Luke Miller: By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, Jamil, I’m ready to channel my inner Cumberbatch and do this thing! Actually, you liked this way more than I did. Like, waaaaaay more. The fact that I’m not over-the-moon in love with this title has me bummed out already – not the least of which is because if I don’t keep reading it, I’ll have no reason to use the phrase “by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth” anymore. Well, I mean, I can keep using it. It’ll just be super awkward. (FYI to our readers, because Doctor Strange doesn’t actually say that in this issue, but when I did a little browsing on the character, I discovered that’s apparently his catchphrase. Best. Catchprhase. Ever.)
Anyway, I’m getting distracted and digressing. Back to the issue at hand – I didn’t like this. I can’t really put my finger on it, but it just did nothing for me. We basically have the good doctor, Sorcerer Supreme and defender of earth against all threats magical and mystical, fending off a magical/mystical threat from extradimensional monstrosities intent on feasting on a boy’s soul. Then he discusses said threats with his fellow Marvel Universe magic users. Then he discovers another mystical/magical threat. (By the way, next week we should probably take a break from comics featuring incomprehensible beings devouring human souls and minds. After Nameless last week, and now this, we’re going to get pigeonholed.) That’s really all I got out of this though, and that’s so disappointing, because Jason Aaron might be my favorite comic book writer going today. Between Scalped, Southern Bastards, Punisher MAX, Wolverine and the X-Men, his various other Wolverine books, Thor: God of Thunder, The Incredible Hulk, and Ghost Rider, this was literally the first book he’s written that I didn’t enjoy. I even sort of liked Original Sin, and that just seemed like an editorial mandated event (because you gotta have an event going on and because the status quo needs shaken up a bit) that should have been a trainwreck and he kind of, sort of managed to salvage it.
I felt like the “Magic Tony Stark” angle was pushed a bit too much. There are just certain characters whose love lives I don’t have any interest in whatsoever. Batman is a good example. He’s got a mission, and nothing is more important than that mission. Every Batman/Catwoman will they/won’t they scene feels shoehorned in there and totally out of character to me. Doctor Strange is another. I think because he conjures images of Eastern mysticism and Buddhist monks combined with the lone watchman, the man on the wall keeping everyone safe from the unseen threats beyond. He should have neither the time nor the energy to be hooking up with anyone, let alone the “queen of the monsters.” I think my biggest problem though was the art. I just don’t like Chris Bachalo. It’s too blocky and stylized and disproportionate for me. If the story is engrossing enough, I can get past it, but that wasn’t the case here.
Having said all that though, there were three things I really liked. First, Doctor Strange wears his cape as a scarf when he’s walking around in his civilian clothes, because when you have a cape that fabulous, you can’t just not wear it in some form or fashion. Second, I liked the scene where he was walking around with his “third eye” open. All the mundane aspects of life were flat black-and-white monochrome without even any grayscale, and the mystical aspects that seep in that only he can see where fully shaded and colored. That was a nice touch. Finally, I liked the idea of “a price must be paid” every time he used magic. He hadn’t been paying the price, so his metaphorical bill has just been ratcheting up this whole time.
Otherwise, the whole thing was pretty “meh” for me. The plot was generic and the character felt flat. So, Jamil, I’m counting on you to tell me why I’m wrong and convince me to keep picking up a series by one of my favorite writers.
Kyle Garret: I’m going to have to side with Luke on this one.
Here’s the thing about Dr. Strange: he might actually be the perfect superhero. Why? Because stories featuring Dr. Strange don’t actually have to make sense. In fact, the best Dr. Strange stories DON’T make sense, because he’s dealing with realities completely different from our own. We can’t judge his adventures based upon our perspectives because his adventures are beyond them. It’s incredibly freeing for creators, I would imagine, to be able to just go crazy and not have to worry extensively about the finer points of realism. Sure, it’s nice to have him grounded in some way (his house in the Village is perfect), but his actual journeys into mystic lands need to point of reference.
And, for the most part, I think Aaron got that right for much of this issue. But then Dr. Strange goes to a magicians’ bar and it was just so…pedestrian. We see bars like this all the time in comics. Bars for superheroes, bars for supervillains, there’s probably a bar out there just for red heads. I appreciate the desire to have Strange interact with other magicians, but why not make it bizarre? It seems completely at odds with who Strange is and what he does. Sure, you could make the case that such a mundane meeting is the point and that Strange is trying to stay grounded, but if that were the case he’d meet at a regular old bar. Besides, there’s nothing within the rest of the issue that would support that theory.
Which leads me to the bigger issue and one I’m sure a lot of people are talking about: Strange’s dialogue. I will admit that I can be OCD about the way characters speak, which should explain why I have such a hard time reading anything Bendis writes. But I’m not totally insane and I realize there’s going to be some evolution. I know characters have to evolve with the times.
The problem with Dr. Stange’s speech patterns in this issue aren’t that they’re different than what we’ve seen for the last fifty years, it’s that it’s also the same. The “new style” pieces of dialogue are side by side with the flowery, pseudo-academic phrases we’ve come to expect from Strange, which is jarring.
For example, the second or third time Dr. Strange decides to mention that the demon is “into” him, he follows that up with this chestnut: “But this Spurrgog and his tentacles play for keeps. I can smell the sour stench of rotting souls on his breath.”
That last line is classic Dr. Strange which make it completely at odds with his school boy “she’s totally in to me, dude!” Yes, nothing but the new, hip Dr. Strange would have been drastic, but it at least would have had an inner continuity.
This raises the question in mind: Did Strange’s way of speaking need to be updated? I will point you back to the first part of my review and that whole “Dr. Strange is awesome when it makes no sense.” I don’t think I need Dr. Strange telling me he thinks a demon is “into him.” In fact, I’m feel fairly positive that I don’t need that, that Dr. Strange as a character doesn’t need that, and that most people reading about him don’t need that.
But let’s talk about what works and that is, without question, the art, first from Chris Bachalo, then from Kevin Nowlan in a back-up story that almost challenges you to not think of the Bob Harras/Steve Epting/Tom Palmer Avengers run from the 90s.
Wait, Kevin Nowlan? Yes, Kevin Nowlan, gifting us with beautiful, powerful artwork that is almost too good to be true. When was the last time he even did work for Marvel?
Jamil: Well, to answer that question, the much-delayed Infernal Man-Thing from a posthumous script by Steve Gerber. Our pals Daniel Elkin and Jason Sacks (or ElkSack as I like to call them) reviewed it back in 2012.
But yeah, I was just as surprised as you, Kyle, by Nowlan’s unheralded appearance in the back-up. His pencil and color work is very sturdy and the new bad guys sport an amusing design (are they related to the breakout star of Original Sin, The Orb?) These antagonist seem to be tech-based and militantly anti-magic, which brings me around to deflect your critics, I’ve always hated magic myself.
OK, that’s a little harsh. I hate magic within the context of a fictional universe like Marvel’s. Many of its concepts are based in science and the very nature of magic undermines that. So when someone like Scarlet Witch shows up and waves a stupid glowing hand around and fixes (or ruins) everything I get a bit irked. Deus ex machina is almost inherent to the formula of a mystical setting, This factor has helped shelve Doctor Strange in ongoing form for two decades. When every story is saved by a nifty enchantment or a McGuffin artifact things gets stale.
That’s why I love Aaron’s inclusion of the karma element. A warlock for a rabbit as Golden Age character Monako, the Prince of Magic would say. While that idea is not exactly new (Once Upon A Time may have wrung that sponge dry) it sets some neat parameters for this series going forward.
You know what’s flippin’ fantastic about art? Your respective lists of criticisms are aspects I either loved or thought were done extremely well. In particular, I feel both of you have trouble with Strange’s characterization and I felt like this representation of the character was really on point. To me Doctor Strange is a bit of a noble creep, a Byronic hero who talks funny and sleeps with spooky chicks. Even more, I thought the bar scene was well-crafted. First, it’s a magical tiki bar FFS, and second, the characters in that scene are typically the tightest wound among a stressed-out bunch and it was cool to see them cut loose like regular joes.
As far as the dialogue, I agree it was a little raw in spots, but I think that’s a bit jarring because it’s as you said, a refresher for the times. No creator has had been singular ownership of the character in quite some time, so the opportunities for an update have been scarce.
Kyle: The problem is that it’s NOT a refresher, though. If had been a complete refresher, then it would have been less jarring, or at least more cohesive.
Jamil: I’ve never been a fan of Bachalo, I could always tolerate him on X-Men comics because of the 90’s nostalgia, but I liked his approach here, and I agree that the color work in that third eye scene was inspired.
Kyle: The artwork is enough for me to overlook the missteps I thought were in the story. This is the book Bachalo should have been drawing since he started working for Marvel. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the work he’s done for the X-books and the like, but this is the high minded, freaky stuff he should be doing. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does with it.
Jamil: So guys, what would improve this series for you? What’s your perfect Dr. Strange comic look like? His marketability is about to soar so we know he’s not going anywhere.
Kyle: Well, that’s the problem. I gave a snapshot of what I think the best Dr. Strange stories are up above. That’s what I want to see. I want madness. i want the kind of crazy storytelling you can’t get in Marvel’s other books. I want a tour of the mystic Marvel universe that isn’t a bar and that underscores how each magician is different, how each form of magic is different, and how Dr. Strange has to be great at all of them.
But I don’t think we’re going to get that. Marvel has shown time and again that they are heavily influenced by their film division. It’s actually mind boggling to me that they even deny it. And given Benedict Cumberbatch was, at least in part, signed for his image, I can’t imagine Marvel giving us anything too crazy. We’re going to get a Dr. Strange that wonders if the demons he’s fighting have romantic feelings for him. We’re going to get a Dr. Strange that hangs out with other magicians in a bar and who will probably end up sleeping with Jennifer Kale or Talisman or someone like that. Cumberbatch is a heartthrob and they’re going to use that and it’s going to make it’s way into the comic.
It actually makes me wonder if the updated version of Dr. Strange is an editorial edict, at odds with the old school version that Aaron would prefer to write.
Luke: Hey, we can all agree that Nowlan’s art in the backup rocks! That’s fun. As to what would improve the series for me? Well, the aforementioned “no romance” thing would help. I usually dig character interplay, but it just doesn’t work here. The role he plays is too somber and serious and the stakes are too high. I can’t imagine anyone seriously pitching a story where an exorcist woos the demons he’s casting out.That’s just nonsense and it shouldn’t happen here either. Now, if they want to have Doctor Strange date a regular person or have a steady girlfriend or be married – I’m fine with that. It would be a good grounding tool and a way to relate to the character as we all need people to lean on and support us from time to time.
I don’t think I’ll be getting my wish there, though. As Kyle said, Cumberbatch is a bit of a heartthrob at the moment. He’s probably going to have at least one romantic relationship in the movie. What they can, should, and I think need to do in order to make this book successful is to be as detailed with the magic as possible. If Strange casts a spell or uses an artifact, I want to know what it is, what it does, why it works, why he’s able to use it. If it doesn’t work, I want to know why it doesn’t work. If Strange encounters or mentions a mystical creature from another realm, I want to know how it thinks, what its motives are, what it wants or needs or hopes to gain by interacting with humanity.
Even if we only ever see a fraction of that, the framework needs to be there behind the scenes, accessible to the writers and artists. Have you guys ever seen or read old sci-fi/fantasy series where the writer is clearly just making shit up as he goes? For example, an alien comes along and just says “Gleep Gloop Glorp” and the subtitles say “Take me to your leader,” but five minutes later he says “Gleep Gleep Gorp” or even “Gleep Goop Glorp” again and it supposedly means “I will annihilate you all and feast upon the remains of your planet until it is nothing but an empty barren husk of it’s once great green-and-blue splendor!” If you’re going to invent a language for a story, you actually have to invent a language. It’s lazy and insulting to the reader to do otherwise. The same principle applies to magic.
Doctor Strange stories can, and should, be as wild and crazy and off-the-walls out-there as possible, but they still need to make sense in the context of their own world. I’m not saying Aaron and company aren’t doing that, I’m just saying I didn’t see anything to lead me to believe they are one way or another with this issue. That’s really the only way I can see a Doctor Strange property succeeding.