Monday, December 7, 2009

The Definitives: Doctor Strange

Here's a tip to aspiring comic creators looking to create new characters: If you're looking to have your male heroes appeal to kids, don't give them greying temples.

From early on in my comic book fanship, I not only noticed that I never saw any real world physical evidence that men started going grey from their temples, I also quickly realized that the dudes sporting white patches around their ears were generally fatherly types who weren't gonna be challening the mulleted ear-pierced glory of Nova or Superboy for my attentions any time soon. This meant I ignored Fantastic Four before they "killed off" Reed Richards and put his wife in a bathing suit with the "4" cut out, did not purchase Green Lantern until Hal Jordan went nuts and got replaced by Kyle Rayner, and never paid any mind to Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme.

In the decade-plus since those youthful days, I like to think I'm developed enough to not be quite so quick in deeming a fictional character uncool simply because of a wacky physical trait. I think the proof in that is that I still can't stand Hal Jordan even though his hair is totally brown again (and Geoff Johns is writing great stories about him)

But in all seriousness, since I was 13, I've gone back and discovered many good FF stories as well as more than a few instances where I dug a Green Lantern yarn starring you-know-who.

I've also taken a shine to Doctor Strange, who I would never think to name as one of my very favorite characters, but I daresay he may top my list of comic book sorcery types. He definitely possesses a certain debonair charm and wizened cool that shines because he's a bit more advanced in years than most characters as opposed to in spire of it.

As my interest has recently been reignited thanks to the Strange limited series penned my the magnificent Mark Waid, here are my personal favorite stories starring the Master of the Mystic Arts.

"The Origin of Dr. Strange"
I'm not a big devotee of the Silver Age generally as I feel a lot of the material holds up better in theory than in practice, and while I'm cool with revering what that old stuff innovated and led us to, I prefer not to re-read it. I would say the two biggest exceptions I've found to that rule--i.e. the stuff I still enjoy reading in nearly 2010--are the earliest installments of Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as well as those of Doctor Strange in Strange Tales by Lee and Steve Ditko. Obviously both strips benefitted tremendously from having artistic giants in Kirby or in Strange's case Ditko whose work was revolutionary and does not feel dated five decades later because it was simply that good. At the same time, the motivations provided by Lee and his co-creators for why their heroes did what they did also went a long way in both instances.

With Spider-Man, I dug the basics of his origin long before I developed any real interest in the character, and I'd say such is also the case with Doctor Strange. This makes sense, as in many ways the prototypical Stephen Strange was very similar to the formative Peter Parker pre-mystic schooling/radioactive spider bite; sure one was a wealthy and successful surgeon while the other was a put-upon nerdy teenager, but both fell squarely into the category of not being out and out bad guys, but also not folks spurred easily to heroism either.

The fact that Strange started out as a cocky jerk makes him infinitely more appealing in my book. That he sought out the means by which to ultimately do good not for that reason but to selfishly help himself adds a layer of pathos to his story and both provides that ever-present danger he could backslide into his previous unethical self as well as the satisfaction when he does not and devotes himself to penance for half a life in some ways ill-spent (I'm actually seeing even more parallels to Hal Jordan as I write this, but I don't want to take time articulating them, just thought it was worth noting).

Strange's origin has been re-told and fiddled with many times since, but I still defer to the Lee/Ditko version from Strange Tales #115 as being rad from the start and not really needing any update.

Marvel Fanfare
When I snagged the Marvel Fanfare trade gathering the first seven issues of that veritable 80's anthology title for a read, no question the crown jewels of the collection were a pair of standalone Doctor Strange stories by a quintet of industry legends, each dealing with Doc up against a brash young would-be contender to his Sorcerer Supreme throne.

In "To Steal the Sorcerer's Soul!" by Chris Claremont and the art team of Marshall Rogers and P. Craig Russell, the crafty Nicodemus uses a little girl to Trojan Horse his way into the Sanctum Sanctorum and then capitalizes on a distraction he created by victimizing Doc's girlfriend, Clea, to transfer most of Strange's considerable power into him. Having to think on the fly rather than rely on his years of experience and most potent spells, Strange jumps to the astral plane and then directs Clea in the use of her own mystical abilities in order to outwit the more-powerful Nicodemus in quite clever fashion if I do say so myself. Rogers' wonderfully wavt layouts aided by Russell's psychadelic inks are the perfect fit for a magic-based story while Claremont's usual loqautiousness also proves quite apt for Strange and makes me wish he had writen the character more over the years.

The ostensible follow-up tale, "The Showdown!" sees the arrogant yet oddly likable Ian McNee show up at Doctor Strange's door demanding a duel for the title of Sorcerer Supreme in a yarn by Roger Stern and Charles Vess. Doc shows poise, calmly inviting Ian in, explaining he has been expecting him, then ushering him along to the arena of mystic combat. Vess unleashes several pages of glorious mystic combat, pulling out all the stops in visually expressing magic in all its glory, before Stern abruptly tosses in a curveball that completely alters the proceedings in an unexpected way. It's a neat bit of smoke and mirrors, so I won't spoil the whole deal here, but needless to say, Strange must again rely on smarts over sorcery to dispatch Ian and teach him a lesson in the process. As much as I like arrogant unsure Doc, I also find his all-knowing zen persona to be neat as well, so I dig this bit of business a lot.

"Strange Matters"
As you may have gathered from the first two entries in this post, I find Doctor Strange to be quite the multi-faceted character, and it's largely in seeing him alternate between various figurative hats (no doubt pointy and adorned with many stars) from which I derive my enjoyment of following his adventures. Another role Strange fills within the Marvel Universe is that of de facto leader and babysitter of the ever-bickering Defenders, serving to try and keep teammates the Hulk and Namor at arm's length lest they tear each other apart rather than their foes.

During his epic run on Incredible Hulk, writer Peter David reunited the three original Defenders for a two-part tale in issues #370-371, illustrated by Dale Keown. It's actually an interesting twist on the typical dynamic, as the Hulk is in his belligerent but more intelligent grey incarnation while Namor is considerably calmer than usual, meaning Strange doesn't need to play peacemaker and instead enlists his two old allies in battling his counterpart Sorcerer Supreme from a dark alternate dimension.

Said baddie Sorcerer Supreme ends up possessing the Hulk and thus fisticuffs ensue, but I enjoy this story far more for PAD's trademark psychological dissection of the three leads and their relationships with one another, Strange and how he relates to his colleagues in particular. And "colleagues" is the right word in this case, as the trio clearly has been through enough to consider one another more than just co-workers, but they're not quite friends either. It's actually quite neat and refreshing to see a super hero dynamic based more on respect and necessity than pumped up camraderie once in awhile, and that's on display in full here.

I actually perhaps most enjoy the scenes between Doctor Strange and non-Hulked out Bruce Banner, as you can kinda feel a swell of pride in Doc for the long-suffering Banner and how he has managed to survive all these years and never been completely overwhelmed by the monster within. Doctor Strange doesn't have too many close buddies in the Marvel U outside of Wong, but he certainly shares something significant with Namor and the Hulk, and it's nice to see the human being get to shine over the magician for a bit, almost like watching your dad when some old college buddies he wasn't particularly to but shares fond memories with need a stopover.

Spider-Man: The Animated Series
Much as I consider the mid-90's Spider-Man cartoon a guilty pleasure, I hardly consider much about it definitive in any significant way, but man, they nailed Doctor Strange pretty stone cold.

In the opening chapter to the shows third season-long "Sins of the Father" arc, the aptly-titled "Doctor Strange," Spidey ends up needing the Sorcerer Supreme's help when Mary Jane gets caught up in a cult run by Strange's archenemies, Baron Mordo and the dread Dormammu. Spider-Man actually goes after Mordo on his own first, but ends up under hypnosis and dispatched to steal the Wand of Watoomb, necessitating Strange and Wong to break the spell and then offer back-up on the Wallcrawler's second run to save MJ.

As you can probably tell from that quick summary, in this half hour episode the folks behind Spider-Man: TAS manage to nail just about all the major hallmarks on Doctor Strange mythology, from his origin to the Sanctum Sanctorum to Wong to the Mordo/Dormammu combo and even the Wand of Watoomb. It kicks off with a pretty nicely-animated (for 1994) fight sequence with Strange putting down the mesmerized Spidey and gives Doc the chance to play the "big gun" cavalry he often serves as in the comics.

The episode also benefits from some stellar voice-casting, as the late John Vernon--no doubt best-known as Dean Wormer in "Animal House," but also a super hero voice acting alum as Rupert Thorne on "Batman: The Animated Series" and a legend to me and my buddies as the immortal Officer Mooney in the classic "Killer Klowns From Outer Space"--exudes equal parts authority and swagger as Strange. And George Takei as Wong? Awesome!

Doctor Strange: The Oath
I know I'm not the only guy reading comics today or reading this blog entry who first realized the potential for coolness in Doctor Strange in 2006 thanks to Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's superlative limited series Doctor Strange: The Oath. This was the story that allowed me to look past the perception of the stodgy old guy with grey temples I remembered from youth and discover all the other stuff on this list (well, except the Spider-Man episode--that ship had sailed) plus much more.

Vaughan took Stephen Strange very much back to his roots, not turning the clock all the way back to his pre-sorcerous total heel days, but reminding us that beneath the Shakespearean verse and alliterative toys, there was still a self-assured fellow who knew he was very good at what he did and does it best with a wink and a smirk.

The story opens in the medical clinic of Night Nurse and wastes no time cutting to the quick as Wong rushes in with a Doctor Strange who is bleeding out thanks to a gun wound to the chest. Night Nurse races to save Doc's life with the aid of a surprising consult: Strange himself in astral form! Immediately Vaughan ignites sizzling chemistry between these two characters who straddle the medical and super heroic worlds, as ghost Doc has plenty of time to put the moves on the alluring Nurse even as he's overseeing his own emergency surgery.

However there's a third essential point of the characterization triangle of The Oath, and that's Wong. Ever Doctor Strange's trusted aide and closest ally, the typically unflappable Wong faces peril that provides the motivation for this adventure and allows Vaughan to show how much Strange has grown from that self-absorbed surgeon into a true hero who will risk everything for his the people he cares about. We also see the humanity in Strange as the oft-nearly omnipotent Sorcerer Supreme is faced with a problem he can't abra kadabra away, and thus shows his frustration and desperation as he rages against a deadly deadline.

Vaughan creates a unique dilemma for Strange (won't spoil it here) and provides him with fascinating enemies (that either), but the gold here is the presentation of the stoic Doctor as a three-dimensional and likable rogue who is fully capable of demonstrating friendship, romance and passion for doing what he believes. In short, he takes a character who was far too much a deus ex machina for many years and transforms him back into an exciting and vibrant protagonist who motivates events rather than end them.

Complimenting Vaughan's brilliant writing is Marcos Martin, an artist who needs not take a back seat to any illustrator in the modern era. Martin's trademark is the ability to take deceptively simple linework and use it to create gorgeous figures, capturing true emotion in every scene he depicts. He takes to Strange's world like a fish to water, exalting in both the out-of-this-world mystic scope as well as the subtle noir Vaughan uses to paint his renewed picture of the good doctor.

Though he compares himself to Sherlock Holmes throughout the series and the parallels are clear, the great detective has nothing on Doctor Strange in The Oath.

23 comments:

TJ said...

I believe my gray hair is coming in like Reed and Hal's. It's depressing, but I can always read The Oath, which is one of the best mini-series' in recent memory.

Ben Morse said...

Maybe it's a cosmic fear demon.

Trinity said...

I loved Dr. Strange The Oath and you are right, I think it scratched the itch to make Dr. Strange cool. I never got into him as a young kid because he spouted jibberish and it was hard to figure out what the hell he was doing half the time.

I disagree about the grey temples though. I liked them as a kid and thought they were what cool adults had. I also attributed them with intelligence.

Ben Morse said...

You're a better sort than I, Trinity.

MarkAndrew said...

No Engelhart/Brunner? No Stern/Smith? Ow! OW! OW! OW!

(And, OK, I haven't read Marvel Fanfare, the Peter David book, and I just don't know enough about animation to make worthwhile critical judgements. So you could be right and they could be better.)

I AM a huge devotee of the Silver Age, except for the stuff that sucks.

But Doctor Strange - Well, it's beautiful. Nobody in comics has ever - E-V-E-R come close to matching Kirby and Ditko in drawing the alien and the bizzare - But AS a story it just didn't hold up (for me) the way that Spider-man did. There wasn't the spot-on characterization, we hardly ever got to see Stan Lee New York (Stan's man-on-the-street dialog is my personal favorite early Marvel innovation) and it was hardly ever FUNNY.

I grant ya is was influential - The Dormamumumumumu story was the first really long-form comic story, and the first step towards Crisis-On-Infinite-Whatever-the-Fuck but it's not somethin' I really come back to much. Engelhart and

Unlike Spider-man. Or Fantastic Four. Or Enemy Ace. Or Sugar and Spike.

I guess I'm thinkin' that it works against Stan's strengths. I'm not claiming he's up there with Alan Moore or Dan Clowes or John Stanley, writer-wise but in the specific area of using dialog to define character, he's the best I've ever run into in comics.

But, God yes, it was pretty.

Ben Morse said...

A point of disclosure I should have made is the original post is that I have never read Englehart or Stern's extended runs and would very much like to.

dimesfornickels said...

I know I'm in the minority, but I really like the new direction they've taken with the Doctor (intended allusion) and I want to see more of it. The character is the perfect vehicle for taking the reader into the more bizarre corners of the Marvel Universe.

Frank said...

Marvel Fanfare Volume One: "This series started off with a bang..." or something. I remember you reading the back cover and somehow inferred that the series quickly dropped in quality after the first seven issues...how did the rest of it actually read? Volume two?
But yeah, when I was like seven-years-old and getting my hair cut, I brought in ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #501 and told my barbar, "I want my hair cut like this!" My parents never let me get my ear pierced back then :( It's so superficial, but it makes perfect sense that certain things like hair color/style shape the way you feel about a character. Grey hair = Old, out of touch. You'd probably know better than I, have you come across any fans in the years that started off as a kid loving Dr. Strange? Or Reed as their favorite member of the FF? (My first exposure to the FF was Sue in the bikini costume...so I wasn't really paying too much attention to the male persuasion)

The Inkwell Bookstore said...

Since I'm stealing your Marvel Fanfare tip, I thought I'd leave you one in return:
The miniseries 'X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl.'
It's a tongue in cheek romp through Hades that features a genuinely sweet pseudo-romantic relationship between the title character and Stephen Strange.
It's well worth the $4 you can snag it for on various used book websites.

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