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Doctor Strange vs. the Christian Rocker

 

One of my good friends when I lived in Darkest Iowa was a big Doctor Strange fan. He and his wife are costumers and one of his favorite creations was a Doctor Strange costume he made, complete with an Eye of Aggamato that he crafted around a hologram of a human eye that he bought through a science supply shop. His wife and he would sometimes attend comics conventions as Doctor Strange and Clea. He told me once that when they bought their house, they persuaded the bank to accept his collection of DOCTOR STRANGE comics as collateral.

It was back when I knew my friend that Doctor Strange faced a threat even more intimidating than the Dread Dormammu or the Hoary Hosts of Hoggath: the Aggressive Attorneys of Amy.

But first, some backstory.

The 1970s were a boom time for horror comics. Movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were big in the theaters, and DC Comics was putting out a slew of horror-themed anthologies. Marvel was also part of this trend, creating such characters as Morbius the Living Vampire, Werewolf by Night, and Brother Voodoo, and reviving Doctor Strange. Possibly the best comic Marvel produced during this era was TOMB OF DRACULA, written by Marv Wolfman (no relation) and drawn by Gene Colan. The title focused on a team of vampire hunters who fought Dracula and other supernatural menaces. TOMB OF DRACULA ran for a respectable seventy issues, making it the longest-running comic book ever to have a villain as its title character.

The series also integrated vampires into the Marvel Universe. Until about 1971, the Comics Code had banned vampires from appearing in Code-Approved Comics. Marvel had skirted the rules with Morbius, who was just sorta a vampire but not actually undead, (hence his tagline “the LIVING Vampire”), but a loosening of the Code rules in the early '70s allowed Marvel to run with the honest-to-Stoker real deal. Dracula fought with Spider-Man and Captain America fought a Nazi vampire named Baron Blood, created by Roy Thomas for THE INVADERS and brought back to fight Modern-Day Cap by Roger Stern and John Byrne.

But too much of anything, even the Fiendish Undead, is not necessarily a good thing. At one point, someone decided that the vampires had outstayed their welcome. Perhaps Someone from On High decided that Gothic creepiness did not fit the Mighty Marvel Manner. I'm guessing this was Jim Shooter, but then, fans of my era love blaming Shooter for everything bad Marvel did in the early '80s, so I could easily be mistaken. During Steve Engelhart's run on DOCTOR STRANGE, he did a storyline in which the Sorcerer Supreme sought a magic ritual called the Montressi Formula which would eliminate all vampires. He succeeded, and vampires were banished from the Marvel Universe.

But it takes more than a stake through the heart to keep a vampire down. In 1990, Marvel was running a new DOCTOR STRANGE comic, once again written by Roy Thomas. Roy has always loved incorporating literary characters and other bits history, lore and pop culture into his stories; and he did a five-issue story arc titled “The Vampiric Verses” which brought vampires back. A semi-immortal witch (and ex-girlfriend of Doctor Strange's) named Morgana Blessing needs the Blood of the Undead to maintain her unnaturally long life; and so she manages to bring the vampires back. Doctor Strange's brother becomes the first to fall victim to this new vampiric outbreak and becomes the new Baron Blood. Strange must team up with Morbius the Living Vampire (Not Really a Vampire, remember) and Brother Voodoo to fight this new menace.

And here's where things take a left turn. The second issue of the story line, DOCTOR STRANGE #15, featured a striking cover dominated by the face of a young woman starting intently out at the readers. The woman is meant to be Morgana Blessing, but the artist, Jackson Guice, used an existing photo for the image. From the looks of the image, I'd guess that he took a high-contrast photostat of the original photo, although he might have traced it by hand; but the face was definitely from a photograph, and people quickly identified it. Because the photo Guice used was from the cover of a record album.

I don't know what possessed Guice (if that is the appropriate verb to use in this situation) to use the face of a Christian Contemporary Pop singer to represent an occultist dabbling in vampiric rituals, but the earnest, haunted face staring out from the cover of DOCTOR STRANGE #15 was undoubtedly Amy Grant's, as it appeared on her 1986 platinum compilation album “The Collection”.

Grant's managers, Mike Blanton and Dan Harrell, filed a complaint against Marvel Comics for the cover. They weren't suing about copyright infringement, because the copyright on that particular photo was held by the commercial photographer who took it. Their argument was that having Amy's face appear on an occult-themed comic book would give her fans the impression that she endorsed it and would damage her reputation in the Christian music community.

In their complaint, the managers argued:

“...many fans of Christian music consider interest in witchcraft and the occult to be antithetical to their Christian beliefs and to the message of Christian music in general. Therefore, an association of Amy Grant or her likeness [with Doctor Strange] is likely to cause irreparable injury to Grant's reputation and good will.”

“They're calling Doctor Strange a Satanist” some comic fans sneered at the time; and I have to admit I was somewhat bemused by the story myself. I guess I've always drawn a distinction between real life occult practices and fantasy magic in fiction. A lot of Christians sincerely hold that any dabbling in mystic stuff is a short trip to Perdition, and so they condemn Dungeons & Dragons and Harry Potter and even look askance at J.R.R. Tolkien despite his friendship with C.S. Lewis. As the son of a Lutheran pastor who was also a SF fan, I kind of have a foot in both camps: while I can understand their reasoning, I don't think we have to regard all Fantasy as an Affront to Heaven.

But the bottom line in this instance was that Marvel used Amy Grant's likeness without her permission, to promote a comic book with which she did not ask to be associated, nor did she wish to. Putting her face on the cover was a dick move. The book's editor should have caught it and had the artist change it before going to print.

Marvel and Grant's people settled the matter out of court. The settlement was sealed, so we don't know what sort of agreement the two sides came to. Since Marvel was not required to admit any wrongdoing nor liability in the matter, I'm guessing that the settlement was a substantial one. Then again, perhaps Amy's people feared that a big public trial would only cement the public's association between her and Doctor Strange, and so might have been agreeable to a more modest settlement to bury the matter. By the time the settlement was reached, a year had passed and the issue was no longer on the shelves, so it is unlikely that there was any demand that it be recalled. DOCTOR STRANGE #15 had long ago either sold out or been filed away in the Back Issues bin where you can buy U.S.A. 1 and KICKERS, INC. for a dollar.

But the controversy lives on in comic book legend. In a weird sort of way, like poor Morgana, that cover achieved a kind of immortality.

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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.