Wednesday, July 4, 2012

FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH FOR DOCTOR STRANGE! +1
THE 6-FINGERED HAND... of EVIL !
A SUPERNUMERARY BONUS EDITION

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Over the past series of five blog entries (plus one Prelude summation,) I have sought to shine a light on what I deem the 5 fatal errors that modern Marvel has perpetrated (and perpetuated) in their handling of Doctor Stephen Strange.

In this Special BONUS Edition, I shall now turn OFF that light and allow the DARKNESS to creep in; the darkness which is home to the most evil entities, despotic demons and scurrilous sorcerers in all existence – those whom Doctor Strange has long kept at bay.

Taking its name from the famed “6-Fingered Hand” story arc from the first DEFENDERS series, this BONUS category in the “5-Fingers of Death” essay series, is all about that which gives purpose to Doctor Strange – which, in and of itself is as mishandled as he -  the dark, sinister,  polydactyly, 6-fingered hand of… the very EVIL that he fights!
 
As detailed in this series of posts, I listed 5 fatal errors that modern Marvel has crossed in their portrayal (a betrayal?) of Doctor Strange; Master of the Mystic Arts.
Previous entries in the series


- Prelude To Death -  [HERE]
Death #1: Dr. Strange is the "Chosen One" [HERE]
Death #2: Dr. Strange is/was an Alcoholic [HERE]
Death #3: Dr. Strange is a Contemporary Man [HERE]
Death #4; Dr. Strange has 'Magic Powers' [HERE]
Death #5: Dr. Strange; no longer Sorcerer Supreme is an inept mage [HERE]

But now I present to you a SPECIAL BONUS EDITION of this series... Planned from the very beginning, but kept secret until the end of the 5th entry I present to you..

 DEATH # 6: “THE DEVIL, YOU SAY!”

For nearly 50  years, Doctor Strange has at one time or other combated against all manifestations of darkness, and - either by the power of his magic, the strength of his will or the keenness of his mind nearly always prevailed.
That is, until someone decided to screw it all up (multiple times and in ever worsening ways).


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However counter-intuitive to the “superhero” paradigm it may seem, in Doctor Strange’s long published history, the one thing that has not proven to be a crucial element to the greatness of his character is his “better” half… well… “worse” half, really; his foes. You see, while the thing that typically helps to define a hero is his (or her) villains, Strange, in his capacity as protector of the Earth dimension is instead defined by his own actions and/or results!  

As long as he is allowed to continue his redemptive mission, he shall ever be a hero; and the very fact that we wake up every morning and the sun isn’t instead a giant, malevolent, flaming face, is proof enough that Doctor Strange is (or at least was) supreme.

Over the past half-century (both in OUR time as well as Marvel Earth – since Strange is exempt from Marvel’s sliding time-scale *See the 3rd entry in this series for the full explanation of that. #3: Dr. Strange is a ‘Contemporary’ Man [HERE]), Doctor Strange has had a wide range of foemen with whom he has done battle.
From human sorcerers to creation-ending entities (and near everything in-between – including, ironically enough, the In-Betweener), Strange has battled all manner of threats.

However, while they should be an vital reflection of and stepping stone for his ability, by lack of writer/editor handling, Dr. Strange's enemies have never been cultivated properly. Is it due to some lapse of judgment, from the powers-that-be at Marvel, about (or lack of understanding of) the varied menaces with whom Strange has (or could do well to) battle, the reason why many of Doctor Strange’s enemies have been either rendered ineffectual or long absent over the past few decades or more?

While some more rudimentary foes, like the human sorcerer; Baron Mordo, the “devil” himself; Mephisto, or the other-dimensional despot; Dormammu are seen again and again, ad nauseum; other, more inventive or monstrously powerful villains, like Nebulos, Lord of the Planets Perilous… Dreamweaver, mistress of mindgames… or the nearly omnipotent demonic entity, Zom, are seen but once.
Of course, Nebulos was seemingly “killed”, Dreamweaver returned to her true state as a regular human woman, and Zom, while only being faced in-the-flesh once, has since been relegated as a background threat since his essence has twice been freed from its mystic imprisonment (most recently, intentionally by Doctor Strange as he drank in the demon’s essence in order to combat the Warbound Hulk – which is precisely what has led to Doctor Strange’s foregoing his title of Sorcerer Supreme.)

The long disuse of many of Strange’s old foes may be in that Marvel editorial feels that he has outgrown them – in power and ability. Certainly, many of Doctor Strange’s deadliest foes were ones who threatened him during his earlier years as a sorcerer, long before he rose to what most feel are earth-shattering power levels. However, an argument could be made that his foes could have either, risen in ability along with him, or – at worst – cheated and found other means by which to present themselves anew as plausible threats (ie; deals with demonic entities, or unearthing some mystic artifact or doomsday incantation).

So perhaps it isn’t that Doctor Strange has grown too powerful, but maybe, Marvel has let Strange’s menaces wallow in mediocrity... or worse… become diminished.
So perhaps it isn’t that Doctor Strange has grown too powerful, but maybe, Marvel has let Strange’s menaces wallow in mediocrity... or worse… become diminished.

One bizarre and disappointing situation is with the ancient evil entity, Shuma-Gorath. As old as time, and a threat to Earth since its creation, Shuma-Gorath presented itself as one of the greatest threats to anyone with whom it came into contact; be it wizened wizards or legions of combatants – Shuma-Gorath was supreme! In its earliest published comic-appearance, Shuma-Gorath brought about the death of the Ancient One, Dr. Strange’s mentor; as the entity was seeking to gain entry to our reality via the mind of the ancient sorcerer. Having Strange kill his beloved teacher was the only way to prevent Shuma-Gorath from gaining a foothold onto our world.
Since then, each time Strange has done battle with the horrific entity, the battle has proven to be a difficult one, but seemingly less and less so. While in one instance, Strange had to acquire greater stores of mystical energy – essentially becoming like unto a god himself – in order to do battle with the creature, in its most recent full appearances, the menace was thwarted by seemingly less-than-arduous means.
First (in ‘Marvel Knights : 4’ – a Fantastic Four title), Shuma-Gorath is called forth by a the satanic mystic, Nicholas Scratch, and it all comes down to a coin-toss between Doctor Strange and alchemist-villain, Diablo, as to which of them will go up against the ancient horror. What-the-what? Strange would have let Diablo battle Shuma-Gorath? Luckily for us, Strange “won” that toss and was able to (again) defeat the fearsome dark god. Off panel. With Strange just looking really tired and a little cut up. (Did I mention the battle happened…OFF! PANEL!?!)
Next, Shuma-Gorath was defeated by a team of earth heroes (the Invaders) and a swarm of dead spirits (the miserable ‘Invaders Now’ mini-series) with little effort whatsoever.

But this is the same problem that happened to the greatest of foes of many super-heroes, like those of the Fantastic Four. Both Doctor Doom and Galactus were awe-inspiring villains who had been used far too often, and to ever-diminishing levels, so that they were reduced to minor, also-ran villains.
It takes writers with vision and understanding to return misused villains to their levels of grandeur and greatness (in the cases of Doom and Galactus, the one who did so was John Byrne.) In fact, it is also entirely possible for a minor villain, like Diablo, to be rejuvenated (as was also achieved, briefly, by John Byrne).

Within the mythos of Dr. Strange, this has happened as well (albeit, unfortunately all too rarely).
One case of a one-time, minor villain being re-purposed, was Kaluu – the former friend turned enemy of the Ancient One. After his defeat at the hands of Doctor Strange, he was not seen again for over 20 years, where he returned to be a mentor and tormentor, an ally and… friend of a once-again-nearly-powerless Doctor Strange. Unfortunately, since being given new life by writer Peter B. Gillis, Kaluu has not been seen again.


I can not think of any instance wherein one of Strange’s major, yet diminished villains was renewed to greatness. More often than not, each of the flimsy attempts to do so has only further reduced the overall sense of danger from the foe in the eyes of the reader. In this, I am thinking of Dormammu. He has been treated as omega-level threat in one story and insecure sibling in the next. A dimension crusher one day, then the next day, an easily-beaten plot-device. The closest Dormammu ever came to being made even grander was when he absorbed his sister Umar and her consort, Baron Mordo, to add their essence to his – thus enlarging him to gargantuan size while also granting him two extra sets of arms and eyes and another mouth. The visual was everything one could have hoped for, but the manner of his defeat – by a nearly powerless Dr. Strange and an ad-hoc team of “Secret Defenders” (while an impressive return to the great Strange-as-strategist) – was another false-start for Dormammu.

So, while it is not unheard of for an old, disused character – in the hands of the right creative team – to gain a new lease on life, we haven’t seen it happen as of yet in regards to the world of Dr. Strange.

We have seen a few wholly original, and effective villains created wholecloth. One, like Dr. Plokta (from the late, lamented Captain Britain and MI:13 title), is a duke of hell, ruler of the dream-corridor (where those trapped within live their fondest dreams, but their soul is devoured while within) and the creator of the Mindless Ones, is an interesting concept married to a dynamic visual (think Eternity meets Venus-Fly-Trap). Another, was the one-off, non-canon ( from an all-ages “kiddie” comic; Marvel Adventures Super-Heroes # 5 ) "Nisilette the Unimaginable”, an entity so dangerous that she could destroy all of creation if she was even IMAGINED to exist.

Sadly, those bold new concepts are few and far between. Perhaps, is it not just the misuse of Strange’s foes that is the problem. Perhaps, it is simply the lack of substantial foes of any sort; be they new or old foes. One reason is simply that unlike a more grounded and localized hero, Strange’s range of operations – and length of tenure – places more of strain on the odds of an ever-revolving door of re-returning foes?


It would be conceivably more unlikely for the same menaces to return again and again when someone like Strange is protecting not just a city, nor a single planet, but the very dimensional reality itself!


It would be conceivably more unlikely for the same menaces to return again and again when someone like Strange is protecting not just a city, nor a single planet, but the very dimensional reality itself!

The amount of potential threats that could exist within those veritably infinite parameters would reduce the likelihood that the same villains would rear their heads, again and again. Of course, there would have to be certain steadfast antagonists, who continuously try over and over to obtain their objectives.
That is why we have always to expect the umpteenth return of (yawn) Dormammu or (meh) Nightmare. As long as he/they want to invade our reality (or just want to best Doctor Strange) you can bet that they will strike again at their earliest opportunity.

However, in order to do Dr. Strange’s mythos any proper credit, new and excitingly original enemies would have to be created all the time. 
However, in order to do Dr. Strange’s mythos any proper credit, new and excitingly original enemies would have to be created all the time.

That’s not to say that some of the old stand-by villains haven’t had some inspired moments every so often. This post is named after the “6-Fingered Hand”, which was a congregation of 6 demonic entities led by one – who unknown to them all was Mephisto! So, not only did he plant a series of devilishly intricate traps and lures to capture the Defenders, but he also used and ensnared the other demons who had cooperated with him.

DR. STRANGE vs The (metaphorical) 6-FINGERED HAND
Photoshop altered cover image to Defenders v1 # 94.
Art by Michael Golden (and PTOR)

Mephisto has had numerous occasions of brilliance in his many returns. Most frequently in the pages of ‘Thor’ over the past few years, the Lord of Lies has shown the deep layers of his depraved evil. Loki, brother of Thor, has also had his deceitful depths plumbed in the past several years as well.
If characters as old as these, who have probably been thought to have “done-it-all”, can have themselves rejuvenated by good writers, then why not a one-note Dr. Strange villain like Baron Mordo.

Baron Mordo’s most drastic (and quite possibly ONLY) alteration was at the end of the Doctor Strange; Sorcerer Supreme title (in 1996) where he was dying of cancer and sought to make amends, only for his daughter to step into his shoes as the vengeful NEW Baron Mordo. Of course, she lasted all of one story and was gone. Mordo died, but has since got better and is back to his old tricks. The truly questionable thing is; since Mordo’s return, why he has not interacted with Dr. Strange? Apart from appearances in X-Factor and an Iron-Man/Thor mini-series, the bad Baron has been laying low. Is it that he is trying to avoid a beating by Strange? But certainly wouldn’t he be privy to the fact that Doc is at a low ebb and Mordo easily overpowers him? Or, perhaps, Mordo remembers that no matter how many times he had gained superior power via Dormammu with which to combat Strange, Stephen always dealt to him a sound defeat.

Each and every time, Mordo suffered from a case of “will lose due to hero outwitting him”. Maybe mixed with his own cowardly nature, that formula was ever the trope. Just as the great Thanos has ever been beaten by his own  inability to believe in himself – that each and every time he had the universe on the ropes, Thanos would subconsciously sabotage his own plan. That particular trope became an actual plot point for many of Thanos’ appearances in the late 1990’s and into the 2000’s. It became an admitted and acknowledged fact, and one that he would strive to rise above. By making such a personal discovery, Thanos was given a chance to grow, but instead of becoming a better villain, he instead became an unlikely anti-hero.

But the difference between the enhancements of Mephisto or Loki and the stagnation of Thanos and Mordo is that a good writer can see the hidden possibilities and heretofore unexplored facets of a character, thus leading to a greater challenge for the hero.

One of Marvel’s primary arguments about Doctor Strange is that he was too powerful, and that magic, in and of itself had no “rules”, so it would be impossible to place Strange in any danger. To that I shake my head in disbelief.

Despite Marvel’s insistence that Doctor Strange was too powerful to be placed into jeopardy, in Brian K. Vaughan’s ‘The Oath’, not only was Strange nearly killed outright by a commonplace assassin, but the lives of Strange’s manservant/assistant/disciple/friend; Wong as well as the well-being of untold millions of people were threatened by the hands of a low-to-mid level minor mystic, who shared a similar back-story with Strange himself, and Strange is beset by an ancient beast that has killed every Sorcerer Supreme it ever encountered.  In that mini-series, Stephen Strange is in danger in each and every issue, from different sources and in different ways, and in each issue while strained to the limits by each encounter, he extricates himself from each of those dangers in believable and unique ways,

What is the difference between Doctor Strange casting some spell (or reclaiming some mystic artifact) in order to defeat a more powerful foe; or some “science-based” hero, like Tony “Iron Man” Stark or Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards from cobbling together some oversized mechanical “fix-it-all” machine that they point and shoot at the problem? None. No one is asking to see the math or the schematics to Mr. Fantastic’s all-powerful-thingamawhatsis, but Marvel sees the magic solution as “an easy out”.

Hypocritically, Marvel also sees it to be perfectly fine to use Strange as their own “fix-it-all” plot device whenever a writer plots himself into a corner. They really should just rename him Dr. Deus ex Machina.
Maybe Diablo could have been able to defeat Shuma-Gorath within Marvel’s rationale? If Doctor Strange was willing to let it go with a flip of a coin, perhaps, Diablo could have whipped up some concoction to give Shuma-Gorath a monstrous case of pink-eye!

The tragic irony in Marvel’s handling of Dr. Strange as a Deus ex Machina, is that they have allowed him to be used as such – and despite their protestations of same, continue to do so. But it is this very treatment that they have seen fit to label as a character flaw, when in fact the flaw is with the writers and editors.
To counterbalance this trend, this has led to Strange’s being used to show how big a threat is, by its presenting him with a hard time, if not a total defeat, so that the other, more popular heroes can swoop in and save the day. This Marvel thinks allows the reader to see the threat level, as well as a means to an end by which Strange can be “taken down a peg”. Unfortunately, this occurs so often that it seems that there isn’t much Strange can actually do anymore. (This is the subject of the 4th and 5th entries in my series. # 4: Dr. Strange has 'Magic Powers' [HERE] and # 5: Dr. Strange is Now An Inept mage [HERE].)

However, in all the time that Strange has been used as a “magic eraser” in others’ titles, or as a veritable weakling recently, the threats that he once fought are still out there. The fact that they haven’t attacked our dimension as of late is almost impossible to believe.

However, in all the time that Strange has been used as a “magic eraser” in others’ titles, or as a veritable weakling recently, the threats that he once fought are still out there. The fact that they haven’t attacked our dimension as of late is almost impossible to believe.

To that extent, I find it odd that Marvel “depowered” the one who could be our last stop gap of reality-level attack. I also find it incredible that Dr. Strange, no matter how “weakened” by his loss of status or tools, would resign himself to street-level heroics against mundane forces of evil like Norman Osborn when at any moment, a threat to our reality could manifest. Anyone who has ever read a pre-Bendis issue or appearance of Doctor Strange would know that in the absence of a new “Sorcerer Supreme” whose task it is to combat such menaces, Stephen Strange would feel it his responsibility to continue on in a de-facto capacity, until a new candidate could be secured. What? With the apparent death of Doctor Voodoo, our realm has no need or no replacement for the mantle? It may be Marvel’s current crop of creators might think that with the Avengers at his side, that Strange now has a veritable army at his disposal – except, as was evidenced by the “Agamotto” debacle (and in pretty much every similar instance going back to the Avengers/Defenders War), regular earth-based heroes aren’t usually effective against mystical menaces.

Perhaps, many so-called writers and editors just fail to see the potential in Strange’s rogue’s gallery? Maybe, despite the fact that magic sells (as any Harry Potter fan will tell you), Marvel’s more traditional “super-hero” writers just can’t wrap their heads around the more metaphysical nature of Strange’s mission.

That doesn’t just hold true for Strange’s evil obsticals, for since their introduction (mostly in the pages of some of Strange’s earliest Strange Tales) even the cosmic entities – who are above such concepts as “good” or “evil” – have, over the past few decades been vastly undermined as well.
Entities like Eternity (the living embodiment of all-there-is), the Living Tribunal (who is 2nd in power only to whatever “higher authority” as may exist beyond the pale) and others have gone from deities/universal concepts/embodiment-of-abstracts which you must approach, supplicating yourself penitently before, with no guarantee that your presence will even be acknowledged – to big, mellow dudes that any hero can just sidle over to and ask for a favor.
There has been a lessening of the greatness in the Marvel Universe, and nowhere is it more evident than within the realms of the metaphysical, wherein treads Doctor Strange. So, how can we hope for greatness or grandness from any aspect of Doctor Strange’s once-spiritual world, when anything that is not easily grasped in our more secular, technologically based 21st century world has been rendered thus?

But perhaps, in direct contrast to the opening statement in the body of this entry, it may very well be his villains that indeed help to define Doctor Strange, for in their continued absence and mishandling, he has become so very undefined.

The truth as I see it, is that the only way to portray Doctor Strange in a way that allows him to be in dire peril is to have his foes be incredibly much more than “super-villains”.

In fact, Strange’s entire existence should be allowed to be made MORE than what it is. It should, at times, be far, far darker, facing Lovecraftian horrors, while at others reaching heights of grandeur and blinding magnificence that it is nearly impossible to do so within the confines of a traditional Marvel Universe comic. So, does Strange need to be placed in a different reality than the regular ‘616’ comics? A Marvel equivalent to the DC Vertigo imprint? That would help, but Marvel has long stopped short of committing to such a direction. They dipped their toe into those waters with the ‘Midnight Sons’, 'Edge' and ‘Strange Tales’ imprints in the 1990’s, but each time backed away from the dark waters’ edge. It isn’t really necessary, however, if only Marvel would commit themselves to the fact that Doctor Strange should be utterly strange, weirdly unearthly, and his worlds of a level where traditional super-heroes would fear to tread. Strange and his foes should not be lessened, but made mightier still!

Mayhap the Mystic Master’s mind missed that his most murderous menace might manifest in malevolent machinations and malfeasance from the mind-rot of Marvel itself!
(Try saying THAT 3X fast.)

Seriously, of all the threats posed against Doctor Strange, it is modern Marvel itself that has proven to be the most dangerous.

5 comments:

Jere Genest said...

Dr Strange and the Marvel mystical-cosmic lineup need a similar treatment as the Abnett/Laning space-cosmic characters.

Or something by someone who cares.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, truly highlights the ridiculousness of the current editorial mandate for Dr. S.

speedwaygurl said...

Bravo! Well put.

Anonymous said...

You raised the notion that in an earlier post that perhaps the wrist gauntlets were an aid to levitation? I can only say I hope that's not what they intend. Dr Strange's magical items have always been, in as far As I've noticed, to be physically in sympathy with their function. The Eye of Agamotto sees and the cloak levitates and flies; as they will do in the wind. If the wrist gauntlets have any magical purpose it SHOULD be that of protection.

Many thanks, I appreciate your dedication to one of my favorite Marvel characters.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with some of the specifics (Zom and Nebulos struck me as extraordinarily lame) but the general discussion is spot-on. Of course, this is part of the problem with most Silver Age characters: It's hard to use an all-powerful villain repeatedly without the luster coming off. Use Shuma-Gorath once and he's a cosmic-level threat. Defeat him two or three times and no matter how difficult the fight is ... well, he's someone Strange has beaten two or three times.
And nobody seems to create new memorable foes very often. It's tougher with Strange simply because he's a tougher character to do well, I think.
That being said, you're right that good supernatural characters do turn up. And as Jere says, the Abnett/Lanning shows much less memorable characters can be re-energized.
-Fraser

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