After regaining his title and resurrecting the fallen city of Las Vegas, Strange now sets his sights on his next trial and gambles against Mephisto for the fate of the lost souls of Vegas…using his own soul is the bargaining chip.
DOCTOR STRANGE #386
Author: Donny Cates
Artist: Niko Henrichon
Colors: Laurent Grossat
Letters:VC’s Cory Petit
What You Need to Know:
Fresh from his ‘victory’ over Loki and reclaiming his mantle as Sorcerer Supreme, Stephen has taken it upon himself to right the wrongs caused by the fallout of Secret Empire. Raising the lost city of Las Vegas invokes the ire of Mephisto who, determined to regain his new playthings, challenges Strange with the ultimate game of chance. He gambles his dominion against the soul of Strange and those he has taken back from him to keep Strange’s attention from the city outside as, for every minor transgression, it undergoes a demonic transformation. Unbeknownst to Strange, the heroes who watched him go into the lions den alone have also been transformed. Knowing he will need back up Bats the Basset has sought the aid of Wong, who himself calls upon several mystical players yet to enter the arena.
What You’ll Find Out:
Bleeker Street has closed for business as Strange prepares himself to take on his biggest challenge yet and resurrect Las Vegas. Bats catches him as he prepares for the cameras and his impending close up with some personal vanity in the form of dying his hair and Strange deflects his questions by reminding him of the rules about walking through closed doors. Choosing to ignore him Bats moves on to a more prosaic annoying ghost dog habit of drinking from the toilet bowl. Strange explains the reason for his new quest and his guilt at not being there to help in the aftermath of the battle in Vegas and Bats the ever faithful friend cuts him some slack citing Loki, the Void, losing Zelma and even Bats own death as reasons for his not being on form before going on to list even more unfortunate events, before Strange slams the door on him, to no effect.
And on to the main event, we see the arrival of Strange at the site of what was Vegas through his eyes. Accompanied by Bats he strides purposefully to perform the magical feat he has in mind as Bats asks how he will pay for this as he knows full well all magic use has a price. In his excitement at seeing the returned citizens Bats apparently is too distracting with his chatter and Strange suggests that he may be safer elsewhere. Whilst Bats tries to hide his hurt he points out he’s a ghost dog, but Strange is adamant and insists that with the magic he intends to invoke there may be things that could even feed on the dead, but Bats doesn’t take kindly to being told “STAY”.
What follows is a mostly one sided, deluded wishful thinking recap of the events of Damnation #1 which brings us to the present. Stephen sits grim-faced opposite his creepy croupier in a room full of demons, in the erroneous belief that his allies are handling matters outside as he literally gambles with their very lives. As Mephisto shuffles the cards and goads him about the odds, Strange attempts to take charge of the game, bigs up his gaming experience and in his hubris uses an unfortunate turn of phrase to begin play. He gets taken literally with painful, if hilarious consequences.
Mephisto breaks the tension and reminds his minions there will be plenty of time to beat Strange when he has his soul. Strange reminds him of the consequences should that not happen and the game begins. Mephisto deals some interesting picture cards with monstrous living characters that scream curses at Strange and he fails to keep his poker face. Mephisto teases him with his inexperience in Brimstone Blackjack as a card slithers unaided across the table and Strange assures him it’s just been some time, regaining his composure as Mephisto stabs a blade through one of the cards as it protests.
Mephisto continues to try to get under Stephens skin goading him about his recent exploits. Strange shrugs it off and assures him he’s wrong. Mephisto hints his source is none other than Clea and this seems to have touched a nerve as Strange begins to get defensively angry. Mephisto posits that nearly everyone Strange associates with ends up with him and forces his hand by going on to say he knows everything Strange has been troubled with recently. As Strange confides in us that when he gets mad he does the unexpected and thinks on his feet, Mephisto turns the last card and his composure disappears as his shock is obvious. Stephen has beaten him. Strange gets up to leave and demands Mephisto vacate as well and go home launching into an impressive show of smack talk. However as he walks away insisting Mephisto leave Vegas a little voice pipes up from the table.
Mephisto demands the demons grab Strange who unleashes some fearsome spells to dissuade them. Mephisto note Strange is somewhat lacking in magic, perhaps drained from his mammoth task of raising Vegas, claiming he has a spell of his own and calls upon the “hairy fists of Justin”. As Strange tries to work out what kind of spell that is and wonders aloud what he means a rather obvious and large fist appears from above him and delivers the answer with a crashing blow.
Hours later and Justin is still punishing Strange and his fists are covered in blood as Strange sits bound to a chair surrounded by the hoards of Hell. Mephisto is gloating on his victory and the folly of cheating in a game against one who invented it and as Strange determinedly tells him to just get on with it and take his soul. Mephisto says that is a long time off and Strange will beg him to do it before he’s done reminding him that as he broke the rules and cheated in HIS domain as he demands satisfaction. Stephen comments that breaking his hands is not new to him and Mephisto reveals his trump card….enter a fiery Thor. As Strange realises in horror that his allies have not fared as well on the outside he begs her to fight against the darkness. His pleading, as is often the case in hell, falls on deaf ears as she takes her hammer and carries out the will of Mephisto with a crushing blow.
What Just Happened?
Poor Bats keeps getting the door slammed on him, first Wong in Damnation #1 and now Strange in his own home. When will these people learn that won’t keep him out? Had myself a little cheer as Strange name drops his card playing cohorts, we can almost see him sat opposite the likes of Thing and Wolverine at one of their many famed poker games. Strange and his new housemate have bigger problems than learning how to commit to domestic bliss, but the opening of having them both reveal bad habits to each other is par for the course in this run. All questions left hanging from Damnations opening issue are answered with Strange revealing his reasons for raising Vegas and getting things going in high gear. Zelma may be missing here but the repartee between our dogtastic duo isn’t.
As with the loss of Zelma being lessened by the continued bonds of friendship with Stephen and Bats, the departure of Walta and Bellaire could have been a harsh one but this new arc is in safe hands with the new artistic team. The dual splash pages of what Strange wishes had happened with the resurrection of Vegas followed by the depiction of the actual events is a great visual and showcases the talents of Niko Henrichon here. The dichotomy of Captain Marvel and her allies cheering Strange, set against the harsh reality of the hellfire and brimstone glory that is Mephisto victorious is in stark contrast and gives a perfect visual of the cost of magic that Strange somehow forgot about. Similarly, the color contrast of Strange arriving in the bright sunlit desert versus the heat of the game and later the darkness of his final predicament are a stunning and true testament to the skill of Laurent Grossat. As well the payoff image of a gloating Mephisto versus a very small Strange in the thick of it.
Cates never fails to deliver the gold standard in tongue in cheek humor while keeping the seriousness of the plot ticking, which is no small feat. Strange losing to Mephisto so soon after winning against Loki is, of course, a natural progression and a relief to see the hero not being written without faults. To win so soon would not be anywhere as interesting. Not that Loki was beaten really. He just relented and not only showed Strange how easy he was to fool but how much better he could utilize his skills than he himself did.
Final Thought: Wong and his team will really have their work cut out for them if they are to help Strange walk away unscathed from this one.
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