Marvel Super-Heroes #12-13, Captain Marvel #1-4, The Avengers #61 and 63-65, and Doctor Strange #172-178 and 180-183 by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, John Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Paul Reinman, Vince Colleta, George Klein, Sam Grainger, Tom Palmer, Stan Goldberg, Art Simek, Sam Rosen, Irving Watanabe, Herb Cooper, and Jean Simek
Three Marvel titles, three late '60s collaborations between Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, three different storytelling approaches. Stan Lee scripts Captain Mar-vell's first appearance, establishing the premise of a Kree soldier on an undercover mission to determine if Earth is a threat to the Empire. It had a lot of potential, particularly with a protagonist from an alien race that had been positioned as villains. Unfortunately, at least in the subsequent five issues I read, the book collapses underneath the weight of what a story in the Marvel Age of Comics was supposed to be. Everything that made Marvel fresh and exciting in 1961 was tired and worn by this point. Every issue, Mar-vell's commanding officer tries to give him so that he can take his girlfriend. Every issue, Mar-vell's girlfriend cries. Every issue, Mar-vell laments the irony that Earth's new hero could one day seal its doom. The military base setting was already covered in Iron Man and Hulk, and while the comic has the first appearance of Carol Danvers, she's a head of security in pearls instead of a uniform. It's a formulaic slog that even Colan's art doesn't even alleviate. The pages are still and clearly him, but you can tell he wasn't fully invested in them; horror is his genre, not sci-fi. There being three inkers between the Marvel Super-Heroes and Captain Marvel issues does make for an interesting study of his art. Giacoia has a clean style that still retains the personality of Colan's work. Reinman tried to retain as much of Colan's shading as possible, and is one of his better inkers. Vince Colleta, of course, stripped Colan's work of all its detail and atmosphere.
Colan's three issue stint being randomly assigned to The Avengers happens to coincide with major changes for Hawkeye. Not only does he take over the identity of Goliath, but elements of his past and family are revealed. As opposed to the repetitive endurance test of Captain Marvel, you breeze through these comics. The character bits with Hawkeye are squeezed between one action set piece after another: Black Panther's experimental plane is about to crash, then Hawkeye's fighting a giant monster, then the Avengers get back together to go up to a space station blasting cities on the Earth, then the Swordsman breaks into Avengers Mansion. As a side effect, most of the characters are written in a similar voice with few distinct characteristics, but as an action book, it does its job. Colan likewise turns in superhero battles with a touch of his grandeur, though like Captain Marvel they lack the inspiration of Colan at his best. The exception is Avengers #65, where an opening splash page of Swordsman leaping through a billboard is followed by a sequence of him jumping down to the street below across two pages. Such a simple movement would take a page at most, a few panels really, but only Colan would think to give it the weight of a double page spread and be allowed to get away with it.
And then there's Doctor Strange, and it's a title that gives Colan a canvas to paint with his full artistic vision. After a couple issues of typical square and rectangular panels, they become rhombuses, they take on irregular shapes, they dissolve into each other. Rather than the efficient grids of superhero storytelling, his layouts flow with spontaneous life. While the swirls, smoke, and darkness of Colan's dimensions are not as striking as the bizarre designs of Ditko's, touches such as the realism brought to the Eye of Agamotto continue the otherworldliness. Doctor Strange #180 is one of my favorite comics drawn by Colan: splash page encounters with Eternity, POV shots, Strange and Clea walking through New York in the snow, anachronistic dinosaurs and warriors ripped from the past as a threat by Nightmare...so many varied threads and all gorgeously rendered by Colan. His artwork stands out even more next to a crossover issue of Avengers in the middle. While John Buscema is a good superhero artist and his work has its own tells, his style is very much a piece with the majority of superhero artists of the era. The only artist who draws like Gene Colan is Gene Colan. Storywise, the issues suffer from the same problem as the classic Ditko run, in that Doctor Strange is a stubbornly one-dimensional character. While there are gestures toward Strange's loss of his hands and the loneliness of being the Sorcerer Supreme, he really only exists to defeat demonic threats with a deus ex machina bit of magic after a few issues of dueling. Like the premise of Captain Marvel, the idea of Clea being stuck on Earth is largely untapped, and a ridiculous 1600s fear of magic in 1968 swipes the much more successful metaphor of the X-Men. Unlike Captain Marvel, Colan's artistry is so incredible that the scripts are greatly beside the point.