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It Could Have Been, um, EPIC...

Every cynical comics fan saw this coming. And yet it still feels like a blind-siding.

Though not officially announced, the news has leaked out that Marvel has cancelled Epic Anthology after one issue, and less than one week after that issue's release. Comic Book Resources broke the story, but could not get a confirmation from the publisher.

Lending credence to the story, though, is that neither can the writers. Rob Worley, writer of Young Ancient One, expressed his unease. "They haven't returned my e-mail from this morning," he commented. Worley and artist Andy Kuhn have been a little on edge, waiting for a definitive answer from Marvel.

In canceling the book, the House of Ideas hasn't just strangled a Jemas baby in its crib, but put the kibosh on a terrifically marketable concept and great value for readers. Not that the publisher's support has been might over the past couple of months - not only did the book accidentally list at three dollars higher than its actual price, possibly scaring off retailers, Marvel offered a diffident correction then ignored the book. It appeared without fanfare last Wednesday, February 11.

An admittedly uneven collection, Epic Anthology had an unconscious theme, as each full-length feature has a tie-in to Doctor Strange.

Of the three, Sleepwalker by Robert Kirkman, Khary Randolph and Pierre-Andre Dery, has the most tangential tie, and is the weakest link. A revival of a late-80's Marvel character, this first story does little to add to the basic idea. Though the human host of the guardian of the dream dimension is different from the previous series, the story plays out almost beat-for-beat like the original first issue. Randolph and Dery have an appealing style along the lines of Phil Hester and Ande Parks, but Kirkman created a fairly unlikable protagonist, and now won't have the chance to stretch this into either redemption or comeuppance. (The Dr. Strange connection, by the way, is that the Sleepwalkers share an arch-foe with the Sorcerer Supreme - Nightmare.)

Taking a literally arcane character and infusing him with new life, Worley and Kuhn delivered a terrific first installment of Young Ancient One. Though the venerated master of Dr. Strange has never before betrayed a hint of having a career as a masked hero, the transplant works.

In 1496 Tibet, the village of Lang Kah has one kick-ass defender, the ghostly figure that calls itself bTsan Saa. With the blood of the spirit leopard flowing in his veins (probably hype), the masked avenger certainly proves a master of the martial arts. But can he stand up against an army of the undead? And should he follow his wife's advice and change his theme to ghost leopard instead of spirit leopard? Semantics can be important, after all.

There are few clues that this character will grow to be Sorcerer Supreme, but a seed is planted. Mostly, this has the spirit of the best Spider-Man stories, if Peter Parker had been in 15th Century Tibet and chosen to be Batman instead.

Of the three features, Young Ancient One is also ripest to be plucked for Hollywood treatment. Cast Jet Li and keep the title - people not knowing the comic book origin will take it as something quasi-mystical or just very, very Hong Kong cinema, instead of the slightly sardonic (but extremely clever) high concept that it is for fans.

The final story, Strange Magic takes the Dr. Strange mythos into a new direction that might be enough to breathe new life into the character. No matter how many times he teases, it doesn't look like J. Michael Straczynski really has the time to do it. So let Jason Henderson and Greg Scott further their shot.

Instead of dealing with the good doctor, this actually focuses on a young woman who believes herself to be his daughter. It's probably true, which certainly throws a wrench at Stephen's image. Instead of graying temples, Sofia Strange has a purple streak in her hair, and standing in for Wong is her Aunt Vesper, a New Orleans resident, maybe voodoo queen, determined to keep a low profile.

Facing off against ghosts and vampires in Louisiana, the two look poised to carve out new territory for the Marvel Universe, especially with Jason Henderson's sharp writing and really nice art from Jason Scott. Better, the addition of Sofia adds depth to the absent Dr. Strange, and if nothing else, we have to hope that Marvel doesn't let this idea lapse into obscurity.

If you have a chance, grab this book. The powers that be have reversed position before (see Waid, Mark), and if fans' clamoring grows great enough, maybe we can make history repeat itself.

To Marvel: bring it back out as Strange Tales Anthology. Make it a manga-sized digest collecting the complete stories. Do whatever it takes to distance it from the previous regime if you must, but don't let this good work just die.

Derek McCaw

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