Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird

I'm not sure if writer Jason Aaron has gained a reputation for reinvigorating often difficult superhero characters and giving them exciting new directions, almost like a Marvel answer to Geoff Johns' pre-Flashopint character rehabilitation programs at the Distinguished Competition. I mean, that's the way I see Aaron, after his work on Ghost Rider, a series of different Wolverine titles, his work on the previous, Odinson version of Thor and, most especially, his run on Wolverine and The X-Men, which was by far the best X-Men run since Grant Morrison and company's millennial run, and the introduction and continuing adventures of the new, female Thor in the pages of Thor/Mighty Thor. I'm not sure if everyone else sees him that way too, though.

But given the fact that not only has just about everything I've read of his been good*, he's also found ways to make even the most tired characters and concepts exciting, fun and even funny, I was pretty pleased to hear that Marvel had tapped him to write the first new Doctor Strange ongoing book in...well, since I've been reading Marvel comics, I think? The character has always been around, getting a few miniseries and playing roles big and small in most of the post-Civil War event series. Brian Michael Bendis used him regularly in his Avengers-centric stories, as a member of "The Illuminati," and he always showed up when a magic guy is needed in any book. The post-Secret Wars book would be his first attempt at a star turn in pretty much forever though.

And one imagines that the book had to be a good one, as Marvel Studios has a Doctor Strange film up next on their slate, and are going to want as many Doctor Strange-related collections on shelves as possible the last quarter of this year.

So they paired Aaron with Chris Bachalo, and the results are about as I expected: Fresh, exciting, fun and funny.

One of the problems, or at least the perceived problems, with the Doctor Strange character is just how damn powerful he is. If your superpower is "magic," then writing simple fight comics gets a lot harder than it is for someone whose power is, say, "webs and the proportional strength of a spider" or "sharp claws" and so on. Aaron and Bachalo address Strange's comics creator-frigthenng powers of omnipotence head on in a couple of ways. First and most obviously, there's the matter of escalating the threats, so that if the hero seems omnipotent, then for an external, physical conflict you need to imagine antagonists that are even more powerful (the route in recent years has been to impose limits on Strange instead, essentially de-powering him to fight lower-level, Jonathan Hickman's New Avengers/Avengers/Secret Wars epic excluded, of course).

Secondly, they show that just because Strange has the power to take on various magical threats doesn't mean his life is easy, in the same way that a medical doctor may be able to prevent or cure most diseases, but they're still over-worked, stressed out and engaged in a never-ending battle.

And thirdly, and most imaginatively, they depict the cost of Strange's magical powers. Taking the "doctor" of the character's name (and origin) as literally as possible, Aaron and Bachalo's Doctor Strange treats the Earth and its people as his patient, and various magical threats as infections that need repelled or subdued (either by spells or magical weapons like that big-ass battle axe seen on the cover). Along the way, of course, Strange picks ups all sorts of mystical maladies himself, and the toll its left on his body is most graphically displayed during a scene late in the volume where we see Wong preparing a meal for him, which new point of view character Zelma refers to as "culinary afterbirth."

"Exposure to magical energy changes a mortal body over time," Wong explains to her in dialogue bubbles over a panel of Strange forcing a pink, viscous soup with eyeballs, snails and tentacles into his mouth using chopsticks. "After years of casting spells to save the world...this is literally the only food that the Doctor's stomach can accept... ....Food that would kill a normal man. And someday, will kill him as well."

It's played for laughs ("Ugh," Strange says, "Tastes like leprosy"), but demonstrates the danger of magic swiftly in the space of a few panels, and, incidentally, helps further remove Wong from his stereotypical, 1960s, Asian manservant roots. Yeah, the Asian guy may be Strange's cook, but did you see the stuff he has to cook for Strange? You have to be a kung fu expert with great magical knowledge and incomparable courage for that; only a superhero could run run this Doctor Strange's kitchen (not that all Wong does is cook and occasionally karate chop here, of course. Aaron also has a big, high-concept idea regarding the magic's deleterious effect on Strange's mortal body that Wong is involved in that is only partially explained by volume's end).

We meet Aaron and Bachalo's version of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange in a bravura 12-page sequence that includes a pithy, one-page recap of his origin (delivered via Strange's own narration over a mosaic-like background of old panels of comics featuring the character), a sprawling battle scene against bizarre magical foes of Bachalo's wildest imagination, and then the reveal that the character was making a house call, floating next to the bed of a sleeping little boy while his astral projection was fighting his foes on "the ectoplasmic ...within the boy's very soulscape.

From there, his cape unwinds from his shoulders and forms a stairway he strolls casually down, from the boy's second-floor bedroom window to the streets, where it ties itself into a rather ordinary-looking scarf, and we see Strange in "street clothes" rather than his regular work clothes/costume.

There's a few pages of him strolling around New York, in one of several instances in which Bachalo, who colors his own art in this book, shows us the world through Strange's eyes...or at least a big third eye in his forehead. The streets of modern day New York are rendered in black and white, while all sorts of strange creatures flit through in full-color, some attached to passersby that don't even notice them, and most of these ignored by Strange himself, sine they're just a part of daily life (as he sees it), not threats.

He visits a bar where Marvel's other mystical characters occasionally convene, and when he returns home, there is a young woman there seeking his help with a scalp infection of sorts: She's grown mouths atop her head. Meanwhile, in a different dimension, some strange force called The Empirikul (get it?!) are hunting and exterminating the Sorcerers Supreme in various different dimensions. That last bit is drawn by Kevin Nowlan. It's a five-page sequence which accounts for the only bit of the book not drawn by Bachalo himself.

How did the artist handle penciling and coloring five consecutive issues himself? The seven inkers probably helped.

You can extrapolate much of what follows there that first issue. Zelda, a librarian, tales a part-time position helping organizing Strange's library, since the ability to not find the right book at the right time could be a matter of life and death. There are more visits to the magicians' bar (Look! Son of Satan! Man, I hate what Bachalo did with his hair), more attacks on alternate Sorcerer's Supreme, more of Strange's weird-ass life and, ultimately, the arrival of the Empirikul on Earth, providing a point from a cliffhanger ending to the volume.

There are plenty of familiar elements, even familiar scenes–a visitor lost in Strange's house, for example, seems like something I've read a handful of times in the past few years–but to my casual Doctor Strange reader's eye, it certainly seemed like Aaron and Bachalo did a fine job of refreshing without reinventing the character. Nothing terribly important seems to have been reinvented, no dramatic change to the status quo was delivered. Rather, this seems to pretty simply follow the formula of the Mark Waid and company relaunch of Daredevil a few line-wide relaunches ago: Good Writer + Good Artist + Interesting Character = Good Super-Comics.

Regarding that art, there's little difference between what Bachalo is providing here and what he was doing with Brian MIchael Bendis in Uncanny X-Men. He even mostly sticks with the borderless panels set in a white field (forming implied panel borders) he used throughout his last X-Men run, and in a few instances drops photos into the backgrounds for the backgrounds, for some dumb reason.

Rather, this subject matter just allows him to cut even looser and go even wilder with designs. I've mentioned the coloring tricks (Bachalo seems particularly enamored of a Tim Burton-esque, horizontal striped pattern for the supernatural). His mild re-designs of Doctor Strange is cool too. Whether he gets dressed magically or simply casts a spell to change his appearance, I liked the way he blends in within this book.

Bachalo also did a rather fine job of redesigning Strange, with a less-is-more approach that one might not even notice at first. He still wears his classic tunic and cape (clasped with the Eye of Agamotto), but he's ditched the yellow gloves with the spots, so now his shirt doesn't puff up on the sleeves above them, looking blouse-like. The cape's bizarre collar that looked so cool in Ditko's drawings but rarely if ever works when a modern artist, more intent on rendering their figures in three-dimensional, realistic portrayals, attempts to draw it (the fact that we see the cape used as a scarf and ramp in here indicates that it is magic enough to change shape and appearance to, so purists can rest easy that Bachalo didn't change the cape, but simply changed whether or not Strange decides to rock a crazy collar with it or not).

His pants are no longer so tight, and just look like a regular pair of nice pants, and he has boots with treads on them, furthering the idea that his superhero costume amounts to his work clothes. He wears a dagger on his belt, like a Dungeons & Dragons magic-user now, and summons magical medieval weaponry to cut and bash tentacles as necessary.

Least noticeable of all, unless you look super-close at those Ditko panels upcycled into an origin recap on page one, Strange no longer has any gray or white in his hair, but looks very young...even younger than the guy who will be playing hi in the upcoming movie, actually. It is perhaps a little weird that Strange, one of the most visibly middle-aged superheroes, no longer looks quite so middle-aged at a time when the readers of Marvel comics books are far, far older than they were in the 1960s, but I suppose the idea is to have him remain a contemporary of Tony Stark and that generation of heroes, and those guys are never getting any older, are they?

That, or maybe Strange just cast some sort of spell of de-graying. I mean, if I were a Sorcerer Supreme, I'd probably cast a spell to re-grow hair on my bald head.

Now that I've discussed the book at length, here's a short review: Aaron and Bachalo's Doctor Strange book is very good, and there's a good chance that you will enjoy reading it, so you should probably check it out. It will definitely go on any list of books I recommend to any friends who want to know a good place to start with Doctor Strange comics as the movie approaches (Right up there with Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's 2006's The Oath, which introduces the Night Nurse costume I wish Rosario Dawson would don in a Netflix series eventually).

Now here's hoping after Aaron and Bachalo finish their run on this series, they follow it up with a new Defenders series, because my favorite Doctor Strange is a Doctor Strange who bickers with Namor, The Hulk and Silver Surfer...

*Abhay Khosla's "The Case Against Dan DiDio" is still pretty fresh in my head, so as I was thinking about Jason Aaron and all the great comics he's written for Marvel in the past decade or so, I couldn't help but remember where Aaron came from. Before going on to write Ghost Rider, Thor, Wolverine, The X-Men, Star Wars, Original Sin, and parts of Avengers Vs. X-Men, Aaron wrote Scalped for DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. And...that's about it. Looking at Wikipedia, because I honestly can't remember ever reading any Aaron-written DC comics other than Scalped, it appears that he has a few more Vertigo credits to his name, but the only DC Universe title he wrote was the Penguin issue of Joker's Asylum. I don't know that Aaron writing all of these great comics, many of which were also big commercial hits, for Marvel, and not writing for DC Comics instead, despite obviously having contacts at DC is necessarily Dan DiDio's fault, but it certainly fits the pattern that Khosla suggests (and, really, anyone who follows mainstream comics will have noticed–I mean, even Scott Snyder took his Wytches to Image instead of having Vertigo publish it) that DC under DiDio has had a problem keeping top-tier talent. Aaron was writing Scalped for Vertigo at the same time he was writing some of his Marvel superhero comic work, but the number of different titles he wrote for Marvel vs. DC in the last ten years is pretty damn striking.


jrp001 said...

Wondering if you have read Aaron's HULK -- In my way uninformed opinion, I thought it was a real disservice to the character. I mean it might have been a good "max" continuity-adjacent title (and that's how i choose to think of it), but as the main Hulk book/in-continuity it was kind of not good.

SallyP said...

I have never really been a huge Doctor Strange fan, but I have been just loving the heck out of this book.

Greg said...

I'm looking forward to reading this (in softcover!), but it sounds like Aaron was reading Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner's Witch Doctor right before starting it, as it sounds like the premise is almost lifted intact from that comic.