Friday, April 15, 2016

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To My Death...

No sooner was Dr. Strange's second series off to a great start in 1974, when the title character was slain! That doesn't leave a lot of options open for future Dr. Strange tales, does it? Except for the fact that the Master of the Mystic Arts, in trying to maintain his fading life by employing the Orb of Agamotto, left himself vulnerable to the Orb's realm of unreality, where one exists in a state between life and death. It's there that Strange now resides, his mortal wound healed and his health restored--as long as he remains within the Orb, neither dead nor truly alive.

Nevertheless, Strange has chosen to head for the center of the Orb, where the two states of unreality are in closest proximity to each other and where his best chance for an egress can be found--for Strange knows that Clea is still in danger from the religious zealot known as Silver Dagger, who has kidnapped her from Strange's sanctum and even now holds her prisoner and badgers her into rejecting the ways of magic and embracing a more fundamental spiritual way of life. It's a war of wills which Clea might be on her way to losing, considering that Dagger has already achieved a victory that will weaken her will to resist and deprive her of hope--the death of her lover, Dr. Strange.

As for Strange, his journey will prove to be anything but uneventful, as the realm within the Orb contains many unexpected dangers, as well as many surprises--the latter represented by the presence of those heroes which the issue's cover indicates have turned against their sorcerous ally.

Only one issue to its name, and already this new Dr. Strange series is flaunting guest stars to presumably drum up readership, which at first glance appears to be a worrisome sign of Marvel's confidence in the character's second shot at a series. It's reasonable to assume that Dr. Strange was only given the green light because the character was well received in the Marvel Premiere title and in his continuing appearances in The Defenders; a tie-in with the latter, at so early a stage, may simply be taking advantage of his momentum. Whether that's out of necessity or the result of good business sense is unclear--but it can't help but raise an eyebrow.

At any rate, Part Two of this story is in full swing--and Strange is resolved to press on, even knowing full well that certain death is waiting for him should he emerge from the Orb. But Clea is also in danger from the ravings of a madman, and he knows he must not fail her.

Speaking of Clea, Dagger continues to keep up the pressure on her, even mimicking a second slaying of Strange (in the form of a mannequin) in front of her, to remind her of what he has already accomplished. It bears keeping in mind at this point that Clea was mesmerized at the time Dagger attacked Strange, so she has only Dagger's word to rely on that Strange has been killed, rather than incapacitated. Yet there is a part of her that fears the worst, though it's a brave front she presents to her tormentor.

As we've learned here, Dagger abducted and held others whom he was convinced had been misled by those involved in the black arts; yet what's interesting about this character is the fact that he himself has learned the ways of sorcery, in order to better combat those who have deviated from the path of the righteous. As this story evolves, we'll learn more of Silver Dagger's origin, and how he's left a trail of blood in his learnings of the ways of mysticism.

For now, he leaves Clea for a brief period in order to satisfy his curiosity as to the disposition of Strange's corpse, using the stolen Eye of Agamotto. Yet what he discovers is an eye-opener of its own.

The scene is inconsistent with one we witnessed in the previous issue, where Strange observed Clea's location by using the Orb and Dagger reacted with shock at Strange still being among the living. At the time, writer Steve Englehart's copy had perhaps crossed wires with artist Frank Brunner's less complicated depiction of the scene, which didn't seem to take into account Dagger being aware of Strange's probing--instead simply shifting the Orb's image to the skull of Death in order to segue to Strange's capture. Here, it appears Englehart has forgotten the fact that he's already made Dagger aware of Strange's survival.

As for Strange, his journey is already fraught with peril, as he's suddenly consumed by a "soul-eater"--a hideous creature that consumes souls for the purpose of living on their psychic energy. Yet Strange's astral self provides a measure of resistance, and he manages to turn his imprisonment to freedom for himself as well as the other souls the creature had imprisoned.

No, I don't know how Strange's astral form can zip through this creature's interior (as it could through any solid construct), yet be unable to simply pass through completely and gain his freedom. But this issue is rife with head-scratching behavior, as we'll see.

Following his escape, Strange encounters none other than the Silver Surfer, who unfortunately is not the Surfer he knows but is instead one of the many forms of unreality in this realm. Still, he offers assistance to Strange, who is alarmed to find that his mortal body has inexplicably wandered out of sight. Tracking the body leads Strange to a gathering of the incredible.

Clearly, despite Strange's assessment to the contrary, these men and women are demonstrably different from their counterparts on Earth; in fact, their presence here, while appealing to a Marvel Comics reader, has no foundation other than the fact that the Orb is creating them from Strange's memories. The story accounts for yet doesn't support either their appearance or their erratic behavior, though a realm of unreality can get away with practically anything, can't it? It's a "stunt" that I would rather have seen substituted with something more substantive. For over six pages, Strange does nothing except react to the unexplained actions of these facsimiles, not moving the story forward one iota, which does a disservice to the impressive groundwork that Englehart laid in Part One.

To further muddy these waters, it's only after Strange has dispatched these foes that two among their number extend an olive branch and offer to see him on his way--by finally circling the story back to the goal he's frankly already aware of.

"Only you, among all who abide with us now--only you have a soul!" Baloney. That soul-eater clearly didn't seem to have any problem finding souls in this realm to feast on.

Now that this story has finished with this immaterial detour and seems to be back on track, our closing scene returns to Silver Dagger, who continues to hammer his message of despair and repentance into Clea, though with revisions at this point which take into account the fact that Clea is now aware that Strange lives, in whatever state he currently inhabits.

Why Dagger would provide that information to Clea, however, makes no sense, and doesn't align at all with the tactics he and others of his ilk employ to break their captives' resistance. Instead of depriving Clea of hope, Dagger has practically handed it to her gift-wrapped. Whether that hope is able to sustain her while enduring the rigors of Dagger's brutal treatment remains to be seen.

Yet this issue's final page of a defiant Strange mounting Aragorn on the way to confront his fate unfortunately instills a false sense of anticipation, since the following issue--only the third issue of this newly-launched book--is already substituting a reprint (in this case, Strange Tales #s 126-127) for the expected story, which doesn't bode well for those readers who believe the character of Dr. Strange to finally have the wind at his back in this new book and will be given quality stories to warrant a lasting series. The reprint is bookended by new dialog and art that mostly act as placeholders.

After a stunning opening, the second issue of this story arc--and no doubt the reprint which followed--have served to take the wind out of the book's sails (and perhaps even sales), with the events of this particular issue appearing to have no purpose other than to stretch out the story in order to accommodate the strong visuals that the Defenders offer. For what it's worth, the penultimate issue will indeed be worth the reader's hard-earned 25¢; whether it was worth the wait, and/or the unnecessary drag of this issue, is something left to the reader, and rightly so.

Well, your wait for a story's next installment isn't nearly as long here at the PPC, but in this case there's no twiddling your thumbs at all! Part Three has already been reviewed in a prior post from almost two years ago, and it's only a click away!

Doctor Strange #2

Script: Steve Englehart
Pencils: Frank Brunner
Inks: Dick Giordano
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

What a great comic! I'm proud to say I own this one. Great art.
I always wondered who Captain Tempus Fugit is, passed out at the table there.
(I know some Latin)

Anonymous said...

Another thing occurred to me...if you think about the Doctor Strange comic, and it's previous incarnation in Strange Tales, it's really been distinguished by some great writer-artist teams, going all the back to Lee/Ditko.
I caught a reprint if the Ditko stuff when I was a young kid, and it nearly broke my brain. My favorite is Colan, but I also enjoyed Marie Severin and Dan Adkin's work on this title. It seems like this title gave these artists a chance to cut really loose and be weird and original, and the comic benefited from it. Of course Englehart was always surprising. Just a high point for Marvel, all around. One of my favorites!

Comicsfan said...

M.P., the GCD identifies the mystery figure at the Defenders' tea party as Captain Midnight, who goes wayyy back to a radio serial from the 1940s. (And good lord, check out his 1955 TV show!) It's unclear how he ended up at that roundtable with the others--maybe he was an old buddy of Nick Fury's?