Comics // Review // Doctor Strange #2

Concise //

Writer Jason Aaron has a fun vision for the good doctor, something akin to a mystical special agent in a dangerously chaotic world, and it is incredibly well served by bottling the characters up in a familiarly unfamiliar place for an entire issue; the sanctum sanctorum. Chris Bachalo is an artist at home creating panels of mad, frenetic action and this issue gives him plenty of opportunities as things go from strange to worse during a magic-maggot hunt throughout the house. This issue is everything I want from a Doctor Strange book; high concept magical nonsense, funny scenes, and unknowable impending mystical doom – a great issue all round.

Doctor Strange #2 Cover

Spoilerful //

Despite the fun concept and some very neat scenes I had plenty of misgivings after issue one of this new Doctor Strange, fortunately this issue manages to avoid the things that disquieted me most (if only through ignoring them rather than correcting them), instead making way for an incredibly fun bottle issue. The creatures that escaped Zelma Stanton, librarian from the Bronx’s mind at the end of last issue have made their way into the corners and crevices of the Sanctum Sanctorum and Doctor Strange is temporarily inexplicably powerless to contain them. So instead Strange and Zelma have to traipse around the house trying to find and kill these ‘mind maggots’ by hand. It’s essentially a super simple plot, but it is fully capitalised on in both the writing and art as every room of the house holds innumerable unknowable terrors and souvenirs that Strange has captured or collected on his way throughout the magical cosmos.

The issue opens with a full page look at the exterior of the Sanctum Sanctorum accompanied by a storied history  across a number of caption boxes. As interesting as the history of the building was it at first seemed strange for there to be so much background up front, but once it became apparent that the issue would almost entirely take place within those four walls it made a lot more sense. Really this issue does a lot of great work to introduce the house as a character in and of itself, and establish Strange’s world; both the immediate (the house in which he lives) and the distant (the magical dimensions that he guards us from). This version of Stephen Strange that I can get behind; a man possessed of incredible esoteric knowledge and bravery, all used in the service of protecting a world that he is from but not of. Strange may have been a regular human once, but the life he leads and the way he leads it ensure that he is not quite a regular human anymore. This issue goes to great lengths to establish that fact: the litany of mystical illnesses that he has, his various dangerous and nightmarish possessions, his tastes in otherworldly cuisine, it all serves to make Strange seem…well, strange. It’s for this reason that the characterisation from last issue that painted Strange as some kind of magical James Bond who sleeps his way through mystical missions doesn’t sit well with me – besides making Strange into a poor Tony Stark stand-in it also makes him seem all too ‘normal’, a word that he should never be associated with.

Elsewhere this issue, it is worth pointing out how consistently funny it is; with none of the heavy handed magic bar banter getting in the way like last issue, the jokes here stem from the bizarre eldritch world that Strange lives in and the blasé normalcy that he has in the face of utterly incomprehensible things. The cat-calling snakes, the Escher stairway, that refrigerator, the fact that after a near death book to the face Zelma finds Strange casually doing some research as if he absent-mindedly forgot to check she was ok. Wong also raises a smile in his first scene with Zelma, when he dryly and efficiently deals with a bunch of mind maggots and the terrors of Stephen Strange’s fridge all the while preparing a light lunch for the doctor. It all makes for a fun trip through a very unusual world and if writer Jason Aaron can achieve this kind of tone going forward then it will ensure this book remains a pleasure to read.

The set up for the wider arc also continues here, but in a far subtler way than last issue’s old father time monologuing about debts yet to be paid and such. For most of this issue Strange’s powers were on the blink for some reason, and the magical safeguards within the house failed to stop the mind-maggots at every turn. Even the presence of those maggots, creatures “never been seen in our dimension in all of recorded magical history” as Wong explains, hints at the darkness from another world that is creeping into the Doctors realm, and the fact that Strange has no answers establishes a chilling sense of danger. similarly the pretty traditional almost warning scene that closes the issue was compelling, as the sorcerer supreme of another dimension arrives to try and tell Strange what is going on. That he doesn’t quite make it was to be expected (and along with his failed attempt to get a message out in last issue’s bonus story gives the impression that this guy is having a very bad day), but it is an effective way to presage the horror that is coming to get our hero.

I am a huge fan of Chris Bachalo’s art and this issue takes full advantage of his style. Bachalo excels in creating brilliantly busy panels that fill the background and foreground with all kinds of eye-catching details but never feel over-crowded, so having Strange and Zelma walking through weird rooms and magic corridors gives plenty of opportunity for inventiveness. The Sanctum Sanctorum is brought fully to life with an array of beautifully realised spaces, just looking at that chaotic living room or hell dimension behind a door gives a real sense of the dangers of the magical world. Wong’s confrontation with the refrigerator and mind maggots is another page that works well as we get a batch of quick panels that almost felt like the comic book equivalent of editing in an Edgar Wright movie.

This issue fulfils everything I was hoping this book could be: it explores the dangerous world of magic, establishes Strange as an almost otherworldly figure who can still have a little fun, and sets the stage for some upcoming epic darkness. The supporting cast of Wong, Zelma, and even the Sanctum Sanctorum are in place and Strange is ready to investigate this rising threat; if the book remains this fun and exciting then we could be in for a great run.

Doctor Strange #2 Panel

Doctor Strange #2 // Writer – Jason Aaron / Pencils & Colours – Chris Bachalo // Marvel

Notes //

– Strange full of mind maggots at the end there looked really super disturbing!

– I like the idea that the house has just rebuilt itself every time it has burned down.

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Comics // Weekly Pull List // 04/11/15

New comics! Plenty of issue one’s this week (not sure that’s always a good thing though!)

Doctor Strange #2 – Issue one has the visual flair and complexity that you would expect from Chris Bachalo and the premise of Strange as a kind of mystical James Bond is a compelling one, but it wasn’t without it’s faults. Issue two should be a chance to see how this book functions

Joe Golem Occult Detective #1 – Mike Mignola has delivered some amazing work in the space between pulp action and supernatural horror and this book looks like it will be another one to add to the list. Just the setting, a flooded mid-20th century New York, is compelling enough, and the source novel (with collaborator Christopher Golden) is said to be excellent too.

Monstress #1 – I’ve been excited about this book since it was announced earlier this year. The creative team, writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda, did some solid work on X-23, but it is really the inspired concept and setting that makes me eager to read this: the story of a young warrior woman in a post apocalyptic world plagued with giant monstrous creatures.

Paper Girls #2 – This is a great concept and a well put together book, I’m interested to see how Brian K. Vaughan takes things forward (even if I can’t believe issue 2 is out already!)

Uncanny X-Men #600 – So this is it, Brian Michael Bendis’ X-Men run finally comes to a belated end. It’s no secret that I’ve found this run to be full of meandering, uninspired nonsense and some loopy characterisation at the best of times so I’m not sorry to see it finish. Previews have confirmed that the awful ‘young X-Men in modern times’ story is sadly not coming to an end, but hopefully some of Bendis’ other storylines get appropriate closure (rebel leader Scott for example).

Extraordinary X-Men #1 – I am trying to keep an open mind with this book; Lemire and Ramos are perfectly good creators and the line-up could be interesting. Alas, Marvel editorial’s insistence that mutants be sidelined in favour of the inferior Inhumans continues to rankle me, and this book seems explicitly designed to tell the story of why there will soon be no more X-Men stories.

Comics // Review // Doctor Strange #1

Concise //

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.

Doctor Strange #1 Cover (Bachalo)

Spoilerful //

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 Art (Bachalo)

Doctor Strange #1 // Writer – Jason Aaron / Art and Colourist – Chris Bachalo // Marvel

Notes //

– 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.

Comics // Weekly Pull List // 07/10/15

This is a quiet week for me with only a few comics on my pull list, with a couple of newly launched series in the mix:

Weekly Pull List 07.10.15

Doctor Strange #1 – I’ve been looking forward to this book since it was announced a few months ago; Chris Bachalo is one of my favourite artists and the last time I was picking up a Doc Strange book it was Brian K. Vaughan’s The Oath and that was an amazing mini. I’ve not always gotten on with Jason Aaron’s writing, but his vision for the character, a fun mystical adventurer type, sounds interesting and Bachalo will get me to buy literally anything

Old Man Logan #5 – The original Old Man Logan story was a fun (if dark) jaunt in a possible future and whilst it has been great to revisit that setting with this series I’m actually quite glad that the story has turned more on Old Man Logan’s journey to uncovering the mysteries of Secret Wars and making his way into the current timeline. This is definitely one of the stronger event tie in books.

Paper Girls #1 – This looks like an interesting book, pitched as Stand By Me meets War of the Worlds, and Brian K. Vaughan is obviously a trusted hand in the writing department. Cliff Chiang’s art looks great too and early buzz is that this will be a very special book.

Secret Wars #6 – There has been quite a delay waiting for this issue which finally comes out just as the post event Marvel line is getting started. Publication date issues aside the central narrative has been strong so far and the story is compelling, the fact that we’re entering the final stretch makes it even more exciting.

Comics // Review // Uncanny X-Men #32

Concise

At long last we are getting some answers in Brian Michael Bendis’ over-wrought Uncanny X-Men saga, yet for every smart or interesting moment there is a boring or inexplicable one. Scott Summers has made up his mind to bring an end to his mutant ‘revolution’ and some of what follows is strong character work, even despite the ultimately anti-climactic nature of the narrative. At least Chris Bachalo is on hand to make every single panel look characterful, complex, and unique.

Uncanny X-Men #32 Cover

Spoilerful

Writer Brian Michael Bendis has started moving his pieces into place for the run up to his big finish on the X-books in the next few months. The upside of this is that we are finally beginning to see some resolution to the overarching plots and labyrinthine character dynamics that Bendis has been spinning-up over his tenure as writer. Unfortunately there is also an unavoidable sense that there was no satisfying end game planned – Cyclops’ entire arc feels like a road to nowhere; Scott Summers spends this issue regaining his humanity, but there are still no good reasons as to why he lost it.

At this point I feel bad about beating up on Uncanny X-Men every month; I’m a huge X-Men fan and Chris Bachalo is one of my favourite artists in all of comics so I should love this book and although it started strong I’ve become consistently frustrated by the narrative choices and unclear driving forces behind the various arcs in this book. I have enjoyed Cyclops’ secret school (and the choice to house it in the old Weapon-X facility is great) and the introduction of the new X-kids has been a success. Sadly, things like the broken powers, Scott’s culpability for Xavier’s murder, and the entire revolution angle for this book have never been all that clear to me. That said, this issue takes some steps towards clearing all of that up, even if it does so by walking back almost everything we have seen so far this run.

After the big showdown and time travel rewind on the Jean Grey School lawn last issue Cyclops has decided to shut down his secret school, send the kids to study under Storm, end his ‘revolution’ and turn himself in to the appropriate authorities for the murder of Charles Xavier. Whatever epiphany it was that Scott had last issue he fails to effectively articulate it here, even as he spends most of this issue talking to Alex Summers about it (speaking of whom, did Alex call ahead or did he just turn up out of the blue – there’s no door bell at Weapon-X that I can see). Scott tells Alex how badly his students took the fact that the school was closing, which is perhaps not surprising given how cold he is in delivering the message. This is the same problem Bendis has with writing Xavier’s dialogue; they both come across as incredibly obtuse, cold, and impersonal people and I don’t know why he’d want that. Scott is telling these kids, kids who have lost or sacrificed everything to join his cause, that he is washing his hands of them, and yet the way he does it is so unsympathetic. I can’t buy this version of Scott. Sure, maybe he is still in the middle of his so called breakdown or whatever, but he just doesn’t make for an interesting and likeable lead.

So to sum up, the only mutant training will be taking place at the Jean Grey School, Emma’s powers now just ‘work’ again (so the broken powers story came to nothing), Scott remains both accountable and unaccountable for Xavier’s death (seriously, he was possessed by the Phoenix Force!), and Cyclops’ mutant revolution is essentially over. It’s this final point that is most effectively executed – Scott’s speech about the near extinction of mutants and that an idle threat is the only option left is actually quite a heartfelt and believable sentiment. After all Scott has seen, not least the recent deaths of Xavier and Wolverine, I have no problem believing he could be at the end of his tether with the state of mutant/human relations so to throw out a final hail Mary play kind of makes sense – leave us alone or we’ll do exactly what you’ve always been afraid we’d do. This works, in a way, as it gives the impression that all of this time Scott has been scrabbling around looking for a way to protect mutants, deal with his fear, and get over his grief/guilt about Xavier; it was a stalling tactic and a wild gambit. Unfortunately, though, it also means that this whole time Scott has been selling smoke – there’s nothing backing any of this up and we’ve just been reading about a group of people with no idea what they were doing. I guess that’s ok, but it doesn’t feel like the X-Men, and it’s not really an X-Men book that I am eager to read.

As we run into the final issues of Bendis’ time with the X-Men it is nice to see that there is some closure being dished up, but much of it comes at the expense of satisfying story arcs. Most of what has happened in this book seems to have served only to take us to a place where Cyclops can be arrested for killing Xavier and all the other X-Men can hang out together at the Jean Grey School. It seems like that could have been the case over a year ago though so this book mostly seems to have been spinning its wheels. I will admit to being intrigued by whatever ‘big’ plan Alex and Scott have in mind for Scott’s next move, so I guess Bendis can still get me hooked. This is perfectly solid, if uninspired, X-Men writing but I long for something as smart and exciting as the Morrison or Whedon X-Men of yesteryear. Maybe after Secret Wars is over whoever takes on the X-Men will deliver the big, bold, and brilliant stories that the characters deserve.

Uncanny X-Men #32 Panel

Uncanny X-Men #32 // Writer – Brian Michael Bendis / Artist – Chris Bachalo / Colourist – Chris Bachalo & Rain Beredo // Marvel

Notes and Observations:

  • Fabio ‘Goldballs’ Medina’s continued queries about Eva are welcome continuity after she vanished in time last issue; where exactly Eva has gone remains unexplained though.
  • The Chris Bachalo cover featuring Cyclops standing over the bodies of his previous iterations is pretty great, both thematically and artistically (the Quitely outfit is still the definitive one for me).
  • Bachalo and Beredo’s colouring on diamond-form Emma is wonderful, one of the best versions of her powers I’ve seen.
  • The character overlap between the X-books is a bit of a mess in this issue, if you’re not reading everything then not much of it makes sense – where did Kitty come from and where has she been, where did Illyana take Kitty, what has Alex been up to? Kitty is here long enough to mention her relationship with Starlord, but it is so fleeting that I can’t really understand why it’s in here at all.

All art belongs to the copyright holder