GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Dr. Strange

Back to the main listings (including character sections)
 

"He was a man like most others -- a worldly man, seduced and jaded by material things. But then he discovered the separate reality, where sorcery and men's souls shaped the forces of our lives..."


cover by Martin Doctor Strange: The Oath 2007 (SC TPB) 120 pages

Written by Brian K. Vaughan. Pencils by Marcos Martin. Inks Alvaro Lopez.
Colours: Javier Rodriguez. Letters: Willie Schubert. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Reprinting: the five issue mini-series (2006-2007)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Largely buried in the hype surrounding Marvel's Civil War company crossover, was this Doc Strange mini-series (the good doctor currently without a regular comic) that is completely isolated from all the Civil War hoohah.

On learning his faithful manservant, Wong, has an incurable brain tumor, Strange endeavors to secure a mystical elixir -- and ends up with a possible universal cure-all; a cure which is then stolen, leading Strange, Wong, and the Night Nurse (a character whose secret clinic ministers to the city's super heroes) to track it down and find the villain behind it all.

The Oath, to put it bluntly -- is very good.

Vaughan manages to tell a tale that is both entertaining for Strange fans -- and easily accessible for those who've never heard of him before (thanks in part to the Night Nurse acting as an outsider, unfamiliar with Strange and his world). Admitedly, it's not like Strange has a particularly complex or confused continuity that needs to be grappled with. But the villain and the plot are entirely original to this story, even as it ties into and arises from Strange's history. In fact, Vaughan ties it into Strange's pre-hero backstory (as an arrogant physician who lost his surgical skill after an accident), something which I'd never seen another Strange story do.

The story is well-paced with some twists and turns, lots of humourous quips, yet touching on some profond dilemmas, and where the villain is surprisingly complex and nuanced in his goals and motivations. There are clever ideas, and memorable scenes that really make this live as a story -- not just this month's adventure of a long standing character (the climax between Strange and the villain is cleverly unexpected). By cutting between past and present, the scenes adding to our understanding of each, it generates a certain sense of complexity. In this day and age, there are a lot of minor stories that are stretched out (or "decompressed") to fill out a series of issues, but this is a five issue series that truly seems to warrant five issues -- no more, no less. And though I picked it up all at once, there's enough going on per issue that, had I collected it monthly, I think I would've felt the chapters justified the purchase (unlike some stories which are so thin, they read best as a collected volume).

The story isn't without its flaws. For one thing, it's obviously a bit awkward setting up a story involving a universal cure all -- because the ending is sort of a foregone conclusion (unless Marvel wants to radically alter its reality -- which, I suppose it has more than once). But even if we suspect the cure won't, ultimately, save humanity, the how and why remains a question we need to read the story to discover. Not to mention "who" is the villain and "will Wong be saved?"

As mentioned, there's a lot of humour at work -- which is fine, making some scenes fun. But it's the kind of humour that can seem a bit too self-aware, undermining the sense of reality, or drama, as characters utter an ironic quip when faced with a monster. As such, the story lacks some of the sense of an ineffable universe or surreal realms and heady philosophies, that some Strange stories evoke. Oh, there's adventure, and mystical battles, and occasional journies into strange dimensions, but it's more an adventure than a mystical odyssey. Yet, at the same time, by wrapping the story around Strange's past, and remembering his oath as a physician, and his loyalty to Wong, it's also much more concerned with Strange as a person than some Strange sagas.

So it may not be the definitive Strange-the-sorcerer saga, but it might be vieing for the the definitive Strange-the-man saga.

Or, at least, A man. After all, with, as noted, the penchant for witty banter and quips, as well as a slightly ruthless streak (Strange at one point commenting he has little patience for the law) one could quibble about whether this really reflects the Stephen Strange as written by, say, Englehart, or Stern, or others. Different writers always put their own spins on characters, so it's not that this isn't Dr. Strange...just maybe not the quintessential take on his personality.

As well, Wong is given a much more prominent, substantial role than he often gets in Strange stories (which is nice).

The art by Marcos Martin is also quite effective and appealing. He maybe doesn't quite conjure a dreamlike world of magic and mystery, but he tells the tale well, with a nice eye for story telling. His style is somewhat simple, or maybe spartan is a better description, reminding me a bit of Steve Rude, though a bit rougher. But as I say, it's lively and effective.

The introduction of the Night Nurse character is an interesting addition to the Marvel "reality" -- and presumably a joke on the fact that Marvel once published a romance comic called Night Nurse.

There are a lot of fans in comicdom who seem to value continuity above all else. A "great" story is one that has a significant impact on the characters' reality, a "must read" is one that has repercussions for many stories to come. But to me -- too often -- such stories tend to be weak as stories, too concerned with the big picture, the writer too interested in making his "mark" on a character, and leaving the fundamentals of storytelling forgotten. The Oath takes a character that isn't currently starring in a monthly title...and leaves him petty much as it found him (well, there is one "significant" thing). And that's partly why I regard it as a good -- nay, a great -- tale. Because it's a story in and of itself, and a well plotted story that unfolds and develops before you, offering a few surprise twists, jumping between past and present, with a few philosophical ruminations, some witty quips and adventure, a story about a big idea filtered through the humanity of its protagonists -- or is that vice versa? It exists for its own sake -- not to sell the next company crossover, or to advertise the next mini-series. As mentioned, it is simultaneously aimed at Doc Strange fans -- and acts as a perfectly accessible introduction for those unfamiliar with him.

In short, it's a true graphic novel. And I like that.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: ___


Doctor Strange: A Separate Reality 2002 (SC TPB) 176 pages

cover by BrunnerWritten by Steve Englehart. Pencils by Frank Brunner. Inks by Dick Giordano, others.
Colours: various: Letters: John Costanza, Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Roy Thomas.

Reprinting: Marvel Premiere #9, 10, 12-14, Doctor Strange (2nd series) #1, 2, 4, 5 (1973-1974)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Additional notes: intro by Peter Sanderson; cover gallery.

Published by Marvel Comics

A Separate Reality collects a nine issue run (skipping a couple of reprint filler issues) that marked the beginning of writer Steve Englehart's tenure telling tales of comicdoms most successful sorcerer, Dr. Strange, and reprinting the entirety of artist Frank Brunner's run on the character. The two took up the reins in mid-story, meaning the collection begins toward the end of a multi-issue arc as Strange searches for his missing mentor, the Ancient One. After that it surges into two separate story arcs that take the good doctor into realms head trippy and, even, provocative.

Doctor Strange had always been a character with one foot in psychedelia. So much so that some hippy era fans of the original stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko couldn't believe the stories were churned out by two middle-aged guys whose idea of "hard drugs" was probably extra-strength Tylenol. But those stories, and subsequent ones by Roy Thomas and others, never really married the weirdness with any deeper sensibilities.

By the 1970s, comic creators -- particularly at Marvel -- like Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin were moving mainstream heroes into decidedly more abstract directions, and Englehart and Brunner were doing the same with Dr. Strange. The first couple of issues, concluding the quest for the Ancient One, toy around with some weird ideas and images, but the storytelling itself is a bit cluttered. By the end of the story, Strange has been promoted from simply Master of the Mystic Arts to full fledge Sorcerer Supreme, a change that promised adventures to come of a more cosmic scale.

Englehart's writing can seem a bit too, well, comicbooky at first, while Brunner's art is uneven. Though Brunner has become something of a legend, perhaps because his work in the field was so fleeting, I wasn't as fully impressed. Oh, there's still good work, but I wouldn't say it was on the same level of realism as, say, Neal Adams, or of cosmic grandeur as, say, Jim Starlin -- Brunner's contemporaries. In fact, Brunner's successor on Dr. Strange, Gene Colan, easily did as good if not better work.

The next three issues, however, begin to deliver. The story starts out, as before, a bit clunky, though entertaining, but gets better as it goes along, as Strange and one of his arch-foes, Baron Mordo, become caught up in the scheme of Sise-neg, a time traveller from the distant future who is travelling backward through time, absorbing all magic as he goes, hoping to achieve godhood by the time he reaches the end of his trip -- the origin of the universe! Strange and Mordo become advocates, both trying to exert influence over Sise-neg, his power increasing exponentially as he travels backward through human history -- Strange to persuade him towards benevolence, Mordo toward malevolence.

The final, four issue saga (from Dr. Strange #1, 2, 4, 5) is the best, definitely weird and head trippy, as Strange is attacked by a religious fanatic convinced sorcerers are evil, their initial conflict leaving Strange hovering near death. He sinks into a nightmare realm of Unreality and eventually confronts Death itself.

By this point Brunner's art is much more accomplished (perhaps benefitting from Dick Giordano's inks) and the cosmic/psychedelic scenes more awesome. And Englehart's writing seems more sure as well. Though there was at least one vague bit. In Unreality, Strange concludes the people he sees are products of his subconscious, yet there's a (unsettling) nightmarish sequence where he encounters people unable to die that seems almost as though we are meant to take them as literal. Reflecting on it, I think not, I think they are still products of Strange's sub-conscious, their significance -- and what they reflect of Strange's psyche -- made clearer in the next reprinted issue. But it's never fully articulated, which is awkward.

In addition to the mood, adventure, and weirdness, there are underlying attempts to tackle deeper concepts of life, death, destiny. Though Englehart doesn't always follow through effectively. Strange achieves a higher level of consciousness and ruminates on the inter-connectedness of, and sacredness, of all life (in a nicely written passage) -- yet later zaps offending monsters fairly indiscriminantly. When Jim Starlin put Captain Marvel through a similar perception-altering experience around the same time, he did a better job of conveying a sense that the good Captain's subsequent actions were being influenced by his new philosophy. One also begins to realize why Strange was occasionally a favourite target of the religious right when decrying the corrupting influence of comics. In the early stories, Englehart throws in a villainous figure called the Living Buddha -- an oddly named character that seemed likely to strike Buddhists as just slightly sacrilegious. But that's O.K., because before he's done, Englehart will probably have offended everyone. The Sise-neg story reveals an interpretation of God that will doubtless not sit well with many hardline religious thinkers, while in the final story arc, the villain is a Christian fanatic determined that all magic users are evil -- a not unobvious comment on the very critics the comic has had over the years. Though, despite playing around with religious icons, the stories are, at the same time, suffused with ideas freely borrowed from religious thought, particularly Eastern religions.

I've long felt that Doctor Strange should be a weird, abstract comic, as much about philosophy as battles with super-villains. But though I've long enjoyed the character, I've felt the stories rarely fulfilled that image I had -- one of the closest was Doctor Strange (1970s series) #34 and perhaps #54. But these vintage stories come closer to that vision. They start out a bit uneven, with big ideas, but lacking discipline, but get better as they go, tackling grandiose and audacious concepts and ruminating on reality itself...all within the confines of 30 year old, Comics Code Approved stories. And that's all I have to say to the modern-is-better/Vertigo crowd.

Cover price: $28.75 CDN./ 17.95 USA


Doctor Strange: What is it That Disturbs You, Stephen?1997 (SC GN) 48 pages

cover by RussellWritten by Marc Andreyko. Plot and Art by P. Craig Russell.
Colours: Lovern Kindzierski. Letters: Galen Showman.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (sort of)

Additional notes: afterward by Russell

Published by Marvel Comics

What is it That Disturbs You, Stephen? (or Mourning Becomes Electra) has Marvel's sorcerer supreme, Doctor Stephen Strange, lured to another dimension by the kidnapping of his manservant, Wong. Once there, an evil sorceress attempts to acquire his aide in battling her benign sister for a deserted city, Ditkopolis.

The background for this graphic novel is important to note. Back in the 1970s, young artist P. Craig Russell conceived a Dr. Strange story which saw life as Dr. Strange Annual #1 (1975) -- a thirty five page story drawn by Russell and written by Marv Wolfman, based on Russell's plot. Russell was unsatisfied by the finished product which had left out some scenes he had envisioned. Eventually he persuaded Marvel to let him take another whack at it, this time with writer Marc Andreyko, and the result was this 48 page graphic novel.

I had read the original comic, having tracked it down because I wanted to see Russell draw a Doc Strange story -- because I thought if ever there was an artist born to drawn Dr. Strange, it was Russell (having seen his stylish and surreal art on a comicbook adaptation of Michael Moorcock's sword & sorcery hero, Elric).

The story, as originally told in the Doctor Strange Annual, was intriguing, but flawed, and I could well imagine why Russell would want to try and get it right. But here's where I misunderstood. I assumed Russell meant to re-imagine the story, to tell a tale like that long ago annual, but not really. Instead, this is the same story: same scenes, same plot progression. Reading the afterward by Russell, he makes no bones about the fact that he had originally intended to just get Marvel to reprint the original story, but with a few new scenes added -- like a "director's cut". He only decided to re-do the whole story after feeling (one infers) his style had sufficiently changed in the last twenty years that it would look awkward to try and mix and match old pages with new.

As such, this graphic novel is a bit of a disappointment in that it's basically a story I've already read. The only major change is that in the original comic, Strange is dragged into the story by the kidnapping of his apprentice and lover, Clea. But since Clea was no longer a part of Dr. Strange's stories when this graphic novel was done, manservant Wong is the kidnappee this time. As well, Russell and Andreyko have added a little more background, explaining some things that were left ambiguous in the original.

To be fair, my review is somewhat skewed. Most people who might buy What is is That Disturbs You, Stephen? are unlikely to have read the original, so the complaint that it's just a rehash of an old story is less of a valid criticism.

But my other complaints are valid. They haven't really improved on the original. The first had flaws: a kind of straightforward story, a basically one-dimensional villainess, an extended, page-consuming fight scene that could have been better turned over to adding more twists or turns to the plot, insufficient detail to explain the dimension in which the action transpires. But this re-make has all those same flaws. Worse, it actually seems shallower, glibber than the original in which Marv Wolfman injected a little poetry to the writing, a sense of brooding. At the time of the original story, Strange was going through a bit of soul searching, and the story picked up on that. This time around, Strange seems to be pretty contented (his biggest concern is that he's lacking sufficient excitement to his life). With a weird and catchy title like "What is it that Disturbs You, Stephen?", you can be forgiven for expecting something profound and heady, a deep, philosophical odyssey, laying bare the soul of Marvel Comics' resident mystic. If that happened in this graphic novel, I must've missed it.

As an example, there's a scene in both versions in which Strange and the Sorceress are best by a sea monster. In the first, Strange reacts impulsively, and erroneously, providing an opportunity for him to reflect on his actions; in the graphic novel, the scene is just another opportunity to portray the sorceress' villainy.

Andreyko's writing is positively Spartan when compared to Wolfman's. Comparing the same scenes, often utilizing similar panels, he probably employs half as much text -- less even. To some, that will be a plus, but to me, it just adds to the sense that you're getting a thinner, less involved, less mystical tale.

The plot, as noted, is straightforward. We're in no doubt who the villain is, or whether Strange should side with her. At one point he contemplates "this missing piece to the puzzle"...but the story is hardly complex enough to be considered a puzzle.

Russell's art is lovely and stylish, though even here I have mixed reactions. He's definitely more accomplished than in the original story, more sure, every line seeming to be where he intends it to go. But his current style is more stylized, and a little more stripped down in spots than it used to be. When Strange first views the mystical city of Ditkopolis (a kind of distracting gag name, derived as it is from original Dr. Strange artist Steve Ditko) it's not actually as grand and awe-inspiring as it should be. Russell renders the thing as more an outline than a detailed city of spires and weird buildings.

Despite the roughness of the earlier art, the original story seemed more sumptuous, more dreamlike.

All and all, this isn't a bad read, per se, if you're looking for a self-contained Dr. Strange story, of weird dimensions and arcane magicks. But like its original incarnation, it's a story that leaves you thinking how much better it could have been. And, in fact, that it was (slightly) better the first time around. Frankly, if you have the choice, pick up the original instead.

Cover price: $8.40 CDN./ $5.99 USA. 


Doctor Strange versus Dracula: The Montesi Formula 2006 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover by ColanWritten by Roger Stern, with Marv Wolfman & Steve Englehart. Pencils by Dan Green, Steve Leialoha, Gene Colan. Inks by Terry Austin, Tom Palmers, others.
Colours: Bob Sharen, Tom Palmer. Letters: various.

Reprinting: Doctor Strange (1st series) #14, 58-62, Tomb of Dracula #44 (1976, 1983) -- plus a few panels from Tomb of Dracula #45.

Additional notes: covers; an original page from an earlier reprint comic, Wedding of Dracula, and another picture from a 1980 Dr. Strange calendar.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

In this day and age of the inevitable TPB collection, where it seems like everything that has been printed will get a TPB collection, whether the material wrrants it or not, it's kind of nice when issues are collected -- so one assumes -- simply because they were considered good issues. In fact, I had heard nice things about this story long before it was ever a glimmer in a collections editor's eye. Maybe the fact that there have been a limited number (so far) of Doctor Strange TPBs is why the quality of them, in general, seems pretty good. The editors are being choosy.

This reprints a five part arc from 1983 in which Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and various allies go up against the legendary vampire Dracula and an evil cult, all in search of an ancient book of evil, the Darkhold -- a book that can give Dracula ultimate power or, if the heroes acquire it first, can wipe out vampirism forever. Also included is an earlier two-part reprint presenting Strange and Dracula's only previous encounter.

That opening two-parter (first serialized in Tomb of Dracula and Dr. Strange) is a bit disappointing, despite both series being well regarded at the time -- but maybe a crossover was more an editorial edict than an artistic inspiration. The story even suffers from logic holes. It begins with Strange's manservant Wong being killed by Dracula, and Strange conjuring a mystical avatar of Wong -- yet then later, seems as though that is supposed to be Wong's real body. Nor is it clear how Wong is brought back to life by the end. Still, illustrated by Gene Colan, it boasts the moodiest art in the collection. Also reprinted is a few panels from Tomb of Dracula #45 explaining how Dracula survived the encounter after Strange thought he'd destroyed him. It isn't that this opening tale is terrible -- it's atmospheric and gets you turning pages -- but the logic is ultimately tenuous.

The main arc, written by Roger Stern, begins with an opening issue that is a bit of an interlude issue, looking in on some on going sub-plots, spending time with the characters, etc., with the vampire plot only coming to the fore in the last few pages. It actually allows for a nice, slow build up. And the resulting saga is a pretty decent page turner.

Of course, this is one of those thing which isn't simply a story unto itself...but ties in various dangling plot threads. And threads not just from Dr. Strange...but many other Marvel Comics. The Darkhold book itself -- essentially Marvel's equivalent of the H.P. Lovecraft imagined Necronomicon -- had been referenced in dozens of other Marvel comics dating back years, while Dracula not only once had his own comic, but had also appeared in other titles. So there's a lot of recapping, a lot of characters sitting around either making passing references to previous events, or introducing flashback sequences. Many dutifully footnoted! Of course, just to confuse things, there are flashbacks that, I suspect, aren't really referencing anything previously portrayed (such as a lengthy tale told by vampire detective Hannibal King about investigating some cattle mutilations).

On one hand, it can be a bit overwhelming -- and disappointing that instead of getting a tidily self-contained arc, this is so obviously built upon previous comics (albeit only some that are directly relevant). On the other hand, it's generally well-explained as you go. Casual readers have long complained that modern comics, written exclusively for hardcore fanboys, can be difficult to follow as little attempt is made to explain what's gone before. But here there's a recognition that a lot of readers wouldn't necessarily be familiar with the past stories. So although built upon past lore...it's made accessible to a casual readership. Certain scenes or characters will lack resonance if you don't recognize them...but it won't actually be confusing. And if you go with it, it can actually enhance the story, allowing a five issue arc to have the impact of a much grander epic.

The story has Strange being recruited by the good vampire detective, Hannibal King, who alerts him to an evil cult called The Darkholders who seem to have hooked up with Dracula. As the story progresses there are guest appearances by the Scarlet Witch and Monica Rambeau (then known as the second Captain Marvel), Blade and Frank Drake (of the old Tomb of Dracula comic) with action taking them from the streets of New York, to Avengers Mansion, to a climax in a Transylvannian castle...with a few stop offs in head trippy other dimensions. Part of the appeal to the structure is how some issues are wrapped about their own core conflict that nonetheless contribute to the whole, allowing the story to feel like it's building, rather than just being one plot stretched over five issues. The Scarlet Witch/Avengers Mansion sequence is all in one issue.

Along the way there's a mix of tones and scenes, from mystery/detective scenes of characters recounting investigations to a kind of Rosemary's Baby-style occult paranoia (one sequence even takes place at the real life Dakota Apartments where the Rosemary's Baby movie was filmed!) to super hero-esque action scenes, often tinged with horror elements and, of course, the obligatory magic and spell casting. Plus some humour and little character bits.

The story can seem a bit too plot-driven. Compared to some other Doc Strange TPBs out there, it lacks the sense of metaphysical, head tripping philosophy of Englehart's A Separate Reality, and the character exploration of Vaughn's The Oath. It's a well paced suspense/action story, with the characters well enough portrayed to fill the moments...but not one that really feels like an incisive human drama, with Strange himself fairly unflappable, and doesn't really leave you pondering any great universal mysteries. Yet that maybe also reflects an appeal to Dr. Strange, how the character can be used in service of different styles and stories, rather than each TPB collection just echoing the next. The over riding tone of this saga, despite the super hero action, and sorcerous battles, is of an occult thriller, of characters conspiring in dark rooms, and sinister cars tailing people down streets.

The art for the lion's share is by Dan Green -- an artist I'm more familiar with as an inker. But his pencil work here (mainly inked quite effectively by Terry Austin) is quite good and attractive, with meticulously rendered environments (both the real, and the unreal of the Ditko-like other dimensions) and clear action. My initial take was that it wasn't especially atmospheric for a story about sorcerers and vampires, but after a second reading I'm changing my view -- it may be low key, but there is a moodiness, again, perhaps suiting the understated creepiness of an occult thriller more than an overt horror tale. Steve Leialoha draws the final issue. His style is far moodier, shadowier, more evocative of the tones inherent in the story, even as his work is also a little cruder than Green's. The result, with Green, Leialoha and Colan, is the art may shift, but is never less than good.

As mentioned, this is a saga that acts a bit like the climax of some long simmering threads -- but whether those earlier threads really were meant to foreshadow this, or whether Stern is pretending they did, is unclear. He treats Dracula having grown a beard in some appearances in earlier X-Men comics as if it's a clue to what's going on...when I suspect the beard was no more than an artistic affectation by artist Bill Sienkiewicz! But by building his story on all these past threads, he can forget to articulate the main points. We're well into it before a nonchalant reference is even made to the possibility of wiping out all vampires -- which you would think would be a big deal! Heck, the Montesi Formula (used as this collection's title) I don't think is even referred to by that name until the second-to-last issue.

Of course it raises the question, why didn't Marvel include some of those earlier tales in this collection? Why include the first meeting between Strange and Dracula which, plot-wise, is irrelevant to this story, but not comics that are more fundamental to the story? Maybe, given the use of flashbacks and recaps, the editors felt Stern did a good enough job that to have included the actual issues would've been redundant. And, of course, some of the referenced stories are included in other TPBs -- such as Avengers: The Yesterday Quest.

And one could argue the story smacks of that hubris that seems to plague more than a few comics writers, as the story builds to establishing a Marvel universe that will "never again fear the vampire." Maybe Stern just wanted to do a grand story with real impact, as opposed to just another run-of-the-mill vampire story...but I'm always a little skeptical of comics writers who impose some massive change on the company, basically trying to close the door on any other writer, and declaring "nyah, nyah -- never again!"

And, of course, vampires were re-introduced into Marvel continuity a few years later, anyway.

Still, The Montesi Formula is a compelling tale, mixing a variety of tones to good effect.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ 19.99 USA


Back to