Today, Spencer and Drew are discussing Doctor Strange 6, originally released March 9th, 2016.
Spencer: I’ve never really been able to get into stories about magic. Part of that is just my upbringing — they were strictly forbidden in my household growing up — but I also have trouble getting invested in the stakes. So many characters who use magic are capable of doing anything, of solving any problem effortlessly, and so many stories about magic are obsessed with defining the rules of magic while never establishing why those rules are worth caring about in the first place. Thankfully, Doctor Strange has managed to avoid both of these problems, and issue 6 especially stands out in this regard. Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo have crafted a story about the “End of Magic” that actually shows us why the loss of magic would be a tragic blow to the Marvel Universe.
Perhaps even more importantly, their answer isn’t “the end of all magic is bad because it would mean the end of Doctor Strange.” Instead, Aaron and Bachalo actually show their readers the many vital roles magic plays in the history of the Marvel Universe, and the negative impact that the death of magic is having on the world.
While the issue’s primary narrative focuses on Doctor Strange’s desperate last stand against the Empirikul, Aaron still makes sure to pepper Strange’s internal monologue throughout the battle with facts about how the death of magic is effecting the world. It starts on a less personal scale, noting how ancient magical sites around the world (including one that seems to be Marvel’s version of Stonehenge) are being destroyed. Losing precious history is tragic, for sure, but it’s a loss that not everybody can relate to, so Aaron next moves onto actual death, destruction, and despair: a mystic volcano erupts, mystical heroes are filled with dread and sorrow, whales begin beaching themselves, birds fall dead from the sky, butterflies attack Japan en masse, unborn babies scream in terror in the womb.
It’s horrific stuff, but those details are absolutely vital to this story. Empirikul feels like magic is an abomination, like it’s unnatural, but this goes to show that it’s the loss of magic that’s unnatural, that things get bad fast when it goes away. Bachalo’s art reinforces this: there’s a root motif that snakes throughout the gutters of a few pages, and while this is probably related to the magical tree Strange attacks the Empirikul with, it also seems to represent the way magic is rooted in the very foundations of the world. Meanwhile, the fact that the roots first show up on a Strange page, and then reappear on a page featuring the rest of Marvel’s magical heroes, shows how magic connects all these characters no matter where they are in the world.
It’s not a smart idea to interfere with something so deeply rooted in the world and the fates of everyone inhabiting it — Bachalo (assisted by Java Tartagua on colors) is more than up to the task of showing us the consequences.
As the last of Earth’s magic fades away, so does its color, its liveliness itself! Without magic the world has lost something essential, elemental.
Aaron saves his biggest gut-punches for the back-up story, though. At first it starts off simple and clever, illustrating a few specific situations where the death of magic has negatively impacted people, but things get dark fast as the death of magic begins to literally kill off the building blocks of many readers’ childhoods.
Harry Potter, Aladdin, or even just Disney itself — their magic brought joy to millions of young people, but now that’s over. Empirikul’s crusade isn’t just an attack on literal magic, it’s an attack on magic in a more figurative sense. The magic of literature, of film, of childhood itself? All gone. While the above scene first establishes this, it’s the issue’s final two pages that ultimately drive the point home.
Again, there seems to be literal magic involved here in bringing these toys to life, but that’s almost moot. When I look at this scene I see Winnie the Pooh, I see Calvin and Hobbes, and those stories are about the power of imagination. This is Aaron showing that magic is, ultimately, involved in everything. What would the world be without history, without art, without stories, without imagination? As far as I’m concerned, that wouldn’t be a world worth living in. It would be awfully grim, dark, and gray; it would be a world without color, and that’s exactly what the Empirikul has created.
That’s what elevates Empirikul beyond a typical comic book threat. His crusade stems from the fact that he watched his parents, and then his whole world, die because of magic. Empirikul has a very specific perspective, and it’s one with a legitimate point behind it: magic can be used to cause great harm, just as nearly anything (including stories) can. But that doesn’t mean the world would be better off without magic, without stories, without imagination at all, and it certainly doesn’t justify mass exterminations of every magic user. So could I root against Empirikul if he was simply threatening Doctor Strange’s power source, or just his life? I suppose, but it would be awfully routine. Instead, Empirikul threatens the very core of the Marvel universe: its ability to tell new stories. That’s a threat I can get invested in.
So yeah, while I wasn’t exactly enthused about exploring the death of all magic going into this issue, Aaron and Bachalo have certainly changed my mind now that I’ve finished it. How about you, Drew? And do you have any thoughts about Strange and Empirikul’s actual battle itself, or perhaps about what ramifications this story might have on the Marvel Universe? Ooh, or what about the way Empirikul specifically posits science as the antithesis to magic? It’s an old idea, but with “magic” now established as representing so much more than just literal magic, there’s may just be some interesting conclusions to reach here.
Drew: Indeed there are. I have some thoughts on those conclusions, but I’m going to have to back up a bit. About halfway through his battle with the Empirikul, Strange draws out all the despair, loneliness, and hopelessness he can from the residents of New York, dumping it all on his enemies. It works on the Empirikul’s minions, but not the man himself, suggesting that emotions themselves are the realm of magic, not science. In this way, we might broaden the definition of magic to include feelings, while science is home to all logic. That’s a dichotomy that hits pretty close to home — I spent much of my teens and twenties worshiping at the alter of reason, believing emotions to be messy flaws that pervert our abilities to make decisions — but Aaron carefully lays out why the loss of magic would be so devastating.
Spencer already detailed why the backup is so moving, but it bears repeating. There were a lot of things that brought me around to the importance of imagination and storytelling, but Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman was definitely one of them. Gaiman has built his career on examining the world around magic — looking at the repercussions of a world without dreams, a world with too many dreams, a world where miracles exist, etc — all while suggesting that the true magic is in the stories themselves. Aaron is channeling that spirit in the backups — even the selection of artist Kevin Nowlan for the last bit of that backup seems designed to evoke The Sandman. Far from derivative, that kind of paraphrase is right at home in the allusions Aaron is making to children’s stories. Indeed, I believe they’re only effective because we recognize them — we know what these stories are supposed to look like with magic.
This issue as a paean to storytelling is a compelling reading, but there’s another implication that keeps sticking in the back of my mind: what if the Empirikul represent comic book fans? Not all fans, obviously, but those that are obsessed with knowing the “rules” of the Marvel Universe — those that quibble over who should beat who in a fight given “power levels” Marvel published at some point, those that want some kind of physics-based explanation for how Mjolnir works, those that can’t accept changes within that Universe. It’s that last point that speaks the most to Aaron’s experience over the last year or so, as his Thor and Mighty Thor have been often dismissed as “not making sense” by fans who selectively demand “logic” from their comics, ignoring that there might be something more fundamentally magical in the storytelling. I have no idea how frustrated that response makes Aaron, but as someone who has actively championed those series (they’re both great!), I know I’ve lost patience for that kind of thinking. It’s certainly hard for me not to see those fans represented in the Empirikul’s apparent immunity to emotion.
At the same time (sorry to go down the rabbit hole of this reading), Aaron suggests that those fans privileged enough to disregard a female Thor might be benefitting from a different brand of magic — one they’re almost certainly taking for granted. The second vignette of the backup, drawn by Jorge Fornes, depicts two entitled Americans who have enslaved a Genie to allow them to subjugate an island full of indigenous people.
The moral might be a bit on-the-nose there, but I think the important detail is that the power imbalance was itself magical — a fiction that could only be facilitated by the use of magic. All that changed by the end of that scene is the magic ceased to protect the Americans; it simply stopped insulating them from the situation they created. That sure sounds a heck of a lot like the situation Thor fans found themselves in when Aaron so much as hinted at challenging the patriarchy.
Whew. I’ll accept that that reading may rely on more than its share of projection, but stories about imagination tend to open themselves up to diverse readings. More importantly, this issue works with or without that reading — I’m happy to just quibble about the nature of the magic that destroyed that little girl’s fantasy. Were her stuffed animals really brought to life, or was the “magic” her imagination? For me, the real magic is realizing that there might not be a difference.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?