Doctor Strange: Damnation #1
Written by Nick Spencer and Donny Cates
Art by Rod Reis
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
What do they say about no good deed going unpunished?
It’s a topic that Nick Spencer might know all too well - after the daunting (and let’s face it, often thankless) task of spearheading a Marvel crossover series, Spencer got the lion’s share of fan uproar and critical polarization for his work on Secret Empire, which one could argue was just as much a victim of real-world timing as it was its dubious political content. But six months later, Spencer and co-writer Donny Cates returns to the scene of the crime with Doctor Strange: Damnation, a work that not only brings together the mystical corners of the Marvel Universe, but might just seek some closure for one of the most controversial storylines in years.
In Cates’ main Doctor Strange series, Stephen recently received a major power upgrade, becoming akin to a god of magic in his own right thanks to Yggdrasil, the legendary World Tree of Asgard. But he and Spencer open Damnation with a legitimate question - if you have the power over reality, over life and death itself, why would you waste that potential on something as meaningless as a superpowered fist-fight? And in so doing, Spencer and Cates push the reset button on one of Secret Empire’s most whiplash-inducing moments, as Strange undoes the destruction of Las Vegas - as well as all the souls lost in the evil Steve Rogers’ attack.
But like I said before, no good deed goes unpunished, and in true dramatic fashion, there’s no way that Strange’s deus ex magicka goes off without a hitch. In some ways, Spencer and Cates’ twist here might be a little too cute for its own good - namely, that Sin City has become a borough of Hell itself, and now that it’s returned to Earth, it’s brought a demonic casino owned by Mephisto himself. While I understand the impulse to redefine the character for this storyline, you can’t help but see this version of Mephisto being a little hokey, as he tells Stephen that he “has been wronged.”
Yet once we get past this beat, we see Spencer and Cates seemingly answering for the excesses of Secret Empire and its predecessor Civil War II - as humans are being consumed by their sins, we get a solid scene of the Falcon, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Hawkeye attacking one another over their own failures in these crossovers. It may always be hard to justify Captain Marvel’s “predictive justice” or Hawkeye shooting Bruce Banner in the eye with an arrow, but seeing these heroes recognize that dissonance goes a long way towards catharsis. That said, it’s also a risky move - as we’ve seen in the main Captain America title, Marvel’s gone a long way to distance itself from the outrage of Secret Empire, in a way that feels akin to "The Clone Saga." It’s usually the status quo to let sleeping controversies lie in the comic book industry - and ultimately, it will add a lot more expectations on Spencer and company to justify going back to this particular story well.
Meanwhile, Rod Reis’s artwork is moody and atmospheric, but just by virtue of this first issue’s subject matter, it can’t help but feel a little mixed at the moment. Some of this is due to the unorthodox structure of this series itself - while the finale teases a Midnight Sons reunion, this first issue is more about Stephen Strange’s more mainstream allies in the superhero community, and Reis’s hard angles and dark colors don’t play particularly well to the bright and clashing costume designs of an Avengers team. Instead, Reis evokes artists Phil Noto, Bill Sienkiewicz and Frazer Irving with his style here, which is great at building up a sense of foreboding rather than playing off scenes of action. Strange and Mephisto actually feel like two peas in the same weird and angular pod, with Strange’s grouchiness playing well off Mephisto’s exaggerated smiles and frowns. And when Reis gets to show the Avengers after they fall prey to Mephisto’s realm, well, that’s the kind of splash page that’ll stick with you for awhile.
But ultimately, it’s unclear whether or not Doctor Strange: Damnation is meant to revisit or even redeem Nick Spencer’s most contentious storyline, or if this winds up picking at wounds that would be better off scarring over. Spencer, Cates and Reis have a lot going on in this first issue, with a storytelling focus that takes such a sudden shift at the end that the reader might wind up with whiplash in Issue #2 -but at the same time, it feels appropriate and even necessary to take Marvel’s heavy hitters off the board in order to make room for the weirdness of the Midnight Sons, even if the actual setting and mechanism of doing so feels a little risky. It remains to be seen whether or not Damnation will spell redemption or defeat for these creators - but at the minimum, it can’t help but feel audacious, watching these creators try to pull off this particularly dangerous trick.