Tangled Webs: Straczynski’s Doctor Strange


cumberstrangeThis is a piece about One More Day, but it’s not about the usual controversy. It’s not about anything to do with Mephisto, not does it have anything to do with breaking up Peter and MJ. It’s about something that happened in the second issue on the storyline—an instance of time travel with Doctor Strange—that has interesting ramifications for several of the key storylines in J. Michael Straczynski’s Spider-Man run.

Time travel shenanigans are a part of JMS’s modus operandi. He described BABYLON 5 as having one example of time travel, which is literally true but it did have reverberations through the entire series. MIDNIGHT NATION features a conversation between a man and his future self at two different points, revisited in the final issue. This type of stuff was not invented by JMS. Grant Morrison did a similar trick in ANIMAL MAN a decade earlier. Jim Starlin did the same thing with Warlock in the 1970s. But it’s always impressive when it’s pulled off, and JMS made a go of it with his final Spider-Man story.

These particular scenes involve Doctor Strange. The wallcrawler and Marvel’s sorcerer supreme are rather dissimilar characters, with Spider-Man as a younger street level superhero with a secret identity and Doctor Strange as a magician who explores weird realms and whose identity is known to the world. There are some connections, starting with the obvious that they’re Marvel’s two most popular lead characters cocreated by Steve Ditko. Roger Stern also had acclaimed runs on both titles, although there hasn’t been much other overlap. JMS’s Spider-Man run had a mystical theme, so it made sense for him to use Doctor Strange so prominently.

Strange’s first appearance in the run was in JMS’s second extended storyline. Spider-Man had just fought the Shade, a new mystical bad guy, and decided that the smart thing to do was to get some help from a professional.

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The final page of Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 #41 with Spider-Man meeting Doctor Strange as illustrated by John Romita Jr.

In JMS’s final storyline, the second part of One More Day, Spider-Man pays a visit to Doctor Strange, to see if there’s anyone who can help him with Aunt May’s medical condition. She was in a coma after an agent of the Kingpin had shot her.

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Doctor Strange uses an item that can allow him to try to travel through time and space to contact others. Spider-Man travels through space to reach the likes of the X-Men and Doctor Doom, but when they’re not able to help, he then decides to use the item to travel through time, without Strange’s permission.

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The trouble is that he’s in his astral form, so he’s not able to interact with anyone.

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He says that he recalls an odd feeling right before Aunt May was shot, and he now realizes this feeling was an awareness of the presence of his future self. However, we didn’t see this scene from Peter’s perspective in the relevant issue (#537). We also didn’t see anything at contradicts it.

The astral Spider-Man is injured by creatures who exist to prevent time travel. Doctor Strange takes him for healing to his Sanctum Sanctorum at an earlier time when he knew that he wouldn’t be present.

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This ends up being at the the same time as the events of Strange’s first appearance in the run. So the injured Spider-Man overhears a conversation between the Doctor Strange of his timeline, and a Peter Parker about an year in the past. He is unable to warn his former self about the danger that’s coming.

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So the Doctor Strange who helps Peter Parker in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN VOLUME 2 #42 is from a future where Peter’s life has been destroyed. I don’t know the extent to which this was intended by JMS at the time he wrote the scene.

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While in the astral field, Peter makes a misstep that draws the attention of Shathra the Spiderwasp, another one-off JMS villain. This means that Spider-Man’s trip to the past ended up having some consequences for Peter. Shathra’s plan against Spider-Man included lies about his private life at a time when Peter and Mary Jane were seperated. This was the impetus for Mary Jane’s return to New York.

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She was unable to find Peter, because he was in Africa at the time, as a result of his fight with Shathra. He then took a flight to Los Angeles, just when MJ went to New York. Peter’s Los Angeles to New York flight and Mary Jane’s New York to Los Angeles flight would be diverted by a freak storm in Denver, leading to their reconciliation in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN VOLUME 2 #50. So Peter and MJ got back together when they did as a result of something that happened in One More Day, a thread that isn’t explored in that storyline.

When Doctor Strange warns Peter about how he had upset powerful forces in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN VOLUME 2 #46, this has to be the Doctor Strange from the future of One More Day. He says that Peter’s face means nothing to him, although from his perspective, they’re teammates on the New Avengers. Whatever JMS was planning with the scene, I doubt he was thinking that far ahead, but it’s an interesting context.

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Doctor Strange warns Spider-Man about Shathra, but not about the other stuff. This would be a Doctor Strange aware that Spider-Man survives the encounter with Shathra, and will soon have bigger problems on his plate. He did say that the space-time continuum if he changes things too much, so there is that.

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Strange teams up with Spider-Man again in “Happy Birthday,” the three issue arc that concludes with AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #500. Chronologically, this would have to be a Doctor Strange unaware of the events of his earlier appearances in the title, because those occur in his future. Strange doesn’t reference his previous encounters with Spider-Man in the comics, so this doesn’t actually contradict anything from those stories.

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The entire storyline ends with Peter seeing visions of his origin and his future, while reliving his greatest triumphs and tragedies. There’s more timey-wimeyness. In AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Volume 2 #46, there was a reference to an upcoming Doctor Strange mini-series “The Other Side of Darkness.” This is set up in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #500, published a few years later, when Baron Mordo ambushes a weakened Doctor Strange, essentially changing his origin, and setting up a new mini-series.

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The mini-series by JMS and co-writer Samm Barnes, and artist Brandon Peterson ends up being a straightforward retelling of Doctor Strange’s origin. The references to Baron Mordo’s spell aren’t mentioned, and the changes are later ignored. The mini-series is packaged as a trade paperback called “Beginnings and Endings.” Marvel never does publish a mini-series called “The Other Side of Darkness.” That does become the title for One More Day Part 2, so readers do at some point in the future see Doctor Strange’s appointment with death. And it involves Spider-Man more than it appeared to at the time.

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Thomas Mets is an Education Masters student in New York City. He is also one of the moderators of the Spider-Man forum at Comic Book Resources. He has been a fan of Spider-Man since coming across the character in the comic strip, and remembers arguing about One More Day so often that he could spell JMS’s full name correctly without having to google it. Those were dark days. 

(7) Comments

  1. Al

    I think attributing their getting back together as a result of OMD is kind of a stretch. Firstly, it’s unlikely that eventually they wouldn’t have made moves towards reconciliation in the wake of the Doc Ock arc. Indeed I found their continued separation to be ooc at least from Peter’s point of view. Secondly Shathra noticed Peter because he strayed from the path on the Astral Plane and he did that because he noticed the spider totem mumbo jumbo thing and was drawn towards it in the middle of shepherding the kidnapped kids to safety. Had Dr. Strange accompanied Peter it’s really no guarantee that he wouldn’t have strayed from the path and gotten himself noticed. In fact, given how Dr. Strange is so much more powerful than Peter he might’ve either NOT taken Peter to the Astral plane at all or else have made the task of defeating Shade much easier. Consequently that would’ve given Peter probably more time to look around and notice the Spider totem thing or if not have gotten him back home far quicker, meaning that he would NOT have missed his meeting with Mary Jane. If Dr. Strange had not taken Peter along Peter would’ve been free to meet MJ and if Dr Strange was unreachable then Peter would’ve had no means to get to the astral plane and again would’ve just gone to meet Mary Jane. As we saw in ASm v2 #50 really they just needed to talk things through and be honest with one another to patch up their relationship. Really the Shade/Shathra storylne delayed the reconciliation. I really do not know if I buy that Dr. Strange from the Shathra arc is a future Doctor Strange at all. Because where was he keeping himself during all that time? How would he know Spider-Man in the present strayed from the path and would need his assistance? Why wouldn’t he HELP Spider-Man if he’s the future Doctor Strange and presumably has nothing better to do? One thing this might resolve though, if Doctor Strange in the Happy Birthday arc is the future Doctor Strange then that resolves the problem of where he disappeared to after helping Spider-Man get back to the future. If you remember he told Spidey to follow his voice over and over again but the Dr. Strange Peter met at the end of ASM #500 obviously had no memory of the time travel adventure they’d embarked upon.

  2. hornacek

    @4 - As much as I disliked JMS' ignoring the supporting cast except for MJ and Aunt May, I *love* how seriously he took the marriage. He may be my favorite Spidey writer when it comes to "Who wrote the marriage best?"

  3. Mike K.

    Although it took him away from some of his supporting cast, JMS's decision to have Peter teach high school paid huge dividends as far as the maturity and faithfulness to the character. Peter has always been a bit old beyond his years and introspective, which made him an effective and empathetic teacher to teenagers. It also kept him connected to "youth" but in a way that was organic and true to who he was. So in addition to JMS's superb portrayal of the marriage, he also gets kudos from me for the high school teacher storyline as far as capturing the essence of Peter Parker. I don't get Peter as a man-child. Other than his petulant choice to allow the burglar to escape, he has always been mature and responsible. Admittedly, I haven't caught up on the latest volume so I don't know if Corporate Peter is being presented in a more mature manner.

  4. George Berryman

    @3 - <i>"He handled Mary Jane and Peter’s marriage with great maturity, they felt like a real couple and perfectly demonstrated how marriage can benefit the drama of a series instead of hindering it."</i> This, a thousand times. Every time Marvel was parroting the "marriage limits the story potential" crap I pointed to JMS's work with Peter and MJ putting that obvious lie down. Any relationship of any kind between characters is only as strong as the writer writing it and marriage is never a closed door on dramatic tension.

  5. Crime Master

    I have to say, whilst JMS didn't always have the best story ideas in ASM, he totally got Peter and wrote some incredibly naturalistic dialogue for a superhero comic. He handled Mary Jane and Peter's marriage with great maturity, they felt like a real couple and perfectly demonstrated how marriage can benefit the drama of a series instead of hindering it. Aunt May became a more compelling character than she'd frankly ever been before or after in finding out about Peter's secret and acting as his advisor and confidant, a much better use of her than simply giving her heart attacks over and over. He was willing to move the characters in the logical direction they really needed to go, instead of changing things for the sake of attention-grabbing like 'ooh now Peters been taken over by Doc Ock!', or 'now Peter's Tony Stark!!!' Romita Jr's artwork is also some of the best the title has ever had as far as I'm concerned. I'd honestly rather have an almost perfect Peter Parker interact with some ocassionally iffy storylines than a total jerkass Peter interact with... whatever the hell Slott's writing.

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