Ambiguity and Closure in Doctor Strange 390

by Patrick Ehlers

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


I had a writing teacher in college that used to say there were four kinds of stories. The first is the most common: the hero wants something, gets it, and is happy he got it. We see this one in superhero media all the time, right? Batman wants to catch the Riddler, he does, feels great about it. The second type of story is the hero wants something, gets it, is unhappy he got it. This is the old Twilight Zone twist — “I can live forever, BUT AT WHAT COST?” The last two kinds of stories are similar: hero wants something, doesn’t get it, is happy to have not gotten it, and; hero wants something, doesn’t get it, is unhappy to have not gotten it. Doctor Strange 390 manages to be a weird mix of all these types of stories, where even the question of who our hero is leads to some fascinating ambiguity. Donny Cates’ send-off to Doctor Strange is as mysterious, and true to the tone of the character, as a reader could possibly hope for.

The whole issue is built on these kinds of subtle contradictions. Right from the first page, it’s striking to see Frazer Irving’s moody, atmospheric art telling the goofy story of Spider-Man talking to Zelma outside the Sanctum Santorum. Irving’s style is perfect for a Doctor Strange book — it is somehow textured and flat at the same time, implying a sort of uneasy relationship between the reality and the medium. I’m used to seeing him draw huge crazy splash pages with demons and magicians and whatever other epic noise the writer throws at him. But Cates slows Irving to a decompressed crawl, keeping the reader in delightfully human moments between the characters.

It’s all such a strange application of Irving’s talents, and the effect is totally disarming and enchanting. When Spider-Man actually gets his wish — the ability to talk to spiders — we see one of those simple story types I mentioned above play out. Spider-Man gets what he wants and is not happy with the result… ‘cuz, y’know, spiders are fucking weirdos. Who would want that?

But that’s sort of the perfect set up for what Strange and Zelma are about to go through. What the hell do they even want at this point? In a moment that perhaps betrays his true desires, Strange asks “are you coming back?” and it takes Zelma and the creators two panels of silence before they can confidently answer “No.” I guess if there is a thing that both of these characters want, it’s closure, and this issue does provide that for both of them.


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

3 comments on “Ambiguity and Closure in Doctor Strange 390

  1. It really is so charming to see Spider-Men written well. Cates and Irving present him with the perfect mixture of earnest, awkward, funny, and kind, which is really the best mode for the character. Not much more to say than that; I liked the issue quite a bit, and the Spider-Man/Peter-Dr.Strange heart to heart was touching.

  2. I loved this issue. Irving’s art, especially the colors, was so incongruous for some of the scenes it was perfect. I felt like I was watching the old ’67 Spider-Man cartoon but had smoked just a little bit too much hash. “Why are the colors moving? Why are they the only two people in the world? What if they ARE the only two people in the world and those are the only colors and red and blue and green are just imaginary?”

    I wasn’t as much of a fan of Spider-Man talking to the spider until I read it. It was an idea that has been explored before in Spidey (as in Pete always says, “No, I don’t talk to spiders”), but it was so well done – a perfect two page comic spread.

    And the conclusion. Damn. The breakup is real. I didn’t expect it – who honestly thought Mark Waid’s Dr. Strange team-up was going to be Strange and Ghost-Dog.

    I just reread this quick and noticed Bats has a Spider-Man toy at the vet’s office. And I don’t know why he keeps interrupting Spidey (super excited I guess) but it’s hilarious.

    This was a great run and a great issue with a great ending. Cates took what Aaron had left him and freaking knocked it out of the park. A++ will read again and recommend to friends.

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