On the Profoundly Rational Doctor Stephen Strange (Part 3)

The Sorcerer’s Code committed Strange to the defense of the Earth, and it obliged him to place the welfare of humanity above that of any alien race. Yet the Code also seems to have set peculiar and demanding constraints on how this responsibility ought to be fulfilled. In “Duel With The Dread Dormammu”, Strange was resigned to the fact that his adversary’s defeat would secure Earth’s survival only at the expense of the flame-headed tyrant’s people, who relied upon the despot’s power to protect them from invasion by the Mindless Ones. Yet the Code inarguably laid down what the ends of Strange’s off-Earth missions were to be, no matter what the consequences to non-Terrans. In addition, it quite explicitly proscribed what methods could be used in doing so. As a consequence, Strange had resisted the opportunity to strike down Dormammu during their first magical confrontation, declaring as he did that he couldn’t “do battle in such a manner!”. (Again, there’s the sense that he’d no choice in the matter, as if he quite literally dared not use his magical capabilities in such a dishonorable way.) To defeat Dormammu and save the Earth was ultimately – if regrettably – worth the life of an entire unearthly people, it seems, and yet his defeat had to be achieved according to a gentlemanly rule of ethical behavior.

It’s an odd clash of principle which carries with it an air of authenticity. After all, there’s rarely an absence of contradiction where such extreme codes of conduct are concerned. Was this some expression of chivalry that had been built into the Sorcerer’s Code? Could it be that real-world karmic consequences beckoned for backstabbing magical warriors, and that the very nature of the Marvel Universe’s deep structure led to the inevitable punishment of such transgressions? Had such restraint grown out of a dimensions-wide desire to limit the appalling possible consequences of mystic warfare? Whatever the explanation for Strange’s odd mixture of determination and restraint, ruthlessness and mercy, it’s clear that he felt his choice of methods was remarkably constrained even as his ends were absolutely explicit.

That particular confrontation provides us with other hints about how the Sorcerer’s Code worked in practice. Prohibited from striking down the diverted Dormammu, for example, Strange embarked instead upon a remarkable gamble which brought with it the strong possibility of his own defeat and the Earth’s fall. Opting to counter-intuitively support rather than attack his foe, Strange lent what was left of his power in the cause of securing the borders of Dormammu’s lands. And although Stan Lee’s script accentuates at this point how desperate Strange was to save Dormammu’s people from slaughter, that can’t in itself explain why he acted as he did. Given that Strange’s defeat at his enemy’s hands had been imminent before the irruption had intervened, and accepting that underhand strikes were forbidden even in the most desperate of hours, there really was no other option. After all, it would have been totally out of character for Strange to suddenly surrender to sentiment, and to do so just moments after expressing fealty to his vows.  Rather, faced with the inevitability of Dormammu’s triumph, and presented with the prospect of a game-changing transformation in circumstances, Strange felt empowered to take considerable chances rather than capitulating to the choice of either a noble but futile death or the assassination of his opponent.

That his strategy did result in the Mindless One’s defeat and Dormammu recognizing a debt of honor to him shouldn’t obscure the fact that such was never an inevitable outcome. If Dormammu had turned out not to feel obliged to Strange, or if he’d simply chosen to ignore whatever moral limits he believed in, then the Earthman would have inevitably been defeated and his homeplanet conquered. But as we’ve seen, Strange’s behavior tended to be framed in terms of the most scrupulously generous of values wherever it was possible. How else would a man convinced in the existence of an all-powerful universal force which would always ultimately serve a remarkably human conception of justice behave? When all else had apparently failed, Strange choose the most benevolent policy rather than the cruelest, and that was despite the latter apparently seeming to be the option that was most likely to secure Earth’s survival. The Code – and not any touching sympathy for Dormammu’s people – insisted that he do so. To prosper as a magician bound by the Sorcerer’s Code evidently involved not just a substantial control of magic itself, but also the ability to improvise under the most extreme of conditions while never abandoning the most fundamental of ethical principles. In Strange’s universe, doing the right thing isn’t just a moral issue, but a practical one too. Goodness always pays off in the long run because that’s how reality is structured.

There’s often a sense of Strange negotiating his way through situations in which the key players share certain central values despite their coming from quite different dimensions and even species. When Dormammu and Strange clash for the second time, they do so in a public duel held before an “gathered assemblage” of “the Lords of the Netherworlds … overseers of the dimensions”. Again, Strange triumphs according to his ability to think clearly, ingenuously and ethically under the most impossible of pressures, and again Dormammu swallows his failure, vows to maintain the peace, and retreats despite still possessing “enough magical power to erase (Strange) from existence”. Humbled before what seems to constitute a court composed equally of underlings and opponents, none of whom can come close to matching his might, Dormammu even gracelessly swears to “never turn (his) power against Earth”. There were clearly rules and conventions which guided how even this most fearsome of Strange’s opponents behaved, and the degree to which he was seen to abide by them appears to have counted for a very great deal indeed. The customs which framed such a ceremonial combat were so well and commonly adhered to, it appears, that even the reprehensible Dormammu’s reprehensible felt obliged to conform to them. Part of Strange’s ability to maintain the balance of power and ensure the Earth’s independence was rooted in his ability to recognise and put to use these common, cross-dimensional norms. Though Strange was unlikely to ever be able to rout Dormammu in straight-forward magical conflict, he could accept the terms of public combat offered to him and make them work to his advantage. In doing so, he supplemented his magical abilities with cultural and political power. In defeating Dormammu, for example, he won;

“.. the total mastery of all of Earth, and the Supreme voice in the highest council of the known dimensions.”

Sadly, both Ditko and Lee left the strip soon after those words were published in “The Pincers Of Power” (“Strange Tales” #140). It would’ve been fascinating to see what such a victory might have meant for Strange, and it’s to be regretted that such plot threads were never touched upon again.

Whatever Strange’s beliefs and behaviour had in common with some – if hardly all – of the aliens he encountered,  there’s no doubting that his understanding of reality and his place within it was quite different from that shared by the vast majority of the Earth’s inhabitants. Indeed, it often seemed as if Strange had far more in common with the magic-wielding elites to be found in the likes of the “Purple Dimension” or “Cosmic Infinity” than he did with even the more free-thinking and widely-experienced of his fellow super-humans back home in the Republic. And when compared to the more typical of his fellow citizens, Strange was a distinctly unorthodox, and perhaps even worryingly UnAmerican, individual. The Ancient One certainly seemed to believe that the USA’s culture was a rather blinkered and self-important one, and there’s every evidence that Strange soon came to accept his Master’s beliefs about the importance – or not – of the City upon the Hill, as we’ll discuss next week. When Strange first expressed his inability to believe in magic, the Ancient One responded by referring to him as a “Man of the Western World”, and gently mocked the fact that Strange thought that a belief in sorcery would be “unseemly”. (ST:115) Strange’s sense of self at that point, it seems, relied upon his maintaining his culture’s refusal to accept the evidence of its senses. For the Marvel Universe of the day was one that was saturated with magic on an everyday level, and as we’ve seen, it was ultimately understandable only through a mastery of the mystic arts. In that, Strange knew far more about the deep structure of things than did any of Marvel’s super-scientific geniuses, from Richards to Stark, from Xavier to Pym.

To be continued.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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1 Comment

  1. Fred Hill says:

    Hi, Colin, some great insights in this series, as usual. I would note, however, that Stan stayed on quite a bit after Ditko left, but the quality of the stories (IMO) went down so dramatically (I read the Essential Dr. Strange Vol. 1 a couple of years ago, which includes the entire Strange Tales run), that it seemed very clear that Stan had very little to do with the stories, other than editing and dialogue (save for the last couple of Ditko issues, when Denny O’Neil steped in to fill in the speech balloon). Post Ditko, Dr. Strange gradually became very different as a character. Admittedly, that’s true of of nearly any character in an ongoing monthly series that lasts for years. Even Peter Parker was a very different person in Amazing Spider-Man #38, Ditko’s last Spidey story, than he had been when he was introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15.

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