Monday, April 18, 2016

The Sorcerer, The Sorceress, And The Slayer!

We've previously taken a look at the first issue of the 1974 Dr. Strange reboot by writer Steve Englehart and artist Frank Brunner, where Strange, now Earth's "Sorcerer Supreme," had fallen prey to the blade of the religious fanatic known as Silver Dagger and subsequently became trapped within the Orb of Agamotto in a state of "unreality," neither dead nor alive. As Strange began his journey toward the center of the Orb in Part Two of this story, in order to free himself from this realm within the Orb and return to the land of the living, Dagger had already taken Strange's disciple and lover, Clea, in custody and had begun a slow and torturous process of forcing her to renounce her studies in magic and embrace Christianity.

Determined to rescue Clea, Strange in Part Three at last reaches the Orb's center and crosses the gateway into the void, where he again is faced with his own death, once more succumbing to the mortal wound inflicted by Dagger and dying from blood loss. He's then confronted and taunted by the manifestation of Death itself, which tries to convince Strange that his efforts to stem off his fate are futile and that there is no escape for him. Strange strives to stave off the inevitable--but eventually, he acknowledges the hopelessness of the situation, and feels he has no choice but to embrace the end. Yet that act of surrender leads to the appearance of the Ancient One, who informs Strange that he has successfully endured and passed a trial meant to expunge the fear of death within him.

And so, with Strange in the process of being reborn into a new life for himself and returning to the world he knew, we come to the conclusion of this four-part story. Silver Dagger remains at large, his brutal treatment of Clea on the verge of breaking her will. Can Dr. Strange truly come back from the dead? And will his new lease on life be enough to save the one he loves?

In this issue, we at last learn the origin of Dagger, a cleric in the Vatican who had risen in status to the position of Cardinal and became favored by the Pope, putting him one step away from the papacy. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed.

Embittered by the private deliberations of his fellow Cardinals, Dagger took it upon himself to see to his own promotion, elevating himself to a special status he believed was assigned by God:  to learn the black arts and then to use them to eliminate the world's mystic adepts whom he believed were defiling God's will.

Presumably, for Dagger, the black arts and magic came to be regarded as one and the same, with mysticism being labelled as a rejection of more fundamental beliefs and which would lead to darker pursuits (which helps to explain his interest in Clea). As a result, mystics worldwide became both his teachers and his targets, with Dr. Strange a clear "demon" to be crossed off the list. It's inconsistent with Dagger's origin that he took the direct approach with Strange, rather than posing as a student to learn Strange's secrets in order to be prepared to kill him when the time came. Personally, I'm more astonished at the notion that the Vatican keeps a library of the most extensive and comprehensive collection of black arts volumes in the world. Seems a little overkill for the Vatican to rationalize that level of curation with "know thy enemy" (with apologies to Sun Tzu).

As for Strange, he re-enters the world as little more than a wraith--consciousness that struggles to gain a foothold in reality, which doesn't come as a surprise given where he's recently been.

What does come as a surprise is a discovery voiced by Strange himself: "Why am I not in my body? Where is my body?" Both are fair questions, since it was his body we saw captured and taken into the Orb--it was his body that his astral self was ripped from in order to feed the so-called soul-eater--and it was his body his astral self rejoined in the company of the ersatz Defenders. The discrepancy is never addressed by Englehart--only further pushed aside, particularly in a scene we'll come to in a moment.

For now, the story proceeds on the tack that Strange must reach his body, or an acceptable substitute in the interim. And since he's returned through the Eye of Agamotto housed in his amulet, which is now in Dagger's possession, there is a "body" of sorts available that in his disoriented state he can be excused for mistaking for his own--the mannequin which Dagger decapitated as a tactic to assist in breaking Clea. Stumbling about headless, he realizes his error--but it nevertheless presents a startling sight to his foe.

With Dagger indisposed for the time being, Clea follows her instincts and approaches the fallen form, sensing that there might be more to this apparition than meets the eye. And with her touch, she inadvertently provides Strange with the stability to realign his consciousness, and herself with his welcomed strength to help her recover from her ordeal and escape from her tormentor.

Dagger's lair was in close proximity to Strange's sanctum, so it's now a race for Clea/Strange to reach there and prepare for Dagger's expected pursuit--as well as his attack, since he's well-armed with the Eye of Agamotto. Fortunately (or unfortunately, in the case of his victim), Dagger is delayed briefly by a mugger, who pays for his intrusion on Dagger with his life--but in the meantime, Strange gains the time he needs to repossess his body, lying in state within the sanctum under the vigil of his manservant, Wong.

Yes, that Wong--the person who was present when Strange was snatched by tendrils and dragged into the Orb. If we're to believe Englehart, Strange's body was left behind, lying prone on the carpet; so whatever form of flesh and blood Strange was inhabiting within the Orb is going to have to be chalked up to unreality, because otherwise we're left with no possible explanation for the body that Wong stands watch over. One other little tidbit worth noting is that, as Strange has observed, his consciousness has reinhabited a corpse--a body that had nearly bled out from the wound Dagger's knife gave him, yet which is now hale, hearty, and presumably ready to donate to the local blood bank. That Ancient One thinks of everything.

Regardless, the final confrontation arrives between Dagger and Strange--a face-off which includes Clea, who, in a nice touch by Englehart, is instructed by Strange to remain, in what we can assume is a teaching moment as Strange's disciple. It's a well-played ending to the story--though given Dagger's fervent belief in and devotion to his life's mission, and the fact that we haven't seen an ounce of regret or self-doubt in him (quite the contrary), perhaps he folds much too quickly in this final scene. On the other hand, we can assume that the Eye of Agamotto's intense gaze and scrutiny are nothing to scoff at, so his about-face here doesn't overly strain the scene's credibility. And all things considered, we end up with quite an appropriate fate for Dagger.

It would turn out that Strange underestimated his foe, who becomes quite the menace in later Doctor Strange tales (and elsewhere) and brushes off whatever misgivings the Eye of Agamotto forced him to admit to himself.  What the heck was in that hookah, anyway?

Doctor Strange #5

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


B Smith said...

"Now excuse me. Nature calls."

That's got to be a first in comics, surely?

Anonymous said...

I hadn't seen this issue before, and it explains a lot, because I never really got what the deal was with this Silver Dagger guy before. Just seemed like a lunatic with a knife, to me!
But it is kind of interesting, and the Dagger's origin certainly has parallels with that of Dr. Strange: disappointment and failure in life followed by a spiritual search. Of sorts.
Can't say enough good things about Brunner, here. Wow! He was Neal Adams good! And maybe a bit more fluid and inventive, too.

Comicsfan said...

That's an interesting perspective on Dagger in regard to his story being similar to that of Strange, M.P.--each of their career paths looking so promising, only to have their lives upended by events beyond their control (political vs. accidental, respectively). From there, one's mind becomes more closed, and the other opens more fully. They seem to be natural enemies, don't they?

Big Murr said...

I only kept this slice of Dr. Strange lore because of the fine artwork. (which, to me, not only favours a comparison to Neal Adams, but with a dash of Jim Starlin as well. Maybe that's only due to the surreal mindscape requirements of the story)

Most Dr. Strange stories are done by writers lacking a clear vision of the Sorcerer Supreme. They layer on thick layers of poetical adjectives and ignore any requirements of organized consistency for the character. Most issues became more a stoner describing a really groovy dream than any readable story.

Comicsfan said...

In that case, I can easily recommend Roger Stern's time on the book, Murray--you won't be disappointed. :)

Big Murr said...

Thanks for the tip!

In that regard, I'm quite enjoying the latest run on the master of the mystical arts by Mark Waid.