Nowlan) was available, it might be worth doing, but in a lot of ways I think it’s one of those jobs where it is what it is, and to try to recreate it or to do a sequel to it might diminish it in some ways.”
Similarly, the penciler of the book expressed the same sentiment towards a sequel. Garcia-Lopez commented, “Honestly, I don't know. From the artistic point of view I think it has a lot of possibilities to do visually interesting things, but you know the twenty-two pages I did so long ago were not enough to develop a lasting relationship with the character.”
Over the years in fan circles, the enduring cult love for “Doctor Strangefate” #1 has not escaped the attention of the book’s creators. Marz explained, “I don’t ever really do a signing appearance at a con without some ‘Strangefate’ issues showing up in front of me, which I always think is kind of cool because it’s a one-off issue that we did ten years ago, and the fact that people still care enough about it to pack it to a show I think is cool. Plus, I just think it’s an amazing-looking job. You strip out all the word balloons and it’d still be worth having.”
Kevin Nowlan recalled being similarly affected with the results of the book. Nowlan said, “I remember picking up a copy of the comic and being very impressed. It's usually very disappointing but this time everything came together nicely. I already knew how beautiful José Luis' pencils were but Matt Hollingsworth’s coloring really, really kicked it up a notch.”
For me, as a lifetime reader, this book encapsulates everything I love about comics. The goodness within this book is what every Marvel and DC book should strive for. I’d like to think that we all want to read a comic that just grabs our imagination and doesn’t let it go even after the final page. Regardless of whatever the editorial big pictures is… we all should be able to read a twenty-two page comic story and get the world from it, especially in these days of four-dollar comic pamphlets. And in 1996’s “Doctor Strangefate,” the masterful work of writer Ron Marz, penciler José Luis Garcia-Lopez, inker Kevin Nowlan, colorist Matt Hollingsworth, letterer Chris Eliopoulos, and editor Dan Thorsland, not only gave us the world, but proved that the best comics can show up where you least expect them.