Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pick a card, ANY card... No. Not that one.
Marvel's Magic Makeover

Any readers of this blog, or any Marvel news-releases (primarily ones dealing with the Magical side of the MU) know that for long years, the current heads of the Marvel think-tank ( with Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada most notably among them) have espoused a philosophy that Doctor Strange is not a viable character because the rules of magic are too "undefined".

By that, they mean - there seemingly ARE no rules, so how can Strange ever be in any real peril when all he needs to do is say "Bibbity-Bobbety-Boo!" and he's out of danger.

To that end, Marvel has just announced that in NEW AVENGERS v2 # 2, the rules of Magic in the M.U. are being overhauled.

I'm not sure what that means, really - as there is not much word about the storyline.
I do know that it has been in the works for several years. and is one of two possible mystic storylines that have been in the works for half a decade. *

Here is the cover and solicitation text for the issue:

Art by Stuart Immonen
(Luke Cage holding the Eye of Agamotto...
damn, Bendis has a man-crush on Cage.)

Pencils & Cover by STUART IMMONEN

All new Marvel magic by Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen! The Avengers don't even get a chance to move in to their new digs when a dimensional invasion tears right into the heart of the team. This is a story that will completely reinvent the rules of magic in the Marvel Universe and have long- lasting effects on a handful of your favorite Marvel characters. Plus: an Avenger disappears! Backup feature: Another brand new oral history of the Avengers chapter by Bendis!


While Marvel stepping up to rectify an area of concern (for them) is admirable, I have to say that it really seems odd on two accounts.

First of all, if you insist on doing a huge story where a major facet of your "universe" is being overhauled, why wouldn't it be its own "event" - a mini-series or something.
Although, perhaps that is itself the answer to the question; in the hopes of attracting readers it probably makes more sense to fold this story within the pages of one of the top selling titles - and one which has already dealt with the "decline" of many mystic situations in the past few years (although that story seemed oddly placed in the title at that time, as well).

Perhaps, not unlike past mystic "events" (the "Marvel Tarot" primary among them) a mini-series and individual one-shots might not attract your base customers as well as a flagship title like "New Avengers" would.

OK. So, I'll concede that point.

Still, If you're like me, you feel that their belief of magic being "undefined" is a bit...shortsighted.

Basically, magic in the M.U. does have some basic rules, (although, not any that are structured for easy reference for writers to access) and more are constantly being added all the time - especially in recent years in direct response to the current editorial viewpoint.

  • It was always known that magic has costs. You can't expect to just whip something up from nowhere and not have some future situation reveal itself - sort of the "butterfly effect" in magical terms.
  • A spell cast here could mean the weakening of dimensional barriers - which could allow an enemy to invade.
  • Magic weakens a user physically and mentally (requiring rest).
  • Teleportation spells will weaken you to the point of exhaustion - or worse. Traveling across physical space is difficult and taxing. Traveling into other dimensions is even harder - and more dangerous.
  • Each spell you cast - if it invokes a deity or cosmic entity - is empowered by that entity and may or may not be bequeathed. AND, you now OWE that entity in return, never knowing when and if they may wish to collect. Or HOW.
  • Magic requires knowledge and focus (unfortunately, too many times in recent stories have "average" heroes been able to replicate what a sorcerer like Strange had studies long years to learn).
  • Use of certain artifacts or spells requires purity of mind and body (meditation, fasting and self-sacrifice are often prerequisites).
  • One sorcerer - if adept enough - can tell how powerful his foe is (although, that one isn't used all that much, as it removes possible stratagem of feints and bluffs).
  • You can not resurrect someone from the dead - unless black magic is used, and that is NOT an option to guys like Strange. And even for black magic users - a heavy cost is required!
  • Also, now another new rule is that magic can't recreate what science already has made. (which, personally is a pretty lame rule.)
There are other rules, certainly, and I don't disagree that there should be some more, or at least some consistent rules... but the problem is that nowhere are they laid out like the basic "rules" that surround more "realistic" characters like Spider-man or Captain America.

All that notwithstanding, the other, BEST way to make a magical character have a sense of danger is to WRITE bigger and better dangers into that character's narrative.
Constantly create bigger and better dangers. Yes, I understand that eventually you may run out of room for "bigger and better" dangers.
But, not every danger has to be a powerful entity or foe - some times, a quest or puzzle is the key.
A sorcerer is a thinking man's hero, studious and wizened. Challenge him to use intellect and knowledge to survive - not just power or "random" magic.

Some of the best Dr. Strange tales involved his defeating overpowering foes by out-thinking them.

Other times, a good tale just requires more imagination than the average "super hero" story.
It is said that every writer has a few Dr. Strange pitches.
The hard thing is finding someone who can write it consistently for a long period of time.
The internet is filled with such fantastic takes on how to handle Strange (sure some of them aren't so good, but I've read many truly inspired pitches in my time).
Heck, even I have a few good Dr Strange yarns in me - as well as a "Magic Overhaul" story - in answer to Joe Q's wishes.

And if you don't want a random magic to win the day (as Editor in Chief, Joe Quesada keeps hawking) then as a writer - simply don't. allow. it. to. work.

If a writer can't be trusted to self-edit, then make it an editorial policy: "In order for a magical way out to succeed it must make sense and have either; some basis in published canon - or some significant cost."

Former editor Mark Gruenwald had, in the 1980's, enforced a similar policy with regards to Time-Travel, as it was being misused by writers.
He had a simple system of checks and balances of the methods that time travel could be utilized.

The reason Dr. Strange is a "Deus Ex Machina" is because writers are either lazy or not really "into" magic and as such, write themselves into corners that only a quick fix can help them escape.

Some times, however, a "rabbit out of the hat" solution must NOT be allowed.
And the best way to do that - is to write better stories.

It's not as though Strange's use of magic is alone in that "easy fix" solution... Tech-based heroes like Iron-Man and Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards have been doing that for 40 years!
A problem arises that they can't overcome? No problem, Reed will just "McGuyver" a contraption that looks like an over-sized cosmic toaster to rectify the situation.
The science involved? All completely made up with no basis in physical laws or possibility.

Comic book "science" is the same thing as "magic" but it is given a free pass because some object or "technology" was created. Not just a mystic pass and a muttered incantation (rhyming, if the writer puts some modicum of effort into it - otherwise guys like Bendis just toss in faux-latin jibberish).

But, while Science gets the pass, Dr. Strange has been de-powered more times than I care recollect, because, for the most part, he becomes too "big" for most writers to wrap a story around, and they also feel that once he gets too powerful - he becomes "unrelatable" to readers.
(Right, like many "super hero" character's are relatable, anyway.)

I'm not a Harry Potter reader, but as I understand it, he casts nonsensical spells in pseudo-latin and stuff just happens. I'm sure that there may be some basic rules to the use of magic there, and even if there aren't, fans seem to have no problems easily relating to all the powerful wizards therein.

What the problem truly is, is that like many cosmic heroes, a magic-user's adventures should not be reigned in or given "Earthly" boundaries or parameters.

Simply put - Doctor Strange is NOT a "super hero" and should not be handled as such.

However, and this is why I am posting this today - Marvel has FINALLY announced that they are changing the rules of Marvel Magic.

What I have a hard time understanding is why it is needed at all.
Especially the "total reinvention" of rules, as the solicit text states.

Over at DC comics, their universe is VERY magic oriented.
Possibly to the direct opposite of Marvel's more "science"-based universe.

DC has so many magical characters and their worlds are multi-layered and rich in depth and "history". **

And, to be honest, their magical workings are a total mish-mash of whys and wherefores.
But, they all work well together.

DC has had many magic-oriented "events" - which encompassed the entire universe of titles.
And in all of their universe-altering events, magic has played a large part.

And, as opposed to Marvel, who have been treating their cosmic-level, mystical entities; like ETERNITY and the LIVING TRIBUNAL as little more than giant-sized "comic book characters", DC still retains a respectful air of mystery and grandeur about its cosmic entities.

Certainly, Marvel could use with a bit of a magical revamp, but just inasmuch as to return the magic to its magical characters and a to distance them from the "normal" characters (even the cosmic ones - Eternity should not be treated the same as Thanos or even Galactus - who himself had suffered for over a decade under the yoke of poor writer treatment before John Byrne brought him back to a level of greatness in the 1980's).

So, if an all-out revamp of the magical corners of the Marvel U. is to be attempted... do it right.
Do it BIG.

One thing DC has learned is:
Just get George Perez to illustrate it and it will instantly be a huge sales hit!

Not that Stuart Immonen, the artist who will be handling this story arc is any slouch, but he is not a cosmic-level artist as Perez has proven himself to be.

Personally, I hope that the new "rules" aren't too restrictive.
Brian Michael Bendis is not a good "magic" writer.
Thus far there have been scant few "good" bits of magical usage in his recent comics' work.

That being said; despite all that I have against his handling of Strange and his eldritch company, I do enjoy reading Bendis' Avengers comics - but that enjoyment revolves around his usage and the written interaction of ground-based characters like Spider-Man, Spider-Woman and Luke Cage. I worry when he deals with magic. But, perhaps it is for writers such as he, for whom these new rules are required.

"Tamam Shud!"


footnote 1:

The other magical storyline was a long alluded to "Magic War" that was boiling up in the underworld. Comics like "Nightcrawler", "Spectacular Spider-Man", "Marvel Knights '4'" and others (pretty much anything written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) featured assorted glimpses into that dark underworld threat. Mephisto, Nicholas Scratch, Madam Web, Salem's Seven and even Shuma Gorath all were attributed with foretelling of the coming demonic doom.

I do hope that Dr. Strange can be "fixed" in time to be a major player in that event.


footnote 2:

If DC have some more hard-core magic-oriented characters that they don't want to have inside of the "regular" universe, they have the VERTIGO imprint reality to let them play within.

Marvel has tried Vertigo-like offshoots before, but never with any real gusto.
Each time it was half-hearted and tentative.

That is not the way to boldly go into a brave new world (or dimension).
Sadly, in each attempt, a more "Comic Code Approved" style of publishing remained attached.
That had always been the death-knell of the enterprise.
Comic titles were planned, pitched and even in some instances - started (and even released) but all came to quick (pre)cancellation or drastically heavily-edited rewrites.

I can understand their reluctance to dive in, however.
It has nothing to do with publishing and everything to do with marketing.

Once you remove a character from the "primary" reality of the rest of your properties, and place them in a more "adult" arena, you instantly remove any chance of having that character on a lunch-box.

How many Swamp-Thing, Sandman or Hellblazer lunch-boxes or bed-sheets do you think DC has on the market?

They do however have actual feature films (just... not very good ones).
They also have a their own "adult" merchandise (statues, books and whatnot) and that is where the marketplace is right now. Adults, not kids, reading comics and buying the high-priced merchandise.

Marvel's last "adult" line attempt was close to a decade ago, long before the new shift in high-priced marketable wares really set in.

However, is that the healthiest place for the market to remain?
Comics need new readers. Kids need to be enticed to jump in.
More often than not, kids have no interest in the comics themselves, but a lot of interest in the toys and ancillary products that may spin out of a ... feature film or animated series - all avenues that Marvel is showing strength.

So, marketing their properties to a wider gamut of customers is the smart way to go.

Marvel's aborted attempts at "Vertigo-ness" was also before Marvel was bought by Disney, who has the ability to market stuff to kids like no one else.
Disney, who also have a rich history of magic and mysticism in their stories and films (both kiddie stuff as well as the adult mainstream releases).

Perhaps, now is the perfect time for Marvel magic to be let loose - and the worst time to try to reign it in.
Or perhaps there is a white, three-fingered gloved hand in this process.
I doubt it, but who knows... it could prove to be the magic touch.

* Note: *
My apologies if ANY part of this is garbled. Local weather conditions with high gusting winds have been causing my power to cut out -
multiple times. As I typed this, despite my saving it into drafts, parts may have been erased and missed or forgotten as I rebooted it back up to complete. Again. And Again. Now, I'm just going to "Post" this - as is - before my hard-drive needs a techno-necromancer to revive it.
*End Note*

I was reminded of an old post - one from February of 2009 that dealt with - and hopefully answers - much of the problems that have come to pass with the "modern" era of Marvel comics, as far as Doctor Strange and magic is concerned.

Feel free to go and re-read (or if you haven't seen it yet, to delve in, uninitiated into) the post I called:


"Tamam Shud!"


JoeMD said...

I have to agree with you about Bendis and writing magic, the guy just doesn't seem to know what to do with a character like Strange. He basically sidelined him during all of NA Vol.1 and even in Ultimate Spidey he made him pretty much the butt of all jokes.

I really wish Marvel would give all Strange related stuff to Brian K. Vaughan as his The Oath series was brilliant!

Mark said...

" I really wish Marvel would give all Strange related stuff to Brian K. Vaughan as his The Oath series was brilliant!"

I agree, although he did come up with that lame rule about magic not being able to recreate what science already has.
Actually come to think of it, B K V has (people aside) a pretty hazy view on how anything would logically work on the fringe.
But he's so brilliant otherwize that it doesn't matter very much.

Another writer I'd like to see back on Strange is Rodger Stern.
Both of them had the solid idea of turning back to Ditko's work.

Mark said...

Oh great, I'm typing with a speech impediment.

That should be Roger Stern of course.

Anonymous said...

Well said. If only Bendis would listen!

Arachne Solara said...

Great post, as usual...

The idea of Bendis writing Marvel's magic "revamp" is making me feel nauseous. How is this writer--who has a demonstrated inability to keep even basic logical consistency intact--in any conceivable way qualified to codify the "new" rules of Marvel magic???? :-O

When I read the July solicits last week, I couldn't believe it. I can't think that the Doc can possibly do well out of this. The way that Bendis has written Doc Strange in the past does not inspire confidence in any sort of "comeback" for the character under his pen.

Dustin Hall said...

A good post sir, similar thoughts to my own. I point you in the direction of one of my previous posts on the matter.

Mark said...

I think in the marvel universe, only the Living Tribunal would have the right or the power to rewrite the laws of magic.
However, as the cover merely has an enlarged Cage holding the Eye amulet I suspect Bendis isn't going to use him.
Hopefully it's all a bit of hype and the issue's only going to restate the better of the old rules, Which have been all too often disregarded.

And on this point. I wonder what's the point of Rewriting the rules. When I doubt the editors are going to insist on the writers using them.

Steven said...

"When i doubt the editors are going to insist on using them."

Perhaps they've got Bendis writing the new rules (please god no!) or at least writing the story containing the new rules (as the rules might have been done by committee.) because he doesn't always pay much attention to the continuity of anyone elses stories.
Not that he's the only one guilty of doing that. but it might need to be put front and center in Bendis's face.
As it seems as though he's going to insist on using the character.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, I mean, check out Japanese or Korean comics, there are TONS of mystic themes, and nobody ever complains what the marvel-fan dudes say.

Magic don't work? Pull out rabbits out of hat?
It has no rulls so it just makes way out of things so easy, a deus ex machina?

Oh, PLEASE. They're just crap.

"M.C.S(Mystic Crime Squad)" is a title of the best hit web-comics in Korea, So, what does it mean?

It means there's nothing wrong with MAGIC, or Doctor Strange. It's just the .
And readers who never read a proper fantasy-occult graphic novel.

Anonymous said...

Did Harry Potter didn't work or Stephen King didn't work?

They are just refusing to see the real problem.

Cully said...

Totally unrelated: I just read Clan Destine for the first time and there's an excellent Dr. Strange cameo in issue #8. Alan Davis does a beautiful job of illustrating the Dark Dimension. Check it out if you haven't already

mike fox said...

great post, and a fair critique of bendis's approach. i think writers like bendis can be self-defeating. the are working with a genre and medium (super hero stories in comic books) that gained and kept momentum as readers realized that these works can take us away from reality for a bit, that we can step onto the page and be somewhere else where the impossible can happen. many newer writers, though, don't seem to see it that way, and thus they tone down (or do away with) the fantasy, the impossible, the supernatural, all under the banner of being "gritty" or "realistic." now i'm all for some grittiness and realism, but it's waaaaay better when we have it both ways - something supernatural, fantastic, strange, and impossible COUPLED WITH gritty, real heroes and villains who bleed and feel pain.

i really think this direction (away from the fantastic and supernatural) will come back to bite marvel in the long run. i think as the pace quickens in our country and as globalization continues to bring all the world's problems to each and every door step in the world, the fantasy, supernatural, and impossible elements in the world of comics will be sorely missed.

hey, to each his or her own, but i'm in the gritty, real, and up close world every day of my life. give me silver surfer vs. thanos. give me dr. strange vs. baron mordo. give me man-thing splashing around the swamp after some being who wants to gather shards of the nexus. please, mr. bendis, don't rob us fans of fantasy just because it's not your cup of tea.

Steven said...

Mike that's why I gave up on Daredevil and 100 bullets. All that grit and blood just took the fun out of reading.
It's good though to have a little reality in the story to make the fantasy seem both more real and paradoxically, more fantastical.
If everything's unreal then not only is the fantasy less real, it's harder to grasp onto.
I think that's why I personally prefer Dr Strange to the Silver Surfer.
Dr Strange lives in the city, reads newspapers and gets splashed by taxi cabs. Those little things make a difference.

plok said...

Totally unnecessary and shortsighted, of course, just as you say. Although you forgot a couple: "a very large number of spells cast by human sorcerors require fancy words and hand-gestures", "magic used by a sorceror in his ectoplasmic form is weaker than that used in his physical form", and "telepathy between sorcerors isn't technically a 'spell'".

I think the tendency to think these things need more rules just comes from a general kind of geekiness that can't tolerate different kinds of fictional instrumentalities existing in different stories. In SF, a lot of people prefer it when every story has to obey the same underlying fictional physics, in magic some can't tolerate magic working differently in different stories -- they think, perhaps, "hey, he can't do that, in that other book I read it said it was impossible!" The magic in Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" (which I think informed the magic rules in Dungeons & Dragons pretty heavily, AHA!) treats magic spells almost as personal possessions -- they've got very proper-noun-ish names, they're "loaded" into magicians like computer programs, etc. There's a strong liking for this sort of thing in fandom, just as there's a strong liking for cross-milieux technological rules that comes out of Star Trek, governing what kind of technobabble "sounds real", what kind of instrumentalities are "basic" (all force-fields should work the same way, invisibility screens typically have thus-and-such limitations, etc.), and other games of nomenclature and fundamental assumptions of unity across multiple stories. Part of the fun of transgression in the wacky world of genre, true, but at a certain point it trips you up. Fun descriptions are fun, but making Doc obey Terry Pratchett's well-designed and amusing paradoxes misses the point, for example: Doc's magic has a different provenance, it's all Steve Ditko, very stretched and physical and visibly costly...and Stan Lee, all incantations sharing a particular kind of sonorous appeal, like a fingerprint. But a quicker way to say all that is that we can see how magic works and what its rules are by observing the character of its practitioners: since they're good at it, and we aren't. When Doc loses some of his dignity, when he becomes more aloof or less cautious, that means what "magic" is, is changing...

plok said...

Sorry, just wanted to make sure that didn't get too big for Blogger to handle...

...So when Doc or some other major magic-person starts to act differently, that means the character of magic is changing too...e.g. if flippant people can do magic, we're not in Ditko-land anymore, but a world where magic's just another tool, not a discipline in itself. Lots of times the tenor of magic's been subtly changed: Englehart did it, Gillis did it, Starlin did it, even Claremont did it, Stern did it, Gerber...I could go on. Roy Thomas obviously did it, etc. etc. Giffen and DeMatteis actually did a pretty good job of it in a couple of ways, I thought. But they all kept something the same in it, too -- even Giffen and DeMatteis. Milligan and BKV.

But now Bendis has done it, and he hasn't kept much the same at all about Doc's character, so that's why the points have fallen off the compass, I believe. If you don't know who Doc is, then how can you hope to know how magic works?

So he's working backwards. They say everyone's got a Dr. Strange pitch. But probably the real problem with "the rules of magic" is that none of those pitches are any good.

Whaddaya think?

DigiCom said...

It's worse than we thought:


Who is the true master of the mystic arts? Well, it ain't Doctor Strange and it ain't Doctor Voodoo. The bad news is he’s here and he is in charge. And he is gleefully ripping this dimension apart, piece by piece, in his search for relics of power. How are the legacies of Iron Fist, Doctor Strange and Wolverine connected?

So, we not only downplay Stephen's abilities, but also the current Sorceror Supreme (bets on that being undone in this arc), not to mention tying the title to an extradimensional city (instead of Earth) and a completely non-magical mutant.

Can anyone actually see how this will end up working out for the better?

The_Myth said...

I just read the Scarlet Witch is making some sort of re-appearance this summer...

Could Wanda be subconsciously re-writing the rules of magic?

plok said...

Somebody should rewrite the rules of Wanda.

plok said...

It's just so damn infuriating. I used to expect that Bendis' stewardship of the Marvel storylines would culminate in something, some brilliant explanation, perhaps a new status quo that would tie up all the loose ends into a neat and tidy knot...then somebody corrected me: "Don't you see? That was the culmination, that was the explanation! As far as Bendis is concerned, there are no loose ends to tie up, so whaddaya need the knot for?"

Truer words, damn it all.

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