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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Doctor Strange

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Doctor Strange

(or “Different Singer, Same Song”)

For those of you who want to know exactly how important a storytelling engine is to sustaining an open-ended series, you need look no further than Doctor Strange. Specifically, you need look no further than ‘The Essential Doctor Strange, Volume Three’, but let’s take a step back first and look at the beginnings of the character.

Doctor Strange, like Spider-Man, is a creation of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko collaboration of the 1960s, and like Spider-Man, they hit this one out of the park. The origin is perfect (Stephen Strange is an arrogant, selfish-but-brilliant surgeon who suffers nerve damage in an accident. He goes to a mysterious Tibetan mystic called “The Ancient One” for help restoring his hands, but instead of finding a cure, he finds a calling as a defender of the human race.) The set-up is wonderful; Strange lives in a mysterious, creepy mansion in Greenwich Village, with the Ancient One acting as his mentor (as a wizened old man in early stories, and later as a disembodied ghost, a la Obi-Wan Kenobi.) He defends mankind against the shadowy, oppressive forces that dwarf our comprehension, existing in realms outside of our own. (A Lovecraft-inspired touch that Roy Thomas dwelt heavily on during his many classic runs on the series.) Admittedly, Doctor Strange runs into the same problem Green Lantern has; at times, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what he can and can’t do with his magical powers. But the tone of the stories remains true to Lee and Ditko’s (mostly Ditko’s) conception of him as the lone guardian, the sentinel that stands watch over the human race and protects it from forces that could utterly destroy it.

Now, let’s look at ‘Volume Three’. Steve Englehart is writing at this point, and having just come off a couple of mind-blowing stories (one where Strange witnesses the beginning of the universe, and another where he recreates the Earth in exact detail after its total destruction), he decides to come up with another wowser. This time, it’s a time-travel story, in which Doctor Strange meets a variety of historical figures like Sir Francis Bacon and Ben Franklin, examines their supposed interests in the occult, and learns “the secret occult history of America”…all the while, fending off a mysterious sorcerer known as Stygro.

Something about all that must have tripped somebody’s “controversial storyline idea” alert, because Englehart’s off the book two issues into the storyline, leaving Marv Wolfman to step in. Now Wolfman has to finish the story, but he has to finish it in a way that doesn’t use Englehart’s idea. This is where the storytelling engine shines. He might not be able to use the specific ideas Englehart would have used, but he knows the type of villain Doctor Strange faces, and the sorts of stories usually told in Doctor Strange. This allows him to plug in the mysterious “Quadriverse” as the villains behind Stygro, and although the story takes a different direction, it continues to work like a Doctor Strange story.

And then, after a few more parts, Wolfman leaves, forcing Jim Starlin to step in and finish the deal. But again, Starlin knows what a Doctor Strange story looks like. He understands the storytelling engine of Doctor Strange, and although he uses his own “pet” cosmic being, the In-Betweener, instead of Eternity, it’s still ‘Doctor Strange meets massive cosmic forces as the representative of humanity’. The same story goes through three writers, but they all are working from the same status quo, which allows them to salvage a workable tale from what could have been an utter disaster.

8 Comments

I agree that Strange has a pitch-perfect concept and some dodgy execution. Curse the perils of being a sorcerer in comics.

I see Lying in the Gutters is claiming that Muriel Gray is to write the good Doctor soon, but I have been unable to find any more information so far.

As I understand it, Englehart’s sudden departure from the title wasn’t due to a problem over Doctor Strange per se, more a big breakup between him and Marvel editorial of the day. The same month, he left his other title (Avengers) in mid-issue.
A long time ago, I read a fanzine article where Englehart summmarised his original ending for the story. As I recall, it revealed Stygro to be a psychic parasite, who had attached himself to the astral concept of America at its founding. As long as the country lived and flourished, he would leech power from it like a vampire. At the end of the story, Doctor Strange would have had to return to his own time to fight a final battle with Stygro and break his psychic connection. I was always sorry not to have read that version in full.

Saw the Muriel Gray thing in the soaraway “Scottish” Sun and have to say the gallus besom coud very well fall on the ‘dodgy execution’ side of the argument.

The US Bicentennial was acknowledged throughout popular culture, including many comics. Englehart’s entry was off to a great start. Not only did it begin in the Francis Bacon era (rather than with the more-obvious 1775-76 era), it also made me believe that septuagenerian ladies man Ben Franklin could seduce extradimensional teacher-lover Clea. I was completely hooked, and looking forward to watching the story unfold in future issues, when the first Wolfman issue came out and pulled the rug out from under the whole premise. Wolfman even had characters, including Strange, dismissing the events of the previous two issues as ridiculous and unbelievable. Which pissed me off: *I* believed it!

I’m going from 30-year-old memories here, but I know I felt that the new writer was showing not only contempt for Englehart, but for the readers. I dropped the title.

None of which undermines your point about Dr.Strange having a wonderfully flexible story engine, which could accomodate such leaps. In this case, though, the derailing of one kind of story, and it’s accompanying atmosphere, for another pulled me right out of the story and had me wondering instead about what the heck was happening in The House of Ideas.

I also thought that the instant change of direction complete with retconning of pretty much every story Englehart had done in the previous year (I think Strange was bi-monthly then) resulted in some pretty terrible stories. In fact I found the change in quality and the sudden drifting of the title after Englehart’s incredibly strong run to be one of the worst changes in Marvel history.

To go back to John’s original post, the strength of the Ditko Strange stories was that there were distinct, if largely implicit, limits to what magic and Doc himself more specifically could do. He coul;d b shot by an ordinary gun, for example,, as happened in one Ditko-era story; conversely, his powers were at their most effective when he used them cleverly.

You don’t often see Ditko’s Dr. Strange doing much more than casting illusions, using hypnosis, tossing zaps and creating shields, using the Eye of Agomatto’s anti-evil light for the really powerful foes, using the Cloak to fly, and dodging harm via astral projection (which had very explicit limits in Ditko’s tales). The more exotic stuff is presented as workable only on already-beaten foes, or as requiring lots of incantation and preparation and interpretive dance.

Once Ditko left, however, power creep and “do-anything” doggerel spells became the rule…and then Engelhart, for all the brilliance of his stories, took Doc “cosmic” in the 1970s fashion. The character has never really been grounded in a way allowing for a workable execution of the concept since.

Oh, I think that’s all just a myth. Lots of writer/artist teams have done a fantastic job with Doc despite the alleged “power creep problem”, and plenty of writers who’ve sought to give him more “clearly defined” powers have bollixed it up. Is there really some huge potential Doc audience out there, that’s only not buying because the magic powers are just too confusing?

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