thrift store finds: marvel novel series – doctor strange

This week, we’re looking at Marvel Novel Series: Doctor Strange -Nightmare written by Robert Rotsler with a beautiful painted cover by Bob Larkin.

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I paid $5 bucks for this book. I know, that’s an unusually high price for me when it comes to thrift store shopping but there’s a reason!

Marvel Comics had a much wider readership amongst college students in the 1960’s and ’70’s than other superhero comics. The company’s stable of heroes are far more down to Earth and relatable than DC Comics‘ pantheon of gods and goddesses. Marvel superheroes often dealt with real world issues like drug abuse, the war in Vietnam, and even civil rights. If I had to guess, the Marvel Novel Series was an attempt to corner that appeal in a more adult-friendly package.

Consisting of eleven paperbacks published throughout the late 1970’s, these books took the familiar Marvel Universe characters and propelled them into long format prose tales. While some of the books included adaptations of previously written comic stories, the majority were originals featuring Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and others.

I chose to look at Nightmare for a simple reason: it’s the only book in the series that features Doctor Strange.

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I’ve always been fascinated by Doctor Strange, if only because, on paper, the character’s a winner. To be sure, there are less well-thought-out superhero characters who have found more popularity and longer shelf life than Strange. A “sorcerer supreme,” Strange has one of those classic Marvel backstories, as compelling as Spider-Man or Daredevil. He was originally a brilliant but arrogant surgeon laid low by a car accident that destroyed his hands but awakened both his humility and an interest in the mystic arts. Doctor Strange has a great hook and some very cool visuals but has never been able to hold his own comic series for very long.

Doctor Strange also has a great creative pedigree. He was a favorite of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. Some of Ditko’s best, most inventive comic pages came from the artist’s run on Strange. Other creators followed suit and there’s a list about as long as my arm of talented writers and artists who have tackled the good doctor, only to find their efforts have fallen short of making the character a star. Strange is often relegated to guest star status, with occasional mini-series in recent years to keep the character present in the minds of readers. I’ve always been surprised Marvel didn’t push the character more, but perhaps there’s just something in the good doctor’s creative DNA that relegates him to the background, time and again. I was interested to see how the character would fit in a novel.

William Rotsler seems to have been a “jack of all trades” in the world of sci-fi/fantasy. Rotsler was semi-famous in some circles for his contributions to science fiction fandom. He’s widely credited for giving Harlan Ellison the title for one of Ellison’s most famous short stories, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Rotsler does a good job here, under the editorship of Len Wein and Marv Wolfman. I’ve never seen two editors so prominently billed on a book before, but fans of comics will immediately realize why this is the case: Wein and Wolfman are “bonafide” in the world of superhero comics; putting their names at the front of the book would likely be a good advertisement for the veracity of Nightmare.

Like I said, Rotsler does a good job here. The way I see it, he had two notes he needed to hit with Nightmare. He had to tell an original Doctor Strange story… while figuring out a way to admirably shoehorn in all the information newbies needed to understand the origin of Dr. Strange and his surroundings. Rotsler inserts the origin story through a flashback and that works decently, although it does put the main narrative on pause while the author fills in the blanks for newbies. That main story is pretty standard Doctor Strange stuff – he takes astral form, he battles a magical villain. His manservant Wong makes food… his gal pal Clea frets. I don’t mean to be reductive, but these are tropes of the Doctor Strange canon and Rotsler works them in decently well.

Nightmare opens with several disparate characters all having (you guessed it, you smartie) nightmares! Pro boxer Joe Peerson, film superstar Michelle Hartley, and evangelist Billie Joe Jacks are disturbed by a malevolent force within their dreams, slowly drawing Stephen Strange and his assistant/lover Cleo into battle against an immortal enemy. A lot of these characters have real-life points of reference; Peerson is meant to parallel Muhammad Ali, I’m sure. Further, Rotsler fills Nightmare with tons of winking nods to comic creators of the moment. As a fan of the writer being named, I was especially pleased to find this buried early in the book:

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Mark Evanier is a prominent writer/blogger who’s written everything in comics, from funny animals to superheroes. Given the time period this was written, I’d also take a guess and say maybe Rotsler was name checking Roy Thomas as well? I’m not sure.

One thing I noticed about Rotsler’s prose – the author seemingly works overtime to mention sex, sexual urges, and the like. From Peerson’s relationships with women who are pretty clearly prostitutes to the characterization of Michelle Hartley – sex was clearly on Rotsler’s mind. Put it this way: This is the only Marvel Comics story I’ve ever read in any medium which features a character using a vibrator.

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This is kind of a bold, interesting choice to make, since presumably these paperbacks would be consumed by an older audience… but it’s a bit jarring at first. Still, the tone fits Doctor Strange, with his swingin’ Greenwich Village apartment and almost hippy-ish lifestyle. It’s a note that likely couldn’t be played in the comic books so it’s cool that Rotsler uses it in Nightmare.

Eventually Strange comes into conflict with the villain of the piece who, in a shocking twist, is NAMED NIGHTMARE. The story spins out from there. It’s a bit predictable but most superhero tales are.

The Marvel Novel Series does not seem to be highly prized by either superhero comic collectors or paperback collectors. Comic readers would rather have a comic book, paperback collectors likely look down on this sort of blatant tie-in attempt. The Marvel Novel Series was neither fish nor foul. That being said, they’re an interesting footnote in Marvel’s history and I’m glad to have had the chance to check one of them out.

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