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What If... Dr. Strange had never become Master of the Mystic Arts? (V. 1, #40)
Well, it's been a whole week since my last entry in this series, and I feel that's a real gyp to my loyal readers - both of them. So, in an attempt to snap myself out of this funk, I'm going to do an issue I'm not very familiar with about a character I'm not very familiar with, just for laughs. Which isn't to say that I won't be serious, or anything.

Anyway, I have to admit this cover is cool if a little misleading. If, like me, you've never really followed Dr. Strange, you probably wouldn't recognize the sinister figure in Strange's costume as his archenemy Baron Mordo, as opposed to an evil version of Strange himself. The two look very similar, with few obvious differences — all of which are related to their hair (Strange has a pencil mustache, slicked back hair, and white temples; Mordo has a Beard of Evil, is balding, and has a prominent widow's peak). Anyway, Mordo as the evil Sorcerer Supreme is the crux of this image; Strange's other archvillains, the dread Dormammu and Nightmare, appear in his cape, where they respectively scowl in anger and cackle madly. Meanwhile, Strange himself looks at the scene from below, an expression of terror on his face. Strange, his wife Clea, and his master the Ancient One are all afflicted with Floating Head Syndrome, by the by.

We begin, as always, with the Watcher, and by this point I'm surprised at how often Depending on the Artist comes into play in depicting this character. It's frankly getting ridiculous. Here he looks like a bizarre amalgamation of his popular depiction and the version we saw in the first issue. This was actually Hand Waved in that very issue as the Watcher choosing to project different appearances depending on the situation, but whatever. The Watcher says he has taken great interest in Dr. Strange and his efforts to protect the world from occult forces. His opposite number is the vile Baron Mordo, nearly his equal in magic. The two of them walked very similar paths in life - they had the same teacher and faced the same temptations and perils. "But what if the path taken by one had not been so similar to that taken by the other?"

Beneath him is more Floating Head Syndrome, this time featuring Strange and Mordo as a sort of Two Face amalgam, Clea, the Ancient One, and Dormammu. Let's see, I haven't commented much on the creative staff behind the issues so far, but I'd like to give a shout out to this issue's artist, Butch Guice, who is actually still working with Marvel to this day - most recently as the artist of Skaar, Son of Hulk.

Yeesh! On the next page, we see that I was perhaps overstating it when I said the Watcher was somewhere between his familiar scrawny form and the Heroic Build from issue #1 - he almost looks like a Buddha statue here! That's probably intentional considering the importance of Eastern mysticism and philosophy in Strange's backstory, now that I think about it. Anyway, we get a fresh origin recap that for once I think is perfectly reasonable. If you're not well-versed in Marvel lore, Dr. Strange was once a wealthy but cruel and unfeeling neurosurgeon - until a fateful car crash caused such tremendous nerve damage to his hands that he would never hold a scalpel again! All too quickly, Strange became a shambling drunk. That is, until he heard of the Ancient One in Tibet, who could cure any ailment with his sorcery.

Pooling his remaining resources, he went to Tibet and climbed to the secret mountain retreat of the Ancient one. There, he told the Ancient One of his trouble, or at least tried to before the decrepit old man silenced him and had his manservant Mordo show him to a room. Later, Strange happened upon Mordo as he spouted dark incantations over a mysterious not-quite-cauldron. Thinking he should tell the Ancient One (which strikes me as a very childish thing to think of immediately. "Mordo, what are you doing? I'M TELLING DAD!"), he finds himself struck silent by one of Mordo's spells!

Strange goes to see the Ancient One regardless, and when the old man is through warding off the evil spirits attacking him at Mordo's behest, he compliments Strange for trying to alert him and frees him of Mordo's enchantment. Strange realizes that he'd been blind; a shadow struggle between the forces of good and evil wages on right under his nose, and all he had been thinking about was himself. He replaces Deceptive Disciple Mordo as the Ancient One's apprentice, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Watcher says that the attack made Stephen Strange a better man and refocused his energies to the betterment of mankind. But on many parallels, the attack never happened! It is on once such world that our story begins.

For here, long before Strange's arrival, Mordo had tampered with powers he did not understand. One of his dark rituals works all too well, as tentacles grab at him from the abyss! He cries for his master's aid, but goes unheard. The Ancient One didn't notice Mordo's brief disappearance, but did notice a marked change in Mordo from that day on. The Ancient One had often lamented Mordo's fascination with dark and vile magical traditions, having taken him as his pupil to contain him. Now, however, he is proud to say that Mordo has seemingly turned a new leaf, and is finally ready to be taught the deeper mysteries. Mordo appears to have acquired The Gift, for he progresses with great rapidity. The Ancient One is overjoyed at how his former problem student has become an outstanding - and outstandingly moral - sorcerer.

Days later, Stephen Strange is brought to the Ancient One's mountain home by the Bedouin Rescue Service. The Ancient One says his troubles will be dealt with later, and as on our world, has Mordo show him to a room. Later, the Ancient One privately counsels his pupil, saying that Strange's mystical potential may in fact outweigh Mordo's. Mordo humbly suggests he step aside as the Ancient One's student to make room for Strange. I don't know about you, but I like this Mordo guy. The Ancient One insists, however, that "I do not cast aside pupils like old coats, Mordo! You have served me well and shall continue to do so! Strange shall find his own place."

However, the snow has grown too dense for Strange to leave. Until the winter has passed, it looks like Mordo and the Ancient One are stuck with him - and vice versa. As the months pass, Strange watches Mordo's further training, tempering his wonderment with cynicism. When spring comes, it turns out Strange has learned a lesson after all, despite never learning the mystical arts. Realizing that his mind was his problem, not his hands, Strange leaves them a happy man with a new life ahead of him. But Mordo and the Ancient One have work to do.

Strange returns to the West and re-integrates himself into the medical field as a medical school instructor. One of his students, Donald Blake, is amazed that Strange could come back from his accident. Maybe he and his bad leg can make it, too! The years pass, and a mysterious figure approaches "a certain somber Greenwich Village dwelling." It's Mordo, who is welcomed to his Sanctum Sanctorum by his new servant, Wong. I can't move on without pointing out this line: "Thank you, good Wong." AHAHAHAHA okay I'm better now, I AHAHAHAHAHAHA

Anyway, Mordo takes a look around his new place and likes what he sees. The Eye of Agamotto, the first Sorcerer Supreme... the fabled Book of the Vishanti... Wong watches him gush over these artifacts with an odd suspicion. Certainly the wise Ancient One's greatest pupil is trustworthy... but there's just something about him that Wong doesn't like. Wong appears to have had the wrong idea, for in the following months Mordo proves his honor in many battles against the various dark forces threatening the Earth. The Possessors, the House of Shadows, Aggamon Behind the Purple Veil, and more! Meanwhile, Dr. Strange wakes from the latest in a series of Catapult Nightmares. "Maybe I've just been eating too much melted cheese... but I doubt it!"

At that moment, the Ancient One summons Mordo to his side, requiring aid in facing an emissary of the dread Dormammu — Lord of the Dark Dimension! Dormammu intends to leave his realm and invade the world of men. Mordo vows to confront him, in spite of the Ancient One's warning that it would be folly. Casting a spell, he enters the Dark Dimension and prepares for the fight of his life. As he tries to open a door into Dormammu's domain, he's watched by Clea, a native of this bizarre otherworld, who thinks it a madman's effort to open the gate; even with his power, he can never defeat the Guardian!

As Mordo fights his way to Dormammu, the Dread One himself watches from afar. Proving a Bad Boss, he banishes his minions to limbo, sickened by their failure to halt the progress of the Ancient One's mere disciple. Clea leaps from her cover to tell Mordo to be wary. Mordo hardly needed the advice, but finds himself enamored of the beautiful young lady. In an act that strikes me as out of character, he forces a ring onto her finger that places her under his will. So, just like the Ice King's engagement ring. It turns out he did this so she would share the secrets of this realm with him without reservation. She directs him to the dwelling of the Mindless Ones, which is precisely what he seeks. the Mindless Ones are hulking slabs of living rock with visor-like eye slits that fire Eye Beams. They spend their time endlessly fighting each other, neither knowing nor understanding anything but violence.

Clea cautions him that they are contained by Dormammu's will, and that if released that would prove a danger for the whole universe. Mordo says he'll cross that bridge when he gets to it; for now, his plan of attack is complete. He frees Clea from her spell, erases her memory, and sends her back to where she came from. Mordo then faces Dormammu himself! Dormammu hopes to show Mordo that it is no mere sorcerer he fights — in the Dark Dimension, the Dread One is God. His will is being, his world is law! Mordo realizes his words to be all too truthful, his most powerful spells being shattered without effort.

Dormammu only wishes it were the Ancient One himself he were embarrassing, but Mordo won't have such an infernal creature defile that name! The Ancient One taught him that powers such as Dormammu's can always be thwarted — because they are corrupt! See, I've come across a bit of a dilemma, namely that now I have a slight interest in Dr. Strange comics, but by definition none of them are anything like this.

Mordo tries to hold off Dormammu for just a little while longer so that his plan can come to fruition. Clea, under post-hypnotic suggestion, frees the Mindless Ones. Dormammu curses the fact that he is somewhat depleted from his fight with Mordo and thus lacks the power to fight them once more. Mordo helps keep them at bay long enough for Dormammu to construct a new barrier. Dormammu is now furious; because Mordo came to his aid, he is bound by a mystic vow to not make war against him. This clever Batman Gambit was Mordo's plan all along; he knew Dormammu had his own code of conduct, however alien it may be to our own. Dormammu shouts that Mordo has earned his world's freedom — and his undying hatred!

Back at the Ancient One's retreat, Mordo's mentor is very proud of his pupil, and presents him with a cloak that marks him as Dormammu's nemesis. With that, the familiar Doctor Strange outfit is complete. Meanwhile, Dormammu swears vengeance and Clea investigates the strange feeling she's experiencing, describing it as almost as evil as Dormammu himself. Her scan leads her to a strange gypsy woman - Umar, Dormammu's own sister, though Clea is ignorant of this. Umar instructs Clea to seach the "Lands of Dream", a bit of advice Clea decides is worth following. Clea scans the lands of dream, where those tentacles that bedeviled Mordo ensnare her through her mystical viewscreen, stopped only when she deactivates the spell.

Strange strolls into work looking a complete mess. He hasn't gone back to drinking, but he hasn't been sleeping well, and when he's managed to get any shuteye he gets these terrible nightmares. Elsewhere, a dark socerer named Cyrus Black summons Dormammu - but it's Dormammu who dominates him! Turning Black's disciples into ghastly wraiths, he charges him with killing Baron Mordo. Black and his wraiths are transported to the Sanctum Sanctorum, and Mordo himself is there to greet them.

I hadn't noticed this before, but the way magic is depicted in this story is fantastic. I don't think I could truly explain it, but it really looks like something "other" that doesn't truly belong in our world. Mordo defeats Black and the wraiths in a classic Curb-Stomp Battle, expending hardly any effort in the process. Mordo mocks Dormammu for his feeble servants, and decides to release Dormammu from his vow to show him how little he cares about this one-sided war. Soon, however, the Ancient One warns him that Dormammu is focusing his powers. He'd best be on his guard. A mysterious guest surmises that the Ancient One suspects nothing, and Mordo says he never has. It's Nightmare, the Master of Dreams — and one of the inspirations behind Morpheus, particularly in appearance. They're planning something, but what it is they aren't willing to share just yet.

Yikes! Would you believe we're only halfway done? Anyway, Dormammu releases "bolts of mystic entrapment" so as to make Mordo's defeat as humiliating as possible. Meanwhile, Dr. Strange has a psychotic episode in class, hallucinating his students as demons. Coming back to reality, he dismisses class, heads outside, and slumps against a wall.

At Baron Mordo's Sanctum Sanctorum, Mordo asks Nightmare why he should concern himself with Dr. Strange. Nightmare insists his potential is devastating and must be dealt with before he has the chance to become a true threat. Mordo is hesitant to go after a total innocent, which goes to show you that he may be a better man than he realizes. "Would that not expose me —" "— For what you truly are?" Nightmare is the one who has been torturing Strange with those dreams, and evidently even caused his recent hallucination. This has all been so that Strange would come to Mordo for help, thus providing him with the perfect chance to eradicate him.

Okay, I'm back. Ugh, this is becoming a chore now that I know the surprisingly cool Baron Mordo is actually the bad guy in all this. Anyway, Strange is drawn to the Sanctum Sanctorum, where he re-unites with Mordo. Strange describes his nightmares and asks Mordo for help. Mordo can cure him, in a way... But to do so, he must put a dream in yo dream so Strange can dream while he dreams. Strange says he doesn't believe in magic, unwilling to recognize the things he saw the Ancient One teach Mordo as genuine, but since Mordo is a good man he thinks he has nothing to worry about. Mordo puts Strange under a deep sleep. Just as Strange's dream begins, Mordo inserts himself into it.

The landscape is madness, something right out of Duck Amuck. Mordo comes up to Strange walking on what look like benedril capsules and instructs him to follow on his own pair. Strange says this place is like nothing on Earth, but Mordo tells him neither is the human mind. The pair meets Nightmare, master of the world of dreams... but Mordo betrays Strange, trapping him in a mystical barrier so he will never leave Nightmare's realm! Mordo returns to the waking world while Nightmare lectures an inquisitive Strange. Nightmare has no power over the world of the waking, but has forever desired it. For that to happen, his greatest foe, the Sorcerer Supreme, must forever come to an end! When Mordo cast that dark spell all those years ago, Nightmare ensnared him and turned him into his slave.

Not only that, but he also engineered Mordo gaining Dormammu's ever-growing enmity, tricking the lord of the Dark Dimension into doing his bidding. Strange doesn't get what this has to do with him, and it's simple; Strange has the highest mystical potential of all the mortals on the Earth. Nightmare's simply removing him, the only clear candidate to be the next Sorcerer Supreme, from the equation before he can toss a monkeywrench into his plan. He then banishes Strange to the world of dreams forevermore.

Clea wakes from her own Catapult Nightmare, having seen the events we just saw... but forgetting them as soon as she woke up. Still, she has a faint idea of the gist; something noble and good is in danger in that strange dream world she saw. She decides to seek the origin of her clearly prophetic dream, and is lucky that Dormammu is planning to step out as well - his power will mask her departure to any mystical detection. Like when a shoplifter leaves the store after somebody else trips the alarm, kind of.

Dormammu is confronting Mordu and trying to get him to forswear honor so that his old vow will truly be broken. He does so, and insults him quite a bit for good measure. But Dormammu is positive he'll have the last laugh - now not only is Earth fair game, but Mordo has doomed himself more than he knows! Meanwhile, Strange sits in his prison as he continues to travel along the dream world's unimaginable pathways. He eventually reasons that Nightmare said he had power, so he tries to tap into that power somehow. Adopting a meditative pose, he simply focuses his mind for several minutes and his prison shatters around him! He doesn't know where to go from here, but damned if he doesn't try!

Back at the Sanctum Sanctorum, the Ancient One is for once disappointed in Mordo for his ludicrous overconfidence. Meanwhile, all over the planet, the sky darkens, foreshadowing the arrival of Dormammu. Strange moves through the dream world with surprising ability. Passing through an odd portal, he arrives in a Standard Fantasy Setting, where he must contend with roving monsters! He turns into a knight as his spirit rises to meet the challenge - such rises being far more than mental changes in the dream dimension! He tries to enter a castle, but his pounding at the drawbridge yields no response. Clea appears to him, saying he needs the right kind of key. He asks who she is, and she tells him only that she's a friend.

Using magic, she opens the gate for him, and as he walks through he finds a much more familiar environment: Good ol' NYC! Unfortunately, this isn't the real New York (and how often do you get to say anything like "unfortunately, he is not in New York"?), but another nightmare — this one featuring swarming rats! Clea ropes him into an alleyway to escape. He asks her why she's doign this for him, but abandons that line of thought to thank her. Luckily for Strange, his powers are growing. Clea tells him to follow her.

Mordo stands atop a Tibetan mountain waiting for Dormammu to show himself, prepared as he was in their first encounter to do battle. Ably taking care of the cronies Dormammu sends out first, the (giant-sized) dimensional overlord arrives in the flesh - and soon kills Baron Mordo with a magic blast! The Ancient One prepares to fight Dormammu himself as Nightmare watches from his domain — with Mordo at his side! Turns out Dormammu "killed" a mystical simulation of the real deal. Nightmare demands Mordo turn over the Eye of Agamotto, and even Mordo is hesitant to break this oath. But this is interrupted when Nightmare senses Strange is loose and orders Mordo to take care of him!

Clea and Strange are near the waking world, but are soon accosted by Mordo! Meanwhile, the Ancient One falls in battle with his old enemy Dormammu. Clea tries to protect strange, but Mordo kills her with a single bolt of power. A furious Strange unleashes a torrent of magic at him despite his lack of training. As Dormammu prepares to raze the world, Nightmare approaches him with a proposal - a co-regency! He shows Dormammu the Eye of Agamotto as proof that he's not kidding around. Strange rises from a catatonic state, only faintly remembering what happened. It looks like Mordo's dead, by the way. Strange realizes that the portal Mordo came through must lead to the waking world, and rushes into it.

There, he sees Nightmare and Dormammu forming a pact as they grasp the Eye of Agamotto together. They notice him; Dormammu thinks it would be a laugh to keep him alive to witness their actions. "Watch, mortal, as all you care for dies screaming...!" Strange seems to unconsciously tap into his tremendous mystical powers, for with the fury of a thousand flaming suns, Dr. Strange strikes back! Dormammu and Nightmare are driven back to their realms. The world returns to normal. Dr. Strange, however, is drained, and has the appearance of a very old man. He falls down, dead, shortly afterwards. Clea, who wasn't even dead, arrives too late to save him. "He came so far... did so much... and was so very noble. And I never even knew his name."

In the afterlife, Strange meets the Ancient One, who has much to teach him...

SO IT WAS ON THIS WORLD. BUT WHAT IF...?
20th Feb '11 7:21:06 PM flag for mods
comments
A lot of the cool imagery in this issue is lifted almost straight from the early Ditko Dr. Strange stories. Whatever else you might say about Ditko, he really knew how to draw weirdness.
SKJAM 20th Feb 11
I find it a tad funny that, while showing others the unappreciated value of a comic book series through a Liveblog, your own interests have just expanded as well. And I must admit, with otherworldly opponents and mystical powers such as those in this one issue, this Dr. Strange fellow sounds like he's perfectly suited for marvelous adventures that I wouldn't mind taking a gander at.
EndarkCuli 21st Feb 11
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