Underestimating Rock Bottom in Doctor Strange 386

by Spencer Irwin

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Spencer: Doctor Strange has had a rough year. Mind you, I don’t think superheroes ever get to have easy years, but Strange has still had it harder than most as of late, between the Empirikul’s magical genocide, Loki’s coup, and the loss of all his friends and allies. It makes sense that Strange might be looking for a win. It makes sense that his decision to raise and restore Las Vegas might not be entirely selfless. And, given the price he’s paying for this act, it makes sense that his attempts to make things right are only leading to more mistakes. Strange thought he’d hit rock bottom, but he didn’t realize how much worse things could get.

Donny Cates and Niko Henrichon’s Doctor Strange 387 takes place concurrently with Damnation 1, meaning the issue opens before Strange raises Las Vegas, allowing us to see the preparation he put into the act. His prep is both magical and more mundane, including a bit of hair dye to cover up his graying temples. Bats extrapolates this minor act of vanity into an entire thesis statement, and I think the ghost dog’s got a point.

Raising Las Vegas is a good thing, but why did Strange do it — because it was the right thing to do, or because he desperately needed a win? The evidence seems to point towards the latter. First there’s Strange’s fantasy of the city raised, which Henrichon and Cates depict in a sunny, joyous two-page spread and which finds Strange the center of attention. Then there’s Strange’s stubborn refusal to calculate the cost of his massive magical act. “I’ve been paying [the price] for a long time,” Strange states; he seems to think that he’s owed a win after the year he’s had.

He might not be wrong, but sadly, neither magic nor the world works that way. This pattern continues in Strange’s game of cards against Mephisto, where Strange wins the game by cheating, but is eventually caught. This move is brought on by Mephisto taunting Strange with the supposed fact that all his friends damned because of him, to which Strange responds “I don’t have any friends. Not anymore.” Again Strange thinks that he’s already hit bottom, that he’s already lost everything there is to lose, and he couldn’t be more wrong. Maybe Mephisto can teach Strange some humility in that sense, but how many others will end up hurt to impart that lesson? And will Strange actually internalize it, or will he just keep thinking of others’ pain as personal indignities against himself in a neverending cycle of hubris and bad luck?

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

3 comments on “Underestimating Rock Bottom in Doctor Strange 386

  1. I liked this issue a lot, from the art to the colors to the story. I think the game of cards itself was weak (I didn’t really get what made Strange win and the win seemed too easy or the game seemed too short, but there definitely wasn’t a sense of time there – maybe it was meant to be a 15 second game, but if it was, shouldn’t *that* have been a feature too? Two powerful entities battling for souls in a game of hi-card? Anyway, I digress)

    I like that I think that this is all part of a plan.

    And I think back – did Strange know Bats would/might die in his encounter with Loki and use that so he’d have something powerful enough for the tree?

    Anyway, I like to think this is part of the plan, including the leg breaking, and he’ll pay this price to win. I think it is and we’ll see him have a Hannibal (A-Team) moment when he loves it when a plan comes together. And I like it because I don’t know where this is going. That’s been the remarkable thing about this run by Cates – I have no clue as to what next issue might bring.

    • I agree about the card game, which was definitely the one sour note of the issue for me — with no real idea of what game they’re playing or how to play it, it falls a bit flat. I’m also not sure how Strange expected to cheat with talking cards, nor how confident he actually was in winning before he cheated. Why gamble on something as arbitrary as a card game?

      Or maybe I’m just annoyed because it contradicts the theory I laid out in my Damnation 1 piece, the idea that Strange and Mephisto were betting on the morality of Strange’s friends. I still think it’s a more interesting bet than a game of cards.

  2. So it looks like time to drop Doctor Strange. First we had the awful first issue of Doctor Strange Damnation. Then this terrible issue. And then, strike three, Marvel announced that the book is being relaunched with Waid at the helm, which means that this isn’t a bad arc to suffer through for the sake of Cates greater run. This is the climax, and the climax of Cates run is marked by incompetence.

    Scott and Spencer have already said a lot about the terrible card game, though it could have worked. Even if we didn’t understand the rules. You just had to show the game. The fact that Strange cheated off screen screws everything up, especially in a game we don’t know the rules of. Without seeing what Strange did, we don’t understand what it means when Mephisto is so surprised. It completely fails.

    And it is a massive problem, as it feels like the only scene in the book that could have worked. The rest fails from not having anything to tell. There is no story here, except for the card game, it merely exists around the story. Even if Doctor Strange: Damnation wasn’t a terrible comic, it wouldn’t justify the fact that this is an issue made up of everything not worth putting in he main comic.
    It can’t even do that well. It fills some of Damnation’s massive failures of exposition, but does so in the most banal, boring way. Forget the fact that we all had more interesting theories about what was happening than actually happened (Spencer, your idea is so much better), it tells us in the most boring way possible.
    There are a couple of good character moments, but the failures of storytelling in nearly every moment really screw with my ability to care about those moments.

    How did Cates so suddenly go so wrong?

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