by Michael DeLaney and Spencer Irwin
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Michael: This is the second week in a row that I get to name-drop the Sentry! I think I may be in the minority when I say that I like the Sentry, the Dr. Jekyll Superman analogue with a Mr. Hyde counterpart called The Void. I don’t think that he should be headlining his own book, but I do like him as a co-star or part of an ensemble. Donny Cates makes excellent use out of the Sentry in Doctor Strange 384.
Stephen Strange has tapped into some very powerful Asgardian magic to combat current Sorcerer Supreme Loki. Since Doctor Strange’s magics always come with a price, he has diverted all of his pain to the invincible Sentry — who doesn’t seem to be affected by magic like Superman is.
Donny Cates’ approach to Doctor Strange is interesting in light of Jason Aaron’s work on the book. Aaron really emphasized the toll that magic took on Strange. Cates, on the other hand, acknowledges that price but bypasses it with some in-story “cheat codes.” Before Strange used the Sentry as his “depository of pain,” the newly-minted Sorcerer Supreme Loki was also looking for ways to circumvent magic’s price.
Is Cates proposing to get rid of magic’s costs altogether? I called his narrative workarounds “cheat codes” but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire them. Story universes have their own internal logic and rules. If Doctor Strange should turn into a leper when he absorbs magic from The World Tree, you better have a good reason why he doesn’t.
Both Strange and Loki find themselves in desperate situations. Strange is desperate to get his house, his title, and his love interest (?) back. With his newly-acquired powers Loki — being Loki — simply wants more power. Really, what he wants is everything that Stephen Strange has/had. His curiosity to know what is behind door #3 is so consuming that he doesn’t even consider the potentially disastrous consequences.
Strange is equally desperately blinded by desire. As Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange would try to stop a mortal such as himself from absorbing power from The World Tree. His quest to reclaim what is his — coupled with the immense power he has acquired — makes him callous and destructive. It’s a wakeup call when the trickster god has to tell you that what you’ve done is irresponsible and wrong.
Doctor Strange has been portrayed as the calm, cool and collected type and as the magical version of Tony Stark. Seeing him this reckless and desperate is certainly a different approach, even visually. In his current de-powered state, Strange is akin to a drug addict falling on and off of the wagon. The way that Gabriel Hernandez Walta draws Strange evokes that kind of imagery with his all-black wardrobe and his crew cut and his haggard appearance. Contrast that with his suped-up Asgardian Jesus mode Strange.
Spencer, are you enjoying Cates and Walta’s Doctor Strange as much as I am? I’m hoping that Loki gets to keep the title a little longer because I’m curious about what kind of trouble he will cause. Thoughts on The Sentry/The Void? What’s your take on Cates’ portrayal of “the price of magic”? How do you feel about Zelma’s role in all of this? She seems above Loki and Stephen’s feud, I could see her just rejecting them both and walking away.
Spencer: I would honestly love to see some of this story from Zelma’s perspective. She was a friend and student of Stephen’s, but stuck around after Loki inherited the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme as if she was simply an item passed down with the title, like the mansion or cloak. What does she think about the swapping of her teachers? Why did she stay when Strange left? Because she feels like she has a duty to the Sorcerer Supreme, whoever he may be? Because she genuinely wants to keep learning magic? Because she wants to keep an eye on Loki? Honestly, I’d suspect that Zelma and Stephen had some sort of surveillance/double agent plan in place if Stephen wasn’t so obviously desperate at the moment.
Still, I do really like the one big moment Zelma has in this issue.
It says a lot about Zelma’s growing skill and bravery that she makes this move at all, and I think it continues to add complexities to her loyalties and motivation as well — she doesn’t step in to help either of her mentors, but instead decides that they’re both acting like children and need a time-out. The thing is, she doesn’t take into account Loki being a god, which means that the battle continues to rage on despite her intervention. It’s a nice reminder that Zelma’s still a novice, even if she’s more clear-headed than either Sorcerer Supreme right now.
(Can I also just mention how refreshing it is that Cates kept Zelma around at all, instead of starting over with his own supporting cast? Actually, it’s interesting to note how this volume of Doctor Strange has continued on without rebooting since Aaron’s departure, which itself is a rarity at modern-day Marvel. I think the fact that Cates’ run is part of the same volume as Aaron’s is probably at least part of why Cates has continued to stick so close to many of the ideas Aaron introduced, as Michael pointed out. Again, I think that’s refreshing, especially since Cates’ run is still so original in so many other ways. It does something new while not discarding what came before, which I appreciate.)
Anyway Michael, to answer your other questions, I’m very much enjoying Cates and Walta’s Doctor Strange, as you’ve probably gathered, and despite this being Stephen’s title, I’d love to see Loki stick around as Sorcerer Supreme for a while. His recent guest appearances in the role over in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl show how rich with potential the concept is for the entire Marvel universe, and, as Loki tends to do, it lends Doctor Strange itself a welcome layer of complexity. Stephen is certain that Loki is up to no good and that he wants the spell he’s hidden inside of Zelma, but are we? As always, Loki’s motivations are a mystery — I second Michael’s interpretation that Loki just wants everything that Stephen had, even if he doesn’t fully understand what they are. I suppose no matter what Loki is guilty of hubris, but couldn’t we say the same about Stephen right now?
That’s what makes Loki such a fascinating antagonist for Stephen. In many ways he’s brought out the best in Stephen, forcing him to adapt and improvise, which is always fascinating in a world of endless magical possibilities. The Stephen Strange who has to instigate a heist, steal a magical artifact, and set up his friend as a patsy is a lot more interesting to me than the one who has a few magic words at hand that can solve any problem. But Loki’s also brought out the worst in Stephen, the side of him that’s petty, the side of him that’s willing to pay a terrible price to achieve his goal.
Stephen himself admits that there’s a price to be paid for his actions. Paying a price for an action usually implies that an action is a crime, or morally wrong, but as a magician Stephen’s already used to paying a price for every spell he casts. Maybe Stephen sees these prices as less a punishment, and more a natural consequence of every action he takes, good or bad. It looks like he believes his current course will be worth the price he’ll eventually pay, but us readers can only wait and see whether he’s right or not.
Walta continues to provide excellent art to Doctor Strange, creating an aesthetic where even the most extreme, magical effect is grounded in the realism of Walta’s down-to-Earth figures and acting. It’s an effect that perfectly compliments Cates’ approach to the character. In terms of actual effects, I greatly appreciate the various panel borders Walta employs throughout the issue. In the New York-based scenes he uses standard borders, although they have just enough smudges and stray lines to them to look hand-drawn. The borders he uses when Strange and Loki travel to Dimension Blood are much shakier and less stable, which is an appropriate fit for such an unstable world, especially once Stephen’s magic transmutes it, changing it down to its very foundation.
Meanwhile, the scene at the hidden temple for the Disciples of Strange foregoes borders altogether, leaving each panel to drift directly in the bleed. It fits the more mystical element of the location, but even if you can’t find a reading that explains the kind of border used in each scene, just the fact that Walta uses these subtle changes to differentiate the issue’s three settings is a strong storytelling choice. Doctor Strange is full of those kinds of smart touches from every creator involved, which is why it’s such a strong title right now.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?