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New Avengers Annual #1

(Marvel; US: Aug 2014)

The demon that you can swallow gives you its power,
and the greater life’s pain,
the greater life’s reply.
—Joseph Campbell


I was scared once, really scared.


It was the summer of 1984 and I was 16 going on 17. That is an age when scares come pretty easily but are then quickly forgotten; this is one scare that I have never forgotten. Issue #27 of Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing featured Etrigan the Demon who came to the swamps of south Louisiana to do battle with the terrifying Monkey King, a ghostly white, red-eyed demon that lives on fear and that takes the form of whatever it is that scares you the most.  (He need never change his form for me; I’m plenty scared by the Monkey King just the way he is.)


But the Monkey King was not what scared me the most.


Twice in this issue, twice, a demon is consumed, taken into the mouth and swallowed whole. The first time Matt Cable swallows a talking fly in order to save himself from death. It is a deal with the devil of course; he gains his life but loses his soul. It is a gruesome scene. The second time it happens is even more horrible. When the Monkey King’s main source of fear is removed and he is shrunken in size, Etrigan takes the withered thing and drops it into his smacking lips. He then recites a poem, of course; Moore’s Etrigan always speaks in rhyme:


Fear, no matter how small it has grown…
Retains a certain flavor of its own.


And that is what scared me, that one scene; it still scares me today. The Monkey King gave me nightmares, but Etrigan the Demon left me speechless, my mouth full of fear. What kind of creature is this who can swallow such evil whole, take it inside himself and not be consumed, like Kali swallowing whole the demons that sprang from the blood drops of Raktabija?


But scares don’t come so easily to me anymore, at least not from the comicbook page or the movie screen, and at least not in demon-form; the fears now come from much more real, much more mundane places.


But this week a comicbook scared me again; it really scared me.


In New Avengers Annual #1, Frank Barbiere, writing his first story for Marvel Comics, and artist Marco Rudy present a terrifying tale of Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme.  It is a Doctor Strange story unlike any other that I can remember. The Strange they present is a powerful hero; he is also frightening. Strange is fresh from his life-altering adventures in the pages of Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers, where the sorcerer sold his soul in exchange for increased power. In this tale, the newly empowered Strange is summoned back to the Himalayan retreat where he was first trained in the mystic arts in order to provide assistance when the monks mistakenly allow a demonic force to enter our universe and take possession of a girl.


Rudy makes every page of this story compelling, with page layouts that are both challenging and fitting for the story he wishes to tell. He is equally adept at illustrating the futuristic technology that the monks have adopted, showing flashbacks of Stephen Strange in his early days as a surgeon, and depicting the forces of evil that are arrayed against the Master of the Mystic Arts. His full page take on the demon that Strange must face is terrifying.


But it is not the demon that really scares me; it is the Doctor.


I have always believed that Stephen Strange lost his pride and hubris when he lost his surgical skills, that the Doctor Strange who emerged from his time of mystic training was a different man than Doctor Strange, arrogant surgeon. In Barbiere’s and Rudy’s tale there is reason to suspect that this is not true, reason to suspect that Stephen Strange hasn’t changed that much after all, except, of course, that now the arrogant surgeon has the powers of a god. This Doctor Strange is not willing to accept defeat; this Doctor Strange believes that nothing is impossible but that everything has a price; this Doctor Strange is willing to sell his soul to do what needs to be done, to win, to be victorious, to save those placed in his care. He is the picture of arrogance united with almost unlimited power.


So, Doctor Strange performs the blood magic; he gives his soul; he pronounces the forbidden spells; he works the dark arts; and he does what has to be done to save his patient. When the demon is shrunken in size under the power of the Sorcerer Supreme, bargained with and beaten, Strange takes the withered thing and drops it into his smacking lips.  And, in the next moment, it is Strange who is ghostly white, Strange who has become a red-eyed demon.


I am terrified again.


Doctor Strange has gone somewhere he has never gone before, a rare feat for a character who has been around so long. He has become terrifying, a monster, a demon.


I am scared again, really scared.
I used to think I knew from fear. I didn’t.
All I knew were the suburbs of fear . . . and now here I am, in the big city.
—From Saga of the Swamp Thing No. 26 by Alan Moore, John Totleben & Steve Bissette


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