With the Avengers helping mourn and honor the fallen in Las Vegas from Secret Empire, Doctor Strange arrives to offer a ray of hope. He has regained his expansive powers and resurrects the parts of Las Vegas that fell, its citizens included. Joyous celebration quickly turns to shock and horror when the Hotel Inferno, a casino owned and operated by Mephisto himself, arrives on the Vegas strip to claim souls.
Sometimes a premise is so bad from the outset that what follows can only be a string of misfires. Doctor Strange: Damnation is one of those instances.
The advertised premise didn’t seem that bad. It does imply that the story could be Strange’s fault, but that didn’t even dawn on me until I started reading. In practice, it is entirely Strange’s fault, and he has done so much worse than could have been predicted.
Resurrecting the dead is already one of those genies you don’t want to let out of the bottle. Then you have to ask why Doctor Strange doesn’t do this for every disaster. You could argue that he’s just trying to test out his new capabilities, but then the discussion just returns to hubris and the idea of those mystic laws you should never break.
Even if you set that aside, you still have another Marvel scenario of a hero causing untold suffering due to abuse of power. Then you begin to wonder if your heroes are terrible people. Then you realize they are, and the narrative connection to Secret Empire is the irony bow on this terrible, terrible gift for which you did not ask.
House of M, Age of Ultron, Secret Empire, and the 30 stories about heroes fighting for each other really have helped construct the Marvel portfolio of our heroes directly or indirectly causing the terrible mess with their hubris, for those keeping score. I even like some of those stories, but it has become a morale-breaking trend in Marvel even writing: “Your heroes are awful people. Here is a story about them cleaning up one of their destructive messes.”
I’m focusing on the premise so much because the story really seems to want you to know how disastrous Doctor Strange’s actions were and that they were distinctly his fault. Mephisto explains what he’s doing and what has happened over scenes of people bursting into flames, outright melting, or being mercilessly assaulted by literal demons. He claims (admittedly, he is a liar by nature) that Strange is the one who summoned him and his hordes.
Even if it is revealed later on that Mephisto orchestrated this somehow, this issue does a piss-poor job of foreshadowing that, and Doctor Strange is so unapologetic that you can’t help but hate him for what he’s done here. I generally love Stephen Strange, but he has caused even further torment to a city already suffering from a different superhero-caused catastrophe. Mephisto even has a line about how the past actions of Marvel’s heroes will almost certainly end up with them in Hell, and you can’t help but believe him considering what Strange has just done.
While this is implied to be Hell-induced, we also get a scene of the Avengers saying horrible things to one another and taking jabs at sensitive subjects like Captain Marvel’s shield from Secret Empire, Black Panther hiding out in Wakanda while America fell, and Falcon not knowing that Captain America was evil. It may not be “them” doing this, but it doesn’t help with the overall feeling that, yes, your heroes are just miserable and arrogant bastards.
Having flawed heroes is a good thing. Marvel dominated in the early Silver Age by having more relatable heroes who felt like real people. However, you still need to be able to root for them. The ignorant and arrogant destructive forces that keep showing up in these crossover stories don’t feel like people, are actively despicable, and are more frustrating because the stories treat them like they’re still heroes.
In addition to hating its heroes, Damnation also seems to hate people. Many of the resurrected people act like this is all just a do-over and go back to cheating on their partners, robbing places, and just being generally awful. Yes, people do this all the time, but, if the heroes and the people they are fighting for are all unrepentant idiots, why should we care at all about this?
Tonal whiplash is on the menu too. We are given these heartwarming moments of loved ones being reunited; a mother embraces her resurrected child. Then we get a Rob Zombie-looking demon sucker advertising for Hotel Inferno, and Mephisto does his best Joker impression.
Mephisto is the closest thing to a redeeming quality in this whole shitshow. Yes, he’s just aping Joker and Mxyzptlk/Impossible Man, but his satanic spin on it all makes it pretty fun. Plus, when your heroes and bystanders are all being terrible, why not root for the other team? He’s more fun than these miserable jerks.
Rod Reis’s art was a questionable choice for all of this. While his short, dreamlike sequences from Secret Empire did look good, it doesn’t work well for extended story representation. The world looks ethereal and vague even before hell breaks luce (worked in a Tom Waits reference, nailed it). The coloring adds this weird mistiness and immaterial feeling that just doesn’t jive with what this book is trying to do.
Doctor Strange: Damnation #1 is a shocking misfire from the top-downwards. The premise makes you hate the protagonist, that feeling only worsens as the comic goes on, and this artist was not a good choice for a story like this. Give this one a hard pass. Read Venom: Circle of Four instead. That was one of Remender’s best Marvel stories, and you still get demons in Las Vegas without feeling like your heroes are terrible people for causing it all.
Yes, Alejandra unknowingly helped kick it off, but at least she didn’t do something what was obviously a bad idea to a city that superheroes already ravaged. She just thought she was bringing down Blackheart; she didn’t intentionally tear open a massive rift between the realms of the living and the dead.
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