Strange Tales #114:
"The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo"
When last we left Strange Tales Doctor had just stopped his arch-foe, the insidious Baron Mordo, from killing the Ancient One. And that's the last of Doc that readers saw for two months. After two very popular appearances in #110 and #111, Doc sat out Strange Tales #112 and #113. Why the gap? I am not sure. They probably had already done the backup stories that were published in those two issues and didn't want them going to waste. Either way readers knew that Doc would be back after the final panel of his appearance in #111 where he invited readers to follow his further adventures. There's a blurb from Stan Lee on this story where he says they wanted to wait and gauge the reaction to Strange. Though that last panel in #111 tells me they'd already gotten the hint that readers liked Stephen Strange.
At this point Strange is still being titled as 'The Master of Black Magic' in his five-page stories. And another curious event begins to take place here as well - Doc starts opening his eyes! By the second page he's finally opened his peepers. He looks a little tired but there it is. Shockingly, this trend would continue. Steve Ditko did finally change the way he drew Doc later on in the series, making him more suave and less Ming-the-Merciless.
Doc's summoned out to England to help someone he apparently knows yet hasn't spoken to in ages - Sir Clive Bentley. But of course it's all an elaborate trap set-up by Mordo who posed as Bentley to make the call, even changing his appearance to Lord Bentley's while he made the call. He makes the trip around the world and exits a cab in a very odd panel; the cabbie asks him if he wants Doc to wait for him to which Doc replies that he doesn't and that he only needed the directions to the castle. That's true, of course, but at the same time if Doc didn't want a taxi ride couldn't he find some way out of it? Was the taxi driver just that damn good at selling Doc a ride? Was there something far more sinister at work? Who knows! Anyway this panel stood out like a sore thumb and had me scratching my head.
When Doc enters the dark, lonely estate he immediately deduces that though he cannot see or hear danger he is nonetheless sure it's real there in the castle. Doc's displaying that awesome 'cosmic awareness' we talked about way back in my review for Strange Tales #110. Later on in Doc's travels other characters will exhibit this as well - usually mystic or cosmic types like Adam Warlock or the Silver Surfer. And it starts to heighten as its used in comics, allowing characters to dramatically sense that some form of impending doom or another is hurtling through the void. You know how it goes. One minute you're having coffee with Moondragon, the next her head's thrown back, she's floating in the air, her eyes go white and she's screaming about something not being right with Eternity and that the Living Tribunal's about to judge everyone. That's what this sort of cosmic awareness jazz turns into later - but right now at this early age it's more like Doc's spider-sense and it's here more for flavor than anything else.
But his awareness is right! Doc finds himself caught in Mordo's deadly scented candle trap and is paralyzed. Mordo exits the shadows to gloat and to proclaim that when the candles die out, so will Strange. He also pauses to talk about world conquest (that old chestnut!) and then exits the room to leave Strange to his candle doom. The Ancient One perceives Strange's situation and tries to intervene from Tibet but Strange asks him not to because he wants to beat Mordo on his own. Now this I like a lot. Doc's drawing a mystical line in the sand and deciding it's time for him to sink or swim. This is almost like deciding if he's not good enough to beat Mordo's freaking candle trap then he might as well die and prove that there is such a thing as magical natural selection.
Though paralyzed Doc manages to reach up to his Lesser Eye of Agamotto and activate it. He uses the eye to send his thoughts out across the countryside to find someone who can come and put the candles out. He finds a gal apparently getting ready to sit down to eat dinner and hypnotizes her with mental commands to drop everything and come save him. He later finds out that she is none other than Victoria Bentley, the daughter of Sir Clive Bentley, and that Clive died a decade ago. Victoria's going to play a larger part down the line in Doc's tales so definitely remember her for now. What's even more interesting is that she's cute and basically makes a sci-fi pass at Doctor Strange - you know, the man who just mind controlled her to do his bidding. Doc's response is awesome; he basically tells her not to talk that way cause he's going to make her forget she ever met him once they leave the castle. Some guys would just say "But we live in different countries!" or "I'm just not ready for a long distance thing right now" or something! But no - Doc's willing to just make chicks forget him! But he's got a point. Maybe his cosmic awareness is telling them the chickie he's destined to be with is comin' 'round the editorial mountain before too long...
We come to the end where this tale falls right apart. Mordo springs into the scene once more and tries to mentally command Strange to kill Victoria Bentley, who he surmises must have some magical aptitude to have heard Strange's distress call via the Lesser Eye of Agamotto. But then at the last minute a second Doc appears off to the side and merges with the one before Mordo. The explanation? That this whole time the Dr. Strange we've been following... the one who took a taxi, the one who was trapped by the scented candles of doom, the one who has been fully colored throughout the story and not translucent, has apparently been Doc's projected mental image and this whole time Doc was actually zooming to England on a jet. And now his physical body has caught up with his ethereal one and he's keen to turn the tables on Mordo. Man that's a stretch. For one, it's vague as to whether or not it was Doc's astral form this whole time or an illusion. If it was an illusion he was creating on the other side of the planet I could see why it would at least look normal and not translucent. But it's far fetched to think Doc managed to create an illusion like that while at the same time being able to board a plane to London. And if it was his astral form then it's already been established that Doc's physical body can't move while he's out of it. What did he do, have himself Fed Ex'd? Bah!
"The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo" was a disappointment. But Stan & Steve more than make up for that with the next issue, Strange Tales #115, where we finally get Doc's origin. And what a doozie it is!
That's all for this review. Over at Marvel Monsters I've posted the first part of a two-part look at the history of Marvel's monster and horror comics. The first part deals with a brief history of horror comics, what happened with EC, why there weren't any horror comics for a long while and then why there was an almost sudden demand for 'em.
Tomorrow here on Strange Scribe will examine how magic and voodoo work in the Marvel Universe and also see how different Marvel voodoo is compared to the "real" deal.