Andy’s Read Pile: Dr. Strange, Damnation

cropped-img_4788.jpg Howdy Cats and Kittens! It’s Andy Larson, host of the Ghosts, back with another entry of my read pile that just went the way of a famous Queen tune. No, I don’t mean “Fat Bottom Girls”, but “Another one bites the dust”, which I think it fitting given my entire theme for this month’s entries for this blog. Yes, I’m talking death and destruction. Unholy monsters and supernatural scares. Spooksville, baby, population scream!

And of course, I couldn’t have a month’s worth of read piles starring supernatural tales and not include at least one entry from that Master of the Mystic Arts himself, Dr. Stephen Strange. The only question was which story should I talk about? Was it time to dip back into the archives and talk about an obscure story from the Ditko or Englehart eras? Nah, I’m tired of doing books nobody else seems to care about. What about Triumph and Torment with Dr. Doom? Nah, I still want to save that for a Rookie read pile on the podcast some time when we have my wife or Zach Josebeck on. What about the Oath? Hmmm…getting warmer…but still most of that was rehashed in the Dr. Strange movie, so maybe I can do a Popcorn to panels post with Chad Smith about that one some time.

Then I got smacked in the face by this recent tale put together earlier this year by Nick Spencer and Donny Cates with art by Rod Reis called “Damnation” and I said, “Well if ain’t a book that should be read around Halloween, I’m not sure what is.” I mean it’s got Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider, Man Thing, the infamous 90s super-team Midnight Sons, and even the Mephisto as the bad guy. Yeah, warlocks, vengeful spirits, monsters, monster hunters, and the Devil. Too bad they didn’t throw in Jack O’ Lantern as a member of the rogues gallery or better yet a creature that straight up vomits king sized Snickers Bars to make this Halloween comic book checklist complete!

Coming in at the tail end of Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire story line (which I refuse to spend valuable time discussing here), Damnation starts with the destroyed city of Las Vegas, and a fateful decision made by our Sorcerer Supreme spurred by the feeling that he’s had enough of death and loss. So he decides to use his recently “amp”ed up powers to basically resurrect the entire city.

Now I know what your thinking if Dr. Strange has had powers like this before, why the heck hasn’t he used them? That’s a valid point I feel, and equally I feel, the answer is he has. Maybe not exactly like this, but there have been times throughout the history of this character that he has been displayed to have ungodly amounts of power, capable of influencing events in the Marvel Universe on an epic scale. That’s been the whole challenge about writing Dr. Strange. His power limits have never been clearly defined. He fluctuates wildly from one writer to the next depending on what is called on for that particular story. And because it’s all magic based vs. science based, you can sort of justify whatever explanation you want to give as why he can survive the complete destruction of the universe at the hands of Eternity in one story, but has difficulty escaping from a pair of fancy handcuffs in another. It’s magic, baby, it doesn’t really have to make sense!

In any case, it turns out that prior to the resurrection, Sin City had been fittingly delivered to the realm of Mephisto, and went it was brought back to our world, it brought Mephisto and his demons with them. In fact, in an obvious yet super awesome conceit, Mephisto’s power on our Earth manifested itself as the latest hotel on the Las Vegas strip, Inferno’s. And there’s Mephisto as the pit boss of pit bosses, free to enslave souls of the living as opposed to just the dead due to the link Dr. Strange created with his resurrection spell. In fact, Mephisto truly believes that he is just reclaiming what was stolen  from him by Stephen, and that he’s only taking those that have sinned. “Sinned” however being just a broad trend that even those committing the smallest infractions are being sold into service of this demonic entrepreneur.

Of course, Strange doesn’t want to see his hard work spoiled and thinks he can fight Mephisto alone and thus enters the hell spawned gambling den to confront his demonic nemesis. But Mephisto was planning for this and uses both the past sins of Strange and the Avengers, fresh off some of the heinous things they did while being manipulated by Nazi Cap, to turn them into spirits of vengeance slaves similar to Ghost Rider.

Worst of all though, in his hubris to fight the Devil on his terms alone, he leaves himself wide open for Mephisto to also put the whammy on him as well, turning him into another one of his skull faced army of casino enforcers. Now, I’ve read some reviews of this particular book by others, that between the choice to resurrect Las Vegas and being blindsided by Mephisto, that it’s actually very difficult to actually like Dr. Strange in this book. He acts like a total arrogant jackass for most of it, and that turned a ton of people off. To that criticism, I respond with the following:

“Eh. It’s no worse than some of the things Iron Man has done, yet everyone slurps old Tony for dinner. Grow up.”

In fact, I’m of the opinion that given Strange’s near godlike powers, that making him a easily manipulated stooge is one of the few ways you can actually nerf his powers in the book and thus actually add something vaguely resembling conflict or drama. The guy has been used in comics past as a walking Deus Ex Machina, able to converse with cosmic granddaddies like the Living Tribunal, so without him having some sort of human foible to trip him up from time to time, what kind of story could you really tell about him that doesn’t end in three panels saying:

“By the Flowers of Failtar, Bad Guy, you are now a bowl of Geraniums. Poof!”

Regardless, with Strange out of commission, it’s up to his faithful companion, Wong, to formulate a plan of counterattack in hopes of setting right the mess that Strange made in playing God and in turn pissing off the Devil. So he reforms the defunct 90s supernatural super team, the Midnight Suns, because they are both both parts mystical and disposable. Wong makes that abundantly clear, it’s somewhat of a suicide mission and the Sons are acting as a Dirty Dozen if sorts making sure the demon army and undead Avengers are distracted enough for the real attack to occur. And that attack comes courtesy of their ace in the hole, the original bad ass bike riding chain whipping son of a gun, Johnny Blaze, the “OG” GR.

Now for those of you that were fans of the Midnight Sons comic in the early 90s, first off, what is wrong with you? Second, seriously, what is wrong with you, it was terrible. Third, this isn’t exactly the same line up as that team. No Hellstorm, no Jennifer Kale, No Morbius, No Werewolf by night. In fact Blade and Ghost Rider are the only returning members of that squad of darkness, with the rest of the team rounded out with fairly popular characters from recent years with some sort of mystic bent, like Brother Voodoo, Moon Knight, and Elsa Bloodstone from Next Wave. Plus, for all those Steve Gerber fans like myself, we get us some Defender of the Nexus of All Realities, Man-Thing, which was probably my most geeky moment in this.

We also get Iron Fist for no apparent reason, which I believe they actually make meta fictionary reference to, as many of the other heroes make reference to the fact that he was part of the team, and yet appropriately supernatural heroes like the Scarlet Witch were left off. Wong simply shrugs and again points to the fact that Wanda has a ton of skeletons in her closet and if she was compromised by Mephisto like the other Avengers, well, let’s just say Iron Fist would be easier to kill.

Finally, the strangest guest star of the book is Ben Riley, the recently resurrected Scarlet Spider, who just happens to live in Las Vegas so of course he’s gonna show up? I mean, I guess if you want to sell a Marvel book with a bunch of no name heroes, the tried and true method is to have Spider-man guest star in it, even if that’s technically a clone of Spidey, or as they call him in the story “Diet Spider-man”.

Now, given this is a more recent book, I’m not really going to go very much further into a synopsis of the story in case there are those of you out there that want to read it. However, long story short, the new Midnight Sons and Demonically possessed Avengers tussle for a couple issues while Wong’s real plan to save Dr. Strange from Mephisto takes effect. And without giving away the hows or whys, eventually, he succeeds and Dr. Strange gets to whoop on the Devil’s ass for a bit with some super secret super sauce powers thus saving the day.

Sure, I might get some grief over giving away the ending but c’mon, it’s a comic book about superheroes fighting the Lord of Hell. Of course, there’s going to be a happy ending. It’s like going to get a massage at certain Vietnamese parlors, it’s pretty much a given you are going to get one.

Not that it detracts from the from the satisfying nature in which Mephisto gets his comeuppance. Truly, like some sort of Ocean’s 11 Casino heist, Wong masterminds a full proof plan to take the Devil to the cleans, and once it all comes together, it’s extremely fun to watch.

In closing, I do want to point out that I only read the Damnation mini series proper, and not all of the tons and tons of tie in books. I’m sure those books probably flesh out some of the character motivations a bit, but to be honest, I really didn’t miss them. Sure, there was a couple times, I wished I had read the Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider tie ins, as those sounded cool, but other than that, the story delivered in the mini series itself, was pretty complete and readable to a large degree.

And I gotta say that was refreshingly nice. It would have been easy with a story like this to tie in too many garbage books that I had no interest in. Yes, I said garbage. I don’t care if you like the Wesley Snipes Blade movies, I’m not not shelling out money for a book with him in it. But Nick Spencer and Donny Cates resisted that for the most part and instead we are given a fairly satisfying little Dr. Strange jaunt, with some really nice interactions between him and his life long friend, Wong.

In fact, I think that was the best thing I took away from this story, was a more 3 dimensional Wong character and his almost brotherly relationship with Stephen. It’s a long way from the days of the character just being a simple man servant, and instead it’s more like what they do with modern interpretations of Kato from the Green Hornet in which Wong is more than capable of being a match of Dr. Strange and two have more of a working partnership, than just another member of Strange’s entourage ready to throw the cape of levitation on him after a long performance ala James Brown. And just for that alone, I think this was a pretty worthwhile read.

Andy’s Read Pile Grade: B-

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