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Category Archives: Life & Self

Writing Flash Fiction

I write between four and eight flash stories each month. Sometimes many more, as I often use flash pieces as building blocks for my bigger stories.

This article was originally done in reply to a query. When posting the short version in answer to a request on a forum, it (finally) occurred to me that this might be of interest or use to a wider audience.

Inspiration comes from anywhere. Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking what would happen if the accepted outcome of an event didn’t occur. Why didn’t it occur? e.g. You put your cup and saucer down on the table, misjudge the edge, and down the tea goes. But, this time, it just sits there, unsupported, a metre off the floor. Super-superglue on the edge? Invisible alien? Gravitational anomaly? And away the story goes.

Just Write! The words are the medium for the story, but the story is the creative drive. Get that clever idea/plot/scenario written down. You can refine the words over and over, but that moment of inspiration will never come back in the same form, if at all.

Make your title work for you. You haven’t got a lot of room, so the title should do some of the work. Sometimes, you can be cheeky with it – in example, one of my own favourite titles is “Hanging from a Ledge on Mantriss V”. That’s setting, opening act, and hook. That being said, don’t give away the heart/dénouement of the tale in your drive for a clever title.

Action is not the all. Flash fiction is often touted as a medium with a ‘show not tell’ bias. I find it can fit for the poignant, quiet moments, as well. Like before or just after the action, something the action movie would skip. A character’s personal thoughts or interactions, reminiscences or what ifs can be powerful stuff. That being said –

Always try to do something. A good story should have a dynamism about it. You’ll not always achieve it, but do try as the best flash pieces always have it. In the most basic example: A lone character doing dry exposition can be tedious. A lone character remembering a moment and it’s aftermath? Still (could even have parts of the same) exposition, but narrated in a different way. Following on from that –

Information afterwards. If you go for setting up front, your reader is likely to ‘click away’. Get something going on, the old in media res trick (simplest example: the opening of Star Wars IV), then fill in the details. But only for this bit of the tale. A full world build in one flash is impossible and irrelevant. If you find yourself going on and on to set the scene, chances are you’re telling the wrong bit of that particular story.

Keep it focused. Think about your environment when walking down the street. There’s a wealth of information and description involved to detail the scene for those not there, but to walk along, all you need is clear pavement. Your characters will be the same: there’s no need to tell what isn’t absolutely essential for their ‘walking along’ in your story. But –

The reader has to understand what you mean. Common archetypes, descriptions, and set ups can save you words because your mention of a familiar term or accepted description (see how often the neon-lit market/streets of Blade Runner are used as a cue for ‘future dystopia’) allows the reader to fill in details from your ‘shorthand’. Conversely, if you’re being innovative, the audience may not understand from a purely character-based viewpoint. You’re going to have to help them grasp the concept, and being subtle is good: they should become aware without having a brute definition thrust at them. Also, if a clever wordplay/slang/name could be misinterpreted as a typo, find an alternative. Oh, and be careful when using unusual or new slang (or that ‘future slang’ you came up with) – unless context absolutely clarifies it, don’t use it.

Use a thesaurus. When every word counts, variety and using the gamut of available words is essential. Could be as simple as giving a character a unique voice by having her or him consistently use uncommon variants of a word or two.

Never let it out immediately. Wait at least a day, preferably two – at least. I try to get my definite submissions for the following month done by the middle of the previous month, because I know it will take at least four review passes to refine and correct them where necessary.
NB: You really should get at least one literary-capable friend to proofread your work. I have half-a-dozen proofreaders and a pair of critical editors who make sure my books are tidy.
My monthly flash fiction is the only format in which I allow myself to step round the rule, because I found that I intensely disliked getting a virtual kicking from reviewers and readers pointing out my errors. Consequently, my craft has improved. That being said, it’s a Pavlovian way of refining your craft. Save yourself the pain that might put you off. Get a proofreader involved.

Nobody reads your story the same way. All you can do is do the best you can with the tale you’re relating. You can’t say if your stories are good, that’s for your readers to decide. You can create stories you are happy with, stories you are pleased with, and – very occasionally – stories you love. Expect to be surprised: stuff you love gets no response yet stuff you thought reasonable gets raved over. Most importantly, you have to bear in mind that –

Not everyone will like your story. This is inevitable. Many won’t say a thing. Some will mention it. The ones to be ready for are the ones who didn’t like it and are determined to make that your fault. Let it go and don’t take it to heart. You can’t win ‘your imaginary world is not right’ battles. Don’t even try.

Have fun. Above all – and always – have fun.

Hope this helps.

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Posted by on March 31, 2018 in Life & Self

 

Finding the Words

Has never been a problem for me, with one key exception: when I absolutely have to find the right ones with no warning or options. Over the last year, I had that unwritten rule reinforced several times.

And so, here we are again. How did 2017 treat you? If you share ground with many of those I know, it was a bastard of a year that, surprisingly, finished with a glimmer of hope. Not that you expect it to be anything but the little light that keeps you going. We’re all big kids here. We know nothing owes us anything.

So, in keeping with the traditions I’ve set myself, let’s revisit the topics: Jobhunting – no change,  with a grimmer outlook. Romance – no change, except I now have minimal expectations to match the negative outlook. Finances – abysmal, but holding steady at ‘poor teetering on the edge of destitute’. Books – two, bringing the total to 22, and including a limited edition of my 19th (note to self: must do better).

Books. Made up of words. Words that, I discovered, are governed by the rule I opened this piece with. I was intending to complete what would have been my second novel this year, a book many people have been waiting a long time for. But I tried to push it, and the result was largely of poor quality. The last piece of poor writing I released was the draft of my first novel. I learned a lot from that. So, this time, rather than rush, rewrite, and likely ruin something that must not be anything less than marvellous, I abandoned it. I’ve kept the opening chapter and the earlier sections, but everything else written for it in 2017 was deleted. How much the death of my mother figured into this drastic decision, I cannot say. But, now a few months have passed, I can say it was the right choice.

Ah, mother. Finally released from a mortal coil most foul… I have commented elsewhere with the proper tone. Let that stand.

Romance, employment and money? The first is, I have finally accepted, unlikely. Which although sad, allows me to rein in the hopeless romantic within: a very good thing. The second? I have a job. I’m an author. I’m looking for a second job to fill the earnings gap while the income from my books picks up. Which it is doing. 2017 saw the first year where I made regular royalties. Nothing to write home about, but enough to declare to the DWP. The last? I’m never going to return to the income I had when I worked in London. In the seven years since, I’ve learned a lot I’d never have done with that lifestyle to distract me, and I have to say that’s a good thing.  I like this version of me. He’s worthy of the title ‘part-time gentleman’.

The world? I’ve waxed apocalyptic, cynical, and generally bleak several times. I see no need to reiterate or indulge my pessimism.

Why? No matter how much good folk shout, the sheer mass of uncaring passengers on this downward journey overrides us. Just like the lost testaments of all those who died without record outweigh the writings that survive,  the scales of this ‘civilisation’ are tipped so far they cannot swing back without one side first hitting the ground, hard.

And that, I suppose, is the greatest change 2017 wrought upon me: it’s the year when priorities became big things, big things became little things, and little things became trivia. The world is headed for an end. I’ve illustrated my belief in that enough, now. I may highlight a particular good or evil as I happen across it, but it’s time to get on.

Priorities? I write. I will write. Everything else is subject to change without notice.

Let’s have more realism and less delusion, shall we?

Happy(?) New Year. 🙂

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2018 in Life & Self

 

It’s a Long Way from Alpha

It’s like I’m hardwired to bang on about how long I’ve played Magic the Gathering for. It irritates me intensely, so I extend an (ongoing) apology to all the long-suffering folk within hearing range. But, reaching 2.2 decades as an itinerant cardslinger prompted this article. After all, I should have picked up a few things worthy of regaling people with by now. Please note, I make no pretence, nor imply, any degree of excellence – I’ve just played a lot for a long while and have no intention of stopping.

Over twenty-two years, I’ve watched MTG go from a game that no-one had ever heard of (or would admit to) to a game with over twenty million players – that no-one has ever heard of (or will admit to). I have also seen a cohesive vision evolve over the last decade or so that has arguably saved the game at the cost of a few pieces of its soul.

Some elements of gameplay have been removed as they put off new players, and some have been removed patently to foster market value. This drive for simplification and market share is understandable – MTG is a profit-making entity, after all. That does not stop the storyteller side of me quietly mourning the attention to implicit detail that made this such a delightful platform to create with, back then.

Matching the simplification of the rules, it is notable that the plots and concepts behind the world builds are turning more commercial, as well as becoming averse to truly confrontational topics. However, like the rules changes I object to, I’m not going to dwell on the details. It’s only personal opinion, I’m not able to effect change, and I’m not going to stop playing. Therefore, any objections I have are moot.

However, the increase in popularity has allowed the game to attract better artists. Many pieces of art over the last few years have been excellent, with a couple crossing the line into absolutely breathtaking. This trend can only be applauded and is to be encouraged, because some of the early art was a bit ropey, to put it politely. It’s also good to see the fine artists who supported the game from early on reaping their just rewards.

So, rewind to early 1995. There’s a card game catches my attention. It’s called Magic: The Gathering. The term ‘magic’, to a pagan, carries many connotations. Someone back at MTG headquarters knew their lore very well, something that became clear in the quotes and usages of some of the cards. (To this day, I have never discovered who that was.) As a pagan and storyteller, the concept of having a medium to tell and play through a story of fantasy conflict whist reflecting some core values of magic into the real world was irresistible.

I got into the heart of the game and swiftly found the rules – at the time – were completely intuitive for me. Also, my love of the game allowed me to heartily advocate it’s wonders to all and sundry.

The budding tournament scene had only a vague appeal. The concept of limiting the pool of cards available simply didn’t work for me. However, if any of the group I played with had had the revenue to get more cards, I think my attitude may have developed in a different way. As it is, I remain a 60-count casual player to this day.

What those early days of being broke but wanting more cards taught me was that, at a pinch, any card can be used (with the exception of Sorrow’s Path) – you might not be happy with all of the cards, but being able to play is more important than aesthetics. As a group, we experimented with daft cards, had decks that took ages to turn lethal, and generally had a marvellous time with cards that would be ignored by affluent or ‘serious’ players.

A friend introduced me to the concept of ‘the combo’ – he used Howling Mine with Island Sanctuary, so he could still draw one card while activating the Island Sanctuary to prevent creatures without Flying or Islandwalk attacking him. That lesson in how some cards functionally ‘fit together’ was a turning point in my deck tech. Not just in developing combos, but in spotting which card was pivotal to a combo, or could prevent one working – a skill that remains handy to this day.

One afternoon, a gent wandered up and asked if he could join our keen group, who were ignoring the glorious countryside about the campsite to huddle round a couple of tables and get some cardslinging in. As he hadn’t brought his decks, we offered him the spares box. Twenty minutes later, our monstrous (and mainly rare card) decks were being slaughtered out of hand by a deck utilising Llanowar Elves, Mesa Pegasus, Swords to Plowshares, and Giant Growth. It was an eye-opening lesson in the application of simplicity and speed. It was also an early lesson in the fact that life gain, on its own, will not save you – or the opponent, in the case of Swords to Plowshares. Your life total is just another resource. (There is a view that if you finish a game with more than 1 life – 6 if you’re facing burn – you’ve been wasting a valuable resource.)

Years progressed and my lifestyle allowed me access to more cards. I swiftly found that being the only one in a playgroup with access to tiered cards was no fun for everyone else – which led to it being no fun for me. Eventually, my fortunes and everyone else’s flipped. Since then, my advantages have only lain in deck building and quality of play – which, let’s face it, is where they should be.

I spent twelve years as a level one judge, and probably established some sort of record for the lack of sanctioned tournaments judged. My initial qualification was done on a whim (like I said, the rules came naturally to me). I renewed with the introduction of classic rules (sixth edition) and carried on until some core elements of the game became counter-intuitive. After that, I didn’t renew. Judging is, in many ways, a calling. When it stops calling, it’s time to stop.

A few observations from the journey:

  • You can’t get a good control deck player below three life.
  • Mean control decks are no fun to play against.
  • Basic evasion (usually Flying) and consistent creature removal will win games.
  • Any deck that provokes an awkward silence from your opponents for more than a minute after you win should not be used very often.
  • Single-stack Planechase is the finest multiplayer option since the invention of multiplay.
  • Playing in any way at less than your best is an insult to you and your opponent.
  • Always RTFC (Read the F***ing Card). Apply twice if playing in a tournament.
  • Never blame your deck for your mistakes.
  • Never play a deck that you can’t enjoy losing with.
  • A day at a tournament requires extra deodorant and breath freshener as well as cards, drinks and food.
  • Never riffle shuffle someone else’s deck.
  • Whenever you shuffle your deck, remember to present it for your opponent to split. They may decline, but always make the offer.
  • Take that freebie. Never leave a card or goodie behind.
  • Every player is a card-hound. We’re never happier than when we’re plowing through an unexplored stack of cards.
  • Never be afraid to ask for help – or for a second opinion.
  • Be polite.
  • Play fair.
  • Have fun.

In all my time as a wandering cardslinger, only a couple of communities have inspired me with their welcoming spirit: that quintessential friendliness combined with players who act as ambassadors for the game by their sheer enthusiasm, all of which is backed by a decent level of knowledge. The first was the couple of years from 2006 spent duelling with Luke May’s group in Eastbourne.

The second is a games shop in my hometown: A&B Gaming. Learning and playing MTG can be an imposing task. Finding a haven where this can occur is always a special discovery. MTGO (Magic the Gathering Online) may be an invaluable resource for players, but I will always be an advocate for spending time playing this game face-to-face. Crazy moments and hilarious banter are only available when you can interact directly with a friendly crowd, able to pick up on moods and body language, getting into exchanging tips, deck tech, heroics and sarcasm.

Magic the Gathering is a marvellous game that has been lauded for increasing the vocabulary and social skills of those who play it, has provoked outbreaks of peace amongst those with no common ground bar what they stand on, and can make you lifelong friends that you wouldn’t otherwise have met.

So, if you see some Magic: the Gathering cards and they ‘call’ to you, give in. Play a little. Good things happen.

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2017 in Life & Self

 

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From the Ashes of Sixteen

And wasn’t that a bit of a bastard year? But, then again, the era of multi-generational celebrities is passing and we are losing the icons that were the foundations of the media-crazed world we now inhabit.

For me, after the loss of Lemmy Kilmister, all other celebrity losses are ‘just another death’. I understand that each will impact others in the way that Lemmy’s death hit me. But that’s the point – they didn’t hit me. You might be able to intellectually understand someone’s reaction, but you will never properly (emotionally) understand it unless it meant the same to you.

But, onwards –

Revisiting the usual annual metrics, we see an improvement in some areas – jobhunting: no change (environment worsening), romance: none (with a negative outlook), finances: abysmal (and declining), books published: 4 – bringing the total to 21, including a limited edition of my 20th.

I also upped my flash fiction output, going to four stories per month for 365tomorrows.com from April ’16. And, the creative push required to increase that output has improved the quality of all my work.

Voluntary work/consultation continues in various areas and some new ones.

My fitness has improved slightly, my strength more so, although the lingering damage from past century martial arts is beginning to hinder some exercises. I foresee some time spent at physiotherapy, and/or being told which impairments are permanent, soon.

In summation: the worst things that happened to me in 2016 were largely self-inflicted. I finally learned how to continue writing regardless of the shite going on about me. I have some of the finest friends a man could desire.

As for the world, I now harbour no hopes for an enlightened future in the short-term. We are about to enter a decade of darkness, where fanaticism and greed will dictate the lives of everyone on this planet. Mean hearts and closed minds will come to the fore.

Look to your friends, acquaintances, and neighbours. Know which of them you can rely upon, those you cannot trust, and those that present a threat. Gauge each threat carefully and have some idea of how you could mitigate it. Try to keep at least a weeks worth of canned/non-perishable food and have some way of storing – and collecting – water. If things go to shit, they will go quickly, and you will be unlikely to see it coming. In most cases, a few days of confusion and limited anarchy will be the extent of it. If things get worse, then good luck to all of us. Choose your ground and hold it. Protect those you love. Ally with those you trust. Finally: never judge by appearances or media endorsement.

Predictions? Things are going to get more difficult. More celebrities will die. For many, 2017 is going to be worse than 2016. I still have more stories to write.

With armageddon raining down outside, I’ll be parked in the one solid corner remaining, jotting pencil notes on scraps of paper. Bring more candles. 🙂

Let’s have more sense and less hype, shall we?

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2017 in Life & Self

 

The Pen versus The Sword

I’ve always liked the quote “The pen is mightier than the sword”. However, I also qualify it in my mind with “But the sword has the advantage of immediacy”.

Now, I know that because of my writing, I do and view words in different ways to most people, but I am getting mightily ticked off by the “50 Dead in Orlando Gay Club Shooting.” headlines.

What the f*ck has ‘gay’ got to do with that tragedy? Fifty people died. Mourn fifty lives ended too soon. Their sexual orientation is of low import… Unless… Someone was going for the implicit “you’re okay, it’s just another minority being picked on” form of negative reassurance.

And what that is, is reinforcing divisions. A form of media manipulation, if you will. Every word you contribute to a public medium can have impact. Let’s focus on the inclusive, folks. The petty, stupid and scared are getting fractious. See that? That’s me categorising unfairly. Doesn’t matter if you agree, it’s divisive because I am not present to diffuse the negative aspects of my words with body language, humourous depreciation or contextual setting – or in this case, telling you I’m being unfair.

I have a friend who winds up with minor misinformation people for fun. Problem is, that sort of wind up, released on the internet, is divorced from his swift intervention to correct the induced misconception.

And that, my friends, is where our doom will come from… Not my friend! But words released without recourse to correction.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it is frequently less precise.

Please, think carefully about what you release into this virtual never never land.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2016 in Life & Self

 

Polish Your Own Boots

It’s another long-overdue boot polishing day. 🙂

Or, as my great-grandfather occasionally termed it (when great-grandmother wasn’t about), ‘bullying the boots’. Not that I can find that slang translation anywhere these days.

Great-grandfather taught me how to work a decent shine in, smiling when he mentioned I’d not need ‘spit shine’ unless I joined up. Ever since he taught the demon that masqueraded as his eldest grandson how to do that, he started a legacy within me: things that a gentleman should be able to do, and not be embarrassed about.

Decades passed before a Peruvian bootblack on the streets of Lima showed me how to mix solvent and polish to redeem badly perished leathers. My work boots have survived twenty years, thanks to that.

For all the marvellous things I’ve been able to do, all the luck I’ve had and all the damn hard work that always seems to accompany good fortune, working a thorough shine into my boots still makes the young savage within me proud.

Cheers, grandpa.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2016 in Life & Self

 

The Strange Effect

Way back in my early teens, my great-grandmother used to walk everywhere with me. A mile or so from their home was a dim newsagent where she would reload with Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes to cater to her (doctor recommended) one-a-day habit. That shop stocked a lot of odd and only vaguely interesting things for a young lad, but one afternoon, as she chatted at the counter, I saw a huge comic:

MT6F

It was priced at 50p, and a quick trot to the counter elicited an “are you sure?” comment, followed by a purchase in my favour. It got a crease in the cover from being stuffed in my coat pocket, but I didn’t care. It was big and bright and the stories just leapt into my mind. Then I encountered the centrepiece:

DocStrange

Safe to say, it blew my tiny mind to bits and reassembled it in a way that never returned to the way it had been before. (That centrepiece was done by Frank Brunner, but Doctor Strange was drawn by Steve Ditko, whose art in Doctor Strange is one of the cornerstones of my fantasy imagination, alongside the otherworldly fantasy of Andre Norton and the gritty fiction of Mick Farren. It is so fundamental to what I create that, like Norton and Farren, I can only see the melded influences in hindsight.)

Over the years, comics and I had an on-again, off-again thing. With the rise of graphic novels (a.k.a. trade paperbacks) which collected issues of comics and presented them without the wealth of crappy advertisements, I became more of a devotee of the comic format. Of course, access to comics requires money, and there was another stumbling block. That’s a sad tale recounted, in part, elsewhere on this blog, so we can move on with naught but a note that sometimes I had lots of comics, and sometimes I had vanishingly few, having sold most of ’em off.

New comic stars rose and fell, only some remained. But no matter what, my holdings of Doctor Strange increased steadily and quietly, tucked away on diverse shelves and in storage boxes, never really registering as a collection.

Just over a decade into the twenty-first century and things weren’t going terribly well. I turned to writing and it suited me. But it also changed the way I considered stories in all forms of media. Books, comics and films I had cherished for ages became tawdry. A half-dozen books I had sold off had to be re-acquired. A couple of films I had rubbished, likewise. Conversely and handily, a lot of stuff could be sold off at a time when I really needed the money.

Then, one afternoon as I unpacked in the little apartment I had ended up in, I came across the back of a huge comic:

MT6R

My first Doctor Strange was still with me. It still had that crease, despite being stored flat for decades. I read it and properly rediscovered my sorcerer supreme – and the love of his life, Clea. Curious, I started rummaging about. As I was mid-process of putting stuff back on shelves, everything was out, either loose or in boxes.

A couple of hours later I had a stack – a real, nearly foot-high stack – of Doctor Strange (and a tidier apartment). After that, the part of me that loves complete stories drove me to research what exactly I had. Of course, from there it was but a step to list what I didn’t have. It wasn’t a simple step, as Stephen Strange has been around for six decades and appeared in many comics and reprints. Plus, I had discovered that I had no interest in his guest appearances, team roles or re-imaginings of his origins et al. I wanted pure, or only slightly diluted, Doctor Strange.

From then on, I kept an eye open for Doctor Strange works and picked up those I could afford. The stack steadily grew, until a news item caught my eye: Doctor Strange was about to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

dsbcew

Which would make filling the empty slots in my collection expensive. If the film did well, the task would become prohibitively expensive, even for the lesser condition stuff I was accumulating. This necessitated a change of plan and pace, which, by and large, has been surprisingly effective.

I also found the need to assemble a sequenced reading list, which is when I thought of doing a blog post, as it might be of use to interested readers. Note that I used the cheapest way to get the tales, so there are many collections that do not specify which comics they include (If you need to know, consult the Wikipedia entry for Doctor Strange, it lists what is in the various collected editions).

  1. Essential Doctor Strange volume 1
  2. Essential Doctor Strange volume 2
  3. Essential Doctor Strange volume 3
  4. Essential Doctor Strange volume 4
  5. Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #57
  6. Doctor Strange Vs. Dracula: The Montesi Formula GN
  7. Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #63 thru #67
  8. Marvel’s Mightiest Heroes #33 GN
  9. Doctor Strange: Don’t Pay the Ferryman GN
  10. Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa GN
  11. Doctor Strange: Strange Tales GN
  12. Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #1 thru #53
  13. Doctor Strange Annual #3
  14. Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #54 thru #66
  15. Doctor Strange Annual #4
  16. Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #67 thru #90
  17. Doctor Strange: What is it that Disturbs You, Stephen? GN
  18. Doctor Strange: Flight of Bones #1 thru #4
  19. Strange: The Doctor is Out! GN
  20. Doctor Strange Volume 1: The Way of the Weird GN
    – due for publication in May 2016

I’ll continue to refine/maintain this listing as I catch up with the backlog of acquisition and reading.

ST110

Stephen Strange has come a long way from Strange Tales #110 in 1963. But I don’t think that 2016 is going to cause him any trouble.

DSBC2
DSnew
Do go and see the film. If it keeps the promises of it’s concept art and intent, it will be spectacular, and may well be something far beyond the usual cinematic superhero fare – and that can only be a good thing.

ds4

Art from Marvel Treasury Edition #6: Doctor Strange is by Frank Brunner and Steve Ditko.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange; photos from Entertainment Weekly.
Used without permission.
Copyright remains with the original holders.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2016 in Life & Self

 
 
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