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 // 28/10/15

Some of my favourite books are out this week, plus an interesting new comic from trusted hands.

Weekly Pull List 28.10.15

Art Ops #1 – I know very little about the nature of this book, but the presence of Mike and Laura Allred on art and colouring duties made this worth a blind purchase. The contents look as great as you would expect and the idea of crazy art based hijinks make this a book I’m looking forward to reading.

Batgirl #45 – Babs Tarrs’ art remains a constant source of enjoyment on this book even if this second arc has lacked the narrative strength and clarity of the previous one. This issue promises some big emotional moments though so hopefully will regain a little momentum.

Prez #5Prez really is one of the best political stories out there right now, comic book otherwise, as the pretty outlandish concept of random teen gets elected president by fluke has been turned into an engine for some biting satire. With the brilliant Ben Caldwell returning to pencilling duties this should be another great issue.

The Spire #4 – Drawing on traditional concepts from fantasy, political, and mystery stories The Spire has really grown into a tremendously compelling book. And that’s not to mention the wonderful art from Jeff Stokely!

They’re Not Like Us #9 – I’ve written a lot about this book on here, and with good reason, everything in it from the writing to the art to the colouring to the very concept is just excellent. This really is one of the best books available.

Comics // Weekly Pull List // 21/10/15

It’s a pretty quiet week, but the few books that are out come from some of the best titles of the moment.

Weekly Pull List 21.10.15

Black Canary #5 – Last issue of Black Canary delivered an interesting if unusual diversion as much of the book focused on a new villain from the band’s past. With the absence of series regular artist Annie Wu that gave the issue the feel of a solid side story, but given Wu’s most recent issue (#3) had been the point at which the book really gained momentum I was looking forward to getting back into the core story with the full creative team. Alas Wu is absent once again this month, and as good as fill in artist Pia Guerra is this book really feels like it belongs to Wu so any art change has a big impact.

Gotham Academy #11 – It’s always a joy when a new Gotham Academy hits the shelves; this is such a straight-up fun book that revels in the twin worlds of Famous Five-esque Harry Potterian supernatural boarding school hijinks and superhero mythologies. The writing is great and artist Karl Kerschl is still on hand to deliver some wonderful visuals.

Weirdworld #5 // Secret Wars – This book has been amongst my favourites from the clutch of great Secret Wars tie-ins, having benefited from strong writing, incredible art, and (given that this is a ‘Warzone’) a pretty clear distinction from the events of the SW core book. Many of the otherwise great SW minis have struggled with the final issue though, especially where ongoing’s are in their future (as is the case here), but I’m cautiously optimistic that this one will stick the landing and deliver something satisfying.

Wolf #4 – I picked this book up on a whim, mostly because the cover to this issue is a striking and intriguing piece, but also because the book sounds interesting. The idea of a paranormal detective in a contemporary city is one that appeals to me in plenty of ways, but that I’ve rarely actually enjoyed in practice (often due to an over reliance on old standards like vampires, poor integration of contemporary culture/technology, or dubious world-building). Here’s hoping this book overcomes those difficulties and delivers a unique and compelling take on a common premise.

Comics // Review // Civil War #5 / Secret Wars

Concise //

The great war that erupted between former team-mates Tony Stark and Steve Rogers all comes down to one final battle; Rogers has a secret weapon but Stark knows a secret. This series has been a lot more interesting than I expected it to be as writer Charles Soule has delivered on a compelling vision of a Marvel Universe still divided by the events of Stamford and it’s escalating aftermath. The entire book has followed a smart plot and this issue is no different, there are even a few fun surprises left in Soule’s hand. Lenil Francis Yu’s art is great and the epic super-heroics more than live up to the legacy of the series’ namesake. This is a great conclusion to a very well put together miniseries.

Civil War #5 Cover (Secret Wars)

Spoilerful //

Writer Charles Soule has created a compelling alternate timeline that lead to the Civil War stretching on for years and the development of a divided America hugely influenced by rival leaders Captain America and Iron Man. The Blue, a place of freedom and hard work, and the Iron, an unrivaled technological utopia with strict superhuman monitoring, have spent a decade or more in a state of cold war, but recent events have lead to all out hostilities with Cap ready to sacrifice himself to de-power the superhumans of the Iron. Tony and Jennifer ‘She-Hulk’ Walters meanwhile have uncovered the truth about the war’s escalation, it was the Skrulls all along!

Civil War remains an excellent blockbuster event (to my mind it is bested only by House of M and maybe this Secret Wars if it finishes as strongly as it has been so far), one that encompassed the entire Marvel Universe and, with the exception of the X-Men, gave everyone involved some powerful story arcs driven by action, emotion, and ethics. Soule has done well then to recapture a lot of what made that event work so well; his ensemble is broad with a healthy mix of interesting characters on both sides of the war. Centering in on Tony, Steve, and Jennifer with plenty of characters in the background is a smart move though as it anchors the epic conflict in human drama – Steve’s decision to de-power fellow ‘heroes’, Tony’s guilt over the war, and Jennifer’s general awesomeness (and love for Tony).

Whilst the revelation that Skrulls had been behind the key events driving this version of Civil War came in part 4 it is in this issue that it really hits home. All the pain, bloodshed, and sacrifice has been due to the machinations of an otherworldly foe and the weight of how misguided Tony and Steve have been really presses down on the two men. Soule is smart not to go to far with this reveal though, the Stamford incident and subsequent tensions between Cap and Iron Man were all real, in fact it seems like everything up to the final battle was the result of our heroes being at war (though who knows when Skrull-Panther took over and what she was up to in the background). This retains the ethical heft of the original story and the sense of responsibility that Steve and Tony carry for letting things get out of hand, whilst allowing for this series to follow a very different but still organic timeline. The choice of Skrulls as the overall villain here is great as it allows Soule to play with the timeline of the original universe, wherein Civil War was followed by the Skrull’s Secret Invasion (it is even noted that Veranke and her Skrulls were the remnants of an abandoned invasion plan); it’s a re-purposing of the original continuity that is fun for readers of those events at the same time as offering a natural arc for this book (plus Soule gets to play with the core universe a little by posing the question “Was Bucky ever…really back?“)

The action scenes truly are epic in this issue with artist Lenil Francis Yu really getting to have some fun; Logan and Cap fighting side by side was a highlight, but pretty much every panel of superhero warfare was awesome in scale and execution. Yu’s art flows smoothly throughout the book leading to the claustrophobic conclusion in the depths of the divide; the pacing and composition of those final panels of Tony and Steve really hit hard as both Yu and Soule deliver a great redemptive moment for these misguided heroes.

Civil War #5 Panel 2 (Secret Wars)

It was perhaps no surprise that this book would have to end with Cap and Iron Man making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that the Blue and the Iron found peace, but the execution of that story has been excellent from start to finish. The characterisation of Tony as a weary leader haunted by the tough choices but supported by a loving relationship with Jennifer is a real triumph and perhaps my favourite version of this character ever, whilst the Cap as hardened general angle reveals a Steve Rogers who did what he had to despite the cost to his soul. The spirit of the original book is alive and well here, both sides still fighting for an justifiable cause, as is the nobility of it’s finale. Soule has delivered on the promise of revisiting a classic story and has done so with aplomb, this is easily one of the strongest books in the Secret Wars event.

Civil War #5 Panel (Secret Wars)

Civil War #5 // Writer – Charles Soule / Artist – Lenil Francis Yu / Colourist – Sunny Gho & Matt Milla // Marvel

Notes //

– The relationship between Tony and Jennifer was a real strength of this book; it served many purposes (humanising Tony and showing his growth from an adolescent playboy to a responsible adult and leader; raising the emotional stakes for Tony and the audience; giving Soule-favourite She-Hulk plenty of well-earned page time), yet despite the story-mechanics of it Soule was always able to write a touching and genuine love between the characters. It always felt like these two characters were in love and there were plenty of great one-liners amongst the frank emotional dialogue (Tony: “God, you’re magnificent” Jennifer: “You are not wrong“. Damn, now I really want these characters together in the main Marvel Universe.

– In contrast the Peter and MJ story never quite worked for me, mostly because I never really understood why MJ was confined to the Iron. This issue made it clearer as Peter finally (in the epilogue no less) explained that MJ chose the Iron as it was a better environment to raise their daughter in (as opposed to an environment where she could she her father Spider-Man everyday?!). This story was always kept a little too off-screen for it to matter, and I suspect it was only included at all because Peter was so important to the original book and he needed an emotional arc here too.

– I was pleased to see a load of X-Men well integrated throughout the story as they were largely (and regrettably) absent from Civil War. The revelation that Logan was now Grey Hulk was amazing… Amazing! Especially as the Blue threatened to send a Hulk to the Iron way back in issue 2, which Tony quickly dismissed, “If you had a real Hulk I think I’d know about it

– It doesn’t seem like there have been any real tie-ins to the wider Secret Wars event; not a big problem at all and probably a decision that gives the book a more self-contained and re-readable format, but I must admit that some of the other event books have been able to do some really fun things with the mechanics of Battle World

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.