Spider-Man and Dr. Strange have crossed paths on numerous occasions over the years and things tend to get mystical when that happens. Interestingly, their collaborations usually revolve around the sorcerer Xandu and, strangely enough, the villain's love life. The one-shot Spider-Man & Dr. Strange: The Way to Dusty Death is no exception, as Xandu returns to the Spiderverse once again...to address his love life.
This story begins with a brooding Spider-Man perched atop the Queensboro Bridge, lamenting the fact that he has yet to visit his Uncle Ben’s grave on the anniversary of his death. Whilst subjecting himself to one of his all-too-common self-imposed guilt trips, Spider-Man spots a scantily clad woman also atop the bridge. Much to Spidey’s surprise, she throws herself from the bridge in what appeared to be a suicide attempt. Spidey quickly hops into action and saves her, learning a lesson from Gwen's death and catching her in his arms (not by using a web-line!). Unfortunately for Spidey, the woman does not want to be saved and she resists his rescue. Once the two land safely on the ground the web-slinger recognizes her as Melinda Morrison, the former lover of Xandu!
Things start to get a little crazy at this point as a doorway from the Death Dimension opens up and demons begin to emerge. These demons have one goal, capture Melinda! Spider-Man immediately starts fighting them off as he tells Melinda to run to safety. As Spidey struggles to fend off the demons, he does not see that Melinda once again attempts suicide, this time throwing herself in front of a bus. Luckily for Spider-Man, Dr. Strange had been keeping an eye on her (via the Orb of Agamotto) and thus the Sorcerer Supreme swoops in to save Melinda.
Eventually the two heroes make their way back to the Sanctum Sanctorum, with Melinda sedated. Once there, Dr. Strange uses his mystical powers to read her mind in order to understand why she has such a death wish. What follows is essentially a recount of the events of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2, Marvel Team Up #21 and Marvel Fanfare #6. The two heroes conclude that after Spider-Man and the Scarlet Witch saved Melinda and returned her to the land of the living, she's struggled to reconnect to the new world she had found herself in. Melinda longed to return to the "sweet repose of oblivion" and thus she had been continually attempting to kill herself.
Just then Xandu and his demon minions come bursting in to the Sanctum Sanctorum and the evil sorcerer displaces Spidey from his body, taking over the webslinger's physical form and casting the hero into the astral plane. As Spider-Man, Xandu attacks Dr. Strange and recaptures Melinda and the Wand of Watoomb (the mystical artifact from way back in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2). After Xandu makes his escape, Dr. Strange provides some bad news for Spider-Man, if he does not return to his physical form within the next 24 hours the webslinger will cease to exist!
Dr. Strange then joins Spidey in the astral plan and the two track down Xandu, who has plans to return Melinda to the Death Dimension alongside him. During a showdown between Dr. Strange and Spider-Xandu, the real Spider-Man and Melinda get knocked through a portal and transported to the Death Dimension. A demon then abducts Melinda and takes her into the Skull Castle, Spider-Man follows them in an attempt to rescue Melinda. Unfortunately for Spider-Man he becomes entangled in his own death spiral as Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy doppelgangers appear and taunt Spidey about his inability to save their lives. Spider-Man collapses in pain and torment as his body begins to rot away, but he quickly gathers his strength (mental and physical!) and refutes their claims. They suddenly evaporate and unveil the two demons that had been impersonating Gwen and Ben, the demons then scurry off too afraid of a real fight with Spider-Man.
As Spider-Xandu and Dr. Strange continue to battle back on Earth, the real Spidey tracks down Melinda. Xandu's former lover is surrounded by demons and a seemingly unconscious Xandu who is seated upon a throne. Spidey, in the astral form, makes his way to Xandu's body and takes control over the sorcerer's physical form. He then returns to Earth and swings the balanced fight between Dr. Strange and Spider-Xandu in to the Sorcerer Supreme's favor. Together, the duo subdues Xandu and they turn their attention to Melinda. It's at this point that Xandu reveals a sad reality, that Melinda has always been dead ever since that night Xandu's spell had gone awry and killed her.
Ultimately Dr. Strange is faced with the choice of what to do with Melinda, leave her in the Death Dimension or return her to the living. The Sorcerer Supreme decides to leave Melinda in the Death Dimension but to anoint her the Queen of the Dead. Since the Death Dimension only needed to replace one life (the one that was lost when Melinda was 'resurrected'), Xandu was not permitted to stay in the Death Dimension with his former lover. Instead, the remorseful villain remained on Earth with the two heroes. Dr. Strange resolves to find a place for Xandu to heal his damaged emotional state and for him to finally except the inevitability of death for everyone, including Melinda. The story concludes with Spider-Man having a new perspective on death and as he arrives at Uncle Ben's grave he decides that the best way to honor the dead is by making the most of your own life.
The best thing about this story is that it finally concludes the Xandu/Melinda storyline that had be running for nearly twenty years. It was a fitting end to Melinda's saga and the most satisfying part of this one-shot, but things come to a screeching halt after that.
When you drill down on the story it actually comes off fairly hollow. It's difficult as a reader to truly understand and empathize with Melinda as to why she would prefer death (and the Death Dimension!) over living. The creative team tried suggesting that after returning to Earth 25 years after her 'death', the Vietnam War and the death of the Kennedy brothers was just too much for Melinda to adjust to, and thus she wanted the "sweet repose of oblivion." Had there truly been some tragedy that her absence had caused (such as a life she could have saved) or if she had left on horrible terms with someone she cared for who was now dead, then perhaps we could have empathized with her. But we got a very vanilla and hollow rationale, which is disappointing since the whole story pivoted off of that point. Plus, when the Marvel Universe contains characters like Captain America (amongst others) who have returned from the dead after many years, its really hard to accept that it was just too much change for her be unable to adapt. That thin rationale really hurt this story, something more visceral could have redeemed it.
Lastly, this story revolved around the need to accept the inevitability of death, which on its own is a valuable message. The only trouble is that this story dabbled in the area of redundancy in which a Spider-Man "death" story has to somehow evoke the loss of Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy. I completely understand why the creative team went that route, it's just that we see that all the time so there's really nothing new there. It's hard to feel the emotional impact of Ben and Gwen when they're constantly used as the ghastly spectres that remind Peter of past failures. If they had gone a bit out of the box, and used Tim Harrison, the boy with leukemia from Amazing Spider-Man #248, that would have been so much more refreshing. Again, the story was about the inevitability of death and not the inability to save someone, which is where Gwen and Ben can be better utilized. Nothing says inevitability better than a terminal disease.
Perhaps I'm being too hard on this one, given that is was produced in the mid-nineties when there was a lot of crappy stories coming out, at least this one attempted to have some heart.
This book is about as forgettable as they come (perhaps that's why it has taken so long to get a review of it up here at Spiderfan!). The one redeeming quality is that story finally to put the sordid Melinda/Xandu affair to bed for good, so a small amount of kudos for that.