Sunday, July 27, 2014

Request Denied!


Reading those old Tales of Suspense or Strange Tales comics, where the stories of two Marvel characters each occupied half the book, often felt like you were reading Sunday comics strips, especially if they were continued stories--a lot of adventure being crammed into a limited space, with the ending promising more to come. It was amazing how much story was being presented in just ten or eleven pages--though the story's frenetic pacing probably helped in that respect, with the characters often racing about in a time-is-of-the-essence, it's-do-or-die! mindset.

Before Doctor Strange's first costume change, it was difficult to imagine the "man of mystery" becoming desperate or exited about anything, with his aloof and mysterious demeanor and a tendency to meet even a crisis with calm detachment. Perhaps the change of costume was to help market him as a more active character, rather than an enigma who stepped out of the shadows to deal with a mystic menace. Perhaps having him gunned down in one story was overdoing it a bit, but you get the point.

Strange's first meeting with Eternity is a good example of both of these observations. Strange is being hunted; the Ancient One has been targeted; Dormammu has allied with Strange's mortal nemesis, Baron Mordo; and to help the Ancient One, Strange must seek out the entity known as Eternity. The man definitely has a lot on his plate, and the stakes are high for this mystic who was once content to confront haunted houses. Eternity, meanwhile, has received a great deal of build-up in the last few issues, with Strange on a race against time to discover the secret of how to contact him; and now that the moment has come for the fateful meeting, the story dials back the manhunt aspect in favor of the drama of discovery.




Which leads to one of my most favorite splash pages of all time:




Artist Steve Ditko seemed a good fit for this book's "shared" format--particularly for a character like Doctor Strange, for whom presentation makes as much of a statement as the story material. With Eternity finally making his first appearance in this issue--and the fact that he is, after all, Eternity, with all the grandeur the name implies--Ditko must spend a suitable amount of the precious space that's available "pulling back the curtain," so to speak. Yet that works in the book's favor, allowing the story to satisfy the reader with the meeting and yet conclude in a timely fashion in order to keep the main plot going for several more issues.

Consider, also, that the story needs to somehow maintain the pacing of and interest in the main plot, and doesn't have the luxury of putting all of its eggs in Eternity's basket; and so, even with Eternity taking center stage in this story (and appropriately so), space will need to be dedicated to other developments, as well. If you read this story in its entirety, you'll see just how well that's accomplished, in just ten pages. It was quite a different matter in Marvel's (and Timely's) older tales, where a typical story was begun and concluded in cut-to-the-chase style, instead of a more natural progression that included a greater amount of both story and characterization and allowed events to sink in for the reader.

In other stories featuring Eternity, Strange reaches Eternity's plane without much of a sightseeing tour. Which admittedly makes more sense, considering that, by definition, Eternity is timeless; but there's also the fact that Marvel's representation of Eternity is as a biped form which comprises the entire universe, and so Strange could "reach" Eternity simply by discovering a way to view and communicate with him. But thank goodness Ditko doesn't care what I think, because we get a scenic version which he and writer Stan Lee play to the hilt. And finally, the moment comes.




This story also has a more interesting aspect to Eternity, in that he doesn't wish to converse with Strange (nor, frankly, does he need to--he's Eternity, for Pete's sake). His methods of comprehension are far more efficient, and reliable:




That's quite a nice touch by Lee (and Ditko)--to a being like Eternity, Strange's mission, while important, is doubtless one "important" matter among many, in a vast, universal ocean of such concerns. Who's to say how long Strange would have to cool his heels while waiting for a response? But it's a good thing he's dealing with a timeless entity who can return to a bookmark whenever he needs to--and no doubt the Ancient One carries some clout with him.



For an entity who "shall say no more," he sure ends up saying it a lot, doesn't he. In any case, Strange has met with disappointment:



And yet it's a decision entirely appropriate for Eternity to come to--not simply because this being sees so much more than Strange or his ilk can perceive, but it's also an answer that serves to heighten the drama around Strange's situation and thus elevates his character for the reader. Unfortunately, where Eternity's message to Strange is one that boils down to capability, Strange instead sees it as a riddle that must be unlocked, and the encounter as a setback.

And to add to Strange's burdens, his foes have struck in his absence:





So Strange's gambit seems to have failed--and worse, his enemies are now holding all the cards. But it's quite an ending that's been set up for the next issue:



Doctor Strange now girds himself to fight for the life of the Ancient One (not to mention his own!) against the combined might of Mordo and Dormammu. Thanks for nothing, Eternity! How will Strange prevail? You're just a click away from finding out!  Beyond that, I may say no more.

Strange Tales #138 (Dr. Strange segment)

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils and Inks: Steve Ditko
Letterer: Sam Rosen

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