Robot 6

The Fifth Color | Strange Tales Lose Their Strangeness

New Avengers #51

New Avengers #51

I always knew it would take a Brian Bendis story (do I use his middle name anymore? It’s like John Cougar, isn’t it?) to really get me back in the fight again.

Okay, New Avengers #51 has put a battered Stephen Strange at our feet and in that last image, I had the sinking feeling that he was asking for OUR help. A character who had sadly been taken to the sidelines and given the worst possible albatross-title of ‘Deux ex Machina,’ Doctor Strange literally sat out Civil War and was shoehorned into the

New Avengers as Swiss Army Knife and Guy Who’s Place We Hang Out At, and this is where the problem started. Using such an amazing character to house the Avengers and toss out a couple illusions was a waste and started a habit of looking at the Sorcerer Supreme as a disposable entity. Who doesn’t have a holo-emitter in the MU? Plus, Iron Fist buying them a new home after Strange takes off makes the Sanctum Sanctorum and mastering the mystic arts kinda… meh.

The very issue we find out he got the boot from being Sorcerer Supreme, Stephen Strange tells a young Billy Kaplan that the job of the Sorcerer Supreme is to see the forest for the trees, the greater, grander picture that all these alien invasions and crises fit into. It’s not that these Big Tent Events get in the way of someone who’s Mystic Arts Inclined, it’s that they are only drops of water in a ginormus pond mere mortals can’t fathom. It’s why everyone with a mask doesn’t act as protector of our plane of existence and why that job solely remains with the Big Sorcerer Cheese. In the back of Stan Lee Meets Doctor Strange (hey, work with me here), there’s a reprint of Marvel Premiere #3 and what caught my eye (aside from the stellar Barry Windsor-Smith art) is that in this story, Strange feels something out of tune with the universe. He goes through the story, crossing dimensions, pouring through mystical energies, looking under rocks, and not only does he not find it, but I AM SO ENTHRALLED BY THIS HUNT. What kind of story just says “Well… something’s weird” and then entertains you for pages on end? A tale of a man who’s entire sphere of influence is just incomprehensible. Where seeing the world through his eyes is a treat for the imagination.

Doctor Strange: The Oath

Doctor Strange: The Oath

At the same time Strange was having Avengers sleepovers at the Sanctum Sanctorum (oh ha, it’s disguised as a coming Starbucks), Brian K. Vaughn was discovering the true beauty of handling a character with phenomenal mystical powers in Doctor Strange: The Oath. Joe Quesada himself has complained that having Strange in the Marvel U makes trouble too easy to thwart. Where’s the challenge if you can just wave your hand and make it all disappear? Vaughn proves how utterly wrong that idea is by taking all that power and more and putting it to test under the most human of motivations. The power to cure all of mankind’s diseases… or save Wong’s life. How does someone cope when the problem is taken from the large and unfathomable to something more desperate and personable?

Doctor Strange is not going to handle your problems. He’s not going to wave his hand and make the Civil War stop (though really, I’m starting to get the ugly feeling that he did). Helping you personally is a moral challenge for him. Just look at the Defenders! The Defenders consist of four people who SHOULD NEVER WORK WITH ANYONE IN THE HISTORY OF EVER. Keith Giffen tried to bwah-ha-ha’edly tell us this in his mini with DeMatteis and really, just look at the roster. All of these people are incredibly powerful in their own right and even they can’t make it together as a team.

This is how Real Ultimate Power is handled, not by defining it and putting down rules and regulations, but by making the difficulty something beyond guys robbing banks or even invading alien nations. Just as the Sorcerer Supreme’s job encompasses where humans fear to tread, so should the stories. The idea of replacing Stephen Strange as Sorcerer Supreme hits me where it hurts, just as losing Bruce Banner as a viable character in the Hulk book did. Both are cases of lining up new entertainment when what has come before is just as relevant today. All of the tools to tell great stories are all there within what’s come before. LEGOS are awesome, you don’t need Duplo blocks.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Bendis does adore his curveballs and he’s put one over on us before. This Battle for the… the… Sanctum? (if a Cowl could be a House of Incredible Magical Power and All the Goodies Therein) could just lead us back to the beginning with a Stephen Strange whose not only won his rightful title back, but the hearts of fans as well, but who am I kidding? History has shown us that, love it or hate it, “new” sells comics (it’s why they keep tacking it onto book titles). While no one wants to hamper anyone’s creativity when it comes to character development, I just wish we didn’t have to completely dismantle characters in order to catch people’s attention. It happened to the Avengers, to Spider-Woman, and now Strange is next.

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Comments

12 Comments

Hey, holy shit–this is your first one back, right? Good to have you!

I’m so happy that I totally disagree with you about a chunk of this. I really want to get in it with you, but it’s just awesome to know your back with the exact opposite reaction to Bendis comics as I do. Have you been following Mightygodking’s series of strange stories at his site. They are interesting and line up with some of what you are saying http://mightygodking.com/index.php/category/comics/i-should-write-dr-strange/ .

Again it’s awesome to have you back.

That’s how I’ve always seen Dr. Strange – his enemies (Dormammu, etc.) have always been something more than just something that threatens a single individual but a whole sphere of influence beyond what the average man can comprehend. Even his dealings with Dracula and the Darkhold (and Chthon as a result) had implications far beyond anything we would ever imagine, and that made the stories enjoyable, at least for me.

Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel (and even Quasar to an extent) are unique to Marvel because they give the Marvel Universe protectors who look at the larger picture, and remove themselves from events where their presence would have the least amount of impact.

Carla Hoffman, YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY CORRECT.

DOWN with BENDIS and QUESADA-HEAD!!

Quesada-Head? What the fuck does that even mean?

You nailed it here. The problem isn’t that the character is too powerful, it’s that writers have a hard time conceiving formidible adversaries or difficult situations. It’s the writers that are the problem.

“The Oath” was a good read. And I liked the series where he teamed up with Dead Girl. There seem to be some characters like strange that are difficult to sustain monthly ongoing books, but seem to do well (story-wise) in contained tales that don’t have to connect to anything else too much. If they could do a 4-issue monthly mini-series of Strange every year or so where he has to deal with something cosmic -scaled that no one else can deal with, that would be fine with me. I have no idea how these other books sold so maybe I’m alone on this.

Also, what ever happened to Night Nurse? I thought they were dating or something? That was a great team-up idea.

jocutus said : “You nailed it here. The problem isn’t that the character is too powerful, it’s that writers have a hard time conceiving formidible adversaries or difficult situations. It’s the writers that are the problem.”

Carla (WELCOME BACK!) nailed it, and so did you jocutus (of borg?)… This jumping off a bit but it seems to me that this is the same problem that plagues Superman over at the Distinguished Competition, a problem that causes them to wimp Big Blue out, power him down to the point where he’s no longer terribly “super,” have him lose his powers, let others save him, take him off the table (and even out of his own books). It seems like few, if anyone, writing for Supes have any idea how to let him just be freakin’ awesome and still write compelling stories.

So it is for Dr. Strange. I’m not terribly familiar with him, aside from his troubling last few years starting with Civil War and continuing on through New Avengers. I’ve wanted to like Dr. Strange, but I’ve been unable to get a feel for what exactly makes him so special. I mean, “Sorcerer Supreme” sounds like powerful stuff but I never saw any of that. And now he’s…. Well, just what is he now?

Is “The Oath” collected in a trade? I may have to pick that up. I loves me some Brian Vaughan, so this seems like perfect read.

I agree with much that you have put forth here, and stated as much (and more) in some of my recent blog-posts devoted to the recent turn of events of Stephen Strange.

Feel free to check them out:

Setting the stage of everything that LED UP TO Dr. Strange’s situation in New Avengers # 51:
http://sanctumsanctorumcomix.blogspot.com/2009/03/search-for-nature-and-history-of_28.html

A review of New Avengers # 51 itself:
http://sanctumsanctorumcomix.blogspot.com/2009/03/search-for-nature-and-history-of_30.html

I have more coming on the subject of the SEARCH for, NATURE & HISTORY of the SORCERER SUPREME.
Those posts are forthcoming.

~P~
PTOR

Steven R. Stahl

April 12, 2009 at 8:27 am

If one looks back at Bendis’s history with Dr. Strange, he’ll see that the writer has mishandled Strange in virtually every appearance from “Avengers Disassembled” onward, getting his “power” (intricate hand gestures are unnecessary), personality, and the nature of sorcery in the Marvel Universe wrong in the process.

Quesada, Bendis, et al. should have remembered that Strange was depowered twice (1976 and 1993) because the people in place then thought that Strange was too difficult to use in stories. The 1993 depowering nearly broke the character concept because he became unable to invoke deities, but editor Marie Javins and writer Warren Ellis came up with a solution for the problem. It’s noteworthy that Strange effectively remained the Sorcerer Supreme during both depowered periods, because there was no Earthly character that came close to his knowledge of sorcery.

The reasons Bendis, et al., have offered for Strange’s problems aren’t valid, the proposed replacements as Sorcerer Supreme aren’t valid — Bendis seems insistent on viewing Strange through a warped lens, the mind of a crime fiction writer who wants to write a metaphysical character without dealing with the metaphysical. His vision for the Hood is identical to the idea of a crime kingpin (Dormammu) propping up another mobster in a separate territory, and has nothing to do with sorcery. If the Hood does become Bendis’s Sorcerer Supreme, the character will probably claim the Eye of Agamotto, although, per previous stories, the deity wouldn’t allow the Hood to have it, and would have taken it from Strange already if the mage had made himself unworthy of his “Sorcerer Supreme” status. Bendis, et al, are probably unaware that to use the Eye, Strange has to invoke Agamotto. It’s not a battery-powered gadget.

It’s strange to see the demolition of a character occurring in slow motion, while the personnel involved talk up their plans via publicity and press releases, with hardly anybody in a position of influence willing to tell Bendis, et al. that they don’t know what they’re doing and are in the process of making fools of themselves.

Dr. Strange might be a misplaced prose fiction hero. If he was handled by prose writers, the stories could be as cerebral as those of any F & SF character, and the pressure to make him visually interesting wouldn’t exist. The Englehart/Brunner stories were terrific, but they would have worked just as well as prose adventures.

SRS

I want to preface this by saying I am not a Bendis hater. I am a fan of books like Alias and to a lesser extent Ultimate Spider-Man. On the other hand, I have not been a fan of how he handled the Avengers franchise. Most of all, I feel he has completely mishandled and misunderstood the character of Doctor Strange.

To him, Doctor Strange seems to be a mere super hero with the “magic” power source. However, the best Doctor Strange stories have never portrayed him as fighting against mere physical threats. Moral quandaries and metaphysical concerns seem to fit him much better.

In any case, depowering him and stripping him of his title of Sorcerer Supreme do not seem like they will make Stephen Strange a more interesting or viable character. In fact, the opposite result seems likely.

Steven R. Stahl

April 14, 2009 at 5:58 am

The idea of there being an “evil” Sorcerer Supreme, or a Sorcerer Supreme who relies on minor deities is undercut by the existence of the Vishanti. The trinity has been described as omnipotent. It’s reasonable to believe that being able to invoke and effectively channel the energies of the Vishanti is a prerequisite for being the Sorcerer Supreme. While a sorcerer who invokes Satannish, Dormammu, et al., might do damage, he’s always susceptible to defeat.

The omnipotence of he Vishanti doesn’t ruin Strange as a character, since there are moral and philosophical situations where invoking the trinity wouldn’t resolve the issue. Handling the Strange-Vishanti relationship properly is a matter of Strange meeting a challenge by having faith in himself and in his gods, and validating himself and his purposes in life by invoking the Vishanti successfully. The classical (Englehart’s) Strange would never have landed in the situation Bendis has put him in — would never have resorted to the tactics Bendis had him resort to.

SRS

Steven R. Stahl

May 29, 2009 at 10:50 pm

All the predictions of mischaracterization and weak plotting that one might have cared to make about the “New Sorcerer Supreme” storyline in NEW AVENGERS have been fulfilled by NEW AVENGERS #53.

SRS

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