Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Clothes Make The Sorcerer Supreme

There have been noteworthy reinterpretations of Marvel characters handled by writer Warren Ellis (e.g., Moon Knight, Thor)--efforts which often meet with mixed reactions from readers, but are undeniably thought-provoking nonetheless. Likewise, there has been no dearth of reboots for the character of Doctor Strange, whose powers have been adjusted nearly as often as those of the Scarlet Witch and whose physical appearance has been subject to the whims of both time and sales. It seemed inevitable, then, that both Ellis and Strange would cross paths--as they do in 1995, when Strange was badly in need of a new direction in both his fictional life and his title, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme, which had reached its eightieth issue. Along with his skills as a writer, Ellis often brings a healthy dose of the unexpected to his projects--and in his work with artists Mark Buckingham and Kev Sutherland, the '95 reintroduction of Strange surely excels in that.

Ellis's stop on Doctor Strange would be all too brief, almost immediately turning over scripting of his plot to a guest writer, followed by J.M. DeMatteis being assigned as the book's regular writer. But he leaves an imprint on Strange that's both amusing and intriguing--a welcome breath of fresh air following the floundering of the character in previous issues. Strange returns to Earth after 1,000 years fighting in a war at the request of the Vishanti--though only aging a year, with the Vishanti arranging for him to arrive on Earth just four months after he'd left.

Unfortunately, the Vishanti haven't shaved off the ravages of 1,000 years in the trenches--and Strange's homecoming is something of a wake-up call for him, as well as a trying experience for those whose services he requires.

Soon enough, Strange is putting himself in order--and Ellis uses the time to both ease current readers into the changes that the character is undergoing, and to bring new readers up to speed on what this unkempt man has been through and why they're seeing a different person emerge as a result.

With Strange's recent history now settled, he turns to the matter of investing himself with a new source of power, a process that he has already prepared for with his research into a rare celestial event that he hopes to tap into. At this point we have to shrug our shoulders and simply allow ourselves to be swept along in the writer's thinking, since this method of accumulating mystic power is all new ground for Strange--and whatever forces that manifest might seem far-fetched as a substitute for what readers were familiar with.

How curious, however, that Strange gives no passing thought to his years of study which led him to become the "Master of the Mystic Arts," studies which were seemingly wasted effort now that he's starting from scratch and can no long resort to abilities granted on behalf of the Vishanti, or Cytorrak, or Munnopor, or the other mystic sources that comprised his standing as the Ancient One's successor. The rite he undergoes now seems as simple as connecting the dots and drawing a logical conclusion as a means to an end: "Around and above him, events trigger events, coincidences make change, life moves like dominos, little catastrophes of probability. What is magic? In the final analysis, magic is simply change--little catastrophes." This new form of magic sounds much like the kid brother of "chaos magic" which Strange would later scoff at*--though perhaps it's more accurate to say that it's the polar opposite of such magic. I.e., the power to manipulate the forces of coincidence and change, rather than letting them run rampant.

*See Avengers #503, though Strange would encounter chaos magic for real much earlier when DeMatteis takes over his book. Somebody owes the Scarlet Witch one heck of an apology.

That leaves Strange's striking new appearance to deal with--and what appears to be a subtle nod to former Strange artist Steve Ditko. (Can you spot it?)

Strange's makeover would take him through the end of the book's run, which unfortunately turned out to be after just ten more issues. But while this would mark the end of a regular series for him until the next century, there's more late '90s Dr. Strange goodness coming our way.

Doctor Strange #80

Script: Warren Ellis
Pencils: Mark Buckingham
Inks: Kev Sutherland
Letterer: Pat Brosseau

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