You’ve got to feel a little sorry for the struggling magic acts of the Marvel Universe. There you are, the Criss Angel of Earth 616, just minding your own business and practicing your illusions, when along comes some cape-wearing, fireball-throwing Master of the Mystic Arts to send your Las Vegas ticket sales straight to hell. No wonder so many workaday magicians of Marvel have decided to dabble in just a little dark art, as a treat.
But consider this a public service announcement, fictional illusionists and variety show magic artists in the audience: A little bit of hardcore magic in your life is a lot more trouble than it’s worth. This week’s episode of She-Hulk is a case in point.
[Ed. note: This piece contains a couple spoilers for She-Hulk episode 4.]
Jen’s erstwhile antagonist Donny Blaze (who I can only assume is the Voltron combination of Ghost Riders Danny Ketch and Johnny Blaze) isn’t a bad fella, really. He’s just like the rest of us: He tried to coast his way through school (the magical graduate program at Doctor Strange’s Kamar-Taj), got in over his head, and bummed out. Who among us hasn’t tried to use our two semesters of college to pick up bar dates or summon a demon? He just wanted to sell some tickets for a struggling stage act — it’s not his fault things got a little out of hand.
Of course, he might have known better if he had access to a few more Marvel back issues. After all, stage magicians getting themselves into heaps of trouble is a tradition going back to the earliest days of the Marvel Age. In 1962’s Fantastic Four #3, dramatically titled “The Menace of the Miracle Man,” the titular foursome follows up its first battles against the Mole Man and the Skrulls by fighting… a tall man with a goatee.
In fairness, Joshua Ayers, the Miracle Man in question, went out of his way to look like more than the two-bit performance artist he was. Using the earth-shattering power of stage hypnotism (as far as writer Stan Lee was concerned, hypnotism was one of the two most powerful forces on earth, rivaled only by the mighty transistor), he terrorized New York with visions of rampaging monsters, before a bright flash from the Human Torch brought the city back to its senses.
Maybe that’s what later sent old Joshua straight into the comforting arms of the dark lord Satan. In 1983’s The Defenders #120, Ayers had a chance encounter with Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan himself, who had come to a monastery where Ayers was hiding out. The Miracle Man managed to steal Hellstrom’s powers, giving himself a demonic level-up for which he was entirely unprepared: After attempting to remake an entire Indonesian village into his idea of a model society, Ayers was taken down by a team-up of Hellstrom and his wife, Patsy Walker (aka Hellcat), and returned to his original condition. Not too long ago, he was seen getting pummeled by none other than She-Hulk and filing a lawsuit for compensation — so don’t be too surprised if we see him pop up on TV in his own right one of these days.
The Miracle Man exemplifies three common traits of Marvel’s stage magicians: a decidedly low-grade power set, an overambitious sense of their own villainy, and a habit of getting humbled by what we may describe as the less-than-A-listers of the Marvel Universe. Take, for example, Lee Guardineer, better known as the Magician, who donned a top hat and a cane to wage war against Ant-Man and the Wasp.
In an astonishing display of low-energy supervillaining, Guardineer’s first venture involved waiting for his enemies to shrink and then letting his pet rabbit chase them around the room. He would later return and antagonize the Wasp by releasing a knockoff clothing line based on her costume before vanishing from Marvel history completely.
The Magician, at least, was wise enough to set his sights relatively low, but the same can’t be said for all the high-aiming fake magic artists of Marvel. Almost a year before the Miracle Man made the scene, Amazing Adventures #3 featured the tale of Zemu, a magic act who so astonished his audience (“It defies all logic! All reason!” shout his spectators, more correct than they know) that he parlayed his fame into a successful run for governor — that is, until Zemu was exposed as a turnip-headed alien in disguise.
His defeat, for whatever it’s worth, came at the hands of one Doctor Droom, a kind of proto-Dr. Strange mostly notable for sharing a beat-for-beat identical origin story, only with some appallingly brazen racism added in. (Droom would later change his name to the catchier Doctor Druid, become a local in-universe TV personality, join the Avengers, and then disgrace himself by getting mind-controlled and betraying the team. His Disney Plus show is surely imminent.)
Still, we shouldn’t get the ideal that all the faux-magicians of the Marvel Universe are out for evil. After all, none of these characters can match the ESP-powered glory of mentalist Uri Geller. Now, technically Geller is not a fictional character, but a real-life midcentury magic act who claimed to possess powers of telepathy and telekinesis. If he’s remembered at all today, it’s for his thorough humiliation on an episode of Johnny Carson, where he repeatedly failed to bend spoons with his mind-power.
In Marvel Comics, however, Geller was a paranormal heavy hitter with mental powers that would make Professor X blush. In one not-so-memorable mid-’70s story arc, Geller teamed up with a hilariously underwhelmed Daredevil to solve a series of mental-themed crimes across New York. When the culprit was revealed to be the equally forgotten bad guy Mind-Wave, Geller proved the key to victory by telekinetically bending steel bars into a makeshift prison cage before he and Daredevil walked off together to start a beautiful friendship (he has never been seen since).
But Geller, with his all-too-real powers, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. The sad fact is, a universe populated with sorcerers, children of Satan, and gods both literal and figurative simply has no place for the humble stage magician. We must accept that their only options are crime, demonic pacts, or career oblivion.
The Marvel Universe may be the world outside your window, but it’s a world where tickets to Penn & Teller sell for pretty darn cheap.