Friday, November 11, 2016

Let There Be Victory!

With the Doctor Strange film now a week into its run, it's a pleasure to take you back in time over fifty years and present one of the character's classic struggles against two of his most implacable foes. And while you won't find buildings folding in on themselves in this tale, you will find that writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko spared no effort in presenting a 3-issue adventure that dazzles the eyes as well as the mind--all to be had at the staggering cost of 12¢ per copy, and all without using a single pixel of CGI.

We'll see here the culmination of an extended story that took place over several issues of Strange Tales in 1965, where Baron Mordo was menacing both Strange and the Ancient One. Mordo has become even more dangerous, having formed an alliance with a powerful sorcerer from another dimension who has been funneling mystic might to him and thus made him a more formidable enemy for Strange to face. After evading Mordo's pursuit of him in a global manhunt, Strange returns to find that Mordo has managed to capture the Ancient One, raising the stakes in this conflict considerably. For his part, Strange has been following a vague lead that will hopefully give him an advantage in the coming battle--a mysterious entity he must find, known as Eternity. In the interim, Strange has discovered the identity of Mordo's new benefactor--none other than the dread Dormammu, whose added power makes Mordo virtually unbeatable.

We've previously seen the results of Strange's meeting with Eternity, where Eternity declined to provide Strange with the extra power he needed to prevail. Now, Strange is forced to confront his two greatest enemies in order to save the life of the Ancient One and end their threat. But Strange is well aware of the very real possibility that he may be able to accomplish neither, and that his own life may be forfeit.

And so Strange girds himself for what may be his final battle. His only advantage is that Dormammu is bound by an earlier oath not to attack Strange directly (more on that later), and so he must remain in his own dimension while taking advantage of a loophole that allows him to use his might to help someone else defeat Strange. Given Mordo's hatred of Strange, the difference may be moot; on the other hand, Strange need only focus his attention on one man, though he now wields incredible power.

Obviously moments of tense confrontation oblige current-day sorcerers to revert to archaic speech that was dying out around 1650. But let's not kick the man when he's down--Strange could simply be trying to intimidate Mordo with august bravado.

As for Mordo, this has been a long time coming for him, as he's said. He has every reason to expect to triumph over Strange in this meeting, and Ditko presents a face-off panel that once again has these two settling an old score that dates back to Strange supplanting Mordo as the Ancient One's disciple.

(And quite a nice touch to the story by Lee, bringing to our attention the fact that the world doesn't even know its fate is likely being decided in this chamber at this very moment.)

As the battle begins, it becomes almost immediately apparent that Mordo is counting on the sheer might of his new power to do his work for him--and so he becomes increasingly frustrated by Strange's decision to fight a mostly defensive battle, as he waits to take advantage of any error in judgment that Mordo might make.

Unfortunately, Mordo is correct when he boasts that his attacks will only grow stronger, and Strange finds that he must take the initiative in this battle or fall. And so he resorts to a combination of deception and misdirection in order to gain time to recover; but when the strategy proves successful, Dormammu grows impatient with Mordo's mishandling of his additional power, and he takes matters into his own hands.

With Mordo's teeth pulled, it remains for Dormammu to take control of this fight personally. Yet the steps he takes are unusual, given that Dormammu was on board with Mordo as far as overwhelming Strange with their superior power. In the new scenario he chooses, he abandons that decision and inserts himself and Strange into an arena-like contest--complete with an audience of other-dimensional rulers, as well as weaponry known as:

In addition, before leaving his own dimension, Dormammu has also used a sleep potion to incapacitate the Mindless Ones, the powerful brutes who constantly seek to invade and wreak havoc with Dormammu's realm by making repeated attempts to pound through the mystic barrier that Dormammu has raised to prevent their passage. Once they're unconscious from the potion, Dormammu drops the barrier in order to conserve his power for the coming battle with Strange. Which begs the question: If Dormammu can put the Mindless Ones to sleep indefinitely, why not do so and leave the barrier down? The barrier being compromised was, after all, the reason Dormammu was forced to capitulate to Strange and accept Strange's terms for ending their prior conflict, due to Strange's help in reinforcing the barrier:

Though when it came time to join forces with Mordo, Dormammu would interpret that oath quite differently:

The subtle alterations were apparently necessary for Lee to create this dimensional conduit between Mordo and Dormammu; otherwise, Dormammu could have appeared on Earth himself and attacked Strange in tandem with Mordo, as long as he didn't invade Earth in the process. And as for Clea's safety, Dormammu would ignore that part of the oath after... but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Now that Dormammu has issued his new challenge, we hear the other part of his unusual conditions, involving the so-called pincers of power.

The key to the pincers' use is how adaptable they are in combat, shifting their links depending on how their user wishes to clamp or hold their target in place (thus the pincing). Dormammu will still have a considerable edge, given his superior strength--but since Strange has trained in the martial arts, how the fight plays out will be interesting to watch, and by no means a slam-dunk for Dormammu.

Nevertheless, Dormammu proves to be a credible threat in this match, aggressively and relentlessly attacking Strange and forcing him to constantly counter. But the contrast in styles between the two is as it should be. Dormammu is arrogant and driven by both anger and malevolence, and either knows nothing of far East methods of combat or chooses to disregard them--while Strange is forced to be more observant of his foe's movements in order to take advantage of any openings and press his attack when the time is right. Yet both men are conscious of how the pincers can be used to attain victory, given the right combination of moves.

Eventually, though, Strange has the opening he needs, and seems on the verge of prevailing--a development not lost on Mordo, all but forgotten by the rest of the crowd who are riveted to the match. And when all might appear to be lost, he decides on a rash move in order to regain favor with his former ally.

There are obviously a few ways this could play out:

  • There is no judge here to cry "Foul!"--there is only Dormammu, who could raise his own hand in triumph, regardless of the circumstances;
  • The Ancient One could decry Mordo's act, insisting that he was a witness to it and that Dormammu should forfeit (yes, good luck with that);
  • Dormammu could agree to a compromise: No victor is declared, with Strange and the Ancient One free to return to Earth, but the oath that Strange extracted from Dormammu that protects Earth is nullified.

It turns out to be Option #1 that occurs, but only to a point. But whatever happens from here, we can all probably agree that it won't be good for Mordo.

And so the match is renewed. Strange can probably thank the Ancient One for blunting the force of Mordo's spell so that he was only stunned; in fact, it gives him an idea for how he'll proceed from this point on. He decides on a ruse to make Dormammu believe that his opponent is so weakened that he can barely continue the fight, and it succeeds--Dormammu grows careless and reckless, all the while believing that Strange is on the verge of collapse. At the proper time, however, Strange makes his play--and history is made.

A definitive victory for Dr. Strange, against an immortal enemy whose power is off the scale but has nevertheless been soundly defeated by an Earth sorcerer's disciple. It's a good thing there's no press in Dormammu's "Dark Dimension," because the morning headlines would be brutal. And because of the nature of this match's audience, the news of Strange's triumph will ripple across the dimensions.

Still, Strange must still be a little punch drunk, because he ends up making Dormammu swear to the same oath he was already abiding by:

No doubt Dormammu will (and does) find ways to skirt around his oath in the future--and he's already started. Soon after Strange and the Ancient One return to Earth, Dormammu decides to ignore the part of his previous oath that specified that he'd never harm Clea; instead, he's meting out "justice" by banishing her for treason because she wanted to alert Strange to Mordo's treachery during the match. Nobody can throw a bucket of water on a victory celebration like Dormammu, that's for sure.

As our own press continues to give the good word to the Doctor Strange release, do feel free to explore and enjoy a few of the other posts here at the PPC that feature the Master of the Mystic Arts.

A stunning depiction of the good doctor by artist Mike Deodato.

Strange Tales #s 139-141

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils and Inks: Steve Ditko
Letterers: Artie Simek and Sam Rosen

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