Monday, April 21, 2014

If This Be Doomsday!

An excellent story which I think any comics reader could sit down with and enjoy from cover to cover is one that I've never hesitated to recommend: the four-part Doctor Strange #s 10-13, which first saw publication in late 1975 but, due to the book's bi-monthly publication schedule, didn't conclude until April of 1976. That's a heck of a long time time to wait in order to find out about the fate of the world--especially when we would see it come to be destroyed, with Strange as the only survivor.

Scripted by Steve Englehart, who had begun writing the good doctor in the pages of Marvel Premiere, it's a tale focused on Strange himself, even though it involves Eternity as well as that tiny matter of world's end. It also features some of the finest artwork to date by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, veteran Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula artists whose reputations precede them. Palmer doesn't step aboard until issue #11 (Frank Chiaramonte handles inks in the initial issue), but, as an added treat, he also pulls double duty as the colorist on his issues.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself with that little slip about the Earth being destroyed. Just put that out of your mind, okay? Let's start at the beginning, when Strange, due to recent events, is filled with apprehension about the awesome entity known as Eternity, and so joins his consciousness only to receive a most shocking announcement:

And this was well before the Internet. If Eternity is this alarmed about widespread communication in the mid-'70s, think of how he wouldn't have hesitated to pull the trigger with everyone accessing the Internet from their mobile devices.

Strange, of course, contests Eternity's conclusions. But, then, Eternity proposes, of all things, something of a contest with Strange, reducing the enormity of bringing about the end of the world down to a personal level:

And so the experience begins. And we know all too well what's at stake.

Or do we?

Due to my condensing the story and cutting to the chase, as it were, this may seem a simplistic plot on Englehart's part. In a way, that may be true, though Englehart has put several other things in play, and there are many questions by this point.

  • We've seen that Baron Mordo, who, in his mad state since viewing the second creation of the universe in a prior story, has been residing at Strange's sanctum and who seems to be under the influence of Nightmare, one of Strange's oldest and most powerful foes. (I don't know if anyone's bothered to tell Nightmare that tormenting someone who's already mad isn't going to do much to enhance his rep.)
  • We've also been introduced to the aged Genghis, supposedly the only living man with knowledge of Eternity, but who is now completely senile and, to Strange, a useless source of information--yet, for whatever reason, the Genghis is experiencing the same symptoms as Mordo.
  • And while Strange has been dealing with the Genghis, Mordo, unable to bear his torment by Nightmare any longer, flees Strange's sanctum.

But Eternity is admittedly enough of a distraction from these other matters to grab both our attention and Strange's, and so Strange begins to sift through Eternity's bizarre drama. Though that's a question in itself: Why would Eternity--Eternity, mind you--bother with placating Strange or anyone else with something like this, given the scope of his being as well as the matter at hand? And, on that note, why would Eternity take a direct hand in this fashion, let alone be concerned with bringing about the end of Earth?

In light of all of that, what happens to Strange from this point on may seem trivial, even confusing. And that's made apparent when Strange encounters manifestations of the first stage of his personal retrospective--the arrogant, self-obsessed surgeon he was, prior to the accident which changed his life. But, along with Strange, we'll encounter a rather surprising aspect to this scene:

With the insertion of Richard Nixon, a man whose presence really has no bearing on this aspect of Strange's life except for his obvious association with the trappings of power, Englehart seems to be continuing where he left off in an earlier story in Captain America in which he reportedly alluded to Nixon in a scene where a villain, having no regrets in his quest for power, takes his life in the backdrop of the Oval Office. Here, Englehart feels free to drop the allusions and present Nixon more directly--though Nixon's mindset still seems to be foremost on Englehart's mind:

Another character who doesn't seem to fit this scene--the "Red Death," Edgar Allen Poe's deadly visitor expected in a midnight rendezvous. More to the point, the scene itself seems skewed. What would Eternity hope to accomplish with this farce? Even Strange sees no further purpose in remaining, though his attempt to leave will yield another surprise:

Strange is then captured, and thrown into a dungeon where he meets himself at the second stage--the Stephen Strange who had given up and turned to the bottle:

With his other self slumped into uselessness, Strange has precious moments to assess his situation and begin making sense of the pieces of this puzzle. In doing so, he returns to one key clue; but, while exploring it provides him with no relevant information, rest assured it's a clue we'll return to when the time is right.

You may have noticed that Englehart is dropping these brief scenes like bread crumbs, and he's not done yet.  This scene was probably inserted at this juncture to address the likely assumption by the reader that this might all be the result of Nightmare's influence--and so Strange addresses it for us in order to dispose of the possibility in plain sight.  Yet, has it been disposed of? That would be telling.

Strange manages to escape his imprisonment (though with no thanks to his accusatory, drunken counterpart who sees him as a hindrance), and returns to face the gathering which waits for the imminent arrival of the Red Death. This time, though, instead of continuing to observe, Strange takes direct action to prevent what's to come--a curious development which seems geared toward giving Englehart another opportunity to bring Nixon's faults once more to light:

With "Nixon's" closing words, we at last get some sense of how this first aspect of Stephen Strange ties into this figure from politics, even if it's something of a stretch. In any event, the involvement of the "Red Death" seems pointless, with its exposure as a figure wearing a "mask" merely serving as a lead-in to Nixon's final comments.

Regardless, Eternity still seems set to continue this odd game. And Strange himself provides the segue to the third stage of his development:

Yes, sorcery. In the next stage, Strange consequently finds himself not only in full possession of his abilities again, but also now in the presence of his departed mentor, the Ancient One. And, on a thin silver strand above a bottomless abyss, the teacher invites the student to justify his present course of action.

Eventually, though, their conversation reaches an impasse, and Strange takes a more aggressive stance with this "apparition" of his former teacher in order to regain some measure of control in this situation. But, in tapping into the Ancient One's mind, he makes a startling discovery:

Strange has little time for further musings, though, because his thoughts on the motivation of who he believes to be the real Ancient One are interrupted by a call to battle. And the source takes the form of Strange's last stage of development--the masked man of mystery identity he'd adopted prior to calling it quits as a sorcerer. A man who apparently intends to make sure he's the last man standing in this game:

It takes everything Strange has to overcome this version of himself. And that's an important thing to note, because this fight isn't quite over. Once Strange pulls back the mask of his other self, he first sees his own face, as expected. But what he isn't aware of is the activities of our old friend, Baron Mordo, who in his state of madness has stumbled upon the aged Genghis. In and of itself, that normally wouldn't be a cause for concern--two near-mindless sorcerers, dimly aware of each other but otherwise in virtual meditation stasis. Yet, by sheer chance, the thoughts of each turn briefly to Strange--and the result? The mask of Strange's foe now fades again, to reveal:

Mordo is still quite mad, as he admits--yet joining thoughts with the Genghis has given him perspective, and he now has control of not only the might of the Genghis but his own. And as drained as Strange now is, Mordo has a clear advantage over his old enemy, and, in his madness, is willing to destroy everything in order to see to Strange's end.

Everything--as in the entire world. Catching on now?

But Strange hasn't given up yet. In a last-ditch gambit, he summons Clea to his side, with whom he's joined minds before in order to pool their mystic power. But, while Mordo may be mad, he's certainly not stupid:

And with Mordo gearing up for a final strike, Eternity picks this moment to chime in and twist the knife:

With that realization still ringing in Strange's head, Mordo abruptly strikes:

Given that the Earth has been destroyed--and yes, the Earth has been destroyed--we can reasonably come to the following conclusions:

  • Baron Mordo has won.
  • Dr. Strange has lost.
  • The battle is over.

So, why should we follow up with this story?

Because only one of those points is going to turn out to be true.

Doctor Strange #s 10-13

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Tom Palmer (Frank Chiaramonte on #10)
Letterers: Tom Orzechowski and John Costanza

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