Dr. Strange: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love this Character

May-16-08

I am a huge Dr. Strange fan. Considering that he’s been around the Marvel Universe since the early 1960s, that he’s been published on a semi-regular basis since then, and that he’s been a member of both the Defenders and Avengers, one might think that many people agree with me. However, it’s the “semi-regular” publishing schedule above that seems to be the problem. Dr. Strange has had numerous series, but seems unable to sustain one that lasts much past 100 issues. When one looks at the talent that have worked on these series, including such respected writers as Roy Thomas, Roger Stern, J.M. DeMatteis and Warren Ellis, as well as such popular artists as Butch Guice, Paul Smith and Mark Buckingham, it causes one to stop and think. Why doesn’t he enjoy enough popularity to at least keep a series going? And how can one reposition him to be a character that can keep a series going?

Part of the problem with Dr. Strange, I believe, is that he is a sorcerer. I’m not sure if I can explain why this is, but it seems that most magical characters have trouble maintaining a popular following. I would say this is true for any magic-based character in any superhero universe. Strange’s counterpart at DC, Dr. Fate, has the same sporadic publishing schedule as Strange. No other magic-based hero in either universe seems to have made even that much of a splash. Marvel includes such characters as Talisman, Shaman, Dr. Druid and even, to an extent, the Scarlet Witch, and none of these characters has ever been able to carry a series. In many ways, one might think that DC would have better luck with such characters. DC has the Vertigo imprint, which has often focused on magical worlds and characters, but even their premiere magical hero, Tim Hunter, has never been able to sustain a series. In their mainstream universe, Shadowpact, a series with many magical characters, also failed to survive. What is it about magical characters that seems to turn off readers? Or are these results typical of many comics published in the major superhero universes, and they have nothing to do with the magical nature of their stars? After all, a lot of comics characters have had problems maintaining an ongoing series. Still, when you compare Strange to his other contemporaries of that time in Marvel, and look at the track record of his original creators (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the co-creators of Spider-Man), it certainly doesn’t look like you want to be a magic-based hero in the Marvel Universe.

I’ve read and loved Dr. Strange stories from the sixties through the current decade, and some of the runs on the character have been brilliant. I have to mention (as I seem to mention him in every thread) that Roger Stern did one of the best runs on Dr. Strange in his publishing history, particularly the storyline where Dr. Strange goes up against Dracula and attempts to destroy all the vampires in the world. Truly remarkable storytelling. There have also been times in Strange’s publishing history when even I was ready to drop the book; Geof Isherwood, you were a great penciler, but I’m not sure you were ready to write the series. But again, can’t this be said of any character that’s existed for as long as Strange has? What is it about the successful times that works for Strange?

One of the things that I feel every successful comic series truly needs is a supporting cast. Many times, Dr. Strange doesn’t really have one. We always have Wong, his faithful manservant….and that’s often it. Roy Thomas gave Strange perhaps the largest supporting cast, with an apprentice, Wong’s fiancee, an undead brother, two female friends, a business manager, and Strange’s girlfriend Clea. I think that’s one of the reasons that Thomas’ run on Strange (which Thomas wrote with his wife) is so successful; there’s a community within the book, and lots of characters to interact. One of the other things the Thomases did was to bring Strange down to the level of mere mortals. I think part of the reason that Strange can be difficult for some people to like is that he isn’t really very….normal. I know, I know, who is normal in a superhero universe, but if we pick someone like Peter Parker (the typical example) he’s someone that the reader can relate to. He has the same problems, fears and speech patterns that we do. No one thinks or talks or acts like Stephen Strange. He’s truly in his own little world. Now, for some readers, that’s probably a plus, as it makes him more interesting, but I imagine for every person that prefers Strange be offputting and odd, another three find him cold and unrelatable.

I think another part of the problem is that Strange is a more cerebral hero. While cerebral heroes can be popular (both Mr. Fantastic and Professor X have been around for some time), they don’t tend to headline their own titles. Most characters that do headline their own titles are action oriented. They have a problem, so they hit it. Or stab it. Or web it. Whatever they do, they take decisive action to neutralize it. While Strange can certainly hold his own in a fight, that’s not really what he’s about. He’s much more likely to find out about a problem which he can deal with, study it, research it, and then come up with a solution. That doesn’t always make for scintillating comics.

So, I’ve identified some of the problems with Strange and why it’s difficult to write him in a successful series. How about other ideas as to why his series don’t end well? Ideas on how to fix these problems?

Ah, good. This one is a bit more difficult to hammer out. I’ve also been a fan of Dr. Strange for a long time. I have a near-complete run of the original Strange Tales, a HUGE Defenders collection and mixed issues from pretty much every incarnation of Strange’s eponymous titles. That said, I can’t really put my finger on why I like the character. The sad thing is that it’s probably the costume that first drew me in. And the Steve Ditko style with the crazy hand gestures and psychedelic backgrounds.

If you look at the root of the character, he’s pretty much a jackass. Don’t know if you caught the direct-to-DVD cartoon that Marvel released last year, but it was pretty faithful to Strange’s origin…he’s a stuck-up surgeon who pities himself when he gets in a car accident that ruins his career. He goes on one of those “meaning of life” searches and climbs the proverbial (and literal) mountain to find the wise man. He’s selfish. He’s accustomed to a certain way of life. And he’s oh so lonely.

Obviously you’ve nailed one of the big problems with the character: his lack of a supporting cast. There have been times in his existence when he was surrounded by some interesting people…Wong is always good (check out Brian K. Vaughan’s The Oathminiseries with art by the Ditko-like Marcos Martin), he plays nice with the Night Nurse, and he and Spider-Man make a good Butch and Sundance team. I’ve never really cared for his pseudo-wife Clea or any of the assorted apprentices he took on. The challenge is that, by definition, the Sorcerer Supreme is fairly independent and doesn’t keep a big social calendar. There are about a billion artificial ways to surround him with “friends,” but none of them stays true to the basis of the character. Personally, I don’t like him as part of the Avengers for this very reason. There doesn’t seem to be any purpose to him being a part of the team (other than the fact that Bendis likes to write him). So that’s step one: how do we get him involved with others?

The other problem you mentioned goes to the core of his history. Magic doesn’t sell books. Even the folks at Marvel know this. Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada tackled this issue a couple years back in a Newsarama interview where he stated that “There are no rules to his universe and from a storytelling perspective that’s problematic.” Sorcery has no boundaries. Every conflict is solved just by the writer making something up out of the blue. Until we can attach some limits to what he can and cannot do (and, consequently, what his fellow magic-based allies and enemies can and cannot do), this problem will never go away. Because of this, Strange is often relegated to the corners of the Marvel Universe. He’s either dealing with the things that no one else is aware of or can’t deal with themselves. Or, he’s forced into an advisory role like his business card should say “Magical Consultant” or something.

Those are two big problems to work around and/or eliminate. Now, what are the strengths of Doctor Strange? What are the things that make him unique and interesting…besides his costume? I’ll start the discussion by offering these insights: 1. He has a unique perspective of the Marvel Universe, having teamed up with many different characters and visited locations and dimensions that others never even knew existed. 2. Vice-versa, his experiences have put him on a higher plane than many of the folks he engages with on a day-to-day basis (perhaps he feels more comfortable around individuals like Silver Surfer and Thor as opposed to everyday folks like Captain America and the tech-based Iron Man). 3. His background provides creators a lot of leeway when it comes to creative foes and abilities.

And, as a beginning storyline, I think there’s something to the idea of finding the source of magic power in the Marvel Universe and organically placing rules and limitations on how it is used. Thoughts?

You’re quite correct when you say that Strange has teamed up with a large proportion of the Marvel Universe. When anything magical effects someone’s life in their title, it’s almost a guarantee that Strange will be present. He’s the go-to magic guy and it’s given him exposure to a great number of heroes. That being said, does that work as a hook for his own book? (And I’m not saying that I thought you were suggesting it, as I don’t think you were….I’m just working through some of the points you mentioned.) Of course, it really doesn’t work that way. Marvel tried that basic idea with their Secret Defenders series in the ’90s, when Strange gathered a group of heroes to him in every issue to go fight something that Strange had detected, but didn’t want to deal with on his own. Unfortunately, not only is that not much of a Dr. Strange book, it’s not much of a book at all, with no strong storyline running more than a few issues. Marvel also seemed to try to make Strange’s book a team-up book itself during the Thomas’ run, when they had a guest star every issue (which was made even worse by crossing over constantly with ever single Infinity Whatever miniseries that was currently being released). Basically, those issues turned Strange into a guest star in his own book, and that didn’t work either.

I certainly think that he relates better to fellow mystics and to more powerful beings than he does your run of the mill superhero (and I agree that he does not fit into the Avengers at all. His inclusion on the team is made even more non-sensical because he refused to get involved in the Civil War, but is now suddenly fine with taking a side and fighting this fight. Great timing Strange, but you’re a little late as the war is over. Perhaps, had you gotten involved sooner, you could have helped to give the war a different ending…). I’d also venture to suggest that your typical superhero isn’t too comfortable around him. Yes, he’s at all of the big crossovers, and he’s often a relatively important figure in them, but he’s also aloof from most of the heroes he encounters. But how can we make this work in a series?

Perhaps a team-up series is what is needed, but not one in the traditional sense. Perhaps a new apprentice is needed, but someone both expected and unexpected. What if we started a series with Dr. Strange training his new apprentice, the Scarlet Witch? In current Marvel continuity, Wanda has been depowered and is living a peaceful life. However, it’s a sure bet that her enemies will find her, and they won’t be too pleased with her. Since she doesn’t have her hex powers, she’ll need to find a way to defend herself. She’s shown an aptitude for magic before, so what if she were to decide that magic is a path she should pursue, to defend herself from those who would do her harm. She and Strange have always been shown to be somewhat close and I think Strange relates to her better than he does to most heroes. Would he train her? I think he would, if she asked, especially when you consider that Wanda has proven herself mentally unstable, so the discipline that magic demands of one would be the perfect way to help Wanda gain control over her mental difficulties (plus, if she did start to slip again, you’d have Strange right there to contain the situation).

This gives us someone who is not a novice in magic, but also someone who has never really delved deep into its secrets, staying with Strange. Wanda could serve, to an extent, as the eyes of the audience, learning things as we do. Although only one other person in the cast (which would include Strange and Wong), she should provide enough of a contrasting personality to make for some interesting interactions around the Sanctum Sanctorum. Plus, Wanda also has ties to the superhero community, which could force Strange to sometimes deal with other heroes, which would be a great way to express how removed he is from the typical do-gooder. If Hawkeye or Wonder Man swing by the Sanctum to chat with Wanda, how do Strange and Wong deal with them? Is there anyway these people can relate to each other?

That’s just one idea. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on other Strange pitches, or on this one.

The Scarlet Witch is a great way to organically include some of the superhero community in a Dr. Strange title. And she seems like a good fit, especially playing off her mental instability. I think it would be a great set-up to have Strange take her in and then she makes up an entire relationship (far beyond what really exists) in her head…almost like Fatal Attraction…which would be made even more tense once we introduce Night Nurse as Strange’s love interest. We could turn the book into not just a magic-based title, but also a sort of romance book (which I think works lovely considering the almost Gothic background of Strange’s powers).

There’s a fine line you’d have to toe with this kind of title. Strange almost needs to stand alone in the Marvel Universe. He needs to explore bizarre dimensions and encounter offbeat characters. At the same time, you need to infuse his book with some regular superhero guest stars in order to tie everything into regular continuity. And there’s the rub (and most likely the reason why his title always falls to the wayside): too many superheroes spoil the book. Magic and other powers don’t work well together…the dynamics clash, the realities contradict each other. Too many guest stars and the book loses its focus. Too few guest stars and the book loses its broader interest.

A few of the plot ideas I worked up for our Defenders post would play here just as well. Dr. Strange has toyed with Black Magic in the past. It would be intriguing to have him come face-to-face with his “dark doppelganger”…the yin to his Sorcerer Supreme yang. I could also see a lot of the magic/superhero characters appearing in this book, folks like Brother Voodoo, Morbius, Werewolf By Night (and the other fringe characters from the Night Shift), Gargoyle, Hellstorm and Terror Inc.

I’d love to see some camaraderie among this group of heroes. Maybe they get together regularly and play poker or paintball or something. Maybe they trade war stories over some drinks at a dive bar somewhere. Strange always comes off as kind of pompous around the hoi polloi of the Marvel world, but maybe among his peers he has a different personality. Maybe they even pick on him or make fun of him. And perhaps they pull magic-based practical jokes on each other! It reminds me of some of my favorite Avengers moments when you see the heroes out of costume just interacting with each other as people.

Personally, I think Strange needs a tangible rogues gallery too. He’s battled against Mephisto, Nightmare and Dormammu so many times that it’s become routine. Let’s create some real human-based threats, some really creepy folks with the worst intentions in mind. Darker villains mixed with more light-hearted characterizations could be a nice dichotomy.

So give me a fully-formed pitch using some of these elements. I forgot to do that with my Namor tweaks (and should probably go back to it). Let’s put our heads together and come up with something we’d all like to read…

Hokey smokes! Could I agree more with your thoughts on Strange’s villains? No, I don’t think I could. I am not a fan, in any title, of using the abstract cosmic entities as regular villains. All of them should pop up from time to time when you’re writing a character at Strange’s power levels, but they should not be the core of the character’s rogues gallery, and they’re pretty much all Strange has. Sure, some people would say that Baron Mordo is a member of Strange’s rogues gallery, but unfortunately, he’s really been beaten down so many times, and we’ve been told so many times that he is weaker than Strange, that he’s lost any amount of threat he once possessed. Also, he’s dead, or at least he was the last time I checked.

Mordo is, however, the direction I would recommend for villains, in that he is human. I know that conventional wisdom dictates that the hero’s adversaries be stronger than the hero himself so that they can be considered a threat to the hero. Unfortunately, with Strange it’s difficult to make his foes more powerful than him, and not have them be cosmic menaces. I think, though, that power is not everything. Luthor and the Joker have been tormenting their respective heroes for over half a century and they’re both physically weaker than their counterpart. A true villain doesn’t just need power to be a threat, and I think your idea of making the villains more in tune with a darker, Gothic style would really work well for this character.

I also like the idea of a love triangle. For decades, Marvel thrived on the love triangle; Stan Lee seemed to want one in every single early Marvel title. You don’t see it as often in current Marvel titles, but it is a good choice for drama and intrigue. It works even better with a character like Wanda involved, since she may not be tied to reality very closely. If Strange is supposed to be helping her retain her sanity, and yet his relationship with Night Nurse is threatening that sanity, what would Strange’s reaction be? Where does his responsibility as Wanda’s friend, physician and teacher end and begin?

I think a pitch is beginning to come together. We want a darker tone; not grim and gritty “Let Me Pull Your Head Off” dark, but something more Gothic and tilting toward horror. We want Wanda in the Sanctum, but she is going to be just part of the story and we don’t want her to overwhelm. I think guest stars can be done organically, and I really like the idea of Strange being different around them. If nothing else, there must be some magical lingo that these guys and gals would throw around when they’re together that most of us wouldn’t know. Surely there’s a sense of camaraderie that exists between them. I mean, the magical world is one that is so different from what the rest of the world sees as reality, that being able to walk in that world must be somewhat like joining an exclusive club. Strange would almost have to be a somewhat different person around these people.

I sincerely hope that I have not just reiterated what you already said in your post. I think we’re getting close here, but I simply can’t seem to write this without being interrupted; I’ve been writing this for an hour, and I’ve been interrupted at least seven times, so I’m going to sign off now, and let you put this all together in a pitch. Hey, you’re great at that stuff!

Aw jeez, you had to throw it back in my lap, huh? This one is a lot harder to wrap my head around. We have a lot of beats so far, but no real plotline to weave it all together. I think we have to establish a few unique villains. We need to set up a new apprentice, a love interest and a deeper supporting cast. We need to delve into the origins and limits of magic in the Marvel Universe. And we need to give Strange more of a personality and more of a sense of community (at least among his peers). I don’t have a complete answer for any of these problems, but I’ve got some notes that I’ll share with you. We should be able to hammer something out together.

Taking my points in order, let’s first look at potential villains. As I’ve said, my initial thought for an archenemy (a la Luthor or Joker) is to establish someone as Strange’s polar opposite whose ultimate goal is to see Dr. Strange fail. The easiest thought here is to bring back someone who crossed paths with Strange long ago…someone like Cyrus Black. Or to bring in someone who has a past with supernatural characters and demons, such as Dr. Glitternight. Either one would come as a surprise to Strange and could be slowly revealed over the course of the story. As far as new and different characters go, there are a lot of themes we could follow. The first that comes to mind for me is something classically Gothic or Victorian-inspired. This could take the form of a character based on someone such as Edgar Allan Poe or Lizzie Borden. We could bring back a character like The Hangman, but make him much more sinister…surrounded by the ghosts of crows, like shadows (interestingly enough, a group of crows is called a “murder” and “A Murder of Crows” would be a great title for a story arc). Perhaps a character called the Undertaker that has more of a gritty Western or even a straight-off-the-Mayflower feel and he could have a host of minions, like Children of the Corn, setting him up as their Fagin. That’s pretty creepy. Maybe some villain that has something to do with the ancestors of our forefathers and their Freemasonry ties…connected somehow to the secrets of America. Pirates are always a good foil…historic and knee-deep in murder and lost souls. Maybe there’s some value in pursuing the spectral manifestation of his deceased sister as a villain? And last but not least, perhaps Strange should face someone who represents the next generation. What if we gave him a younger foe who employs all the trappings of the Steampunk genre? I could see a bad guy who looks a lot like the Jack Knight Starman, with his goggles and pulp serial-influenced staff. Maybe he has a bunch of magically-imbued gadgets and whiz-bang inventions. I like that a lot, a bit of the old and the new.

We’ve already selected Scarlet Witch as his new apprentice, and I think that’s a perfect fit and makes a great amount of sense. Inject Night Nurse as the love interest and, like we discussed, you can build a lot of friction and potential (the story arc title of “Bizarre Love Triangle” just screams out to me). But these two, along with Wong, don’t make a very full supporting cast. Personally, I’d love to see more of Brother Voodoo and Michael Morbius hanging around and offering advice and assistance. Beyond that, there must be people that Strange interacts with on a professional, if not personal, level. How about giving him a historian/librarian figure for research purposes (ala Buffy and her Watcher)? A professor of the occult would make sense, as would a psychologist or social anthropologist…or even an FBI profiler if we get involved in weird serial killers or crime patterns. It would also make sense, given his collection of magical items, that he would be acquainted with a monster hunter (or relic hunter) such as Elsa Bloodstone. Finally, in a storyline concept I haven’t mentioned before, let’s give Strange a career. What if he wrote a book about his life? Would he have an agent? Perhaps some “magic groupies?” For a little humor, what if he goes on a book tour and has a stand-up comedian as his opening act? It may seem a little out of place, but it could also offer an outsider perspective to Strange’s daily life.

The next point may be the hardest to crack: the origins and limitations of magic in the Marvel Universe. I’m just going to throw these things out there and see if anything sticks. Most of the magic found in literature and legend seems to stem from religion, specifically lesser religions like Wicca or Voodoo and native groups like Druids, Shamans, Witch Doctors and the Aborigines. This would imply that magic has a natural base attuned to the Earth itself. Now, what if magic is powered by the Gods, who are actually the true denizens of Earth, and each pantheon has its own followers. The Gods with the most followers have the most power, but their magic has less effect due to being “watered down.” The most potent magic comes from those who haven’t lost their relation to the planet. But the source of the magic isn’t the Gods themselves. What if the source was something called The Belief and it was held inside something intangible called The Tapestry (stick with me, I’m going into Grant Morrison mode). Now, The Tapestry is made up of threads called “reality rifts” that allow the magic users to peer into the truth of the planet (kind of like The Matrix). And what if there was a limited amount of magic because there are only allowed to be a set number of magic users…each one acting as an anchor or “hem point” for a particular rift? There is a true balance needed in order to keep The Tapestry whole and to keep The Belief contained. Perhaps there are too many magic users and it gets to the point where magic is being rationed…when someone is using it, someone else cannot. This could lead to natural limitations on magic in order to keep it flush with power. Let’s say that magic can no longer be used to harm, only to dissuade or distract. it must be defensive or protection-based. Even dark magic can no longer damage an opponent, instead it causes fear or confusion. This could easily be mandated across all of Marvel’s magic-based characters.

Springing from that comes the idea for another group of characters who could be allies or villains: the insane. Perhaps they’ve caught a glimpse of The Belief and cannot fathom its truth. We could bring back characters like Mad Jim Jaspers, Tatterdemalion or even Jamie Braddock and his crazy quantum strings. They could act as prophets or guides for Strange. They could be protectors of The Tapestry. Or hell, they could just be there to fight.

The last point should occur organically after all of these other things come into place. By putting Strange around more people, his personality will develop. We can create a magic lingo similar to the style in the Ocean’s 11 movies…where the characters discuss grifting schemes and famous ploys, but this lingo is based in terms of Vaudeville acts, early stage magicians, various turn-of-the-century inventors (Tesla, Edison) and a number of religious references like saints and relics…the Double Houdini, the St. Crispin’s Folly, the 23 Skiddoo. etc. Could be a lot of fun actually.

Couple all of these ideas with a general theme headed more into the macabre and horror side of magic, that focuses more on the “what could happen if…” side of things, and I think you’ve got a winning formula that would touch on the dark, the different, and the uncomfortably humorous all at once. Strange needs to be less about the 1960s cosmic vibe with its weird dimensions and backgrounds and more about the counterculture of today with its effects on the planet and its resources. Think less hippie and more Emo or Goth, right? It may even be worthwhile, if we pursue the young Steampunk angle, to make Strange the proverbial fish out of water who doesn’t understand this cultural shift and can’t quite come to terms with it.

Wow…that’s a lot to think about. I’ll give you the weekend to mull it over…

I’ve had to read this a few times, but my final feeling is….wow. There’s a real story here. I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure that magic needs to be strictly defined and structured; to me that somewhat defeats the purpose of magic. Yes, I know in the hands of a lazy writer magic can become its own deus ex machina and every story can be finished by the magician literally pulling a rabbit out of their hat. That being said, I think you can have a strong story without those clear definitions. However, I also think your ideas on how to define magic are very strong and could make for some interesting stories, so I’d certainly support that direction.

It sounds to me like we’ve got some arcs ready to go. The first story arc, I think, should be where Strange actually takes Wanda in as his apprentice. By giving Strange an apprentice, we have the opportunity to delineate the rules of magic you’ve created, since Strange would be explaining things to Wanda. We wouldn’t want to dump lots of information on the reader at once, but you could spread the exposition out over the course of many issues, parsing the information out to the reader in ways that would make them want to know more. I see Wanda, Wong and Night Nurse as our regular supporting characters; those characters who we see in every story arc, and really, in every issue. Wanda and Wong live with him, and Night Nurse must visit quite a bit (kind of like Morgana Blessing in the older issues, but not as annoying). The other types of characters you mention are a great idea, but I think they need to be introduced slowly, over multiple arcs. Strange’s world is so different from the world of other hero’s that I think we want to allow the readers to grow into it organically, rather than shoving many characters at them in the first arc.

I think the villain in the first story arc should be someone more “classically” magical, so to speak. Reinventing an older supernatural villain would be a fine choice. Your description of the new Hangman is a little too much like the Scarecrow (Marvel, not DC) for me and Dr. Glitternight sounds a little too silly for me to take him seriously. I like the name Cyrus Black, and if you don’t mind Harry Potter fans confusing him with Sirius Black, I think he might be the way to go. I still don’t think that Black can be as strong, magically, as Strange is (the job title of Sorcerer Supreme kind of precludes others from having the same magical powers as Strange), but I think he’s a planner, perhaps one with access to some powerful artifacts or monstrous servants (enter Elsa Bloodstone). I also love the idea of Strange having a Watcher-type of contact, who helps with research, and could help him figure out what some of the magical items of power Black is using might be.

I think the second story arc might best focus on a more gritty, grim villain, someone based on Poe or Borden as you suggested. They know some magic, but where they really become a threat is in their ruthlessness and, perhaps, insanity. Their magic is more cult based and much of it comes through ritual. I think that Strange may be somewhat surprised and taken aback by the sorts of crimes this villain would commit, and the lengths this villain would go to in order to achieve his goals. This would be a good time for Strange to seek out and become acquainted with a new ally; the FBI profiler type that you mention. Strange and his allies are somewhat out of their element with the crimes this villain is performing. Strange has seen some crazy stuff, but there’s always been an element of civility behind it. Mordo may have been a gruesome creep, but he didn’t do a heck of a lot in the way of human sacrifice. This guy does, and it throws Strange for something of a loop. This also might be a good time for him to seek aid from Brother Voodoo, since voodoo (in my admittedly limited knowledge) also tends to be more ritual based.

I’d save the Steampunk baddie for another story arc, although he’s my favorite, I have to admit. I love the idea of someone mixing science and magic (it’s an area of Doom’s character that I never felt was addressed enough); there’s so much that can be done with it. Again, it also gives the villain an edge over Strange without making him more magically powerful than Strange. And again, it’s also an area where Strange is somewhat at a loss; sure, he can counter this guy’s magical abilities, but how much does Strange know about technology? Can he even program a VCR? It also gives Strange a need for another ally; enter Dr. Michael Morbius, who knows all about technology as a scientist.

In amongst these plots, we have the slow simmering love triangle between Wanda, Strange and Night Nurse, which can explode into it’s own plot at some point. Plus, we throw in some scenes which shows what Strange does when he’s not being the Sorcerer Supreme, as he hangs out with the other magical members of the Marvel Universe that we’ve mentioned. The only point I’m stuck on is his job. I somewhat see where you’re going; after all, where does Strange get his money? He hasn’t held a job since he became Sorcerer Supreme and he spent all of his fortune before that day. To an extent, writing a book would work for him; he could set his own hours and he certainly has a lot of experiences from which to draw. What sort of book would he write? You suggest an autobiography. I’m not sure if that would work for two reasons. First of all, Morgana Blessing wrote his biography when she thought he was dead in the early 90s (he even went on a talk show to discuss it). Second, I see Strange as not really wanting his life to be open to the public; I don’t think he’d want people to panic when they realized what he’s been through. Perhaps you were suggesting that he write a book about his life before he became the Sorcerer Supreme, which could be interesting, but it doesn’t have much of an ending if he wants to keep his life secret. “I had a horrible accident, became a drunk, but everything got better and now I….don’t do much.”

At the same time, there’s potential there. Perhaps Strange would spin his non-magical story into a self-help type of book? Perhaps he’d write about the non-mystic teachings of the Ancient One, exhorting people to throw off the shroud of commercialism and live a life of peace and tranquility. It’s a little cheesy, but it also seems like the sort of thing Strange might write. I almost suggested he write fiction (maybe fantasy or science fiction, based on his adventures, but which he markets as fiction), but I’m not sure I see him doing so, as it seems to trivialize what he does. I’d love to do something like market him as a romance novelist, but that seems way too far out there for him. Besides, if we want him doing a book tour, we need the sort of book that lends itself to those tours, and people love them some self-help books. And who wouldn’t want to write the scene where Strange guests on Oprah?

That seems pretty pitchy to me. Thoughts?

I think it’s great how you’ve managed to work an additional supporting character into each story arc and you’ve pinpointed which one would work for each aspect of the story. I’m still a little unsure of how we work the villains into the action. Obviously, if we use Cyrus Black, there will be scenes showing him plotting a comeback (without revealing his face). He has a beef with Strange that was never fully explored. That one makes sense. And the opening arc with Wanda and Night Nurse is easy enough to establish. But beyond that, how do we approach making the bad guys a threat to Strange. I mean, the guy never seems to leave his house. I can’t imagine that his potential foes would just walk up and knock on his front door. Perhaps we need to give him a job to get him out in the public and have some interaction. You can only get away with so much coincidence and mistaken identity ploys before it gets ridiculous. I also wouldn’t want to rely on his allies coming to him for assistance as a way to launch every plot.

So the big stumbling block is still his career. How does he put food on the table? Stephen Strange has a smarmy personality. I could see him hamming it up on those celeb-journalism shows. I don’t know how much the public knows about him in general. Does anyone remember him as a surgeon? Does anyone know he is a magician? He could potentially write a New age sort of book…a spiritual health book written by a real medical doctor would create good buzz. Maybe he’s bored of being trapped in his secret home all the time and decides to get a little public face time by becoming a stage magician (a la Zatanna). He could write a book on the history of magic, but put a realist spin on it (coming from the medical field) to mask his true background. Or perhaps there’s some sort of political turmoil in the Ancient One’s homeland of Kamar-Taj (or Tibet) and Strange comes out as a pseudo-celebrity to defend the country. Any of these could be pre-established in our first story arc and then fleshed out as the base for the whole Wanda situation.

I totally agree that any new villains should be a different type of problem for Strange. The cosmic situations and the continuous magic-versus-magic fights get old quick. The steampunk angle enables us to show Strange getting frustrated. Any historically-based opponent allows us to add an element of research to the confrontation. And then the horror cult thing is just weird and disturbing (I still like “A Murder of Crows” as a title).

Ooh…I know a way to start this whole thing. What if there’s a truly bizarre serial killer haunting the Marvel Universe? Maybe using a team of possessed children to commit the murders (eww…twisted)? Dr. Strange has just finished a book about psychic investigators and mystical ways to solve crimes, using his medical background as a sort of anti-authority. During an appearance on his book tour, he’s approached by the FBI profiler we’ve discussed and he gets brought in to the search for the killer. Along the course of the investigation, he ends up revealing his true position to the profiler…this brings trust and adds the profiler to Strange’s inner circle. The plot also puts Strange out in the public eye, which could be a launching pad for others to seek his help or want to stop his interference.

Damn, now I’m thinking it might be smart to have him write a book “debunking” hauntings from the studious medical point of view and have his book tour take place in supposedly haunted locations. Is that too much of a cop out? Meh.

Either way, the book tour thing really helps progress the arcs we’ve proposed. New locations offer more chances for conflicts, experiences and information. It would add an additional element to have his supporting cast spread out across the country (or even the world, depending on his tour stops). People coming in and going out of the storylines organically, as you’ve mentioned, makes it seem more natural than the whole “Scooby Gang” vibe of something like Buffy.

Hmph. Seems to me that we’ve come up with about two years worth of material, depending on how it all pans out, and the potential to keep the series going in a great direction for a long time to come. I really need to work my contacts to get in touch with some Marvel editors. I wonder how they’d feel about our little blog?


Spider-Man: Where did it all go wrong?

Apr-08-08

Spider-Man has probably been in the news (not the real news; they don’t care about comic books, unless Captain America dies on a slow news day. No, I’m talking about the comics news, spread out across a gazillion internet blogs and websites) more than any other super-hero recently, thanks to Marvel’s “One More Day” storyline. Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you know very well what that storyline entailed, but on the off-chance that the only thing you know about Spider-Man is that Kirsten Dunst is a hottie, let me quickly explain.

In the comics, Spider-Man has been married to the beautiful Mary Jane Watson for (our time) almost 20 years. I believe they got married in 1989, but I’m too lazy to look up the exact date. No, I lie, I’m not that lazy. They actually got married in 1987, so they’ve been married for over 20 years. Apparently, there were those at Marvel Comics, led by Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada, who felt that their marriage had destroyed some of the very essence of what made Spider-Man the character in which millions had fallen in love. They wanted to get rid of the marriage, but how can you do that? If they get divorced, then Peter Parker has the baggage of a failed marriage. If she dies, then he’s a widower. Neither solution makes him the character he was in the 1960s and 70s.

The solution, from Marvel’s point of view, was “One More Day.” Here’s that quick synopsis I promised: Aunt May has been shot and lies dying. Mephisto, one of the many Marvel Universe iterations of Satan, promises to save May’s life if he can erase Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage from reality. They will not be married, they will have never been married, and no one will remember the marriage. Peter Parker weighs the options over in his mind. “Hmmm,” he thinks, “do I give up sex, love and a strong marriage with a gorgeous redhead who is a former model, or do I save my aunt, who’s 120 years old? What would my Uncle Ben do?” It’s an easy decision. Or it would be, if it had been made by the character. Sadly, it was made by a couple of 40 year old men who refuse to leave their childhoods. Parker took the deal, and the marriage was undone.

There seem to be two schools of thought on this subject. One school believes this to be the stupidest story in a long history of stupid stories, and a bad idea, since it rewrites two decades of Spider-Continuity. The other school believes this to be the stupidest story in a long history of stupid stories, but hey, at least it got rid of the marriage that had ruined their beloved wall-crawler, so alls well that ends well. No one seems to have liked the story itself, with the possible exception of J. Michael Straczynski’s accountants, when he cashed the checks he received from writing said story.

For our purposes, we need to look at where Spider-Man went wrong as a character, and what can be done to fix him. For the purposes of the “One More Day” story, the question is whether or not his marriage to Mary Jane was a mistake. Personally, I liked the marriage. My feeling is that, when you publish a character for over forty years, there has to be some sort of character development. By getting married, Peter was growing up, the exact same thing Stan Lee had him doing when he had Peter graduate from high school and go to college within the first three years of the comic’s existence. A married Peter Parker was an interesting Peter Parker, as he now had to consider how his actions would affect, not just his Aunt May, but his wife as well. Plus, the interaction between Peter and Mary Jane was phenomenal, and when they also interacted with his Aunt, they were a full realized family unit, realistic and relatable. They seemed like real people. It is an irony of which I am quite aware that the writer who did so much to make this family so interesting to readers was J. Michael Straczynski, who then was the one to destroy this family in “One More Day.”

But perhaps not everyone agrees with me, so I open this to the others.

Wait…wasn’t Straczynski the same hack who got Gwen knocked up by the Green Goblin? He’s the reason I stopped reading Spider-Man comics in the first place (and I’ve got a pretty impressive collection). Much like nearly every other modern comic being produced today, I felt that Amazing Spider-Man had gotten weighed down by “real life” and wasn’t the fun book I enjoyed growing up.

That said, I’m torn on the marriage thing. I remember buying the wedding issue (one copy of each cover, thank you) and thinking “Wow, this carefree, wisecracking young hero is getting tied down. How sad.” Of course, I was in high school at the time and didn’t really relate to marriage. Things change. Now I’m married with kids and Peter Parker seems like a guy who wants to make things work but, regardless of his Uncle’s responsibility adage, can never quite get it together.

On one hand, being married takes a lot of independence away from Spider-Man. Like I said, he always seemed like the high-flying, fast-talking type to me. He stays out late. He doesn’t clean up after himself. He just wants to have fun.

On the other hand, he and MJ really work as a couple. And hell, there are very few marriages in comics, good or otherwise. It was a genuine relationship that built over the years and reached its logical next step.

Here’s my thoughts on the storyline: Aunt May is freaking old. She’s served her purpose. May acted as Peter’s conscience. She represented his vulnerability. And she anchored him. Big deal. Let the bonebag die. Seriously. What’s the big loss? Hasn’t MJ embodied all of those aspects in her own way already? By losing Aunt May, but holding onto MJ, does anything really change in Peter’s life?

Wow…a deal with the devil. That’s original. Look, it doesn’t even make sense on paper. How did that get through editorial? By eliminating the marriage, they’ve set back Spidey’s history by 20 years. Everything that happened to him since 1987 can no longer technically exist because the circumstances that caused the history have changed. It’s some sort of bizarre chaos string theory in reverse. People that he’s met, words that he said, things that he did. All gone. And, in practice, that blank slate has to emanate to every corner of the Marvel Universe. Anyone who crossed paths with Petey during that time must be revamped too. Events that he took part in can no longer be put forth as fact. IT’S ALL WRONG.

Of course, eliminating 20 years of continuity also gets rid of the “Gwen had the Goblin’s twins” storyline AND the -shudder- “Spider-Clone Saga.” I guess that’s not a bad thing.

The problem here is that Marvel has painted itself into a corner where the only “logical” solution is to just make the relationship never happen. It’s almost as bad as the Bobby-Ewing-in-the-shower move. Like John said, they couldn’t kill off MJ because then Peter would seem weak or damaged for not being able to protect her. And they couldn’t divorce them because then Petey would either come across as a victim or a jerk (depending on who did the dumping). Even when they briefly separated the couple, Spidey became all whiny and woe-is-me. I got tired very quickly of his inner monologues about how he had screwed everything up. It was almost annoying as most of the scripts from the 90’s animated series.

Oddly enough, it turns out that the “Mephisto Gambit” was also proposed as a solution to the horrible 90’s Clone Saga, but was dismissed as being “out of Spider-Man’s league.” Hmph.

The question before us is “What next?” If I recall correctly, the Clone Saga was followed up by a completely forgettable storyline. Of course, that’s not really fair. Most of 90’s Marvel stories were completely forgettable. So is that the solution? Just write a bunch of filler issues until everyone forgets the debacle and then hope against hope that the readers will eventually come back?

Before I answer Jason’s questions, I have to make a couple of comments. Yes, Straczynski wrote the reviled story where Gwen had sex with Norman Osborn. Yes, we all shudder to think of it. However, if one strips away that story, I think they’ll see that Straczynski has a very good grasp of the character of Spider-Man and of his supporting cast. There were also a lot of people who didn’t like his take on “Spider Totems” and Ezekiel, and the idea that his powers were more magic based than science based. Having read those stories, I think Straczynski actually does a brilliant job of saying, “Maybe my magical explanation works, but if you don’t like it, the science explanation still works just fine.” He didn’t set his new continuity up as a definite, but just as a possibility, and in the end, I thought the story was very well done.

I won’t condemn Straczynski for deciding that Gwen would do the nasty with Norman Osborn. I didn’t like the plot, but he had enough credit from his previous stories that I let it slide. To me, the characters are more important than the plot (which is not to say plot is unimportant, but I think character trumps it) and Straczynski knew these characters inside and out. In fact, I find it interesting that rumors abound that he wanted his name removed from some of “One More Day”, because he didn’t like the way the story was progressing, and the eventual outcome.

Jason mentions that he sees Spider-Man as a high flying and fast talking hero. Some people feel that he’s more interesting as a single man. I’ve read numerous commentators (including Mr. Silver Age, who writes for the Comics Buyers Guide) who seem to think that these are intrinsic parts of his character, as are his status as a hard luck hero. Perhaps I’ve always missed the point of Spider-Man, but I consider only one facet of his character to be intrinsic: his innate sense of responsbility. It’s his understanding that with great power, comes great responsibility. That’s what makes Peter a hero. That’s what makes him interesting. I know that the original stories often cast him as a hero with the worst luck imaginable and more problems than he knew what to do with, but if you look at his origin, I don’t think that the hard-luck hero is part of it. Sure, he was picked on, but that just made him a geek. Otherwise, the only bad luck he had was when his uncle was killed by the same burglar that Peter had allowed to escape him (which, I have to admit, is horrifically bad luck), but it wasn’t so much bad luck as it was necessary for his origin to work. I’m not sure that you need the hard-luck hero to write good Spidey stories.

Yes, Aunt May is expendable. In fact, they’ve killed her already. In Amazing Spider-Man #400 she died. J.M. DeMatteis (what is it with hard to spell names that I have to look up like his and Straczynski….why can’t I be typing about Jim Lee?) wrote a touching and heartfelt story where May and Peter spend some time together, and then she passes away silently in bed. It makes me cry everytime I read it. And they did just fine without her for a few years, before someone decided that they needed to bring her back.

So, how does this get fixed? Well, I have to admit, sometimes there is more harm to be done by trying to fix bad continuity than there is in simply throwing your hands up in the air, giving up, and ignoring it. That worked fine with the Spider-Clone storyline, because in the end, there were no changes to continuity, and you could cut those years out of the Spider-Man mythos without really changing much. Sadly, that doesn’t work for “One More Day”, since we’re left with a screwed up continuity. If we ignore it, then what? If Peter starts getting serious with someone in a relationship, we’re basically going to be treading much of the ground we already tread with Mary Jane. I suppose they could put him with someone who’s personality is much different than MJ’s, but I think that many of the problems faced in a relationship are somewhat universal, and it still seems like they’ll be retelling the same stories all over again.

This also brings up another problem with “One More Day”. This plotline again shows us how short-sighted Marvel Editorial is. What sort of future can Peter have? If he gets serious with another woman, what are they going to do? They can let them date for awhile, but after dating for years, it’s going to begin to look bad if Peter won’t take the next logical step. Besides, once a relationship gets serious, you start to have some of the same issues you have with marriage, even if the participants aren’t actually married. So is he never going to be allowed to be serious with a woman again? If he gets serious, are they going to start dropping them off bridges again, as they did with Gwen? It seems that Peter is either destined to always be moving from relationship to relationship and never getting serious (which is likely to eventually make him look like something of a cad) or he’s destined to get in a serious relationship and make more deals with Satan knock-offs. What kind of solution is this?

I think something has to be done about “One More Day”. I’m not sure what. Not much time has passed; how about Peter waking up, and Mary Jane is in the shower and the whole thing is a dream?

Zing! And we’re right back to the Dallas solution. I agree with your assessment about relationships. Marvel can’t honestly hook Peter up with another woman or the readers will scream foul. Then we get into Bruce Wayne territory…which is to say, every time a new female character shows up as a love interest in Batman , DC has Pavlov-dogged us to know that she’ll either turn out to be evil or she be killed within four issues. It’s similar to the new red-shirted dude on any given episode of Star Trek or the mysterious stranger that shows up at the Peach Pit on Beverly Hills 90210. That kind of mindless redundancy is what destroys the limited credibility of comics.

I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this, but thinking about it, the dream bit makes a lot of sense in this situation. Petey’s under a lot of stress from the “unmasking on national TV” thing…he’s bummed about his aunt’s health…maybe he has a wicked ingrown toenail or something…why wouldn’t he have a fever dream about the devil?

You’re right. This isn’t an ignorable offense. This changes everything. And it needs to be changed back before it’s too late.

Well, I had a great post all written, and it was witty and insightful and would have netted me that Pulitzer for sure….and the computer ate it. Somehow. I have no idea. These new fangled computer things sure throw me. I had originally suggested to Jason that we simply chisel our thoughts onto stone tablets, as we did back in my childhood. Jason felt that we would not receive as much attention as we would posting onto a blog. “Well, what if we threw the stone tablets at people, asking them to read them? Maybe drop them from airplanes. That should get us attention,” I suggested, proud that I had reached a solution for the apparent problem. Oddly, Jason said nothing, but simply slowly backed out of the room.

On the plus side, this means that this post will probably be more concise and easier to read. You’ll have to imagine that it is much wittier than it really is, and trust me that all of the good snarky comments and funny jokes were actually eaten by the computer. In fact, feel free to assume that about any posts I make from this time forward.

I’m not sure that fixing Spider-Man would be that difficult, and I think we can even do it without using a plotline from a nighttime soap opera that aired over two decades ago. First of all, can Mephisto really bend reality in this way? I know he’s cosmic level, but I thought he was more Galactus level. I don’t think Galactus can rewrite reality for an entire planet. That seems like something that only someone on the level of Eternity can do. If we assume that this is slightly outside Mephisto’s power range, that means that this never happened. What happened? Here’s how I would lay it out.

We keep doing the stories in Amazing Spider-Man for a few months, as we’ve been doing. However, Peter starts waking up from dreams. In these dreams, he’s married to MJ, and he’s very happy (as they often were). The dreams are good, but he’s somewhat sad when he awakens, since he now has no one with which to share his life. Meanwhile, while awake, things start going bad for him. Small things at first, but they escalate, and soon he’s dealing with some relatively major problems, all depressing and disheartening. Meanwhile, he’s still having these dreams of his marriage to MJ, and they’re getting more vivid.

I wouldn’t drag this on for more than a few months. Soon, his new life is crumbling around him, but his dream life is strong. However, he’s beginning to remember more of this dream life including the deal he made with Mephisto to give up his marriage. Something about that rubs him wrong, the first thing in his dream life that has done so. It just doesn’t seem like something he would do. As problems continue to mount in the waking world, he retreats into his dream life, all the while beginning to realize something is wrong. Suddenly, in a burst of emotion, he wakes up to find himself confined in Mephisto’s realm.

It turns out that Mephisto, always eager to break a noble person (as he’s continually tried with the Silver Surfer), saw Peter Parker before “One More Day”. Peter was incredibly vulnerable at that time….his aunt was dying, he was on the run from the law, many of his super-hero friends were unavailable to him because of Civil War, the population hated him more than normal, he had just dealt with Captain America dying, he had been fired from his source of income…so Mephisto grabbed him and took him to his realm. There, he tried to break his spirit, but Peter fought back.

Perhaps his escape from Mephisto’s illusionary world was facilitated by Dr. Strange. After all, Strange was a teammate in the New Avengers, and if Peter was missing for a few days, no doubt Strange would have tried to find him. Strange found Peter in Mephisto’s realm, and he comes with a group of New Avengers. The New Avengers fight some miscellaneous demons, while Peter faces Mephisto, and beats him in some sort of philosophical discussion (so the victory remains Peter’s), or if that seems dumb, perhaps Strange just grabs Peter and they get the heck out of there.

This returns Peter to the real world. He rushes to the hospital and gets to speak with his Aunt May one more time, before she dies. He has MJ to comfort him, and together, they move on with their lives. The end. Well, except for the fact that we now have a ton of plots open to us. I have more thoughts, but I want to try and post this, and see what the others think first. And there may be a better way to undo this, which I’d be more than willing to entertain.

Holy crap! That’s BEAUTIFUL. Have I mentioned how much doubt I had about this website working correctly and how that all disappeared with your latest response? No? Okay, then just forget I said that. Wouldn’t want your ego to get any bigger.

I’ve always hated non-tangible villains like Eternity and Death and all that stuff (almost as much as I dislike most cosmic characters, but that’s for another post). Give me a guy you can just punch in the face and I’m satisfied. Mephisto is better left in a drawer somewhere and, hopefully, this retcon would put him back there for another decade or two. It makes perfect sense with Spidey’s New Avengers connections and the general paranoia gripping the Marvel Universe right now. It’s a perfect mirror-verse brought on by Peter’s vulnerability under the circumstances.

And we get rid of Aunt May in the process. Huzzah!

Thank you. You’re too kind. What saddens me is that no one at Marvel Comics will take the time to devise a solution like this one (and I don’t mean a solution that uses these elements, but any solution that solves a major problem with their continuity). Of course, Marvel doesn’t see the problem here, and I suppose that saddens me more than anything. Look at what happens if we get rid of “One More Day”, let Aunt May die, and continue Peter in the Marvel Universe married to Mary Jane.

First of all, the relationship between Peter and Tony Stark can never be the same. Even though we know that Peter will always blame himself for his Aunt’s death, just as he does his Uncle’s, he surely is going to acknowledge the part that Stark played in everything. Had Stark not convinced Peter to unmask, the chain of events that led to May’s death would not have happened. Had Stark not pushed through the Superhero Registration Act, and at the same time, begun acting like Iron Fascist, Peter and his family would not have been forced out of Avengers Tower, and May would not have been vulnerable. Stark is indirectly responsible for May’s death.

Now, I don’t think you use May’s death to make Peter grim and gritty. That’s not Peter, and if Ben’s death didn’t turn him into Blood-Spider, I don’t think May’s should. I don’t see Peter infiltrating the Helicarrier with an Uzi to take out Stark, especially since we know that Peter will ultimately lay the blame at his own feet. That being said, when the craziness of Civil War subsides, and all the heroes love each other again, which is bound to happen, there will always be some bad blood between Peter and Stark. I think you could write some very interesting scenes between the two of them, the next time they end up in the Baxter Building during one of those huge cosmic crossovers, where all the heroes plan how to beat the cosmic villain with an afro.

What about the Kingpin? He ordered May’s death, and he did it from prison. How does Peter react to this? He’s fought the Kingpin for years, but now it’s personal. This isn’t the Kingpin getting Matt Murdock disbarred; this is the Kingpin ordering the death of Peter’s only living blood relative. Again, I don’t think Peter should put a Spider-Skull on his chest and go gunning for the Kingpin (although, am I the only one who thinks it would be amusing to see the Spider-Punisher, with a little spider skull and crossbones on his chest?), surely Peter is going to want to see justice done. But the Kingpin’s already in jail. So what can Peter do him? Killing isn’t an option, and neither is incarceration. Peter’s resourceful, and I think there could be an interesting plot there as well.

Finally, for those who approved of “One More Day” for making Peter closer to his original incarnation, we get that too. He spent years being guilty over his actions being responsible for the death of his Uncle Ben. However, over time, that has somewhat faded (it won’t ever fade completely, but you can’t be guilty about something for forty years). Now, he can have that with the death of his Aunt May, which again came about because of his actions. That’s some good psychological drama there.

I think there’s more possibilities in this direction, more stories to be told, and new ground to be tread, rather than old ground to be retread. Now all we need to do is get someone to agree with us. Who has Joe Quesada’s phone number?