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”
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:
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!”
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.