Here is the third and final installment of my look back at the bizarre, experimental, amazing run on Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme by writer David Quinn. Many of the major subplots of Quinn’s arc come to an epic conclusion in issue #s 72-75, the four part “Last Rites.”
Previously Doctor Strange had assembled the mystic artifacts he had collected into a Forge, and had used it to tap into the “Gaian Aura” of the Earth itself to gain access to a new source of magickal energy. As “Last Rites” opens, Strange believes he is finally ready to confront his usurper, the ancient Salome, who has assumed the title of Sorceress Supreme. After a year shielding himself in his null space Sanctum Sanctorum beneath Trinity Church, Strange opens up the gateway to it, expecting Salome will take the bait and come charging in, ready to do battle. However, this doesn’t happen. Instead, the mystic entity Agamotto materializes, warning that he and the other beings comprising the Vishanti have granted Salome their benediction. Strange is horrified, believing that now Salome will be even more difficult to defeat, and despairs that his months of preparations have been in vain.
Obsessed over both stopping Salome and traveling to the Dark Dimension to assist his former lover Clea, Doctor Strange decides he must reclaim the energy he invested in the creation of the artificial beings “Vincent Stevens” and “Strange.” He uses the Gaian Aura to create an aetheric sword & suit of armor which will protect him from the corrupting energies of Salome’s Dance still within him. Doctor Strange then head off to confront the Strangers. Arriving at the Tempo Building, he finds the pair preparing to finally merge together to ensure their continued existence. Neither of the Strangers is ready to simply hand over his life energies to their “father,” and so a battle quickly erupts.
Elsewhere, in the Dark Dimension, a despondent Clea is preparing to enter into an alliance with her uncle, the dread Dormammu, deposed ruler of the realm. Clea is reluctant to side with her evil relative, but she feels that she has no choice, given that Doctor Strange was unable to aid her in restoring order to her war-ravaged home. Entering the magick dampening field of the Sanctuary, Clea and Dormammu prepare to sign a peace accord. However, even stripped of his mystical energies, Dormammu is not powerless. Treacherously, he brutally, bare-handedly rips the spine from one of his own soldiers and hurls it at his niece. The only thing that saves Clea is her advisor Nobel, who throws himself between the two, receiving a mortal wound. Clea’s ragtag army quickly flees, with Dormammu and his forces giving pursuit.
Back on Earth, Doctor Strange is attempting to convince “Strange” that Vincent Stevens intends to betray his would-be ally. Indeed, Stevens plans to use his techno-magick not to merge with “Strange” but to take possession of his form. Stevens’ own technology is eventually turned against him, and the doppelganger is destroyed.
With just “Strange” left, the Doctor tries to induce the entity to willingly give up his existence, so that both Earth and the Dark Dimension can be saved. However, the aetheric entity refuses, hollering to his creator “If you want to amend your errors, give me a REAL life!” He argues that Doctor Strange is acting just as selfish and manipulative as Vincent Stevens was before, proving himself a monumental hypocrite. And despite all that is at stake, the Doctor finally realizes that his creation is right, that sacrificing “Strange” with an ends-justify-the-means rationalization will make him just a bad as the entity who harbored all his darker, buried impulses.
The Doctor is forced to acknowledge that “Strange” is sentient, that he has a soul, a right to exist. The magician tells his creation “I am willing to sacrifice what I most desire… in order to give you life!” The two pool their energies, and the master of the mystic arts transports “Strange” to the Dark Dimension. There, “Strange” merges with the dying Noble, becoming a new, composite entity known as Paradox, who embodies the personalities & qualities of both beings. Paradox saves Clea from Dormammu and his Mindless Ones, transporting her to safety, ready to fight by her side in the future.
Doctor Strange, knowing that Clea is safe, returns to his Sanctum to confront Salome, who has at last arrived. Strange realizes that, for all his plots & planning, in the end he is nowhere near powerful enough to defeat Salome. His only hope is to utilize strategy and try to bluff the Sorceress Supreme. Indeed, although Salome probably could have defeated Strange easily, she has become so utterly obsessed, so insane with the thought of humiliating him that he is, just barely, able to outmaneuver & trick her into defeating herself. An unexpected ally is also presented in the form of Sister Nil. The Lilin has come to care deeply for Strange and is ready to sacrifice herself for him.
Salome is banished once more from Earth’s dimension. The corrupting energy of Salome’s Dance finally removed from his body, Doctor Strange completely rejuvenates himself, physically becoming a much younger man. Donning a pair of mystic spectacles, he safely emerges from his Sanctum to finally walk the streets of New York, ready to restart his life.
The near-total revamp of Doc’s physical appearance is odd and unexpected. As others have commented, this new form, as drawn by Peter Gross, bears a more than passing resemblance to John Lennon. I was rather surprised by this. I e-mailed Quinn to see if he would share his memories of this redesign. Here’s his response:
“I think that was the powers that be’s guidance. I reached out to Evan, but he was on vacation, so we’re going on my hazy memory of an uncomfortable time. That’s an important context to capture − Marvel’s ownership was decimating the system of distributors and stores and sales were plummeting across the line. (All we could claim with Doc was that our sales were slipping more slowly than the rapid freefall of other titles — not enough.) Editors were losing jobs every week and desperate to grab attention for their books. So with hindsight, I think Evan’s bosses saw our new empowered Doc and steered it toward a more youthful look. Ironically, he ended up looking like a 25 year old Harry Potter. Look at other books at the time and you might detect other desperate measures to temporarily pump up sales to keep editorial employed.”
As a reader who witnessed the tumultuous upheavals of Marvel in the mid-1990s, I have to agree that Quinn’s memory of where the directive to de-age Doctor Strange came from sounds plausible. I can certainly imagine how editorial and/or management might say “Hey, if we make Doc young & hip, more teenagers will read him!” After all, these are the same people who just a year later gave over Captain America and Avengers to Rob Liefeld.
Regarding the other aspects of “Last Rites,” I was initially surprised that Quinn had spent three and a half issues focusing on Doctor Strange’s confrontation with the Strangers, and only the last half of the double-sized #75 was devoted to his final battle with Salome. This pacing seemed an unusual choice. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Doctor’s most important conflict was not with Salome, but with himself.
Even before Quinn’s run, Strange had always been a rather distant, aloof figure, often detaching himself from the world he had pledged to protect. After he was stripped of his position as Sorcerer Supreme, depowered, and afflicted with Salome’s Dance, he then began to act in a ruthless, manipulative manner. Strange kept his allies at arm’s length and in the dark concerning his intentions. He created, used, and then discarded his aetheric agents the Strangers with a disturbing casualness. In his obsession to overcome Salome, he had allowed himself to become alienated from his own humanity. It was more important for the Doctor to confront the consequences of his actions, and for him to acknowledge that much of the Strangers’ ruthlessness & brutality came from his own long-buried flaws. Finally, the Doctor had to be willing to sacrifice his happiness, and perhaps even his life, to both enable “Strange” to exist and to save Clea, even if it meant that he might not be powerful enough to survive his own confrontation with Salome. Much as he had to do many years before studying under his mentor the Ancient One, Doctor Strange had to re-discover humility and serenity. It was by rising above his obsessions, as well as by his past decision to try and care for & redeem Sister Nil rather than punish her for her crimes, that Strange was finally able to banish Salome.
There was, I admit, one aspect of Quinn’s overall storyline that I felt was underdeveloped: who, exactly, is Salome? According to her own words, she was the Sorceress Supreme of Earth thousands of years ago. From this we can infer that in the past, in some manner or another, she did act in the role of Earth’s protector. But obviously something must have occurred at some point to change this. Perhaps she became arrogant, corrupted by the power & authority she wielded. This could have been what led to her original banishment to another dimension. I really would have liked to have seen Quinn explore who Salome was. In his work with Tim Vigil on Faust: Love of the Damned, he has scripted the vile characters of M and Claire in such a brilliant way that, for all their depraved acts, the reader can, if not sympathize with them, at least understand their points of view and what it is that drives them. I wish he had done something similar, gotten into Salome’s head to show us what makes her tick.
The final final four issues in Quinn’s run, #s 76-79, are written with the assistance of editor Evan Skolnick, who co-writes #77 and scripts #s 78 & 79 from Quinn’s plots. Several new plotlines are set up. Doctor Strange assumes the identity of Vincent Stevens and takes charge of his corporation in an effort to clean up the corruption and destruction caused by the Strangers. The Doctor also begins a slow, painful reconciliation with his former aide Wong, who still harbors bitterness over the death of his fiancée Imei. There are further developments with Clea and Paradox. Modred the Mystic and Wildpride briefly resurface, the later revealed to be Strange’s disgruntled short-lived apprentice Kyllian. Most ominously, the elder god Chthon’s impending rebirth is on the horizon. No doubt Quinn would have developed all of these over future issues. But he was replaced as the series’ writer before he had the opportunity.
Quinn shared a few brief comments on where he had hoped to take both the character and the series…
“My focus at the end of Last Rites was to give a reunited Dr. Stephen Strange earth magick based powers of his own acquisition, versus tricks borrowed from the Vishanti. He would stand on his own for the first time, be much more powerful and confident — and future adventures planned some aggressive earth magick around the MU of the day. I thought it was about time he grew up, and stop just being the MU’s cosmic babysitter / plot device. (Sound familiar?) Since we had also gradually empowered Clea, I thought a more adult relationship would be interesting to explore − if Strange could stand up on his own, he better be okay with a woman who does, too!”
Quinn was unfortunately not able to enact these plans…
“Evan was laid off. His replacement was swamped and kind of let the last issues run on autopilot while preparing yet another new direction in a year… and the good Doctor has never sustained a successful run since, in terms of sales.”
The strongest of Quinn’s last four issues is his final one, #79. In “Farewell, Nightmare Music” Sister Nil is restless, wanting her complete freedom, to explore the world of human beings. But Strange is wary of this, as she still has no control over her cancerous death kiss. Taking advantage of this potential schism is Strange’s old foe Nightmare, who offers Nil the chance to assume a crucial role in his dream realm. Quinn & Skolnick write Nightmare as his usual mocking, arrogant self, yet they also imbue him with a sympathetic, tragic quality. It is a nuanced depiction. As I said before, Quinn excels at portraying his antagonists in a multi-faceted manner that explores their inner workings.
The artwork on these eight issues is certainly of a high quality. Regular artist Peter Gross works on most of these, doing really amazing visuals. On the first two chapters of “Last Rites,” Gross is inked by Lee Sullivan, who I remember very well from his cool art on the comic strips in Doctor Who Magazine. They work well together. There is this one page in #73 that especially jumped out at me, when Salome first penetrates the Sanctum Sanctorum. Gross gives her the most expressive body language as she angrily grasps at Doctor Strange’s cloak of levitation, believing him to be in it. Realizing it is empty, this transforms to triumphant luxuriating as she indulgently wraps herself in her prize.
Chapter three is a nice fill-in job by another very talented artist, Steve Yeowell, who manages to retain his own style while fitting in well with the previous two issues done by Gross & Sullivan. The final chapter of “Last Rites” in issue #75 has Mark Buckingham contributing pencil breakdowns, with Gross doing the finishes. And, wow, does the collaboration between the two of them look amazing!
Also present during David Quinn’s final issues is veteran Marvel artist Marie Severin, who previously worked with the writer on one of the segments in Midnight Sons Unlimited #6. Severin provides breakdowns to Doctor Strange #78, with Gross drawing the finishes. On the next issue, #79, she does full pencils, and consequently much more of her style comes through. I really enjoyed Severin’s work on “Farewell, Nightmare Music.” She did such a fantastic job illustrating this emotional, surreal story, closing out Quinn’s run with class & style.
I have one last note, concerning the coloring by “Heroic Age,” which appeared throughout Quinn’s entire run. This was some of the earliest computer coloring in a Marvel title. Consequently, I think it got off to a pretty rough start, looking very garish in the first few issues. I guess the folks at Heroic Age must have worked on reefing their techniques, though, because over time the coloring improved. There was a real noticeable difference in quality in Doctor Strange Annual #4. From then on, they did increasingly good work. In these last eight issues, I was quite impressed by the coloring.
Okay, now that I’ve come to the end of this three-part look back at the period when David Quinn wrote Doctor Strange, you might well be wondering “Why?” Why devote three lengthy posts to some little-known comic book stories written in the mid-1990s, a period that is, often deservedly, looked upon as a nadir in quality for the entire comic book industry? Well, simply put, it is exactly because of that perception that I felt these comic books deserved an analysis.
In the last several years I have become a fan of the work David Quinn has done with Tim Vigil on Faust: Love of the Damned. This motivated me to take a second look at Quinn’s run on Doctor Strange. I discovered I really enjoyed it. His writing is filled with energy and insane ideas and off-the-wall mystical concepts and the sort of dark lunacy typically associated with Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison’s work for DC / Vertigo. I was very curious to see what other people thought of Quinn’s stint on the series, so I did a few searches on the Internet. And I discovered that there was almost nothing there, aside from the occasional brief write-up or reference in someone’s blog, certainly nothing in-depth. So, I thought, why not do it myself? Why not perform that detailed retrospective of Quinn’s Doctor Strange material?
Truthfully, in certain respects, I barely scratched the surface. I could probably have written twice as much as I did about these stories. But I didn’t, and part of that is I hope people will take a look at them for themselves, and discover just how cool and interesting these overlooked stories are. Fortunately, all of these comics can be purchased relative inexpensively on Ebay or from online retailers. So do yourself a favor, and check them out.
David Quinn’s Doctor Strange, a suggested reading order:
- Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #60
- Marvel Comics Presents #146
- Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #61-63
- Midnight Sons Unlimited #5
- Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #64-66
- Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme Annual #4
- Midnight Sons Unlimited #6
- Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #67-79