Saturday, January 12, 2013

Thanks For Nothing

On occasion, you'll find tucked away in a story a second tale that you weren't expecting--which follows up on a prior story in another issue and/or supplements what you've just read. One good example of this was "The Return," which was tucked in back of Marvel Feature #1 (featuring the debut of the Defenders) and gives the details of how Dr. Strange regained his status as Master of the Mystic Arts and once more donned the garb and responsibilities of his mystical calling. Little, under-the-radar gems like that one, which should probably be collected and published in a TPB at some point. Until then, I'll do my best to chronicle some of these stories you may or may not have heard of.

One that quickly comes to mind is a follow-up to a follow-up--a loose end left dangling in a What If? story that put a different spin on the climax to the Korvac saga which took place in The Avengers. In that new story, Korvac, instead of committing suicide, survived with his mate, Carina, to go on to destroy the Avengers, capture the Earth, and proceed with his plan to bring his own brand of order to the universe. And those beings whom he preferred not to deal with directly, he either barred from Earth's dimension or banished. For example, these three in particular:

As for Korvac, while the Earth was easy pickings for him, the assembled might of the universe was another matter. And when his back was against the wall, he made use of a most deadly device to nullify Eternity itself (or at least the part of Eternity that exists here), reducing his entire universe to literally a blank slate:

That would be Korvac, cutting off his nose to spite his face. So now we have an entire universe of nothingness. I hope the guy's happy--happy being nothing, that is.

But aren't we forgetting something?

Apparently, Korvac had sent Dr. Strange, the Surfer, and Phoenix to another universe and set up a barrier to prevent their return. So with Korvac's death--or, more to the point, with the death of his entire universe--that barrier dissolved, and the three were able to return. Starting with Dr. Strange:

Left with no frame of reference--left with nothing, actually--Strange does the only thing he can do, which is to begin searching for signs of life. And a search of nothing raises an interesting question: when searching nothing, are you really doing anything?

Don't ask me how--but in an entire universe, Strange and his fellow exiles nevertheless manage to run into each other:

You sound pretty calm and collected for someone who's been confronted with utter madness, Jean--but we'll get to that in a minute.  Understandably, none of these three have a clue as to what decimated their universe, or why they alone survived. So they reach out with their combined senses to find anything in this void of nothingness that registers as something. And look what else just happens to be floating around in their general vicinity:

Strange scans the Nullifier with his Eye of Agamotto, and discovers Korvac's actions that led to this catastrophe. And he does a little quick arithmetic to come up with a possible plan to salvage the entire universe:

(Gee, remember how we whined in school that we'd never use all of those math classes in real life? I probably would have paid closer attention if I'd known I could use math to bring a universe back to life. Though I'd still argue that geometry was a waste of time.)

Yet before Strange and the others can attempt their plan, the "aspect" of Eternity that died here appears and makes a plea:

I hate to break it to an entity as grand as Eternity, but no one who peeks or ventures into that universe is going to be able to learn much from a void of nothingness. Unless Eternity sticks around to clue them in. Though I'm hard-pressed to understand how an entity that's been killed can still appear and chat with visitors.

Still, Strange and his companions decide to honor Eternity's request, and leave to seek out another universe to call home. Except for Strange, who feels a responsibility to stay:

Mark Gruenwald, who handles both scripting and pencils, clearly saw a potential story-within-a-story with these three when they were removed from Korvac's plans. Yet his tale here reads like a hollow shell. All the main elements that are needed to move this story along are here--but for the sake of a typical what-if scenario, where an ending is meant to twist sharply from the events we're familiar with, the ending we reach is irrational, given the people we're dealing with. Part of the problem is that their characterization is slightly off. Jean Grey speaks with a formality that sounds more like the Phoenix entity than Jean herself; and while the Surfer and Strange seem like the characters we're familiar with, all three of these characters regard the fate of their entire universe with a startling lack of emotion, even though we're told that a great deal of time goes by between the story's developments. If you were surrounded by absolutely nothing--not even sure when you initiated movement that you were moving--and you had no stimuli whatsoever for days on end, wouldn't you be pretty damn elated to find fellow survivors? To find anything?

And as for their response to Eternity's plea, talk about taking the easy way out. For heroes, the conclusions they reach make no sense. The Surfer observes it as a valid point that the universe--i.e., Eternity--doesn't want to live. Jean wants to respect Eternity's wishes, saying the universe should die with dignity and they have no right to intercede. And Strange, with all his talk of his responsibility to this universe, basically gives up. I sure wouldn't want these three fighting for me. The death of their universe wasn't the result of Eternity coming to a natural end in the grand scheme of things--it was the result of one man's mad plan to impose his will on everyone and everything, and then using a WMD to cause the universe's end when his plans were foiled. Using his mystic eye, Strange knows all of this--so if he thinks of himself as a protector of this universe, why doesn't he make the argument that it's up to them to save it? Are they going to listen to a dead entity--or act to save the human race, all races, who were wiped out by Korvac? Is this even up for debate?

After Strange, the Surfer, and Phoenix have arguably the shortest dialog ever on what must be the highest stakes in existence, Strange concludes: "Then... then it is decided. We do nothing." You picked the right venue to make that decision, bub--thanks for, well, nothing. With their farewells, Gruenwald seemingly wants to leave us with the impression that these three have acted nobly, and that we should mourn for this universe that ended so tragically, with no other outcome possible. I hope we get another follow-up story, though from another writer not reluctant to asking some hard questions--because if Phoenix or the Surfer end up in our universe and ever relate this story to any of our more committed Marvel heroes, I want to sit back and watch them get an earful for bailing on not only their collective conscience, but also on nothing less than eternity.

In our next tucked-away story, we'll find out what happens when you take your inter-dimensional dog on a walk without his leash.

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