Doctor Strange # 52 (April 1982)

Doctor Strange #52 (April 1982)

“Life-Times” by Roger Stern with pencils by Marshall Rogers and inks by Terry Austin

“The Lord of Dreams must be frantic—he hurled me out of his dimension and across time after the soul-shard before I could question him further!”

–Doctor Strange considers the spirit mechanics of dreams, time travel, and reincarnation on page 7 of “Life-Times”

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If I am going to write about Doctor Strange I will have to write about magic.  But maybe, as Alan Moore argues in a recent interview, magic has more to do with the mundane world of words and pictures than we might imagine.

In the opening chapter of her 1949 book Ritual Magic, E.M. Butler reminds us that spells cannot exist in the absence of some kind of language (words, pictures, music—any technology human beings have developed in order to express the ineffable).  “The fundamental aim of all magic,” Butler writes, “is to impose the human will on nature, on man or on the supersensual world in order to master them” (Butler 3).  Later, after a discussion of the three branches of magic in the Western tradition—astrology, alchemy, and ritual magic—Butler draws parallels between the practice of magic and the development of the arts:

This is what makes the study of ritual magic still interesting to-day; for the aesthetic element, inherent in the nature of     ceremonial, can be detected struggling to emerge: as craftsmanship in the fashioning of talismans and rings, of instruments and amulets; as draughtsmanship in the inscriptions, diagrams and lettering; as plastic art in the modeling of figures, in the cave-drawings of animals, in portraits of the spirits; as poetry in the prayers and hymns; as drama in the urgency of the invocations, in the manifestations and occasional utterances of the spirits, as well as in the form of the ceremony as such. (Butler 4)

With Butler’s ideas in mind, perhaps we might discover a more complete understanding of the relationship between the art of magic and the art of the comic book, not only in Alan Moore’s work, but also in a popular series like Marvel’s Doctor Strange.

Before I read Doctor Strange #52 (dated April 1982) again, I’d like to pause and include an excerpt from one of the interviews in DeZ Vilenz and Mort Winkler’s 2005 documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore.  Here Moore describes the gift he gave to himself and to his friends for his 40th birthday: instead of having a midlife crisis, he says, he decided to become a magician.  The pursuit of this new identity posed a number of significant challenges, however, because, as Moore explains,

the problem is that, with magic, being in many respects a science of language, you have to be very careful what you say because if you suddenly declare yourself to be a magician, without any knowledge of what that entails, then one day you are likely to wake up and to discover that that is exactly what you are.

He then offers a definition of magic that echoes Butler’s analysis:

There is some confusion as to what magic actually is.  I think that this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic.  Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as the Art.  I believe that this is completely literal.  I believe that magic is art and that art, whether that be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form, is literally magic.  Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols—words or images—to achieve changes in consciousness.  The very language of magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events.

In most twentieth-century American pulp fiction and comics, magic often is a metonym for the exotic and the Other: it establishes a strict division the white and the black, the male and the female, the serious and the popular, always privileging what society defines as the rational over what it rejects as the irrational.

Is there any magic, then, as Butler and Moore define it, in a comic book like Doctor Strange?  Science fiction and fantasy writer Fritz Leiber would have answered yes.  In Leiber’s fiction, magic and the supernatural provide tools and strategies to understand and engage with forms of consciousness which the rationalism of science might deny or ignore.  In an essay published in the September 1946 issue of Weird Tales, Leiber writes about questions he considered while reading an article on allergies in The Journal of the American Medical Association: “But I found myself wondering, what if the efficient, white-coated physician came up against an emergency that he didn’t know how to meet, that  made even his competent fingers tremble, because it was part of the black, shivery outside?”

After declaring that there remains a “weird realm” which medicine “hasn’t done away with,” Leiber describes a world in which the barriers between science, magic, and the supernatural collapse: “There’s a buried thought that the psychologist can never quite reach, not even when he employs the hypno-analytic technique which can dredge up memories of events that occurred when the patient was six months old.  (And is the buried thought a human thought, or a demon’s?)” (Leiber 1-2).  Leiber explored these ideas, and their relationship to anxiety, depression, and addiction, throughout his career, from early short stories like “Smoke Ghost” to later novels including Our Lady of Darkness.

The early Doctor Strange, stories, of course, manifest these latent fears and anxieties in Steve Ditko’s angular, disembodied images.  Doctor Strange #52, however, features a story written by Roger Stern with artwork by the formidable and influential duo of the late Marshall Rogers on pencils and Terry Austin on inks.  “Life-Times” is a story of reincarnation in which, the first text box of page 1 tells us, “Time has no meaning!” Marshall and Austin have designed a page which illustrates and embodies this opening statement as they reject a more traditional, grid-like structure in favor of a collection of circular, elliptical panels: in the first image in the upper left-hand corner of the page, Doctor Strange and Clea have just “saved Morgana Blessing from the Dread Dormammu amid the rubble of war-torn London.”  Then Stephen Strange and Clea appear at Blessing’s bedside in a hospital in New York City:

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Later in the same issue, Doctor Strange arrives in late 15th-century Spain.  In the first panel of page 7, the hero explains the idea of reincarnation to readers: “From what I know of reincarnation, the soul-shard would naturally linger at critical past lives.  Nightmare has obviously transported me to the closest such ‘life-time.’”  Doctor Strange adds, “What a bizarre concept!”

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Marshall and Austin’s work is known for its use of repetitive patterns; fitting, then, that they should illustrate a story in which the hero travels through time in order to make sense of Morgana Blessing’s past lives and their affect on her present.  On the issue’s cover, Doctor Strange cradles Morgana’s face in his hands.  She sleeps as a beam of green light streams from his eyes and illuminates her face.  Nightmare’s horse has red eyes and red teeth.  The cover includes four distinct patterns: the Zip-A-Tone shading on hero’s cowl and shoulder; the cross-hatched black lines on Nightmare’s cape and costume; a radiating, web-like net which covers Blessing’s torso; and the free-hand scribbles which decorate the yellow portion of Doctor Strange’s cloak.

In the cover’s right-hand corner is a candle, a Poe-like signifier which tells the reader that this is a comic book about the strange and the supernatural.  As a child I was fascinated by this cover, and it remains intriguing now as I study it.  Those greens and purples, the illusion of weight as Strange’s spotted, orange hands appear from beneath his red and yellow cloak: each of these make the figure of the burning candle superfluous.  This is not a traditional superhero comic book, but something else, something other.  But just because the cover is eerie or strange, of course, does not mean it has anything to do with magic, with that desire to employ language in order to understand and master a world of chaos.

I still wear a replica of the Miraculous Medal my grandmother gave me when I was in grade school.  The story she told was like a Medieval saint’s life: she’d found the medal, she said, snared in the branches of a tree in our backyard.  She saw something shining there in the tree and, when she investigated, discovered the pendant, which features an image of the Virgin Mary and the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”  How did it get in the tree, I wondered?  Some kid must have been playing and throwing it around, she said.  She told me to wear it for good luck and for protection at school.

A few months later, I lost it on the playground, but my mother and grandmother were not concerned.  They prayed to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, and, within a few days, it had been found and returned to me.  I’d been terrified.  What terrible things might happen to me without the medal around my neck?  Losing the medal, however, was less terrifying than finding it.  It seemed more powerful now, more alive, more real, more magical.  When it wanted to be found, it would be found, and when it wanted to disappear, it would disappear.  I’d done nothing to find it. Somehow, it had found me.

Several years later when I was in college the medal disappeared again.  The clasp was delicate.  My father had asked a friend to solder it together, but as I wore the necklace day and night the solder joint decayed, just as the medal itself slowly turned from silver to a dusty black.  I was certain the medal would return.  I only had to be patient and to wait.  When it failed to appear again, my mother bought me a new one, and asked her parish priest to bless it before she mailed it to me in New Hampshire.

Magic seems to be as much about time as it is about language.  That’s what this story, “Life-Times,” would have us believe, anyway.  One moment we are here—sitting at a table in a college dining room, and it is spring, and everyone is young—and then we are here, which is now, at a desk, or on a train, or standing on a sidewalk in cold March sunlight.  Maybe the art of magic is an art of words, or the shaping of words and pictures, but neither one of these expressions can exist without an awareness of time and the distance it creates.

The New Adventures of Superboy #26 (February 1982)

“There’s something about time-traveling I just don’t understand!”

–Superboy, in the story “Superboy Meets Superboy…Almost!” by Bob Rozakis, Jose Delbo, and Joe Giella

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(My copy of The New Adventures of Superboy #26DC Comics, February 1982)

My grandmother, Patricia Stango, who died in the fall of 1995 shortly after I graduated from college, would have been 100 years old today, March 1, 2013.  Her parents, Anthony and Monica (Abromaitis) Budris were Lithuanian immigrants who arrived in the United Sates in the early 1900s.  Of her brothers and sisters, my grandmother was the only one born in Lithuania.

Her mother and father, who met in Waterbury, Connecticut, and married when my great-grandmother was only 16, returned to Lithuania one last time to visit their families.  My grandmother was born on that trip, and she liked to tell the story that her mother and father considered throwing her off the boat on their return journey because of the scabs on her head.  They feared they would not be allowed back into the country with a sick baby.  When I was a child I knew my great-grandmother but I was never able to ask her to confirm or deny this story as she spoke no English, at least to me.  This language barrier posed no problem for my grandmother, her brothers and sisters, or for my mother, all of whom speak Lithuanian.

When my sister Alison was born in December 1977, my grandmother and I, already close because of the time we spent together while my mom was teaching high school and my dad was completing his law degree, became roommates.  My grandmother lived with us until her death in 1995, and our house on Bamford Avenue in Oakville, Connecticut, where my mother also grew up, had two small rooms on its second floor.  One was my grandmother’s and the other, newly furnished after my sister’s arrival, was mine.

We shared the same interests, especially as I got older: she listened to Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters, The Ink Spots, and Glenn Miller on WATR or WWCO, Waterbury’s am radio stations, and read romance novels.  She’d spent most of her life working at the factories in Oakville or Waterbury, which, despite the collapse of its factories in the 1970s and 1980s, is still called the Brass City because of its once thriving brass manufacturing industry.  Until 1972, Waterbury was also the home of Eastern Color Printing, which published the first modern comic books in the United States in the 1930s.

By the time I was ten years old I was an avid comic book reader.  While my grandmother read her novels and listened to the swing jazz of her youth, I read my beloved Avengers and Spider-Man comics and listened to The Police or Men at Work on my radio/cassette player.  My interests still mirror hers—words and music.  When I am alone in my office grading papers, I am always listening to music, often a CD collection of Frank Sinatra’s early Columbia singles.  I listen and I am reminded of sitting at my childhood desk and doing my homework.  I listen to the Sintara CD quietly to mimic the sound I heard drifting from the white clock radio on her dresser.

Of all the comics my grandmother bought me, the one I remember the best but enjoyed the least is The New Adventures of Superboy #26, dated February 1982 but published by DC Comics late in 1981.  It might even have been a birthday present.  We found two comics on the spinner rack at the 7-11 on Davis Street in Oakville that day, but I cannot remember which other one I took home.

In the fall of 1981 I was in the second grade.  Earlier that year I’d been placed in what our first-grade teacher called the “second” reading group at my grammar school, St. John the Evangelist School in Watertown, Connecticut.  We were slow readers who spent several hours a week in a classroom in the basement of the school with Sister Mary Louise, a stern, grey-haired woman with black, cat’s-eye glasses and a quilted blue overcoat she wore at recess.  We sat at our desks and struggled to read short, terse sentences in books filled with illustrations of blond boys with crewcuts and girls with blue and white dresses and black, patent-leather shoes.  In every story, and in almost every sentence, there was always a dog, usually a scrappy, long-haired Cocker Spaniel who looked nothing like my great aunt Annie’s dog Spooky.  My mother knew Sister Mary Lousie was a much better reading instructor than our first-grade classroom teacher, so she insisted I stay in the second reading group.

But in the winter of 1981 I spent most of my time staring at the pictures in my comic books.  I think I picked this issue of Superboy because I had no other Superman comics in my toybox.  The violence of Kurt Schaffenberger’s cover might also have appealed to me—Superboy, disguised as Clark Kent, whistles and rides his red bicycle as three machine gun-toting villains ambush him, revealing the Superman insignia concealed under his red sweater.  His eyes closed, Superboy thinks, “Perfect!  They’ve fallen into my trap!

Schaffenberger’s cover, like his artwork for the comic’s first story, “Clark Kent—the Grooviest Guy in Smallville” (a story written by Cary Bates with inks courtesy of Dave Hunt)—is crisp and elegant, more realistically rendered than C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel stories but with the same economy and clarity.  Like other cartoonists of his generation, Schaffenberger is an artist whose drawings tell the story even if the reader ignores the word balloons and the text boxes.  A perfect comic, then, for an 8-year old still gaining confidence as a reader.

Of the two stories in this issue, however, I prefer “Superboy Meets Superboy…Almost!” written by Bob Rozakis and drawn by Jose Delbo with inks by Joe Giella.  In this time-travel story, one of Superboy’s “Strange Encounters of the First Time,” Clark Kent’s teacher assigns him a research project over his school vacation.  While in the opening panel of the story Clark dreams of skiing “down the lava flow of a volcano,” by the second panel of page 2 he is comparing assignments with Lana Lang.  While she’s been asked to research “the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881!” Clark must, as he explains, “ ‘cover’ a manned space flight in 1962!”  A few panels later, after he decides he’d “rather get a real eyewitness report by traveling back in time—as Superboy,” we see him flying through a time vortex to his destination in the early 1960s.

When he arrives, he discovers the rocket is in danger because one of its engines has failed to fire.  “Looks like I go from watcher to rescuer,” he thinks, but discovers that he is no more than a ghost.  “But why?” he wonders.  “I’ve always been solid before when I time-traveled into the past!”  On the next page he is shocked to see his ten year-old self on a mission to save the rocket.  Yet, as he admits a few pages later, he has no memory of a day in 1962 when he saved an American rocket from the Soviet spies trying to destroy it.

The first two panels on page 7 of the story heighten this mystery of Superboy’s past.  Delbo and Giella draw the now 14 year-old hero as a phantom haunting his bedroom.  “There’s something about time traveling I just don’t understand,” he thinks.  The artists frame the young, disembodied hero in the light cast by the lamp on Clark Kent’s desk:

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In the first panel, Superboy, a white and blue ghost, tries to scratch his head before he realizes, “There’s nothing there to scratch!” His posture echoes that of his alter ego, who sits studying at his desk.  In the next panel, Superboy studies the books on his shelf: “Everything about this room is exactly as I remember it being when I was ten…”  In the cliff-hanging final panel of the story, the 14 year-old Clark, now back in 1966, admits, “I’ve probed my super-memory to go over everything I did that week of the space-flight!  I can remember every detail of the day before and the day after—but nothing about that day!”

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I was hesitant to write about this comic because I remember being disappointed by it after returning home from the 7-11.  The 8-year old me defined a good comic as one like The Avengers, filled with a large cast of colorful heroes.  This issue of The New Adventures of Superboy only has one character who spends most of his time at school or on his bike.  Even though I wasn’t a superhero, I had a bike and I had homework, too.  I wanted a comic book which would transport me to places I didn’t recognize.

I had no idea when I began writing this entry that the second of these two Superboy stories, however, would be about the process of memory.  I selected this issue because, of all the comics which my grandmother bought me when I was a child, this is one of only two, along with an issue of Strange Tales which I wrote about recently at The Comics Grid, which evokes a specific memory of the two of us together.  That “Superboy Meets Superboy…Almost!” is about memory itself is a telling coincidence, perhaps, or one of Walter Benjamin’s secret, magical affinities.

This book, this quiet companion, has been waiting patiently to reveal its secrets, and perhaps it has taken me thirty years to learn how to read it.

I have saved this comic for three decades not for its stories or for its art, but because when I see the cover again I remember Oakville, Connecticut in November or December of 1981, as my grandmother and I walk past the brook which runs parallel with Pullen Ave.  It is cold and damp, but she is holding my hand, and I am not at school, and I am careful to walk close to her as we cross Bamford Avenue to the driveway of our house.  And like Superboy I am a ghost in that world as I watch the two of us walking home.  Meanwhile, here in the present, in Chicago, I stare at a yellowed, fading book which like the hero’s time vortex returns me to my childhood.

Unlike Superboy, who cannot remember the day he saved the rocket, I can recall this quiet walk home, even without the alien gift of supermemory, and so for a few moments I inhabit that space, and see her again in the same perfect clarity as the four-color images in this comic book.

Happy birthday, Grammy.