Mike Dell looks back at Strange Tales #171, the first appearance of everyone’s favourite avenger of the supernatural!
STRANGE TALES No. 171 (December 1973)
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Colorist: Glynis Wein
Letterer: L.P. Gregory
Editor: Roy Thomas
Before superhero kids in fancy pajamas were all the rage, Marvel produced a horror anthology called Strange Tales , home to a number of groundbreaking artists and writers. The series made its debut in 1951 (back when Marvel was still called Atlas Comics) and ended its initial run in 1968. The series focused on horror tales and monster stories but eventually evolved to include science fiction and superhero adventures. Along the way, creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Carl Burgos, Jim Steranko, and even Jerry Siegel contributed to its venerable legacy. High points included Lee and Ditko introducing Doctor Strange (No. 110) and Lee and Kirby teaming up to create Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (No. 135). Steranko would inherit the Nick Fury reins, forging his reputation and revolutionizing comic book art as we know it.
I Hear This Cat Brother Voodoo Is A Bad Mother– Shut Your Mouth!
Strange Tales closed shop in May 1968 when Doctor Strange and Nick Fury bailed for their own titles, but few things ever truly die in comics. A renewed interest in the paranormal sparked a revival for all things odd during the early 1970s and Marvel resurrected the title in September 1973, picking up with issue No. 169. And this time the book showcased a brand new character, the mystical Brother Voodoo.
Legendary Marvel creator/editor Roy Thomas had the initial idea for a Doctor Voodoo character, envisioning an educated, scholarly counterpoint to Luke Cage. Stan Lee pitched the Brother portion of the character’s name, cashing in on the day’s Blacksploitation vibe. Thomas assigned the project to writer Len Wein and artist Gene Colan, who established Brother Voodoo with a five-issue arc from Strange Tales No. 169 to 173.
No One Understands Him But His… Dead Twin Brother
Brother Voodoo’s real name is Jericho Drumm. Born in Haiti, Drumm ventures to the United States and becomes a successful psychologist, no doubt specializing in the treatment of people jealous of the spectacularly awesome name Jericho Drumm. Upon returning to Haiti, Drumm discovers his twin brother Daniel, who serves as the local voodoo priest, has been in mortal conflict with a sorcerer possessed by the serpent-god Damballah. And I think we all know how painful that can be. With his dying breath, Daniel asks Jericho to take up the struggle and protect the locals from the emerging evil. Jericho gives his word and immediately begins training with Daniel’s voodoo teacher, Papa Jambo. Please do not confuse the voodoo instructor with Papa Shango, who only taught Daniel how to make brown liquid spill from the Ultimate Warrior’s head.
Like his brother, Jericho proves a quick study and earns the moniker Brother Voodoo. Among his many magical abilities, Brother Voodoo can summon smoke screens and rhythmic drum beats to disorient foes, hypnotize plants and animals, and control fire. He can also summon Daniel’s spirit to either enter his own body to enhance his physical strength or to possess others, which makes him all the rage at parties.
When issue 171 opens, Brother Voodoo is strolling through a spooky cemetery at night (because when else would one stroll through a spooky cemetery?). A zombie horde rises from the earth to attack our hero, and he starts whipping undead ass. Dead brother Daniel tries to get involved, but he can’t possess any of the zombies, and each failed attempt weakens Brother Voodoo. Eventually, the zombies prevail, tackling Brother Voodoo and holding him in place while their master, the dastardly Baron Samedi, bursts from his grave to taunt our defeated champion. Samedi looks like a demonic band nerd, sporting a red jacket with gold epaulettes and toting a skull-topped walking stick that would do any drum majorette proud.
Despite being all dead and stuff, Samedi made time to cut a deal with A.I.M., the treacherous international terrorist organization fond of yellow jumpsuits and flat hats. A.I.M built Samedi a giant brain-washing machine, intending to create their own zombie army to take over the world. Brother Voodoo is the next victim.
The brain-washing machine looks a bit weird. I’m pretty sure I saw something similar on an old episode of HBO’s Real Sex. Peculiar design or not, the machine works and renders Brother Voodoo a catatonic slave. Or does it?
After an acting performance worthy of a young Richard Roundtree, Brother Voodoo drops his feigned servitude and cracks Samedi with a left hook. Boom! Now what’s up? While Samedi was running his mouth about his ingenious plan, Brother Voodoo used his mind control abilities to get one of his lizard pals — I’ll call him Steve — to chew through the machine’s wiring. Brother Voodoo punishes the A.I.M. flunkies and destroys the laboratory. The malfunctioning equipment frees all the existing zombies from Samedi’s control and Brother Voodoo ushers them to safety. In the ensuing chaos, an errant energy blast from Samedi’s walking stick severs the brain-washing machine’s support structure, causing the massive device to crush him and bring down the rest of the lab. Brother Voodoo barely manages to escape with his life.
I can only pray Steve survived.
Most comic book fans know Len Wein for his historic turn on Uncanny X-Men. Wein was the fella who penned Giant-Size X-Men #1, joining forces with artist Dave Cockrum to create such characters as Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Storm. Wein had already co-created Wolverine while on The Incredible Hulk, and he brought everyone’s favorite clawed Canadian with him to X-Men. Wein also plotted the early adventures for the new X-Men, providing Chris Claremont with a successful blueprint.
But before all that, Wein accepted Roy Thomas’s idea and created Brother Voodoo. Wein had broken in to comics as a 20-year-old freelancer for DC in 1968, scripting Teen Titans No. 18. He cut his teeth on mystery and horror anthologies, where he created Swamp Thing, before working on superhero stuff for both DC and Marvel.
Wein’s premise here is simple: Brother Voodoo is bored, some rich dudes ask him to investigate reports of zombies robbing their electronics factory, Brother Voodoo investigates. Sure, the whole “pretending to be brain-washed” thing is kind of cliche now, but it was probably cutting edge in 1973. Granted, Samedi does the whole “explain your entire plan to the hero before killing him” thing, but again, it was 1973! Wein does make a bold stylistic choice in crafting the story, opting to frame the tale around an extensive flashback sequence that conveys the central plot. But that said, Wein captures just the right mix of creepiness when narrating the cemetery scene, and he brings some nifty prose throughout, letting readers know they’re in good hands.
“He strides amid the shuddering headstones unconcerned, almost casually, his piercing gaze ever ahead — for, to most who abide upon this superstitious Caribbean isle, he is fear!” — Narrator.
“His name is Brother Voodoo; and tonight, though he does not yet know it, the dead are expecting him!” — Narrator.
“The process is only foolproof when it works, Baron. And though you may have laughed, Brother Voodoo did not gain his reputation for nothing! I am not only the lord of the Loa, Samedi — but the master of all reptiles. So while you busily explained the inner workings of your creation to me, I summoned one such creature to chew through the mechanism’s circuitry!” — Brother Voodoo.
“Out of my way, trash. It’s your leader I want!” — Brother Voodoo.
The issue’s colorist is Glynis Wein, Len’s first wife. Glynis was a talent in her own right, and her banner work on Strange Tales and elsewhere won her the Shazam Award for best colorist in 1973.
Gene Colan busted into comics during the 1940s and had a legendary career that culminated with his 2005 induction into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame. Among his many accomplishments, Colan penciled the entire 70-issue run of The Tomb of Dracula, helmed such prominent DC titles as Batman, Detective Comics, and Wonder Woman, and produced all but three issues of Daredevil from 1966 to 1973. While working on Captain America in 1969, Colan also teamed with Stan Lee to co-create the Falcon, one of the first African-American superheroes.
Colan, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 84, was known for his expert use of shadow, which helped bring texture and raw emotion to each and every panel. His signature style made him a perfect match for The Tomb of Dracula and for our Brother Voodoo yarn, with its creepy cemeteries and zombie hordes. Colan is brilliant here, conveying the action with remarkable fluidity and using moody close-ups to further establish tone. This is a master at work.
Brother Voodoo throws down on three different occasions. Aside from smashing Samedi, he knocks out four zombies, three gun-toting thugs, and four A.I.M. mercenaries. And Steve owned that one electrical cord.
Back in 1973, the Comics Code Authority still meant something, and the mind police insisted no comics ever use the word “zombie” for fear of warping innocent children. According to the Comics Code brain trust, vampires and the like were fine, because they had a legitimate history rooted in classic literature. But zombies? Not so much. However, the Comics Code only prevented the use of the word “zombie,” not the depiction of zombie-like creatures. To circumvent the absurd censorship, Marvel invented the term “zuvembie,” using it in place of “zombie” whenever necessary. The zombie ban remained in place until 1989. So every zombie in this book is actually a zuvembie. And, if you’re scoring at home, every pro-censorship stooge is still a “jackass.”
Marvel ran a full-page ad hyping the company’s first ever “official medallion coin.” The solid bronze coin featured Spider-Man climbing a building on one side and some webbing on the other. Each coin cost a cool $2.00, and you could also order a Lucite coin stand ($1.75), a necklace ($1.00), or a keychain ($1.00) to proudly display the prized treasure. There’s actually one listed on eBay for $515.00. How come Brother Voodoo didn’t have a medallion coin? Because The Man wouldn’t give him one, that’s why.
Billed as “Strange Mails,” the letters page contained four missives and a half-page ad for Astonishing Tales No. 21, which featured It, the Living Colossus. All four letters offered praise for Brother Voodoo, which no doubt explains his meteoric rise to superstardom. Oh wait. Never mind.
This was my first real experience with the Brother Voodoo character, and I thought it was great. Sure, his origin story may be derivative of Doctor Strange, but who cares? His name is Jericho Drumm, he can hypnotize lizards, and he has a dead twin brother who helps him fight evil. What’s not to love?