by Spencer Irwin and Taylor Anderson
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: Since our audience has excellent taste, I’m going to assume that you’re all watching NBC’s The Good Place, right? Essentially a show about lost souls trying to earn their way into Heaven by becoming better people, one of the more interesting concepts percolating beneath the show’s surface is the idea that the rules dictating what afterlife you’re sent to are inherently flawed and unfair. It’s almost impossible to earn your way into the Good Place — only the most selfless and charitable of souls make it — leaving plenty of folks who led wholly mediocre lives (or whose greatest crimes were being born in Florida) facing an eternity of torture and punishment. I couldn’t help but think of this while reading Nick Spencer, Donny Cates, and Rod Reis’ Doctor Strange: Damnation 1, which finds the city of Las Vegas, the Avengers, and perhaps the entire world being judged by equally biased, unfair rules.
Remember in Secret Empire, when the city of Las Vegas was destroyed by Hydra? With his newfound boost in power, Doctor Strange is finally able to do something about it, bringing back the city and resurrecting every soul lost in the attack. All magic has a cost, though, and in this case, the cost appears to be dragging Mephisto and a chunk of Hell back with the city.
The creative team’s interpretation of Mephisto is wildly entertaining — he’s irreverent and theatrical, but still menacing — which almost masks how horrific this whole scenario is. An entire city is sent to Hell simply because of its reputation for sin, and because it would be too much effort to judge each soul individually. It’s immoral yet incredibly mundane, flawed not out of hatred, but out of bureaucracy — certainly akin to the business-like demons of The Good Place, but not that dissimilar from the disregard for human life so many lawmakers and businessmen have in real life either.
Now that Mephisto’s brought a chunk of Hell back to Earth with him, he’s claiming the souls of all sinners in his vicinity (and eventually across the globe), but by his own admission, he has a rather subjective definition of “sin.” The first we see fall victim to his control are a man cheating on his wife, a gangster, and looters robbing a store — maybe not deserving of eternal torment, but certainly bad people — but his judgment quickly spreads to far less deserving targets like strippers, a man who doesn’t put change in the parking meter, and a boxer. More problematic still, he next claims the Avengers themselves.
The Avengers’ sniping here is rooted in recent events and characterization in a way that makes it feel genuine, whether or not Mephisto is stoking their anger (and for the record, I’m genuinely unsure if he’s influencing them here or not). I don’t want to try too much to figure out which of this issue’s co-writers is responsible for which portion, but this scene feels like a direct continuation of Nick Spencer’s work in Civil War II: The Oath, where Stevil Rogers tried to paint the Avengers’ faults as major sins that made their defeat just and inevitable. Mephisto seems to share a similarly uncharitable view of these heroes, viewing their petty arguments as worthy of soul-stealing damnation.
In The Good Place, the afterlife’s rigid, unfair rules are a result of divine beings who underestimate humanity’s ability to grow and change, and who don’t truly understand human beings as well as they should — nor do most care to learn more. It’s not entirely clear if Mephisto is following strict and unfair rules of judgment or simply damning souls on a whim because he loves it (though I’m leaning towards the latter), but his actions likewise betray his indifference to the value of a human soul. He doesn’t care about humans, nor does he believe in them.
Stephen Strange is the exact opposite. He brought Las Vegas back because he cared about the lives lost there so deeply that he didn’t even care what consequences his actions might bring. While his facing Mephisto is him taking responsibility for his mistake, his gambit — betting Mephisto that good people, that heroes, that his friends will always come through in the end — belies his utter faith in the potential of humanity. The Avengers let him down, but other friends do not.
Bats the (ghost) dog is a true friend, seeking out help when Strange needs it most. Wong, on the other hand, is ready to leave Strange to handle his mistakes on his own, and truthfully, nobody could really blame him. “Las Vegas” perks his ears, though — Strange may not deserve Wong’s help, but all those other innocent souls do, and he can’t stand idly by as Mephisto threatens the world. As Strange predicted, Wong comes through when it matters most, assembling a team of Blade, Moon Knight, Elsa Moonstone, Doctor Voodoo, Man-Thing, Iron Fist, and Ghost Rider to combat Mephisto.
Together these heroes are more than capable of taking down Mephisto physically, but that’s not really the kind of threat he poses now, is it? The true test will be whether these heroes are strong enough morally to escape Mephisto’s judgment — or, if that’s even possible when the rules are stacked so significantly, so unfairly in Mephisto’s favor. I look forward to seeing how they’ll turn the tables on him.
Taylor, what’s your take on this event? And how about Rod Reis’ art and colors? His work is absolutely stunning throughout, but are there any specific moments you’d like to discuss?
Taylor: Oh man Spencer, that’s a tough question! There’s just so, so much to love about Reis’ artwork that choosing a few instances I like is hard. You might as well be asking me to choose between pizza or Chinese food when ordering in on a Friday night. As hard as that question is, there are a few moments that stand out in my mind as particularly wonderful. What I first like about Reis’ artwork is the way he portrays mood and tone with color and content. When Stephen first returns Las Vegas to the land of the living he is overcome with the happy feeling that he has done something wonderful.
What immediately strikes me about this page is how vibrant and light the colors are. Lots of light blues, white, and other natural colors permeate the page. These bright colors give the page a buoyancy right off the bat. Once you look at the actual content of the page, you see that these colors are no mistake. Scenes of families and couples hugging, dogs running in the grass, and a seemingly pristine city show just how wonderful it is for everyone to be brought back from the dead. Stephen’s face depicted in the middle of these scenes, sporting a satisfied smile, shows how he’s basically breathing it all in and feeling pretty damn happy about what he’s just done.
Just a few pages later, though, the tone shifts dramatically when Mephisto’s Hotel Inferno bores up from the ground. This shift in tone is jarring because the colors and content on this page are expertly juxtaposed with the page above.
Whereas the scene of a resurrected Las Vegas is light in color, here it’s suddenly dark with the colors being dominated by black and a touch here and there of burning hot red. Black almost always signals something evil and that proves just so here, so it’s no wonder that this page shifts the feeling of the issue so abruptly. The content, of course, depicts Mephisto’s realm, which naturally includes all sort of skulls and pointy things that don’t exactly engender positive feelings. Then there’s Reis’ choice to position the angle of the panel below the tower. This accentuates the size of the tower which gives the impression that it is lording over Las Vegas, which it’s doing both figuratively and literally.
Both of these pages are grandiose in scale but it would be a mistake to assume that this is the only thing Reis is good at. Aside from Strange, the most important character in this issue is Mephisto, and it’s apparent that Reis is having a blast depicting him. Throughout the entire issue Mephisto changes things up on Stephen by teleporting him to new rooms and situations. These scenes usually change based on what Mephisto is talking about and just like his surroundings, the demon changes appearance, or at least depiction, as well. Just look at how these two close-ups of his face are different.
In the first panel, Mephisto is all suave and smooth talking about essentially conning people out of their souls. His depiction, likewise, shows him with rounded features and a face that is almost human-like. Essentially this is Mephisto at his most playful. However, when he tastes blood when Stephen offers to gamble with the demon, Mephisto is made up sharp angles and pointy teeth, revealing his more devilish side. These fluid depictions of Mephisto are great, detailed drawings that suggest the reality of Stephen’s situation is being bent as he’s led deeper into his enemy’s trap.
But the artwork isn’t the only thing I enjoyed about this issue. Nick Spencer and Donny Cates seem to understand what a Doctor Strange comic is all about because they makes sure to include everything in this issue which makes the series fun. When it comes to this aspect, just like Reis artwork, it’s difficult to choose one thing I liked the most. However, if my hand were forced I might have to go with the return of Stephen’s faithful dog, Bats, to the fold.
As exemplified here, Bats represents the more zany and weird parts of the Doctor Strange. He’s a talking ghost dog with an attitude much bigger than his small frame would suggest. Bats serves as a reminder that Doctor Strange, at its best, never takes itself too seriously. Bats embodies this ethos not only in form though. When he complains about nobody taking him seriously because he poops in the yard, it serves as a reminder of who and what exactly Bats is. He’s a talking ghost dog. On some level that’s always going to be goofy and weird and funny and that’s perfectly alright. In fact, I might argue, it’s what makes this series consistently stand out from others.
So, while I may not be a fan of the Good Place (sorry Spencer!), I found that reading this issue was anything but hellacious.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
This comic really didn’t work for me. It just fell really, really flat. Which is a shame, because I was looking forward to Cates doing something big like this.
Is it the way that this comic (probably, as Spencer says, a Nick Spencer element) goes back to the well of ‘heroes fighting each other, heroes need to stop fighting each other’, which feels really wrong for an epilogue of Secret Empire, an event that already addressed that. Secret Empire’s epilogue should feel like it has a different take on heroes than ‘they have the exact same flaw they resolved in Secret EMpire’
Is it the lack of active characters? The Avengers stand around doing nothing, Mephisto is an antagonist that only exposits and Strange just sits there and listens. The people of Vegas could have been the missing protagonists, but they are so thinly sketched that they aren’t. No wonder why Wong’s scenes are the best. Here, we have an actual protagonist that actively makes decisions and do things (I was wondering what Wong’s role in the Doctor Strange book was going to be going forward, so very happy to see that he appears to be front and centre here).
Or is it Rod Reis’ art? THe art itself is great, and he must be happy, after ten issues of Secret EMpire where he just drew fluff, to get to do something with actual story. But this comic feels like it is missing a lot of panelling that could improve the visual storytelling and better handle the exposition. There is some confusion about whether Mephisto was manipulating the Avengers, and I think part of that is that the script and the art do not integrate together well enough to make the exposition work as well as it should.
But even ignoring this, there are massive problems. Like the guillotine scene. Why are we missing a panel with him before the guillotine falls? The most basic element of storytelling is action/consequence, and ti is weirdly missing. Especially when we also have a panel of Mephisto with his head in a lion’s jaw. Reis just appears to jump all over the place when Mephisto is on page, confusing the storytelling with cuts that don’t work as well as they should. I understand what he is trying to do, but by not showing entire beats, he isn’t creating a sense of madcap chaos, he is undercutting his storytelling beats at every turn.
I was so ecited for this, as Cates has been doing such a great job with Doctor Strange that giving him the big stage for something like this sounded like an amazing idea. But it fell so flat. I was planning on writing a piece on how this issue failed to avoid the issue 0 trap, only to realise this isn’t a 0 issue. It is a number 1.
Ultimately, the problem with this issue is that it is bad
Matt – I couldn’t agree more. I was extremely underwhelmed by this.
This certainly didn’t get me to read all the tie-ins and I guess I’m dropping it.
On the other hand: If you want to read something interesting about the dead. Read Punk’s Not Dead #1 out this week. Fantastic. I am giddy with excitement for it. Read it and reread it and get super excited. Art that pops off the page, two disparate yet connected story lines. Awesome.
I’ll probably give it another try, as I want to continue reading Cates’ run and this is going to be the next part of it. I’d hate to drop Doctor Strange because it has been so good recently. But urgh, it was bad.
And I’ll keep an eye out for Punk’s Not Dead
I’m not going to drop Dr. Strange completely, Cates has been too good. I’m just not going to read the Damnation mini-series or the tie ins. I’ll still read the main Strange title and hope it makes sense. I’ll go back on Marvel Unlimited in a few months and read the Mini-Series as a whole.
And I agree with you, it’s hard to explain how far of a departure this was from the rest of the Dr. Strange stories. Strange himself felt…Strange, but the structure and themes were so far from what we’d come to expect. Spencer, who I like in general, missed with Secret Empire and that influence is pretty strong here.
I wouldn’t call Secret Empire a complete miss. The first half was strong, before the godawful finale where Spencer seemed to have given up on having any real ideas or characters or anything.
But Spencer feels like a weak point here. I like Spencer in general, but after telling a story about Marvel’s heroes putting aside their differences and coming together to save the day, it is weird to then go instantly back to the same well for this event, which is essentially an epilogue to Secret Empire. It feels like Spencer only has one idea for event level comics, and now that he had his chance, he should stay away from events. Or at least wait until Secret Empire is old enough that enough time has passed for a new ‘Heroes can’t unite, evil villain exploits’ story can be told. And again, an epilogue to Secret Empire is the very worst place to go back to this well.
But I don’t think it is as clear as it just being Spencer’s fault. Reis certainly deserves some of the blame, for the art issues, but so does Cates. Cates was Spencer’s partner and both of them worked on the script. And that has serious issues. Part of the problem is the script has major issues, and that’s on both.
I’m going to hope the second issue is stronger. Otherwise, I’ll probably just do the same as you