This is one of Marvel’s best ongoing series at the moment.
Events in comics are fascinating. They usually end up costing you a lot more than the ongoing series alone, there’s some crazy team-ups, you get “dream teams” of creators, and they are usually pitched as having something occur that will cause things to “never be the same again!” Many people detest them, because they end up severely disrupting existing storylines and, in this day and age, seem to be reactions to comic book movies. Many others love them, because they bring in new readers to the medium but are also easy to move past once the event is over.
With this context in mind, we come to the conclusion of Damnation in the pages of Doctor Strange #389. In the previous issue, I commented that the main Damnation story was almost an afterthought in these pages, and Cates, who happens to be co-writing the main story as well, spent the time to continue the character exploration of Strange as a damaged and broken man amidst the supernatural events occurring around him. Overall, I thought it made for what I thought was a flawless issue. In this issue, the trend of more focus on Strange rather than the big event continues as we start with Stephen sitting in a coffee shop, telling the conclusion to an unseen character. Previously, we suspected that everything Strange was seeing was once again an illusion, and that the only thing real was the spirit of his dog Bats, as a nod to how isolated he has made himself. It turns out that the situation is arguably much worse as Strange, the Avengers and his mortal enemy Dormammu (who also happens to be trapped with them) agree to a plan to escape Hell before a band of other demons comes to accost them. Dormammu is double crossed by the “good guys,” but not before revealing that the Avengers were supposed to betray Strange instead. In the words of Hawkeye, the Avengers went with the “devil they know.” Strange then escapes and the story cuts off. Once again, Cates de-prioritizes the events of the main story and shifts back to the coffee shop where Strange is sitting with none other than Clea, his one-time wife and the woman whose ghostly image was shown as a symbol of his loneliness in the previous issue. After months of people walking away from him and being turned off, Clea is the one who finally connects with him and gets him to realize that his self-pity is toxic and is the real reason why he doesn’t have anyone in his life anymore. And then while Stephen openly commiserates over how he feels about her and another important person in his life, Clea stands up to leave and finally pushes him to call the other person whose presence has actually been the one thing that gave Strange his mojo during this volume.
There’s so much to unpack here. If the last issue wasn’t enough character exploration, this issue offers it in spades. The main event of Damnation is wholly unimportant. The biggest takeway from it is yet another example of how little people care for Strange to the point that they seriously consider selling him out to his mortal enemy – not because of what he accidentally does sometimes when he tries to save people, but because of how much he broods and beats himself up over it afterwards. It’s nice to hear the one person who knows Stephen Strange better than he knows himself finally call his bluff and snap him out of his malaise. Clea’s sole previous appearance in this volume was in the Doctor Strange Annual that came almost two years ago, immediately after the arc where the Empirikul eliminated magic from the world. Ironically, she had come to Strange to try and formally end their marriage at that time, but Strange helped her gain much needed clarity and the two decided not to do anything for now. One could argue that since that point in time, everything has seemingly gone downhill for Strange. He’s lost his best friends/assistants (in Wong and Zelma), he’s lost his home, and for a time he even lost his title as Sorcerer Supreme. This is a man who’s hit rock bottom, and she gives him the proverbial slap in the face with her great comment of “Stop being such a baby. It’s not cute.” Strange seems to awake from a trance with his dazed response, but the message is clear that if he’s going to get over what has happened to him, he needs to stop the self-pity and stop feeling sorry for himself. It’s Clea who pushes him to start with mending the fences on one of those broken relationships and we seem poised to find out what the outcome is in the next issue. How Cates manages to do all this unpacking in the course of just one issue, with a huge mega-battle raging in the backdrop, is mind-boggling and simply amazing.
The art is, as usual, fantastic. Sometimes in books, action shots get all the attention and then the quieter moments are glossed over and done sloppily. Not in this case. We get the glorious splash page of Mephisto, Loki, Dormammu and other evil entities all fighting for the honor of seeing who was going to get to corrupt Dr. Strange. Henrichon’s interpretation of Hell is fascinating, showing different sorts of creatures and not just those on two legs. There’s also a great shot of other fallen lords of hell coming for Domammu, the Mindless Ones, the Avengers and Strange which also expands the depth of just how many beings exist in the Underworld. But just as much love and care is given to the coffee shop scenes with Clea. When we see Stephen Strange, he is shown as a guy whose eyes betray that he hasn’t gotten any sleep in days and his hair is unkempt, in contrast to Clea who is calm, cool and collected and evokes sympathy. Stephen’s emotions are worn on a sleeve and he isn’t holding anything back anymore. The art team deserves a great deal of credit for getting this through.
This is arguably Marvel’s best ongoing series at the moment. It survived multiple creative team shifts of both writers and artists. It survived getting pulled into two massive cross-overs, and in the case of Damnation, managed to walk away completely unscathed from the ominous bullets of these events. In fact, for Damnation it used those events to further the ongoing storyline and themes it has been pushing for a few years. It’s just a shame that the saga appears to be coming to an end, with new numbering, a completely new status quo and a new creative team on the horizon. I can’t wait to see how it all shakes out for the Sorcerer Supreme.