There are two times I’ve felt completely ripped-off by a comic book. And by ripped-off I mean the publisher deliberately treated an audience with contempt. One was in the New Universe line when the year long story line in Justice, expanded upon with much coolness by Kieth Giffen was revealed to be a dream. The other is Doctor Strange #41. Perhaps not too strangely, both books were by Marvel.
There are lots of comic book events with sucky endings. In the old days before every story became THE BIG COMIC BOOK EVENT that we couldn’t miss there was usually a long build-up, foreshadowing, hints and clues and then the great big fight, which often appeared in that book’s annual or a special, double-sized issue.
While not a huge comic event the story in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts #41 (June 1980) was one of the those issues where you ask yourself what the hell happened at the end of the story.
Written by Chris Claremont (first clue) with art by Gene Colan, issue #41 was the finale to an multi-issue epic featuring an insane Baron Mordo, who was trying to destroy all of creation. It was a story that had a cross-over into Man-Thing’s own title and had sub-plots reaching back nearly a year.
Mordo had kidnapped friends of Dr. Strange and was feeding them to a demon that would open the Gates of Uncreation. This grisly scene of a girlfriend of Doc’s getting her flesh stripped off is courtesy of Gene Colan.
Strange is then motivated by the death of his lover to do something (he sorta stood around while all the other people were eaten by the demon), screams NO! and he beats up on Mordo. Enraged, the Doc is about to kill Mordo in revenge when Claremont resorts to Comic Book Cliche #1, that of Situational Moral Superiority.
“If I killed you, I’d be no better than you.” Spoken at least once by Superman, Spider-Man, Hulk, Lois Lane and just about every other comic book character you can think of.
Then just as the the universe is about to be unmade, Dr. Strange is simultaneously weaving spells to save creation while anchoring the Man-Thing with the mind of Ted Sallis to reality and Baron Mordo is creeping up behind the Doc to dash him in the head with a rock…this happens:
What went on here? Was production rushed? Did everyone just give up? Is it Claremont or the Editor? If no one cared enough about the story to give it the ending it deserved then they should have been creative enough to handle it like Warren Ellis did when he took over Strange for a time. In discarding the Vishanti War storyline that had been promised for several years Ellis simply wrote the Doc cleaning himself up in the bathroom after returning from another dimension, musing to himself “Well, that didn’t take as long as I thought it would.” Awesome.
Claremont then makes sure that after we fans are treated as if we were something unpleasant found on a shoe that we get a happy, sugar-coated ending and a return to the status quo.
Everybody is a-okay! Talk about a lucky break! Except for Ted Sallis, who gets magically lobotomized by Strange because a man trapped in a monster’s body is a concept not worth exploring in the Marvel Universe. You know, another writer would have had all those people remain dead or, reveal later in another multi-issue epic that they were really animated corpses and slaves of the Chaos Demon putting its Plan B into motion for a return to Earth.
There was a joke back when Chris was writing for Marvel on all cylinders that everything he wrote sold well except for Spider-Woman. I think it was around 1980 and this issue of Doc Strange that I started looking at his work with a more critical eye and not just a fanboy consumer, even though i still enjoyed most of what he wrote. I still consumed comics by the longbox, buying titles because they were fun. It wasn’t until the 90’s that I really felt like I was throwing money in the street buying comics and except for the occasional favorite character pretty much stopped all purchases.
So this is what I think was the real climax to the story in Doctor Strange #41.