Friday, March 8, 2019

The Vengeance of the Devil Incarnate!

It's been almost six years since our PPC profile on Cyrus Black, the so-called "Devil Incarnate" who had so desperately sought to prove his mettle as a sorcerer by defeating Stephen Strange. Black's vendetta against Strange was originally set in motion by a contest which was held by the mystic known as Watoomb, who was retiring and wished to pass on his wand (i.e., the Wand of Watoomb) to a deserving adept. Both Strange and Black were contenders for the object, with each taking one-half of the wand and using it in battle against the other; yet while Strange prevailed that day, Black's half of the wand was later stolen by the sorcerer Xandu, leaving Strange with only his own half of it.

Demoralized but furious, Black sought to avenge his loss against Strange--a plan facilitated by Nightmare, who granted Black the power to make his dreams a reality. But when Black launched his attack, Strange's friends, the Defenders, were there to aid him, and Black once more met defeat when he realized his invincibility was only imagined.

So what's Black been up to since then? Simmering, for sure--still hungering for revenge, almost certainly. Retreating to Nightmare's dimension of dreams, Black was mentored by his host and, under his tutelage, increased his sorcerous knowledge and power until he progressed to the point when, finally, he was ready to carry out Strange's demise. Which brings us to April of 1979, and a story dedicated to Cyrus Black's long-awaited triumph (or so he expects).

To take Strange by surprise and arrange for his transport to Nightmare's dimension, Black once more made use of his rodent familiar, Nebuchadnezzar, to slip past Strange's defenses and abduct the magician. Obviously, Strange could stand to review the spells protecting his sanctum, if demon-rodents can just scurry in and out at will--but perhaps equally alarming from a typical home-dweller standpoint is that, for such a large structure in New York City, Strange's pest control appears to be nonexistent.

Or, put another way in light of Strange's predicament--"Rats!"

Oddly enough, however, it isn't Black who greets and faces Strange upon his arrival/"awakening," but Nightmare, with the story paying deference to the true architect of this scheme to destroy Strange. It remains somewhat puzzling why Nightmare at times chooses to work through others in his plans for Strange--he'd ally himself with Shuma-Gorath, for instance, when Strange was still being featured in the pages of Marvel Premiere--and five years later, his unknowing pawn would be the Hulk. Here, it's unclear why Nightmare would take Black under his wing and expend his time and effort in bolstering his sorcerous knowledge and power; in watching Nightmare's opening salvo against Strange, it seems clear that, on his home ground, he's more than capable of holding the advantage.

Yet, at last, we see Black make his appearance, to whom Nightmare has apparently passed the baton for carrying on and completing the attack against Strange--again, for reasons writer Ralph Macchio hasn't really substantiated. It's possible that Nightmare genuinely feels that his "protégé" can and will accomplish Strange's destruction, though so far we've only heard that assessment from Black.

Regardless, Black indeed gives a good accounting of himself--and the battle scenes by artist Tom Sutton are nicely paced and visually appealing. Sutton's collective work on Doctor Strange has already been acknowledged elsewhere in the PPC; and I dare say that neither Black nor Strange would raise any objection to their portrayal in this story. (And since Strange isn't doing so well so far, that's saying something!)

Yet because of Nightmare's impatience--or Black's insistence on seeing Strange suffer--Strange is given an opening to regain the initiative. And by now, he doubtless realizes where Black is most vulnerable: the futility of the direction that he's chosen for his life, a frame of mind revealed under the gaze of the Eye of Agamotto.

And yet, rejoining the fray, Nightmare is still insistent on Black taking the handoff and finishing Strange. Good grief, Nightmare--as many mortal dreams as you've eavesdropped on, and you still haven't heard of the adage, "If you want something done right, do it yourself"...

Macchio's parting thoughts for Strange, once he returns to his sanctum, are appropriately contemplative; but aside from Black's participation, Macchio has made this encounter something of a question mark where Nightmare is concerned, particularly in suddenly deciding to throw in the towel and dismiss Strange while being willing to write off all that he'd invested in Black and all the planning this must have taken just to bring this conflict about. In remarking that Black's death ended up having no meaning, how conveniently Nightmare neglects to mention the part he played in bringing that fate about.

Doctor Strange #34

Script: Ralph Macchio
Pencils: Tom Sutton
Inks: Craig Russell
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

It made sense to me that Nightmare often worked through others - doesn't he draw power from subconscious minds?

Anyway, haven't commented here before but thanks for the reminder about this one, Comicsfan - that really is an excellent cover by the mighty Rudy Nebres, and Tom Sutton and Craig Russell made a great Strange team.
All the more impressive as it was a fairly average story that felt a bit like filler (even if it was in the middle of an arc featuring Nightmare).


Comicsfan said...

Sean, you make a fair observation about the story seeming like filler; I went back and forth over making a similar point in the post, especially given the connection that Macchio seeks to make on the final page between Strange's "inner make-up" and that of Black if they had evolved under different circumstances. It seemed like an attempt to give the story more weight than it came away with, particularly in light of Strange's sudden dismissal by Nightmare--as if in Macchio's eyes Strange had served his purpose. That said, I did feel that the closure Black received here was sufficient to overlook its perceived shortcomings, though I must say that Strange had that entire final page to truly nail it.

As for Strange working through others, I suppose I was trying to make the distinction between tormenting his victims vs. taking advantage of their dreams, as he did with Eternity and the Hulk--whereas you and I, for example, have little to nothing to offer him other than satisfaction at the level of torment he could induce in us. In Black, of course, he has the advantage of working directly with his alert mind rather than benefiting from his dreams as he did previously.

Glad you enjoyed this run-down on the issue, sean, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on it! :D

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