…Stephen Strange, all of these four are you.
Welcome, Bloggers, to a little tutorial on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s second most famous creation that I didn’t really expect to have to give, but now see that I probably should. Because it seems there’s a lot of — ahem, can we just call it “modern mythology”? — there’s a lot of modern mythology out there about our good friend Dr. Strange, he of the ASL love-bombing and the flying-carpet opera cape. To wit:
Myth #1: Dr. Strange is an awesome character, but no one can seem to make him work properly.
This is of course a bald-faced lie. The list of creators who’ve written and drawn an absolutely brilliant Dr. Strange is a very, very long one, and it isn’t getting any shorter: didn’t we just see a couple different great Doc interpretations in the last couple of years, in fact? The very idea is absurd — making Dr. Strange work is almost as easy as finding an audience that thinks he’s an awesome character. Fred Hembeck does an excellent Dr. Strange, for heaven’s sake! So let us dismiss this myth right out of hand, Bloggers: there’s no evidence for it.
(And hey: no knock on Fred — he is, after all, the Patron Saint of Comics Bloggers. In fact I call upon him to draw a magic circle or pentagram or something ’round this post to protect it from inauthentic influences…)
Myth #2: Dr. Strange, though an awesome character, is too vaguely omnipowerful; he would work better if he had a clearly-defined power-set that marked out what he couldn’t do.
Well, this is simply Heroclix talk. In fact the few Dr. Strange runs that haven’t worked have been just those that strove to bring some top-down regulation to what Doc can and can’t do — to rationalize the rules of his magic beyond the way it’s been depicted in past stories. No, he can’t do just any old thing; yes, he can do an awful lot nevertheless. But in this way he’s no different from, say, Iron Man: like all comics characters, he lives in an envelope of ability that the necessities of plot must often push — and just like any other character, whatever the writer and artist can come up with for him to do, he can do that. And some writers and artists make plot choices that are not quite as good as some other writers and artists might make, but that isn’t Doc’s fault! Anyway, a poorer choice by one writer is easily corrected by the better choice of a later one — the lesson being, no off-the-cuff mistake in a forty-year old character’s development can ever be a mistake that must stick. It might not always make for the best comics. Depending on its context, it may seem to legitimize further poor choices by later writers (for example, Dr. Strange’s appearances in “What If?” have rarely done well by the character, instead trying to make him into some other character, of lesser interest, and for no good reason)…but in comics, no fumble is (or at least, no fumble should be) unrecoverable. For a character like Dr. Strange especially, it’s only when the walls of context start closing in, and are not stopped, when the death-trap becomes inescapable.
Myth #3: Dr. Strange, though he’s an awesome character, can’t support a solo title as he is; to work better, he at least needs some sort of modification.
Are you noticing that whole “he doesn’t work; he needs to work better” thing yet, Bloggers? I suppose the underlying idea here is that a “working” character is a character who brings home the bacon to his publisher — doesn’t really matter how good the stories are, if the character doesn’t connect with a reasonably large audience, there’s something wrong with him, that needs fixing. In other words, if you build it, they will come; and if they’re not coming, that must be because you didn’t build it.
But this underlying idea is only a cloak of concealment (you’ll pardon me) for another underlying idea, isn’t it? Comics publishers of the past (we should know!) have had no compunctions whatever about changing characters, even changing them drastically, in an effort to grab more readers. That happens all the time, really; it’s part of the game. So why has this never happened before with Dr. Strange?
Answer: historically, there’s been no need for Marvel to screw with the Doc basics, because his appearances have in fact supported sales very well. Not all the time, of course: but then no one ever said every character would be a Spider-Man or a Hulk…or a Wolverine. Or even a (remember those days?) a Ghost Rider. Doc, however, has in the past successfully supported back-up features, solo titles, and team books very adequately for the second-stringer that he is. Also, he’s been the site of some incredibly skilled storytelling, that not only generated a loyal fan-base but even proved attractive to new readers. Doc, in his particular literary niche, is a success story…and he’s been a success story outside it, too, sometimes. The Spider-Man numbers are never coming, but for what Doc is…well, he’s a hell of a performer.
Myth #4: Even though he’s an awesome character, it’s hard to use Dr. Strange in the larger context of the Marvel Universe; if he’s fighting Dormammu in his own book, that’s one thing, but as soon as you put him on a team, his basically-unlimited power makes it difficult to write good team stories, because he overshadows the other characters so much that you basically have to have him be knocked unconscious once an issue.
Corollary: If other characters are having problems with, say, magical menaces, why don’t they just call in Dr. Strange? You’re trying to tell me Reed Richards doesn’t have him on speed-dial, or something? It’s just silly.
May I take this opportunity to mention how much I hate the “Hero X calls in favours from all the other heroes to get them to help him with his (say) Aunt’s illness, dead teammate, magic curse, whatever”? Because I really detest that fannish idea of “Why don’t they just call Brother Voodoo?” Well, maybe Brother Voodoo’s busy doing something else, okay? Not that this can’t be handled delicately; it can. But we’ve seen that before, and it always ends the same way: having exhausted every other Marvel character, only to find none of them can help, the hero ends up turning to Dr. Doom, only to have him offer them a Faustian bargain. Which they enter into, but then wriggle out of, only to find the answer is no further away than their own back yard, or something. But you can’t make a fetish out of this sort of thing — how many times do we need to see it, for God’s sake? In my memory it’s been done exactly three times well (a No-Prize from the Aged Genghis is yours if you can guess which times I mean); and enough, I say, is enough. Official continuity has many rots, but this one’s the rottiest: “why wouldn’t so-and-so just call up…?” Gharrrrr. Yes, if it’s a genuine possibility, it needs to be addressed, plot-wise. No, that doesn’t mean the plot should involve going and seeing all the people that should be able to help, only to have them say “I’m so sorry, but…” Clearly this is just another cloak of concealment, that hides a fan’s contempt (and there is nothing quite like a fan’s contempt, I’m sure you’ll agree) for his own trashy enthusiasm. Once again the walls of context close in, like a death-trap, but this time there really is no way out…the Abomination simply hires someone to plug Bruce Banner in the back of the head with a high-powered rifle.
Problem solved, I guess.
I mean any writer ought to be able to write themselves around such questions. If they don’t, it means they didn’t want to.
But on to Myth #4 proper:
Actually you can have Doc knocked unconscious, if you need to. Hell, sometimes he’s been knocked unconscious in his own book. Again it’s a question of what gets written, and why: and the idea that a writer’s only solution to Doc’s limitless magical whim-whams is to have him knocked out without sufficient cause, that is without an efficient and integral dramatic justification for his unconsciousness, is to me as much as to complain that Doc is too hard a character for unimaginative writers to make stuff up for. Knock him out, if you must; after all, that’s a whole lot better than portraying him as incompetent. But don’t ask for training wheels when so many other creators have found themselves quite up to the challenge of grappling with this very same difficulty. The Defenders premiered in the early Seventies or something, and we haven’t run short of workarounds yet.
This is what the logicians call question-begging, actually. Circular reasoning: “if Doc is so powerful that he can’t be written well in a team setting, how can we write him well in a team setting?” Yes: this certainly begs the question, doesn’t it? My God, if this isn’t begging then I don’t know what is.
Because the answer is to write it so that it isn’t a problem, isn’t it.
And I’d say “Nuff Said”, here, but…
As it happens, there is a problem with Dr. Strange, Bloggers.
Have you guessed it yet?
Put simply, it’s that Dr. Strange is an awesome character.
That’s the problem right there. No, really. Because, let me ask you, if Dr. Strange were not such an awesome character, would:
Reality #1: Writers (both good and bad) not be more capable of staying away from him?
Reality #2: Every attempt at “updating” him have not been met with something more forgiving than the resounding yawns/guffaws/death threats these attempts have traditionally attracted?
Reality #3: The attempt to turn him into just one more Superpowered Guy not have resulted in enormously increased sales?
Reality #4: Every Doc story that attracted editorial re-writing mandates not have immediately spiralled into awful, sudden crap, shedding readers by the boatload and effectively killing the title?
Marvel would love to have a thriving Dr. Strange title, you see. But that’s only because Dr. Strange is an awesome character that writers and artists simply can’t resist using in their other titles. Interest in Dr. Strange will always be high, because of this. He’ll always be high-profile. He’ll never fade away. But, he can also never be revamped, without losing the awesomeness.
And this presents a problem, I think. Thankfully Marvel has never gone the route that DC went with Dr. Fate in the Nineties, turning him into Wolverine (or maybe just Moon Knight) with a magic pig-sticker and a bad attitude. Those days, at least, are gone. But the problem — the Nineties problem, if you will — of what to do with Dr. Strange still remains.
How do you prove he needs updating, even though he doesn’t?
I’d thought of writing a little bit more on this, here, but…doorways, you know? Not to repeat myself (and others), but maybe I’ve opened too many of them already.
So come on in, Bloggers: let’s have a spirited discussion about it, if we can. Be It Resolved: Dr. Strange Is An Awesome Character, Who Consequently Needs And Deserves An Awesome Creative Team…!
Otherwise, why bother touching him at all?
Be it resolved: in these days of advanced editorial control, of extreme top-down mandated organization and approval, Dr. Strange may be a character that no longer fits with the comics company he was born in. And yet, there’s no way for them to leave him alone. So essentially, Marvel and Doc are at war. And who knows who’ll win?
But I’ll wager a Golden Globule on the human interloper, myself.
How ’bout you?