In Russian folklore, there’s an evil figure called Koschei. He tore his soul from his body and concealed it in a secure place. By doing so, unless his soul is destroyed, he has made himself immortal.
One may think about Voldemort from Harry Potter, but Koschei is also the main reference in one of the latest Marvel comics about Doctor Stephen Strange. Published at the end of 2021, written by Jed MacKay and brought to life by the penciler Lee Garbett and the colorist Antonio Fabela, The Death of Doctor Strange uses death (and the fear of it) as the leitmotif of its story.
It starts with Strange dying with a dagger in his heart. In an Agatha Christie-style investigation, only one person can catch the killer: that’s Strange himself. He is a younger version of him, outlined here as resembling the one created by Steve Ditko.
Readers thus have to deal with two versions of the same person, having different perspectives on this character. An occasion offered also by an episode of What if…? and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, in these cases dealing with darker and more grotesque versions of Stephen Strange.
Death itself is the main issue
I just emailed Darren Shan, who is the Doctor Strange editor, and I was like… “Hey, I don’t know if you guys have any plans for Dr. Strange or anything going on, but can I write a Doctor Strange series?” He was like, “Yeah, absolutely. We’re gonna kill him. And you can write it”.Jed MacKay to The Insider
What Jed MacKay does is to focus on the core traits of Strange’s character. This story could be defined as a character study. Strange’s a fully made man and Sorcerer by now. He has also returned to being a surgeon. But he had also to give up having emotional attachments, be they friends, companions or lovers. It’s as if he has already ceased to exist, sentimentally. As if he no longer had a soul. This is why the figure of Koschei is introduced, he who took his soul away in order to continue living.
MacKay shows that it’s never too late to put things right. A link to Silver Surfer: Requiem too, in speaking of someone reflecting on his life just before he dies.
Death separates the deceased from their loved ones, but also creates unity in the group of those who have remained. This is precisely what happens in The Death of Doctor Strange, similar to what happened in DC‘s striking event The Death of Superman too. Being together in the name of the dead.
A double-faced style
Lee Garbett‘s style of drawing changes from situation to situation, and with it the genre itself seems to change too, from odder to calmer and more romantic, depending on the scene. Garbett plays with the perspectives and distances of the characters on the page, almost hiding them from the eyes of the reader to create mystery, or getting closer and closer to the faces of the figures when they have a more intimate moment, with each other or with themselves. He almost makes the reader feel physically close to them, and consequently empathically.
Antonio Fabela‘s colors are very bright, especially for the characters, but their magical powers are instead almost ethereal, in contrast with the surrounding environment. From writing to drawings to color the constant conflict between light and dark, life and death is highlighted as a constant reminder of the main theme of The Death of Doctor Strange.
An end is a new beginning
We’ve gotten the whole “he’s dead but he’ll be back” thing out of the way early so we can get on with the story. Audiences have certain expectations at this point when it comes to superhero death stories, and that’s completely understandable, it’s just part of the way the medium works. But here’s the thing: this book’s not called The Life of Doctor Strange.Jed MacKay to Syfy Wire
MacKay, Garbett and Fabela created a definitive conclusion to the story of Stephen Strange. His Ditko version reflects on the man he has become in the future, considering mistakes and successes. But also the current version of Strange comes to terms with himself: once the mystery of his death is solved, he’s brought back to life by his younger version. Young Strange does this because he understood the remorse that the deceased took to the grave.
Strange is alive for just a short time, though, enough to declare to his-once-wife Clea that he’ll love her forever and that he’s sorry he pushed her away. All before surrendering to his destiny, this time voluntarily. As he himself puts it, “My life can’t be stolen from death so easily. She will take back what is hers”.