Thursday, July 24, 2014

From Death To Eternity

In the second meeting between Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and the manifestation of Death, the encounter was an introspective one, as Death sought to co-opt the mage by weakening his spirit and showing him the effect that death has had on his family and, by extension, his own path which led to the end of his surgical career. Death was obliged to take such a circumspect approach due to the fact that, with Strange's ascendance to his current level of power, he could no longer be taken by Death directly--and so Death resorted to a ruse, which would compel Strange to surrender his life willingly. Ultimately, Strange prevailed, which is astonishing when you consider that it makes him 2 for 2 in face-offs with Death. That would certainly make for impressive feathers in one's cap.

But, what about that first meeting, when Strange had to go head-to-head with Death without such impunity? We know that the man is good, but how could he possibly survive?

To make a long story short, he did, but he didn't.

And while that sounds like they would have needed to change the title of the mag to "Dr. Corpse, Master of the Walking Dead" (come on, you know you'd read it), Strange managed to survive that encounter on a TKO. And any death you can walk away from is a good one, which this story will make clear.

To give you some background to this encounter, Strange has found reluctant refuge from his fatal stabbing by the man known as Silver Dagger within the "unreality" realm of the Orb of Agamotto, and has steadily made his way back to the center of the orb in order to make his escape back to Earth. But as he nears his goal, he also makes himself vulnerable once again to death; yet he has no choice, if he wants to return to Earth as well as to save Clea from Dagger.

Which will involve coming face-to-skull with an entity that has only one goal where the living are concerned.

This tale and the subsequent showdown with Dagger would mark the end of the Steve Englehart/Frank Brunner team on Doctor Strange, which began in the pages of Marvel Premiere where Strange emerged from his hiatus from solo stories. Englehart at the time was also writing Strange within the pages of The Defenders; but here, with Brunner co-plotting, he would begin to elevate Strange beyond a "super-hero" profile and give greater attention to his mystical roots and associated characters, taking us through extraordinary stories featuring Baron Mordo, the death of the Ancient One, and a renegade mystic whose quest for power would bring Strange to the dawn of creation. Once this incredible "try-out" had finished, Strange segued to his own title, where Englehart would remain for a time once Brunner departed following the Silver Dagger denouement. You'll probably agree that a confrontation with Death itself makes for one heck of a finale for Brunner, marking a distinguished run on this character.

Before Strange has his fateful meeting, he finds himself having to pass through a sort of "way station" which reflects both dread and hopelessness.

There are a variety of stories both in comics and elsewhere that depict those who, for whatever reason, are prevented from crossing over to death (the so-called Flying Dutchman, for one), so Strange encountering this kind of scene on his way "out" is reasonable at this point in the story. But it also serves to underscore the cruel malevolence that Death seems to embody whenever we see it featured as itself--here, an entity that aggressively strives to gather others into its fold, yet chooses to maintain the perpetual agony of dying for some. It's a contradiction that's difficult to get past. But Strange must literally put it behind him.

And so Strange's final "stop" is the void of space, where the inevitable awaits:

Strange begins to treat this as a battle, and perhaps correctly so. Death's "touch" for those who strive to live could be interpreted as an attack--and Death, as portrayed here, seems malicious and almost evil. But while Strange is no *ahem* stranger to battling conceptual entities, this battle will prove to be a tall order, especially considering that he's already in the process of dying.

The vacant form of Eternity offers a respite for Strange, if not a haven from the force which assails him. And Death is capable of daunting Strange with the psychological as well as the physical.

So the word "inevitable" must again come into play here. How often have we heard the phrase? "Death is inevitable." Even the unenlightened can accept that--and so it speaks well of Strange that, despite the circumstances under which he struggles, his own enlightenment prevails and allows him to come to rational terms with this final experience.

With Strange's death, we see that the "battlefield" inexplicably gives way to a new existence for Strange--but one that rings familiar to him, with the appearance of his former mentor:

If there was ever a fair question to ask, "Am I not dead?" would certainly qualify under the circumstances. For Strange, the answers he receives are undoubtedly most welcome, as they amount to a new lease on life.

I didn't at all care for the idea of other trials waiting in the wings, at least in the formal sense. With each new danger, each new crisis, Strange would be wondering if this was yet another test he's meant to deal with, and then the second-guessing will start; and if it doesn't occur to Strange, it will likely nag at the readers' thoughts (at least those who remember this story). Surely surviving death by actually dying would be enough of a trial to allow Strange to proceed with his life as the Ancient One's successor without further ascendancy hurdles to clear. What was it the Ancient One would say when Strange managed to survive his ordeal with Nightmare and Eternity? "Life is trial enough for the Sorcerer Supreme." So why don't we leave it at that?*

(*But there's no deterring the Ancient One--and if you're curious, you can see what he's got in mind next for his former disciple in a separate post.)

Otherwise, Strange has received a few perks as a result of this encounter. He's now like the Ancient One was, in the respect of being granted an extremely long lifespan; but his situation differs from his mentor in that Strange will not age in the slightest. (The upside being that Strange won't succumb to the frailties that plagued the Ancient One, who often came under attack in his aged years and didn't have the stamina to sufficiently resist or go the distance with his foes.) Also, as we see, the Ankh symbol will now appear on Strange's forehead to warn of a coming juncture when his life may end. Which seems another bad call--isn't that going to get old fast, as Strange survives one life-or-death struggle after another? "The Ankh That Cried Wolf"? And what of those times when the Ankh doesn't appear? Will Strange then just have only close shaves that we know won't amount to much?

But there's the last perk, which does make sense for the future--the fact that Strange need never again fear that a direct encounter with Death will put his life in danger. The matter would finally be put to rest (so to speak) with the failure of Death's second and more subtle attempt; and in any case, there are more than enough threats in the life of Dr. Strange to allow Death to indulge in the one luxury it excels at: patience.


Doctor Strange #4

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Frank Brunner
Inks: Dick Giordano
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

1 comment:

B Smith said...

I do recall noticing a lot of, er, borrowings from Neal Adams in this particular story....which in no away diminished my enjoyment of it at the time.