*of course, huge spoilers ahead*
New Avengers Annual #1
Written by Frank Barbiere
Art by Marco Rudy
Cover by Marco Rudy
Dated August 2014
Remember that charming, sincere, funny, altogether thoroughly enjoyable Avengers Annual written by Kathryn Immonen? It took place within the framework of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers (what with the same characters and status quo) but being handled by a different writer, it had an entirely different feel. Let’s cross our fingers for this one, because once again Marvel is giving us an annual and handing the book to a new writer. Can Frank Barbiere handle the New Avengers? That’s not really a fair question, because…
The first thing you’ll notice is that this isn’t a New Avengers story at all. It’s a Doctor Strange book, one hundred percent. Open the page to the credits and the huge, dominating font tells us so. This story does, in fact, tie into the Doctor’s current status as he is portrayed in the New Avengers titles, but there are no other connections. And let me tell you, if you’re a Doctor Strange fan, this book is not to be missed.
The plot is really secondary to the whole experience. We get two concurrent storylines: the first revolves around Strange and his self-assured, ignorant nature. He decides he is going to perform life-saving surgery on a patient that has otherwise accepted his imminent demise. Strange’s doctor friend pleads with him to let the dying man go in peace, but Strange is sure he has the curing touch. Things go awry, the guy dies and his family is more distraught than if he’d gone naturally. There’s a lot of talk about how doctor’s just need to let some people die and accept that not everyone can be saved, but we’re in the Marvel Universe here, we readers can’t help but believe that Strange can do anything. The story is well-told, but ultimately the message falls flat—we know this is Strange before he becomes all powerful, but surely inoperable brain tumors don’t hold the same weight in the Marvel U as they do in our real world. How do Marvel’s doctor’s explain to regular patients that nothing can be done, when just outside their window a horde of flying men and women are repelling alien invasions? We suspend our disbelief and it’s all okay, but making it the bane of a story simply doesn’t work.
The other storyline involves Strange returning to his roots and visiting the magical society hidden away in the mountains of Tibet. There he finds a special young girl possessed by an all-powerful demon. Strange zips on through to the astral plain and shows the demon just how powerful he has become. Remember, Strange has paid the ultimate price and given the entirety of his soul for as much power as possible. This allows him to control “blood magic”—and he ends up basically eating the demon. This scares the other magical Tibetans and they banish Strange from their little society. A Sorcerer Supreme without a soul is indeed a scary situation. If there’s one major flaw here, it’s that the entire plot revolves around “the price” Strange has paid for his powers—but we never really see the consequences of this price. What does it really mean to sell your soul? It means you can do some pretty messed up magic, I guess, but what are the penalties? It all sounds bad, but Strange just seems like he’s more powerful than ever. Is there a touch of evil inside him now? He still seems like the same Doctor we all know and love, unchanged except for his new boost in power.
And now the reason to buy this book: Marco Rudy. I’ve always appreciated Rudy’s work and I’ve always known he was a great artist trapped inside mediocre books. But this… where did this come from!? This is some J.H. Williams style-shifting, Dave McKean detailed, David Mack designed stuff. This is art on an (appropriately) different level. This is the prettiest book made in 2014 (prove me wrong!). The layouts are inspired, the colours out of this world—I’d say it was like reading a dream, but here everything makes sense. It’s calculated, yet free-flowing. It’s painted, sketched, inked—it’s a bombastic array of styles that somehow all flow together and fit to make unforgettable pages. I’m not very good at commenting on art, so I’ll simply provide examples and let your jaw do the dropping.
Altogether, this book is quite a read. It’s a feast for the eyes that doesn’t reveal its flaws until careful consideration after the fact. Barbiere does a superb job writing a story that flows well and keeps us entertained. Despite Rudy’s mesmerizing art, the crux of the story is still clearly faulty, but it’s all such an enjoyable experience that anything out of place is easily forgiven. As your eyes gloss over the hypnotic layouts and intricate design, it doesn’t really matter that the story doesn’t satisfying on every level. You’re entranced. You’re spellbound.
It’s been a small, nourishing break, but now we must once again head back into the fray of Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers. We won’t get art like Rudy’s; we won’t get a concise, self-contained story like Barbiere’s. We’ll get more slow paced, end-of-the-world-scenario, pseudo-science prattle; more big ideas with small payoffs; more good guys punching each other, mysteries indefinitely waiting for answers and story arcs that crawl for months and months and months. Of course, we’ll have our fun moments too; our “wow” moments and those moments when we finally see the gears behind the curtains. We’ll see awesome characters do awesome (and stupid) things; we’ll see unimaginable threats; we’ll be treated to neat twists, turns and unexpected surprises. It will be (and has been) a long, hard, expensive, sometimes maddening trip, but I’ll be here to hold your hand. Don’t be afraid to scream.