Monday, May 14, 2012

FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH FOR DOCTOR STRANGE!
DEATH #2: “STEPHEN STRANGE is an ALCOHOLIC.”

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As detailed in the prelude to this series [HERE], I listed 5 fatal errors that modern Marvel has crossed in their portrayal (a betrayal?) of Doctor Strange; Master of the Mystic Arts.

Last time, I shed a light on Error # 1; the erroneous meme that Dr. Strange is the "Chosen One" [HERE].

Now, I delve into the second of these fatal missteps:

ERROR # 2: 
“STEPHEN STRANGE IS/WAS AN ALCOHOLIC.”


Doctor Strange has (or had) one of the greatest, purest, most apropos origins ever to grace any fictional character. It was poetic. It was karmic. It was darkly ironic. Yet, it showed how someone could truly rise above themselves and become something far greater.
That is, until someone decided to screw it up (multiple times and in ever worsening ways).

PART II : THE SPIRIT IN THE GLASS / THE DEMON DRINK

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Master of the Mystic Arts.

Sorcerer Supreme.

Lofty titles, giving forth the perception of someone who is as at one with himself as he must be with the universe. 
Learned.
In control.
Basically, raised to a higher level than you or I.

So it was, in a possible attempt to bring him down to earth, was added a character flaw into the history and personality of Stephen Strange.

I speak not of the arrogance and/or greed with which he conducted his life while as one of the world’s foremost (neuro)surgeons. No. I am referring to the added suffering and implied “weakness” ascribed to him, as of succumbing to alcoholism.

In his origin story, it was never stated that Strange was an alcoholic, either before or after the accident that caused the end of his surgical career.
Even though many people seem to think of it being as such, and accept it as “fact”, none of his earliest origin retellings mention alcohol.

And yet, many fans seem to think that Dr. Strange can never be shown with an alcoholic beverage for fear of his “falling off the wagon” – as evidenced by the comments of my New Year’s post, which showed Doc with a toasting glass in hand. (as seen [HERE])


According to popular interpretation, Strange supposedly succumbed to the booze when he was down and out, after his accident that cost him his career. But much like the revelation of his "official" specialty being neurosurgery, his weakness for hootch was something slowly tacked on later to his mythos by later writers.

Re-read the early origin stories and retellings. NOWHERE is it said that Doc was a problem drinker.
In fact, they scarcely mention drink AT ALL.
He is just drawn looking like a derelict - unshaven and disheveled.

The "booze" meme was all slowly added many years later, and even then, (with the possible exception of one writer) never to the point where he was an alcoholic.

To set the record straight, I waded through all of the various volumes, mini-series and one-shots of the good doctor in order to seek the truth - as it has always bugged me that people seem to think Strange is a candidate for A.A. (not that there is ANYTHING wrong with belonging to an Anonymous group - if you need to.)

Starting from his origin tale, as told by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, in the classic ‘STRANGE TALES’ # 115, Doctor Stephen Strange was not shown to be a drinker, either socially or as an alcoholic, neither before nor after his career-ending accident.
He was drawn, pitch-perfect by Ditko as a derelict.


der·e·lict/ˈderəˌlikt/

Adjective:
In a very poor condition as a result of disuse and neglect.
Noun:
A person without a home, job, or property.
Synonyms:
abandoned - forlorn - desolate - forsaken – deserted


It should be that if you looked up the word in the dictionary, that head-shot by Ditko would be all that was needed on the page.

Strange’s next origin recap wouldn’t come until the first issue of his solo volume (the “numbered-as-such-for-reasons-too-long-to-go-into-now”; ‘DOCTOR STRANGE’ # 169) . Here though, shortly after his accident, Strange is shown as having a drink in his hand – only to throw the glass against the wall in anger and desperation. 
And later, while down at the docks, Strange is now written to be in a sea-side bar. It is uncertain whether Roy Thomas wrote that into the plot or artist Dan Adkins just draw the setting (as comics in those days were done “Marvel Style”), and Thomas simply noted it in his script.
Still, even there, Strange isn’t portrayed as an alcoholic, as when in the Ancient One’s lamasery for weeks on end, Strange isn’t shown as having any withdrawal symptoms. No. He was merely shown as had having a drink at home, and then at a sleezy bar when down on his luck. Perfectly acceptable events in keeping with the tenor of the tale (and the era in which it was told – as is the fact that Stephen Strange is also shown with a cigarette in many scenes – both during his time as a surgeon as well as his time as a sorcerer).

In fact, it is in this issue that the positive add-on of Dr. Strange having been a neuro-surgeon is first mentioned. Before this issue, he was merely “a surgeon”, but here the true irony of his accident and nerve-damaged hands comes to full bloom. For as the world’s greatest NEUROSURGEON the only Doctor who could possibly have saved the use of his hands would have been he – himself.

However, as far as alcohol is concerned, most of Doc’s origin stories make no mention:
-          Strange Tales # 115
-          Doctor Strange # 169 (a single drink to drown his sorrows is all that is shown)
-          Doctor Strange;  Master of the Mystic Arts  # 56
-          Doctor Strange / Doctor Doom:  Triumph & Torment.
-          Doctor Strange – From the Marvel Vault # 1 – in an illusory un-reality, he is offered a drink; an expensive single malt scotch – “my old favorite”, but no mention of addiction. Just a temptation of material pleasure.


When first we see the meme of Strange as a drunkard, it is under the watch of esteemed Strange-scribe; Steve Englehart: Doctor Strange; Master of the Mystic Arts # 10.

In Englehart’s earliest examples (Doctor Strange; Master of the Mystic Arts # 10 and 11) we are given a number of great panels of a drunken Strange (as well as on the cover of # 11).

Englehart has Strange’s alcoholic past as a minor touchstone while dealing with several scenes of Stephen Strange experiencing mystical “flashbacks” and encounters with his former/past selves. Englehart uses it as a means to show Strange having overcome such a crippling compulsion, not as a weakness unto itself.

But once the genie is let out of the bottle, so to speak, it proved difficult to contain when in later writer’s hands.
Some instances of later mentions of alcohol (if not alcoholism) include:

-          Doctor Strange : Into Shamballa  (1986) – (J. M. DeMatteis’s otherwise awesome OGN has one line about how desperation led to alcohol, but seemingly in keeping with a "normal" decent into self-abuse from self-pity, not full-blown alcoholism.)

-          Doctor Strange : Master of the Mystic Arts # 74 – (Peter Gillis has the BEYONDER relive Doc's life, in an attempt to learn about the path of achieving enlightenment. Part of that life's journey shows Doc was a drunkard in a bar.)

-          Doctor Strange; Sorcerer Supreme: # 9 (Roy Thomas has it that in Morganna Blessing’s tell-all unauthorized Biography of Strange, Doc is mentioned as turning to alcohol after his career-ending accident.)

-          Doctor Strange; Sorcerer Supreme: #84 (J.M. DeMatteis shows Strange eyeing a bottle of vodka – which he “heroically” smashes, lest he succumb to temptation [all to the derision of an embittered Wong]).

-          Doctor Strange; Sorcerer Supreme: # 85 (JM DeMatteis states Strange was an alcoholic – BEFORE the crash! DeMatties has Stephen a drunk as a teen, and all during his surgery years. In fact, it is posited that Doc CAUSED crash – as he INTENTIONALLY tried to kill himself due to Mordo’s tampering/demons torturing him, which was WHY he drank. UGH! --- This issue also notes how Strange was selected as a child to be the "Chosen One" - which was WHY Mordo lashes out at him. - for more on the error of the "Chosen One" meme, see part 1 of this series [HERE])

-          Uncanny Origins # 12 (1997) - (Len Wein has booze introduced due to mental abuse from father. Alcohol during surgeon years, but oddly NOT shown to be a factor during derelict years.)

-          Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange  (2010) – (Ted McKeever’s story has Doc wandering around drunk.)

-          Howard the Duck  magazine # 09 (1980) - (Bill Mantlo shows that Howard’s home world [“Duckworld”] has a “Ducktor Strange” drinking “sorcerous sauce” as a drunken mystic.)

The Meme is also repeated In other media:

The Marvel Comics Guide to New York City -  By Peter Sanderson
Doctor Strange's history, ... He lost his fortune and even became an alcoholic derelict, until he left New York…”

It was also mentioned in William Rostler’s novel; NIGHTMARE (which merely touches upon scenes from Master of the Mystic Arts # 10-11).


That’s not to say that it hasn’t been shown, or at least alluded to, in other comics over the years, but it seems to be a meme that some writers properly ignore. Others mention in passing or in varying degrees of seriousness, while still others portray Strange as a booze-soaked wash-out – constantly under pressure from his past temptations.

It is my hope that it can be placed within the proper context:
It is perfectly correct to portray Strange as a social drinker during his years as a surgeon.
It is also perfectly correct to show that in the course of his downward-spiral after his car accident, that Strange would drink his woes away – due to an overinflated sense of self-pity.

Most recently, Stephen Strange was shown, bottle in hand, in DEFENDERS v4 # 4, in a flash-back showing his romance – and break-up – with a former love. The loss of whom, led him to a bout of sadness and a single panel of woe-besotted drinking.
(A review of the issue can be found [HERE])

I took no umbrage at that scene or its depiction of Strange with bottle up-ended, as it is a common (if illogical) course of action after a broken heart.

One might ask; why I really care about this portrayal of Doctor Strange having had a drinking problem?
Well, truthfully, it doesn’t bother me as such – people develop such bad habits (or succumb to the disease of alcoholism - if genetically predisposed) all the time. It doesn’t make them “bad people” outside of the fact that it will hurt them and possibly cause the harm of those around them.
No, I don’t mind it being a part of Doctor Strange’s history, IF it had a center – IF it had a consistent narrative usage and flow.

Englehart introduced the meme as a means to show, after his accident and ascension to higher calling, what Strange rose above.

DeMatteis blew it up out of proportion to show, before Strange's career even started, how it tore Stephen down.

With the introduction of the “drunken bum” aspect being started by Steve Englehart, and then retconned to the Nth degree by J.M. DeMatteis, I find it bitterly ironic that two of the greatest scribes for Doctor Strange were also responsible for bringing out the worst in him.
If the drinking started socially during Strange’s meteoric rise, and got the best of him after his crash and near-destruction, then the logical (and acceptable) path would be for him to rise above the desire when he attains a loftier calling, a higher sense of reality and self.

While I know that real-life sufferers of alcoholism have to deal with the impulses and desires to climb back into the bottle, if it is to portray a heroic means and ideal of rising above such temptations, then having Doc as a former alcoholic would be acceptable.
However, it isn’t a necessary plot point to his life. It wasn’t a factor in his earliest origin retellings and it isn’t needed.

It is my hope that it can be totally eradicated from canon.
Like the "Chosen One" revealed-memories, the easiest way would be to show that the memory blocks that were mystically implanted by Mordo (to prevent Strange from remembering the teen-age alcoholism and demonic visitations) were, in fact memory IMPLANTS, and that none of that was real.

With the advent of a film on the horizon as well as a new, “Season One” oversized, origin re-visitation hardcover written by Grek Pak and illustrated by Emma Rios, I hope and pray that these projects won’t toss those particular stones into his waters.

Again, I’m not against Strange’s hitting the bottle – especially after he exhausted his fortune and hopes in the search for a cure to his nerve damage. But if the film and hardcover volume avoid the useless alcoholism – especially the whole unnecessary teen-age drinking scene that DeMatteis tacked on - well… I’ll drink to that. 

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Come back next time when we examine...

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Agreed again.As you say, I think a lot of this reflects the shifting cultural perceptions of drinking in the early 1960s from thirty years or more later.

-Fraser

Tony said...

I definitely see a difference, in my mind, between a "drunk" (who drinks to excess because he's depressed) and an "alcoholic" (who drinks to excess because he can't help it).

Erroll Garner said...

drunkard and alcoholic are synonyms so, your perception of both words is very odd. Incorrect as well...

~P~ said...

Errol,
A you didn't direct your comment to anyone, I believe you are replying to Tony, above.

My stance is that I don't necessarily object to Strange being portrayed as someone who would, on occasion, GET drunk, but would not BE one, as you say, being a "drunk(ard)" is the same thing as being an alcoholic.

However, having Strange Get Drunk on occasion, especially when at a low ebb, isn't as egregious an error as portraying him AS a drunk - who would NEED to drink.

Hopefully, I'm not splitting hairs, but I think there's a difference between the two.

Thanks for commenting!

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