Faustian Themes And Theatrical Beauty In ‘Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment” [Review]
If you’ve never read Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment, it’s doubtful that you’re in some peculiar minority that has its own scholarship or anything. The book was released as an original graphic novel in 1989 and has only been in print sporadically since then, so it’s not hard to believe that so many have never come across it. But among a certain subset of fans, it's maintained a reputation as something of a forgotten classic, a rare treasure that savvy readers should excavate. This week it got a lot easier: Marvel released a new paperback edition of the 80-page story, along with a handful of related stories. So how does it hold up?
Written by Roger Stern and illustrated by Mike Mignola and Mark Badger, Triumph and Torment has a fantastic premise that combines high-drama Romantic literature with badass stuff that sounds awesome when you’re high: Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom go to Hell. Every Midsummer’s Eve, Doctor Doom does battle with the powers of Hell for his mother’s soul -- canon established in a Gerry Conway/Gene Colan story from Astonishing Tales #4, which is included in this collection -- and each year, the struggle ends in a stalemate. When Doom wins a “boon” from Strange -- a favor that cannot be denied -- he enlists the Sorcerer Supreme’s aid in a fight with Mephisto to win back his mother’s everlasting soul once and for all.
Based on the concept alone, it’s easy to see why so many have proclaimed the book’s greatness. “Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom vs. the Devil” is just about the coolest assemblage of eight words in the English language. It’s an idea that’s almost quintessentially comic book-y: big wow factor, riding that very thin edge between dramatic and ridiculous, and the always-classic hero and villain teaming up to take down a common foe.
It’s a great pairing. The story subtly illustrates the parallels between the characters, and reminds us, usually through flashbacks, of all the ways in which these men are alike: (1) After disfiguring accidents (Doom thought he was disfigured, so it counts), (2) bruised their giant egos, (3) each man trekked to Tibet, (4) where they gained arcane knowledge, (5) which they used to avenge their father figures, (6) who were both healers, in Doom’s case his actual father, in Strange’s case the Anicent One. That’s not even counting the fact that they can both get painkillers, yo.
Even though Doctor Strange gets top billing, he’s essentially a supporting character, and undergoes no significant changes. His difference from Doom is apparent -- his humility, his altruism -- but he doesn’t have much of a journey in the story. He officially wins the title of Sorcerer Supreme early on, but it feels a little hollow considering readers had been under the assumption he got it when the Ancient One died. Was he the interim champ? Was it just a formality, like how you can’t use an expired license to buy alcohol? (In this metaphor, the death of the Ancient One is the expired license, the alcohol is the title of Sorcerer Supreme.) He goes mano-a-mano with Mephisto, and is put through some trials, but emerges without having experienced the kind of growth you’d hope. All that really grows is Strange’s understanding of Doom, and the darkness that has shaped the despot’s life.
Triumph and Torment is without a doubt Doctor Doom’s story. It’s Doom who undergoes the hero’s journey (or villain’s pilgrimage, if you will), and is not so much changed as revealed. Stan Lee was always of the opinion that, although the character was megalomaniacal, he was also honorable and noble. Stern’s characterization picks up where the Conway/Colan story left off and asserts that Doom is also quite tragic, which adds more dimension to a figure that, though iconic, could frequently be one-note and uninteresting.
The artwork throughout is fantastic. Mike Mignola was Mike Mignola, even before he was Mike Mignola.
Except when he was also Mark Badger.
Let me explain. Though Mignola usually inked his own stuff, even this early in his career, for this project the massively under appreciated Badger came in for colors and inks, and the difference in their inking philosophies is blatant. Compared to the Mignola-inked Namor stories with Bill Mantlo -- which are also included in the new TPB -- the blacks in Triumph and Torment are subtler and less blocky. The lines are thinner, and the shading is less stark chiaroscuro and more progressive, in the style of Bernie Wrightson. Over Mignola’s penciled breakdowns, which rumbled with the nascent Kirby-touched minimalism that we’ve all come to know and love, Badger’s pen-and-brush-work finishes the book with a dramatic flair that might have been lost had it all been on Mignola’s shoulders.
The amalgamation of their styles imbues the Faustian plot with all the operatic flourishes it deserves. Moments of stillness are moody and dramatic, lighted like lost scenes from The Seventh Seal. The action is high-impact and elegant: in magical showdowns, bolts of arcane energy crackle and burst and ricochet around the pages chaotically. The artists' portrayal of Hell -- in which the battle goes on for nearly forty pages! -- writhes with bleak, Stygian foulness.
Reading the book maybe twenty years after the first time around, there are definitely flaws there I didn’t see before, cracks in the foundation. Doctor Strange isn’t really developed, act one seems too accidental, and the plot relies heavily on a deus ex machina, but when you consider that the climax is a battle with the devil, it’s kind of appropriate. It certainly seems like it should have been a much larger story, with more space for the characters to grow, more time for the drama to simmer, but for this nexus of talent that seems practically impossible.
Despite its flaws, Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment is emotionally moving, philosophically intriguing, theatrical, and superbly-composed by two artistic innovators coming together like contrapuntal melodies. An articulate and romantic comic book more than worthy of the reprint, maybe it will finally get a chance at a new wave of initiates.