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Doctor Strange’s quest for power and the Black sorcerer-librarian

Strange talks to Wong, the first librarian shown in the episode, and only very briefly.

As you may or may not know, a recent episode of the Marvel animated series, What If…?, which takes prominent moments in the lives of superheroes and provides a new twist on them, featured a librarian. The episode before that had a violent library scene, but no librarian was present. Instead, in this episode, titled “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?,” the librarian, voiced by Nigerian voice actor Ike Amadi, masquerades under the name “O’Bengh,” and runs the Lost Library of Cagliostro. He tries to help the protagonist, Doctor Strange, although Strange grows out of control. So, warning, here, this post, which examines this wonderful librarian of color, a Black librarian to be exact, his role in the episode, how he connects to other examples on this blog, and whether he passes the Librarian Portrayal Test (LPT) or not.

Even so, reviewers of the episode in prominent publications often either ignored the librarian, library, or barely mentioned it. For example, Engadget, The Mary Sue, and IGN did not even mention either the librarian or library in their reviews. [1] On the other hand, reviewers for Den of Geek, Yahoo! Movies, Digital Spy, and The A.V. Club mentioned it in passing. These reviews only noted that Strange visited the “mysterious”/”most exclusive”/”mystical” Library of Cagliostro, that a sorcerer named “O’Bengh” takes Strange to the library, which he is visiting by traveling back in time to gain the power and knowledge he needs to bring back his girlfriend, Christine Palmer, in an attempt to reverse an absolute point in time. That isn’t saying that these reviews were terrible, badly written, or anything like this, but it is unfortunate when a librarian or library has a prominent role in an episode or media, and a reviewer barely mentions it, as it implies that they feel it isn’t important enough to mention. With that, let me move into the rest of my review.

Early on in the episode, Strange (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) talks to Wong (voiced by Benedict Wong), the Chinese special librarian and sorcerer who recently appeared in the film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Wong tells him that tinkering with time will threaten the entire fabric of the universe, and the Ancient One telling him the same. He later becomes the sorcerer supreme after the Ancient One passed, but he could not let go of the past. Wong talks to Strange two years later, and tells him to join him before he does something “reckless.” Strange doesn’t listen and he travels back in time, trying to relieve the moment of Christine’s death over and over, hoping to change the outcome. The Ancient One tells him that the death of Christine is an “absolute point in time” which cannot be changed or reversed, warning him that his path only leads to darkness, but he disregards this, causing them to fight. He finds himself in a jungle and asks a man he sees about the lost library of Cagliostro and the man leads him to the library, with this man as O’Bengh, described as a keeper of the library, and enters the library using his magic, specifically runes on the floor, and falls down a deep, dark hole, caused by the runes.

In this library-temple, Strange meets O’Bengh yet again, who calls him the “strangest dressed sorcerer” he has ever seen, and messes with Strange, Cagliostro is here, there, or nowhere. In this inter-dimensional library, O’Bengh calls him sorcerer Armani, bringing him inside the vast library, with Strange saying he will stay as long as it takes. He collects as many books as he can, while the area around him is lit by candles, perpetuating a stereotype of libraries as some badly lit place, even if the collections themselves are well-resourced.

Strange summons a mystic being and O’Bengh tries to warn Strange to not summon such beings, even recognizing he has pain that is causing him to go to these desperate measures, saying that there is a “fine line between devotion and delusion,” saying that love can not only break your heart but it can shatter your mind. Strange decides that O’Bengh may be right, so he wants to take the power rather than the monsters giving the power to him, absorbing their powers one by one. The Watcher refuses to intervene, saying the fate of his universe is not worth risking the safety of all others. Centuries pass as he absorbs the power of the monster which first attacked him. O’Bengh is dying and refuses Strange’s help to let him live longer.

O’Bengh says that death is inevitable, saying that while he recognizes Strange won’t accept this about death, the “other Strange” will, and is only “half a mind.” It turns out there is another Strange out there, a “good” Strange, while the one that went to the library is the “evil” Strange. The good Strange on the other hand, stayed with Wong instead, and could see the world falling apart around him. He learns from the Ancient One that she split Strange in two. Wong helps the good Strange train to fight the evil Strange before he fades away himself, like everyone else, putting a protection spell on him. Both Stranges meet in the library, with the good Strange telling the other Strange that he can’t bring her back, and the evil Strange declares that both of them together can save Christine. I won’t say any more about the episode beyond that, except to say that it gets very dark.

The Evil Strange begins taking in the knowledge of the library’s books

Now, before getting to the LPT, let me say that O’Bengh is implied to be Cagliostro. Beyond that, while some reviews say he “helps” Strange, others are more accurate, noting that O’Bengh warns Strange, even on his deathbed, and is said to have an impressive library, while he is described as “soft-spoken” by some. Other reviewers noted that O’Bengh was “a powerful and ancient sorcerer” and speculate that he might have, after his wife / partner died, built the library and “filled it with books about the magic he learned over his unnaturally long life.”

It is disconcerting the number of roles he takes on in the episode: an all-knowing person, a medic, and a sorcerer, to name the three most prominent. Archives in Fiction (AIF) makes a good point that while the space was beautifully rendered, it is “utterly impractical” and argued that the episode has the subtext that “librarians are magic” or that they are “expected to work miracles.” In response to AIF saying that they since when anyone calls “us” (archivists, librarians) miracle workers, even if it comes “from a good place,” saying that there is “really nothing miraculous about the work we put into making things findable,” I said that that perspective makes sense. I gave the example of Kaisa in Hilda who is a witch but doesn’t use her magical powers, and noted that for O’Bengh it makes sense for him to be magical as he is a sorcerer, but added that it is problematic to say that librarians are magical, although some can work in a magical library but not be magical themselves, like Kaisa as previously mentioned (although she is a witch) or Clara Rhone in Welcome to the Wayne.

More than any of this, O’Bengh, who is based off the alias of Giuseppe Balasamo / Joseph Balsamo, Count Alessandro do Cagliostro, a glamorous magician and Italian adventurer involved in the occult arts, according to his Wikipedia page, is the fact that O’Bengh is the ONLY librarian managing the whole library, with no one else shown. How in the world could he manage it all? It seems like a near-impossible task. Compare this to Clara Rhone in Welcome to the Wayne. While the library in that show (The Stanza) was also magnificent and special, like the one in this episode, Rhone, a Black woman, is the chief librarian and there are various non-human employees helping her. Additionally, the library itself is key to the series, shown as a place of understanding and knowledge,and is meticulously organized, with some episodes highlighting the issues of underfunded libraries, the role of librarians as gatekeeper and the shushing librarian stereotype.

That brings me to the LPT. O’Bengh is undoubtedly a librarian, fulfilling the first criterion. And his role is integral to the plot in that his removal would impact the plot in a significant way, partially fulfilling the third criterion. However, this episode does not fulfill this completely. While O’Bengh is not there for laughs, shushing patrons, or even a foil, he does fall into the librarian as an information provider stereotype, or even an inspirational librarian stereotype to some extent, even as he does matter in and of himself. Sure, he is not a spinster librarian, a liberated librarian, a librarian as failure, an anti-social librarian (a little bit), a naughty librarian, but he still pushes the idea that librarians somehow magically know everything. Furthermore, his character is primarily defined by his role as a librarian, as he is, apart briefly from early in the episode, never shown outside the library! As such, the episode fails the third criterion of the LPT. As such, you could say the show gets a rating of 1.5 out of 3 on the LPT, or put more simply, 50%, to be exact.

O’Bengh meets Strange in the deep, dark hole of the library, early in the episode.

The library itself is also very large. And AIF has a point that the library is impractical. I would further say that the design would be only if there was appropriate staffing for it, but this is obviously not the case, so it is absurdly large. The library itself is also literally a temple, furthering the perception that libraries, and by extension librarians, are somehow sacred, a dangerous and faulty idea which could result in lack of accountability of libraries themselves or even librarians, which are not removed from the oppressive systems in our society.

It is wonderful to have a librarian of color, specifically a Black librarian, in a popular animated show, with animation which is so life-like that it reminds me of the rotoscoped characters in Undone, or the 2019 French film, I Lost My Body. The latter has a librarian named named Gabrielle, voiced by Victoire Du Bois (French) and Alia Shawkat (English), who is a protagonist of the film. It is also interesting he is a Black librarian because he is portrayed as being Italian and ruling over a kingdom in India in his profile on the Marvel database fandom site. However, I wish they could have done more and had a character which exists outside of the library, and not be like a monk inside of a monastery who never leaves the monastery.

Compare O’Bengh to Kaisa in Hilda, who is a witch and may be asexual. [2] She is able to, in the show’s first season, presciently guess what the protagonist and her friends need in term of books, trying to serve them to the best of her ability. In the next season she talks about the value of witchcraft, which can be seen as analogous to librarianship and helps get a book from a patron, her old friend, Ms. Tildy, traveling deep within the library itself. But, she has a life outside the library, even helping the protagonists on a quest to catch soul-eating mice. Unlike O’Bengh, her mysterious nature fades into nothingness in the show’s second season, while she still has unparalleled knowledge of mystical items and cemetery records, she is never shown using her magical powers to complete her library tasks, showing she takes her job seriously. Alike the library in What If…?, the library in Hilda is a bit ordinary on the outside, it is grand inside, with passageways reaching the chambers of witches which control the Witches Tower. Furthermore, unlike O’Bengh, Kaisa is the only librarian I know of in animation at the present who presumably has a professional degree.

All in all, while I am glad there was a librarian of color who had a key part in an animated series, it could have been much much better. There could be more people working at the library with O’Bengh, having O’Bengh not be some all-knowing librarian and having a life outside the library itself, and portraying the library as something less ornate and spacious as something that resembled a temple, to name a few suggested changes. With that, until next week, where I’ll write about another librarian or library in fiction, whether on “Librarian work” in Kokoro Library, Amity Blight, the librarian in The Owl House, or another subject entirely, among my 13 draft posts.

Inside (top) and outside (bottom) of the Lost Library of Cagliostro

© 2021 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.


Notes

[1] Naudus, K., “Marvel’s ‘What If?’ expands beyond its anthology beginnings,” Engadget, Sept. 1, 2021, accessed Sept. 8, 2021; Marvel’s What If…? Flips the Script on Fridging,” The Mary Sue, Sept. 1, 2021, accessed Sept. 8, 2021; Jorgensen, Tom, “What If…? Season 1, Episode 4 – Review,” IGN, Sept. 1, 2021, accessed Sept. 8, 2021; Knight, Rosie, “What If…? Episode 4 Review: Doctor Strange Loses His Heart,” Den of Geek, Sept. 1, 2021, accessed Sept. 8, 2021; Warmann, Amon. “‘What If’: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange leads the best episode yet,” Yahoo! Movies, Sept. 1, 2021, accessed Sept. 8, 2021; Opie, David, “Marvel’s What If…? episode 4 is more important to the MCU than you think,” Digital Spy, Sept. 1, 2021, accessed Sept. 8, 2021; Barsanti, Sam, “In a bleak What If…?, Doctor Strange tries to become Doctor Who and fails spectacularly,” The A.V. Club, Sept. 1, 2021, accessed Sept. 8, 2021.

[2] On December 18, 2020, creator Luke Pearson, when asked if the colors of the librarian named Kaisa in Hilda were made to intentionally match the asexual flag, said that while he did not purposely make her colors match those of the aromantic flag in his rough design for the character, it was “not impossible” that her design, her hair and colors, matched the colors of the asexual flag because he did not draw the final design of the character in the show. Kaisa has purple hair, a black cape, a gray shirt with white sleeves, all of which are colors on the asexual flag.

By histhermann

Marylander with MLIS who loves archives, libraries, genealogy, reviewing pop culture, and writing fictional stories. UMD '19 & SMCM '16 grad. I've been running various WordPress blogs for a while now, about genealogy, libraries, archives, and more.

10 replies on “Doctor Strange’s quest for power and the Black sorcerer-librarian”

Thanks for saying that! Definitely there can be harm in the notion that “librarians are magical.” There are some good examples of librarians who have magic, but balance it with their magical abilities, like Kaisa in Hilda, but in other cases, it can more more harmful. Without a doubt, what we are informational professionals do is work and it is under-valued without a doubt! I wish more valued the work of information professionals than they currently do. I think some animations have tried to make sure that librarians and libraries are shown as valued, like the Stanza in Welcome to the Wayne run by a Black librarian named Clara Rhone, or even, to an extent, the librarian in Trollhunters, Blinky. That’s the two examples I can think of off the top of my head. But, that isn’t always conveyed, especially when the librarians who shown as some sort of demons. I do have some upcoming posts about the value and role of librarians which might interest you, like the one this upcoming Tuesday where a librarian in one week literally acquiesces to censorship (and having his patrons be taken out of the library at gunpoint!) and the following week about a librarian charging a 12 cent fee for an overdue book, causing the protagonist to go completely bonkers until he finally just agrees to return the book…after causing all sorts of destruction of the library itself, like pushing over shelves, stuffing food into the book return bin, etc.

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