Sunday, July 20, 2014

Stephen Strange--This Was Your Life

While most of us are lucky in life to have few if any brushes with death, I suppose we're also fortunate in the respect that we're going to actually meet death only once--and hopefully in just the conceptual sense. I'm not really keen on the prospect of looking into the actual "face" of Death; simply knowing I've died is going to be enough of a hurdle to clear without also having an imposing figure of Death greeting me. (Maybe Death could resemble David Tennant--that would be awesome.)

So picture Stephen Strange, who, in his life as the Master of the Mystic Arts, has faced the prospect of death numerous times but who has also had the displeasure of meeting Death, twice. We know that their first meeting was one of the trials Strange would undergo in his new existence as the "Sorcerer Supreme"; and the nature of a series of trials is that you're likely meant to survive one in order to face the next. (Seriously, though, you have to be feeling good about your chances if your first trial is meeting Death, and you "pass." What's going to be more perilous than meeting Death?) But meeting Death a second time for Strange would prove to be a more (pardon the word) deadly experience. Strange only survived his first such meeting by accepting the fact that he had to actually die. But if that's not an option, how, then, do you prevail?

In Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #45, though, we'd be offered more than the battle scenario between Strange and Death that played out in their first meeting. Then, it was clear that Strange's abilities could only prolong the inevitable; yet this time, it would be Death that would prolong their contest. Strange is literally at Death's door, having died but still clinging to his mortal existence by a thread. That's something of a contradiction; but suffice to say that his struggle against crossing over would have to take place on Death's terms. The approach this story takes is that Death's most potent weapon would prove to be Stephen Strange's exposure and growing aversion to the concept of death, well before the circumstances that led him to seek out the Ancient One. In the process, we'll learn for the first time about Strange's family--elaborating on what we already know of his brother, Vic, but presented in the form of unpleasant memories and stinging words that few but Death could bring to bear.

And so the tale begins, with an appropriately macabre entrance.

It's practically impossible for any of us to know how we would react to crossing over into death. At that point, it would make sense to assume that we would know what had happened and would come to terms with it accordingly. But if you were to die suddenly, without expectation, what then? Strange faces the same circumstances here, due to a fatal attack by the Magus. Faced with death--er, that is, Death--Strange reacts no differently than I suppose the rest of us would, in trying to come to grips with what has actually happened to him:

It's interesting how Death is often presented by different writers as a malevolent entity, even if their stories make the point that Death is a natural force and not inherently evil. We've seen, for instance, that Hela comes for her victims methodically and relentlessly, but is also quick to anger and quite spiteful. And while Jim Starlin's depiction of Death is often silent and aloof, we've also seen "her" react maliciously when achieving her ends. Here, writer Roy Thomas chooses to make Death both manipulative and ambitious, seeing in Strange the opportunity to gain dominance over Death's "twin," Eternity, by making sure that Strange doesn't survive.

Knowing what's at stake, Strange makes a preventive strike on this entity, but to no avail, for what should be obvious reasons:

And so Death reminds Strange of the times when, as a young man growing up in Nebraska, his life was influenced and affected by the specter of Death, made worse by the fact that Strange took his family for granted in relation to the life he envisioned for himself. His first rude awakening in that respect would be the accidental death of his sister, Donna, a recollection made no easier to bear when Death is by his side to voice his inner feelings:

His sister's death would be pivotal for Strange--not in terms of his career as a doctor, which was already the driving force in his life, but how he would approach that career, as Death doesn't hesitate to point out:

With his mother's death, Strange throws himself into his career, distancing himself from the painful feelings associated with compassion and family in favor of arrogant detachment and self-interest. Eventually, his father, too, would pass away, with Strange making excuses to ignore both his brother's pleas to return as well as the funeral to follow. And even now he would contend with Death over the matter:

In reading this story, you may find that it comes off as carrying little of Thomas's usual style or weight. A story where Dr. Strange, one of Marvel's oldest characters (and one whom Thomas has written adeptly before now), is forced to relive regrettable aspects of his past would seem to be ripe for more substantive material than that which Thomas offers. For instance, what sort of impact is intended when Death notes that Strange had to return home to witness his mother's death? Death states with delight that it's relishing the irony of the situation--yet it's unclear just what irony Thomas is getting at. Nor is it Death that's lacking in substance--most of the other characters that are introduced are given only minimal attention, characters who are vital to Death making his case with Strange. Geof Isherwood is perhaps not the ideal artist on a book like Dr. Strange, which may or may not be a factor in Thomas's contribution; but Thomas has worked with other artists whose work wasn't entirely suitable to detailing the story or characters (notably Don Heck) and yet still managed to turn in excellent scripting to compensate for it.

Strange's choice to avoid returning to pay his respects to his father would have tragic consequences for the final living member of his family, Vic, who felt compelled to confront his brother over his decision.

The story of the new "Baron Blood" isn't particularly relevant to the tone Death is setting with Strange, even though its revelation here has an understandable impact on him. Vic's transformation to a vampire occurs much later down the road; but for now, it's his death that has the more telling effect on Strange's course, as he distances himself further from genuine feeling towards others and heads toward a bleak end to his career.

Throughout this experience, however, Strange has "kept his head on"--enduring Death's evaluation and observations of his life, yet not succumbing to them. And with the appearance of the Ankh symbol, which was granted to him following his first confrontation with Death, he's able to piece together Death's real motivations and, equally important, why the entity has chosen such a roundabout approach this time:

And so Death seeks again to overpower Strange on a physical level. But this time it would be Death who would be forced to accept its futility:

This story, with its references to Galactus, the Surfer, the Magus, and Nova, takes place as part of a crossover with the Infinity War series, and so its ending naturally seeks to coax the reader in that direction. But if you can look past that, it also provides a clever way of regarding this particular story's resolution. Galactus and his party believe that it's the power of Galactus that has prevailed here, reconstituting them after the Magus's strike; but Strange has kept to himself the fact that it was only his encounter with Death that eventually made that possible, which works nicely with the kind of seeker of wisdom and enlightenment we believe Strange to be. For him, his triumph is of a more personal nature: finally putting into perspective his long-buried guilt and sadness regarding his family, which must surely be a weight lifted off even a Sorcerer Supreme's shoulders.

Next time, we'll circle back to take a look at Dr. Strange's first direct encounter with Death--an entity which, despite its necessary role, apparently relishes in twisting the knife.

Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #45

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils and Inks: Geof Isherwood
Letterer: Pat Brousseau

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