“The Oath: Chapter One”
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Marcos Martin (p), Alvaro Lopez (i), Javier Rodriguez (colors)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
EDITOR’S NOTE: The first issue of Doctor Strange: The Oath appears in stores this Wednesday, October 4.
Plot: The promos for this series are weird. They act like Doc has been missing for years, promising to finally define his place in the Marvel universe. This is bald redundancy. He may not have had a solo book for awhile, but he’s been all over the place, as always.
Comments: Seriously, this is at least the third series to feature Stephen Strange in the last two years. Both of the others were humorous, and this one has a slapstick tone at the start as well. He faced Umar and Dormammu for the billionth time along with the rest of the ragtag Defenders, but Giffen and Maguire’s versions were wildly out of character and not as funny as they thought. Milligan next paired him with Dead Girl in a quest that revived some of old X-Statix gang. And while the Dr.’s mental and physical malaise was dealt with somewhat, and he said a variety of reasonable things, the initially quirky energy was depleted by time the perfunctory ending rolled around. Still, both were better than the attempts of previous years: a failed Ultimate series that launched and stuttered to a stop, and the grim Order that sapped all humor from the situation.
That’s not to mention his significant roles in Marvel heroes projects like House of M, Illuminati, and Avengers Disassembled. He was pretty annoying in some of those, and strangely came off best of all in the alternate history of Gaiman’s 1602 in recent years, where he died.
I don’t think anyone’s been missing him. But if the purpose of this title is to launch a new ongoing, it’s going to have to do better than mildly amusing in between some B-movie fisticuffs. Martin’s art has a nice clarity, recalling Cliff Chiang and the Luna Brothers. And Night Nurse is a welcome addition to Marvel lore. She apparently will be taking the role Dead Girl had in the last series; Doc always seems to need a distaff partner these days, so why does everyone shy away from just flat out using Clea, as Gaiman did?
This time, it’s Wong who’s sick rather than Stephen himself. And we’re still angsting over his origin, the failed surgeon/car accident thing. It’s all part of the medical nature of the Macguffin, a little elixir bottle that everybody wants and is willing to kill for. Exploring the Dr’s medical side is a reasonable way to go, but this issue just feels so perfunctory, if clearly told. Surely the distinguished Doc rates better than pratfalls and stock characters? A disappointment coming from Vaughan, rescued (for now) by the charming art.
I’ve always seen Doctor Strange as a somewhat problematic figure, largely because his use of magic came off as a “Get Out of Jail Free” contrivance rather than a system with its own rules and limitations. Plus, I have no idea what the “Hairy Hordes of Hoggoth” are, so constantly invoking them doesn’t make much of an impression. All in all, I’ve never had much interest in Doctor Strange.
Leave it to Brian Vaughan to fix that.
This issue opens with an amusing exchange between Arana and Iron Fist, as they wait to meet the Night Nurse. It’s a downplayed, but well-written scene that serves to connect Strange to the Marvel Universe, grounding him in a reality we can understand better than the “Lost Dimension of Katie Holmes' Facial Expressions.” In typical Vaughan fashion, no time is wasted getting to the point, as faithful manservant (*snerk*) Wong (*snort*) brings a gravely-wounded Doctor Strange to the clinic for treatment. As the Night Nurse gets to work, Strange’s astral form pops in for a chat and fills the Nurse - and the readers - on the events leading up to the present situation.
Unsurprisingly, he starts at the very beginning. I’m not sure why Strange’s backstory gets recapped so often (was the Straczynski miniseries that long ago?) but Vaughan offers an abbreviated, simplified version that tells you everything you need to know and leaves the vaguer aspects out. I can’t really tell you whether this interpretation of Strange is consistent - the only other exposure I’ve had to the character was Bendis' “Doctor Strange Explains It All” issue of Avengers (you know, the one where the shark got jumped so hard its entire species felt the blow) and Peter Milligan’s X-Statix: Dead Girl Special (a piss-take). What I can tell you is that, with just a few pages, Vaughan manages to communicate the relationship between Strange and Wong as something akin to the bond shared by Bruce Wayne and Alfred, something more than friendship but not in a Brokeback way. Wong himself comes off as more than just a “Me Love You Long Time” stereotype. We even learn a bit more about the Night Nurse herself, and her motivations for helping superheroes.
I think Vaughan has discovered the key to making this character really work: he focuses more on the “Doctor” aspect, with the more amorphous mystical elements taking a backseat, more of a plot device than the plot itself. Strange’s quest is ultimately motivated by a human goal, not a magical one, and that makes all the difference. We’re not living in the Kirby age anymore, and it’s not so easy to understand why the remains of an ancient Barbie doll must be reassembled to find universal salvation. Trying to save a dear friend from a premature demise, on the other hand, is something that requires no exposition or explanation. And with the need for mumbo-jumbo lectures out of the way, Vaughan has a lot more room to explore his cast and build a solid plot.
This is, without a doubt, an example of how to write Doctor Stephen Strange in the 21st century. Future writers of the Sorcerer Supreme, please take note.
Brian K. Vaughan has a lot to accomplish with this first issue. Dr. Strange is notorious as the Marvel character that every creator has a pitch for but rarely one which gets the character just right, and in the down-to-earth environment of the Marvel Universe, he’s always seems a bit of an anomaly: a magic-based hero with an array of spells at his disposal and a knack for tongue-twisting anachronistic speech patterns that would put Thor to shame. Vaughan’s tasks here are therefore twofold: to make Dr. Strange feel like he belongs in a modern Marvel book of his own, and to make indifferent readers like me care about him.
Both of these goals are fulfilled to a certain extent, but it’s not the runaway success that you might imagine from such a distinguished creator. Luckily, Vaughan doesn’t try to radically overhaul the character to make him “cool” or “extreme” – he’s very much the same Sorcerer Supreme that he always was, but there’s a sense of fun about the book which acknowledges some of the more ridiculous elements of the Dr. Strange mythos without making fun of them. The clean, clear artwork helps, with a light and cartoony tone established by the banter of the opening few pages before giving way to some slightly more serious as the book progresses. A grab for attention is quickly made with the quick introduction of two separate threats to the lives of both Dr. Strange and Wong, and as the book cuts between the operating theatre of the Night Nurse, the criminal machinations of an as-yet-unrevealed villain, and a flashback which explains exactly how Wong and his master got into this mess, it’s difficult not to feel drawn in by the fast-moving story.
Many readers, like me, will have already decided whether or not they’re really keen on Dr. Strange as a character, and to get them to invest money in a new series is going to be no mean feat, despite the writing pedigree. With that in mind, Vaughan and Martin have evidently done a good job in rehabilitating the character concept into something relevant and enjoyable without changing it too much, and I have to admit to having my interest piqued by the revelation of the final page, which was logical yet somehow unexpected (in the way that all of Vaughan’s cliffhangers seem to be). I also like the fact that Strange is shown to be a Doctor above all, with the titular Oath apparently Hippocratic rather than magical in nature, and the way in which the arrogance of his past life is restrained and funneled into something scientific and productive gives the character a certain dignified maturity which sets him aside from the rest of the spandex crowd. Ultimately, though, there’s still a reliance on vague notions of magic and mysticism which Vaughan (probably wisely) doesn’t even attempt to ground in real life, with the result that anyone who finds magic-based heroes a turn-off is unlikely to be converted by this.
If enough people can be convinced to read this first issue, then the book has a good chance of succeeding - as I’m sure they’ll want to read on to see where the story goes next - and hardcore strange fans will likely lap it up. However, whether this is really the book which will revive Strange’s popularity among a wider audience remains to be seen, as there’s nothing that stands out as truly innovative or unexpected as far as Strange’s character goes.
Dr. Strange, for me, has always been a hero whose concept is great – his origin story is among the best in the Marvel Universe, if not all comics – but whose powers limit his ability to actually be involved in the regular goings-on of said Marvel Universe. I mean, can you imagine Dr. Strange taking on the Wrecking Crew? Talk about overkill; he’s above that sort of thing. This is a guy who battles with Mephisto and other extra-dimensional beings on a regular basis; if the world ain’t at risk, let Spider-Man handle it.
Brian K. Vaughan’s The Oath shows me he understands this dilemma in handling Dr. Strange’s character. The series begins with a bang, literally: Strange has been shot by an intruder to his Sanctum Sanctorum (I want to know how that little trick was accomplished), and, as the “Night Nurse” (a doctor who caters to heroes) attempts to save his life, we come to find out why. And the reason’s nothing short of world changing. Bingo – this is a story worthy of Dr. Strange.
The build up to this revelation is well-paced. While this issue provides little more than reminding us of Strange’s origin and establishing his relationship with Wong, his apprentice, one of the key things it does do is remind us that Stephen Strange was/is a doctor, and despite being the “Sorcerer Supreme,” he is still influenced by the Hippocratic Oath. How this Oath affects Strange’s decisions regarding his discovery is a reason to continue to pick up this series. Vaughan’s take on Strange promises more than twisted fingers and beams of light. I’m curious to see where this story leads.
There’s a “cleanness” to Martin’s art that adds to the story; like the story, the art is brisk and at times sparse – not a lot of background or shadowing to distract from the characters themselves. I suppose if I really wanted to extend this idea, it could reflect the sterility and efficiency of a doctor, which is appropriate for the themes this series will be developing. But I might be reaching with that one. Still, the art is right for the series.
The first issue of a limited series can’t be asked to do anything more than make the reader want to pick up the next one. This issue does that. I’m looking forward to it.
SPECIAL SPOILER ALERT: Kelvin Green’s review reveals ALL the plot developments of the first issue.
My word, there’s a lot going on here, and I’m not entirely sure whether the twisting, layered plot and the sprawling shifts in tone are a flaw or not. We’re introduced to a mysterious villain who has paid another villain to steal a cure for cancer from Strange, who himself battled an extra-dimensional deity and stole said cure to save his friend Wong from a brain tumour, except the thief ended up shooting Strange, which is where we come in. That’s enough plot for six, or even twelve, issues of storytelling fluff from one of Brian Vaughan’s Marvel colleagues, and I think that may be why I’m concerned that Vaughan himself might let things collapse into mush as the series continues; that said, on the basis of this issue, he seems to be comfortably in control of his story. Even so, there is an alarming amount of exposition in the comic, including a recap of Strange’s origin, which is brief enough, but seems redundant when I’d guess most people picking up a Doctor Strange series are likely to know who he is.
The tone of the story is as slippery as the plot; the opening scene in Night Nurse’s superhero clinic waiting room suggests a comedic take on the good Doctor, as seen in Pete Milligan’s X-Statix miniseries, but Strange’s quest to cure Wong’s tumour brings out a more poignant side to the characters, even though there are plenty of jokes along the way. I don’t know if the mix of comedy, poignancy and high adventure works as a whole, but it is compelling enough to get me to read at least the next issue.
Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez give the comic a classic, retro look that fits the essential 60s-ness of Strange quite well, although a bit more detail in the character designs and backgrounds would not have gone amiss, especially to make up for some overly muted colouring. Even so, the art team do a good job of storytelling, and the characterisation is particularly strong, making good use of exaggerated expressions and body language throughout.
When I first heard about this series, I was expecting something that spoofed the character, especially as Strange doesn’t really fit in with the current tone of so-called filmic realism at Marvel, but this is considerably more complex than anticipated, and I find myself intrigued by what Vaughan will do with the character. I’m keen to see more, and you can’t ask for more than that from a first issue.
What did you think of this book?
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