This new book brings a modern interpretation of the good doctor to the page, one who is perhaps a closer relation in character to Tony Stark than any before him, as well as a welcome recasting of the relatively dormant (in recent times) ‘magical’ side of the Marvel Universe in the vain of Harry Potter’s London. We are introduced to a new set of rules for this once familiar world; Superheroes may rule the skies, but there are ever greater mystical threats on every street. The glimpses of a day-in-the-life of the Sorcerer Supreme are great, but some of the core characterisation doesn’t quite land. Thankfully, despite some clunky dialogue, the central narrative and presumed threat for the near future of the book are well established and there is plenty that works to compensate for the stuff that doesn’t.
Strange has always struck me as a righteous if slightly stern man, who is happy to share his wisdom and abilities, only when he knows it will do good and the costs won’t be too high. The hint of arrogance from his former life is still there, but the sagacious Sorcerer Supreme is a man who knows when to intervene and when to let fate take it’s course. The pitch for this book sits relatively well with that interpretation of the character, but Jason Aaron’s writing leans heavily into Tony Stark territory as Strange is regularly referred to as something of a womaniser (by others and himself) and both his arrogance and blasé demeanour (when faced with the unusual) are heightened so far they almost break orbit. There is a barely a page without a joke, line, or deed, which relates directly to Strange’s sexual promiscuity, a character trait so inane and boring that it fails to raise a smile no matter what form the joke takes. The fact that the first adventure out of the gate sees Strange making-out with an extra-dimensional Soul-Eater herald is just a lazy way to show the reader how ‘cool’ and ‘dangerous’ this version of the character is supposed to be. It seems to be going for a ‘this is the James Bond of magic’ vibe, but it also brings with it an out dated sleaziness that I’d just as much not have.
Fortunately the ‘adventure’ in which this all takes place is a great little introduction to the daily work of the Sorcerer Supreme. The oversize teddy bears and killer plants immediately give everything an off-kilter vibe and artist Chris Bachalo imbues the page with an aura of frenetic fun, it is immediately apparent that Strange enjoys his work. That this battle all takes place within the unconscious psyche of a young boy is a neat twist that brings home the stakes of Strange’s work – yes he is battling crazy monsters from other planes of existence, but he is doing it to literally save the soul of the little kid who lives down the street. This is followed by a great sequence where Strange considers his work: he is somehow sought out by the needy, through shared whispers and half remembered rumours, when things are darkest. This is a nice way of approaching things, sure Doctor Strange is called upon by the Avengers when things get real serious on a planetary level, but it is good to see that he has a ‘day job’ too. Even the walk through town offers up a few nice moments, and a chance for Bachalo to show us just how strange Strange’s world really is. But then things get a little dodgy.
The conversation in The Bar With No Doors is perhaps the weakest part of this issue, mostly because it also the most dialogue heavy. It is nice to give Strange’s world a little more tangibility, a pub he goes to after a tough day on the job and the other magic users he hangs out with are both welcome additions to this story, but the heavy handed ‘banter’ between the mystical society doesn’t bring many quality jokes with it. Rather than the camaraderie, history, and friendly teasing that I sense I’m supposed to pick up on, it actually comes across as a group of characters speaking with the same voice but somehow failing to engage with one another. The talk of Strange’s promiscuity is pretty weak stuff consisting mostly of cliches, but the subsequent exchange about the Soul-Eater’s is flat out painful. Classic lines like “They rarely come this far into our plane” and “They were spooked, running from something” are straight out of The Big Book of Establishing Narrative & Threat, something that could be forgiven if the surrounding dialogue wasn’t quite so on the nose too.
This is only emphasised further by the portentous monologue from old man Monako (the Prince of Magic). I suppose this scene could be an effort to lampoon this kind of mystical prophesy the cliche of a wise old man dropping arcane riddles when he could just explicitly warn the hero, but given the direction of the plot it seems like it is a straight up use of the cliche as a device to instil fear and bring up the ‘rules’ of magic. Speaking of which, surely Stephen Strange the Sorcerer Supreme and veteran of many mystical battles would have a very firm handle on the nature of the costs of magic, be that blood sacrifice one life for another stuff or not. I find it very hard to believe that anything Monako says would come as a surprise or cause for concern for Strange, who must already have factored this kind of thing into what he does. The fact that Strange seems to fully miss the point, speaking about the personal cost to him (“I sleep three hours a night“) rather than the cosmic cost, is utterly out of character.
Artist Chris Bachalo does what he does best on many pages of this book, that is to say that he fills it with gorgeous visuals and a real sense of movement and action. Bachalo is a great choice for Strange as he is familiar with drawing worlds full of magical potential, and also because his natural style lends itself to the kind of chaotic, spontaneous, unworldly menace that is the life of the Sorcerer Supreme. The dynamic use of panels as backgrounds become foregrounds and vice versa creates a real sense of momentum and helps to give this version of Strange a certain air of danger and reflex – this doesn’t feel like a Strange who has planned everything out like a chess match, but rather one who jumps in and gives it a go, changing tack if necessary.
The book is rounded out by the introduction of an immediate mystery for next issue (what is going on with that head demon?) and a further sign of the coming magical apocalypse. Really though the ending belonged to the exchange between weirdo man on the street Strange and potential client/apprentice Zelma Stanton from the Bronx. As much as cosmic adventure is fun, this is what I want from a Doctor Strange book: Strange is oddly obtuse and enigmatic, he plays with curiosity and mystery, acts like has all the answers even when he’s winging it, and floats about in a room with flying books and no lights. This entire final scene, much like the opening one, captures a playful sense of the world of magic in the Marvel universe, one that is full of intrigue and mystery, but also one that can get you killed because a nest of demons sprouts in your hair. Yes there are things in this book that I’m not too keen on (hopefully sexy Strange gets dialled back a little and the exposition gets a little peppier), but there are also moments of crazy magic, eldritch horror, and brilliant Bachalo art.
Doctor Strange #1 // Writer – Jason Aaron / Art and Colourist – Chris Bachalo // Marvel
– The use of classic art and panels on the introduction/previously page was a wonderful device that grounds this new book in the heritage and history of the character at the same time as both informing new readers of Strange’s past and highlighting how this iteration of the doctor will differ. The smash cut from gentle Golden Age uniform panels to the full speed madness of a Bachalo double page spread is a tremendous opening that gives the book a real sense of action, adventure, and unpredictability.
– The way the robes of the Sorcerer Supreme become a warm scarf on a cool autumn day is such a neat little detail.
– The back up story by Aaron and artist Kevin Nowlan was a neat bonus. The plot was pretty by the numbers stuff, but things like the magic butterfly message and the crazy eyeball dudes were fun. Though I do hope Bachalo can find a way to make those Witchfinder Wolves look a bit more interesting by the time they reach our dimension.