While reading Jason Aaron’s run of Doctor Strange, the introduction of Mister Misery really caught my attention. Mister Misery debuts in The Last Days of Magic Part 3 as, “made entirely of pain and suffering.” Mister Misery was created with the help of Wong, who channeled Dr. Strange’s pain into a padlocked cellar room.
Dr. Strange eventually has an odd team-up with Mister Misery in The Last Days of Magic Finale. Mister Misery literally consumes Dr. Strange so they can defeat a mutual enemy, Imperator. While being consumed, Dr. Strange thinks to himself, “All that pain. Years of it. Pain I tried so hard to send away. Now come back to me. Made manifest. Made stronger.” When Imperator is defeated, Dr. Strange shackles him in the cellar and, with a depraved humor, slides him a book titled, The Thing in the Cellar. He then uses the same incantation that created Mister Misery to channel his suffering into Imperator.
Dr. Strange embodies an adage (with disputed origin) that, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Whenever Dr. Strange does his supernatural superhero thing he suffers. His apprentice Zelma suffers as well after the first time she uses magic where she promptly vomits in The Weird, the Weirder, and the Weirdest. Dr. Strange told her that, “There’s a price to everything a sorcerer does.” For Dr. Strange, the expelled suffering manifested as Mister Misery, which, after Imperator takes its place in the cellar, is freed. Mister Misery eventually possesses Wong, but Dr. Strange performs an exorcism that returns the pain and suffering that created Mister Misery into his own body.
Dr. Strange’s suffering is rooted in doing good. There’s a mystical aspect of this from the Sorcerer Supreme’s words of warning to Zelma about a price to everything a sorcerer does. There’s also a real-world aspect that struck a chord with me. The depiction of Dr. Strange’s suffering from good deeds, casting the suffering aside, and it coming back to overtake him resonated with my experience as a former public defender.
As an attorney, I’ve heard incredible accounts of suffering by both alleged victims and alleged perpetrators. My colleagues had cases where the factual details of the case itself or the client’s personal narrative weighed heavily enough that they literally lost sleep at night. I myself had a few nights where I woke up thinking about my cases, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I’d go back to the office as early as 2:00 am to keep working.
Although public defenders aren’t superheroes, (but some superheroes are public defenders) the work we were doing took its toll on us. This was not a surprise to me after several law school internships in public defender offices. I learned that criminal defense attorneys often have or develop a dark humor about their jobs. A law school mentor advised me that such a twisted sensibility is a prophylactic against the wear and tear your soul goes through while handling difficult cases. As put to me, “With every terrible case a piece of your soul goes away.”
Helping people with difficult situations can lead to lawyers being in difficult situations themselves. As noted anecdotally, the factual accounts of a case can weigh heavily on attorneys. This can lead to stress disorders with symptoms similar to a client with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, attorneys often deal with mental health and substance abuse issues at rates higher than the general public. As a result, lawyers may be at a greater risk for suicide.
Professions that are prone to secondary trauma are professions that, at least on their surface, aim to help others, such at doctors, lawyers, and therapists. People that are empathetic or use empathy as a therapeutic technique may be more susceptible to transferred trauma. Interestingly, this was not Dr. Strange’s origin as a medical doctor. His brilliance as a surgeon made him into an arrogant ass, and he was more concerned with the patient’s invoice than the patient’s bill of health.
Mister Misery, the physical manifestation of suffering, comes from Dr. Strange doing good in the world. Mister Misery represents the atonement for Dr. Strange’s previous apathy towards his patients. His newfound empathy and resulting suffering, however, takes it toll not only on Dr. Strange but on people like Wong who try to help him. Dr. Strange’s suffering could be attributed to PTSD and/or secondary trauma from helping others, either from empathizing with the people he helps or from his own superhero experience of shocking and dangerous events. In contrast, Wong provides a clear metaphor for secondary trauma where it is Dr. Strange’s suffering, in the form of Mister Misery, that literally possesses Wong.
In the end, Dr. Strange decides that doing good is worth suffering, and he affirms his atonement. He literally uses his body as a prison for his suffering, for Mister Misery, so that his good deeds only punish himself.