Steve Ditko’s Mar-Vell is pretty much his Doctor Strange (with a dash of Rom) – Marvel Spotlight #4
A couple of years ago we looked at an issue of Marvel Spotlight with art by Steve Ditko, a comic that featured one of the myriad one-shot assignments that legendary artist has worked on for the House of Ideas in the years since his Spider-Man/Doctor Strange heyday. What made that story interesting was that the monster battled by the protagonist, Dragon-Lord, looked a whole hell of a lot like another Godzilla-like creature Ditko had worked with years before: Gorgo, the British take on Gojira. It was a fairly forgettable story — and character — but the artistic connection was worthy of note.
The comic we’re examining today, the immediate predecessor of the Dragon-Lord book, is in the same vein. With Ditko’s fluid lines, Kree champion Captain Marvel becomes an erstwhile Stephen Strange, with enemies from shadow realms and an extra-dimensional adventure that could easily have Dormammu or Nightmare subbed in as the villain. And on top of it all, it even presages more than a decade out Swingin’ Steve’s under-appreciated book-closing run on Rom. Who could ask for more?
Mar-Vell had by this point (1979/1980) seen his eponymous series canceled, after a run that had had fits and starts since its Silver Age inception. Marvel Spotlight provided an opportunity to keep the character in the reading public’s eye, though this too had limited success: sadly enough, Captain Marvel would only gain true superstardom (no pun) on the way out, when cancer brought his space-faring to a premature end. But we can thank the off-the-radar Spotlight for at least bringing Ditko’s unique stylings to the character. It’s an interesting footnote to a character always associated with the cosmic milieu of Jim Starlin, a funhouse mirror that warps him into something similar yet noticeably different.
The story here, written by Marv Wolfman (plot) and Archie Goodwin, finds Captain Marvel on Earth, and spurred to investigate a man’s mysterious death on the streets of New York. No time is wasted getting to the unique hijinks, with Marvel soon doing battle with his own shadow, come to life and stalking him (this wouldn’t be the last time Ditko went to the artistic shadow well in this title) :
(Right now the Hulk his rubbing his head as he recalls an infinitely depressing moment in his gamma-irradiated career.)
The shadow is actually a good guy, a traveler from a besieged extra-dimensional realm who’s come to Earth to recruit Marvel’s help against his people’s oppressors, a plight he recounts in flashback form:
The look and feel of this locale is complete Strange, with soft curves, arches, odd patterns and infinite backdrops that make each panel the sequential art answer to dropping acid. This isn’t to say that Mar-Vell’s normal cosmic activities didn’t take him to odd locales, but in Ditko’s hands (speaking of which, his trademark hands and fingers are in full force) the comparison is inescapable. And this isn’t a bad thing — who on Earth or other dimension choice dislikes Ditko’s Sorcerer Supreme? There’s a reason it’s inarguably definitive a half a century later.
Yet there’s more.
After a brief training montage — one worthy of Rocky Balboa — Marvel leads his new friend and his freedom fighters into combat against the Soul Masters, their whip-cracking overlords. These guys function as Spaceknight prototypes, design blueprints a decade out for the assorted defenders of Rom’s Galador — and, more accurately, the new wave of Spaceknights introduced at the tail end of that series, who had taken over the very planet they had sworn to protect. These Soul Master dudes also have the habit of flashing gang signs while casting their spells or using their powers or whatever:
Oh, and flipping the bird too.
As stated, this Ditko interlude is little more than a blip on the Captain Marvel character arc. He had bigger narrative fish to fry. Nor is it one of the more noted moments in Ditko’s long, varied and productive career. But the visual connective tissue with not one but two other Ditko runs — one famous, one less so — makes it interesting. One would even daresay it makes it somewhat important, from some stylistic archeological perspective, both a callback and a premonition. Doctor Strange begat Mar-Vell begat Rom’s Spaceknight foes — not a bad continuum.