I had never come across the phrase ‘dead-catting’ until a few weeks ago. The last thing I had expected from Emma Smith’s (quite magnificent) This Is Shakespeare was an introduction to contemporary slang, let alone a phrase associated with the loathsome political operator Lynton Crosby. But a term to describe a deliberate distraction that obscures an at-best inconvenient truth is undeniably useful when discussing the profoundly odd behaviour of Doctor Stephen Strange in The Day Of The Defenders from 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. In this, the debut of The Defenders by Thomas, Andru & Everett et al, Strange attempts to defeat the fiendish sorcerer & super-scientist Yandroth. To do so, he recruits the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk to his cause, reasoning that “magic alone” won’t bring victory. The manner in which the Sorcerer Supreme drafts his allies is profoundly odd, and we could spend a considerable amount of time wondering why, faced with but five hours before the end of the world, Strange takes such a relatively leisurely approach to his life-or-death mission. We might also question why he chooses allies he barely knows, if at all, when he’s already collaborated with The Avengers, The X-Men and the Fantastic Four. We might even ask why, if magic alone won’t win the day against Yandroth’s wicked machines, Strange doesn’t even try to include a super-scientist or two in his strike team. Put simply, it’s hard not to believe that the Stephen Strange in The Day Of The Defenders is up to something that neither his new colleagues or indeed the readers are privy to. Either we assume that he’s an idiot, wasting time and ignoring potential collaborators, which we can safely assume he isn’t, or Strange is playing the arch-manipulator so effectively that the story itself barely hints at the depth of his deception.
Let’s focus on a single example, and let’s it make one that appears to involve a hasty if successful example of, yes, dead catting. In the above panels, we’re shown Strange seeking out exceptionally powerful super-beings with the aid of images generated by the Eye of Agamotto. Both the Silver Surfer and the Hulk are immediately traced, but for some very odd reason, Strange makes no attempt to conjure up the whereabouts of Thor. Instead, he declares that the Odinson is “doubtless battling menaces on worlds beyond our ken” and then swiftly – very swiftly – moves on. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, a brilliant example of dead-catting, in which Strange seems to be doing his best to ensure that Namor doesn’t demand that Thor is tracked down and involved. Raising and then immediately closing the subject, Strange allows Namor to feel he’s central to the debate while neutering his input. Yet why is it “doubtless” that Thor is beyond reach? How is it that Strange is privy to this knowledge? Why is the shortness of time so important at this moment when Strange had previously taken the least efficient route to contacting Namor?
What’s especially interesting here is that Strange doesn’t say “I know” when describing Thor’s unavailability. Instead, he uses the shilly-shallying “doubtless”. And that does sound like a man who is telling a lie in a way that will allow him to later protest his best intentions.
Of course, out here in the real world, we know that it’s 99.99% certain that writer Thomas meant nothing at all by this brief sequence. Perhaps Andru was meant to add a scene showing Thor off-world and simply didn’t, or perhaps Thomas just added this aside to close a potential loop-hole in the plot. There are an endless number of workaday explanations. But on the page, it’s not the creators’ intentions that count, but the content of their work. And here, it seems that Strange, the master strategist in the Ditko/Lee issues in particular, is trying very much not to involve Thor in the battle against Yandroth. Why that might be so is simply impossible to deduce, and there’s a romance of sorts in that, a sense of a world going on beyond the borders of the comic’s frames about which even writers and artists know little of. But given that Strange even gives the name of “The Defenders” to the small force he’s assembled at the story’s end, it might be suspected that he’s fastened on the idea of a “non-team” to support him during specifically demanding crises. And for some reason, Thor isn’t somebody that he wants involved.
The relationship between Strange and Asgard during these relatively early days of the Marvel Universe is an odd one. For although Dr Strange, and the Ancient One before him, are tasked with the protection of our world from mystic abuse and attack, magic-wielding Asgardians are constantly active on the Earth without any apparent intervention from the planet’s designated mystic protectors. That’s a matter for another time, but I do suspect that the Earth of the Marvel Universe in the 60s and early 70s is very much a minnow where it comes to grand powers such as Odin and his immortal subjects. Although Strange is able, often at great cost, to fight off extra-dimensional threats even on the scale of Dormammu, it may be that Asgard and Asgardians, along with many of the creatures of Norse legend, are simply too powerful to trifle with. Reading the Kirby/Lee Tales of Asgard stories from the Sixties reveals Odin to be nothing other than a supremely powerful warlord, constantly embarking on wars of conquests in the name of his own glory and self-interest. He isn’t, we may safely assume, a power to challenge, or even come to the notice of, if that can be at all avoided. After all, if Odin and the state of Asgard were such a benevolent power, wouldn’t Strange have fired off a warning flare to Heimdall letting him know that help against Yandroth’s apocalyptic design might, in just a few hours, be very much needed?
Given how rarely Strange and the peoples of Asgard encounter each other in this period, my suspicion is that the Sorcerer Supreme wanted it that way. Perhaps he even, on one level or another, thought that a loose association of massively powerful individuals such as The Defenders could ultimately serve as a bulwark against Asgard’s constant magical interferences in Earth’s everyday affairs.
Or perhaps not 🙂