GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Dr. Strange ~ Page One

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"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..."


see also - Doctor Strange Classics - Mini-Series
cover Doctor Strange: Into the Dark Dimension 2011 (HC TPB) 168 pages

Written by Roger Stern with Peter B. Gillis. Pencils by Paul Smith, with Brent Blevins, Mark Badger. Inks by Terry Austin.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Doctor Strange #68-74 (1985)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Aug. 2015

I've said before that there seem to be a limited number of Doc Strange collections -- and maybe because of that, and the reprint editors being choosy, there seem to be a few of them of pretty good quality. I'm sure the fact that Strange is a prominent but not really an A-list character also accounts for the smaller TPB library (and maybe the fact that this was released as a hardcover but not, so far, as a softcover TPB suggests sales weren't stellar).

Anyway...Into the Dark Dimension is, in that vein, a perfectly solid, perfectly enjoyable Doctor Strange collection. It collects a run of issues that begin with a few more-or-less stand alone stories before turning into a multi-issue epic.

Though there is some continuity to be drawn upon, it shouldn't scare away a novice reader (most that's needed is explained as you go -- even if the deeper resonance might be lacking). It begins with Strange looking in on an old friend and sometime super hero, The Black Knight, who has been acting a bit odd recently, apparently succumbing to the darker impulses in his magical sword. There's some mix of supernatural action and deeper character exploration. This then leads to a breezy tale of the two taking a sea voyage which is accosted by a sea serpent. The source of that is Umar, the tyrannical queen of the Dark Dimension who is in the middle of resisting a rebellion led by Clea -- Strange's former disciple and ex-lover -- and who mistakenly assumes Strange is involved (and I'm assuming cutaways to the rebellion had probably been in issues prior to those collected here). Strange is not involved but, of course, now that he's a target, he decides to become involved. The next issue is another interlude issue involving Strange visiting an other dimensional world and getting involved in an allegory about the arms race (which apparently annoyed some of the comics' more conservative readers).

And then comes the main three-part tale of Strange reuniting with Clea in the Dark Dimension and aiding her and her rebellion, with a few twists and turns and machinations. And collections like this can be kind of nice in this variety by mixing a few one-issue plots with a multi-issue story (which, of course, was foreshadowed in the earlier issues).

The book wraps up with what might at first seem like an extraneous addition -- the next issue just offering a few pages as an epilogue to the rebellion story, before segueing into a tie-in to that year's Secret Wars II crossover, and with a new writer (Gillis) settling in. But it actually makes a decent inclusion because the story ends up involving some recapping of Strange's origin for those unfamiliar with it. And though as mentioned it ties into the Secret Wars II -- not necessarily in a way that's that confusing. The story involves Strange encountering a distraught super being (the Beyonder) seeking some sense of what it means to be human -- and enlightenment. You don't really need to know the character was appearing in other concurrent comics.

And it's all mostly a solid collection. I tend not to think of Stern as given to particularly flamboyant characters, which in a way suits Strange, a character often defined by his innate centred-ness, yet who exists in a suitably wild and outrageous environment where his very steadfastness is almost a necessary counterpoint. And Stern is quite comfortable with the mystical happenings, the spells and other-dimensional expeditions. The issues are well-paced and clip along, without feeling rushed. Admittedly, that very approach to characters can also work against any big emotions or drama. After all, the story involves Strange reuniting with his ex-lover Clea (whose departure a few issues before left Strange devastated for a couple of issues) yet there's no big emotion to it -- though it's Gillis in his issue that has Strange rather awkwardly suggest he's simply "flattered" Clea suggests he could remain as her consort (a pretty cad-ish thing to say to an ex-lover).

The stories are helped immeasurably by the artists. Paul Smith pencils most of the issues and in addition to just having a nice, clean style anyway, he also seems perfectly at home conjuring up all the weird spells, Gothic environments, and bizarre, head-trippy, Ditko-esque alien dimensions. If Doctor Strange stories -- moreso than most super hero comics -- are about escaping the humdrum of everyday life and escaping into this fantasy reality, Smith pulls it off beautifully. And a couple of artists pinch hitting issues -- Blevins and Badger -- are no slouches either in capturing the magic and mystery of Strange's idiom. And both men are in top form (given both their styles can veer about wildly in different things I've seen each draw over the years). Inker Terry Austin is on board for much of it, and brings a crisp, solid finish that often enhances the atmosphere.

One could quibble and say, perhaps, that there's nothing that "classic" in this collection. Despite delivering a three-part tale set within the signature Dark Dimension (normally the domain of Strange's arch foe, the Dread Dormammu, who at this point has vanished, hence why his sister Umar is ruler) and featuring a dramatic upheaval in that realm's situation, as well as a temporary reuniting with his lost love Clea, it maybe doesn't rise above being a good romp. Likewise, the single issue stories are just decent page turners.

But they are all, each and every one, solid page turners, with striking visuals and atmosphere, as well as Clea, the Black Knight, regular supporting players like Wong and Sara Wolfe, a look back at Strange's origin, some one-off stories, a three-part epic, enough sense of recurring aspects of Strange's mythos without being too confusing or overly obsessed with continuity.

So, yeah -- a good collection.

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

Cover price: ___



Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa 1986 (SC GN) 62 pages

Written by J.M. DeMatteis. Illustrated by Dan Green.
Letters: Ken Bruzenak.

Marvel graphic Novel #23; tabloid dimensions

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Aug 2017

Into Shamballa is one of those frustrating comic book/graphic novels that comes along now and then. It's frustrating precisely because it seems genuinely sincere in its ambitious. Unfortunately sincerity by itself isn't enough.

The presentation itself is worth remnarking on, as it's presented almost like a picture book. By that I mean it's lavishly illustrated, often utilizing big panels (and therefore limited panels) per page, much of the story filtered through Stephen Strange's voiceover narration with little actual dialogue. The art is by Dan Green who had illustrated a run of Dr. Strange's regular comics and here goes to town with painted colours and a moody, dreamlike vibe. The visuals are maybe a tad murky at times, and dreamlike as I said, putting me in mind of something the Hampton brothers might have done (either Scott or Bo) but still effective, particularly in a tale meant to feel deep and philosophical.

It's written by J.M. DeMatteis, a writer who often seems to try to elevate simple super hero adventure stories with deeper themes of philosophy and characterization (when he's not going the opposite extreme of being whimsical and tongue-in-cheek as he did during his popular JLA run). So unleashing DeMatteis on Dr. Strange -- Marvel's resident mystic attuned to the higher working of the universe -- seems like a natural pairing.

Unfortunately, as much as I can like and admire some of DeMatteis' stuff, equally these very ambitions can trip him up.

The premise here is that Dr. Strange is bequeathed a mysterious box by his long departed mentor, The Ancient One. After puzzling its mystery for a few pages, Strange eventually discovers its message: that he, Dr. Strange, is charged with helping to usher humanity to its next level of existence -- a transition, though, that will first require the deaths of millions. Apparently in the cosmic scheme of things, the old "no omlettes without smashing eggs" theory applies.

Strange initially balks at this task, but then decides The Ancient One wouldn't ask him to do this if it wasn't the right things to do. So he sets out to bring about this Apocalypse by visiting key mystic sites where he must pass tests and battle guardians seeking to thwart him. All the while ruminating and thinking deep thoughts.

The thing with a story like this is just technically the reader can forsee a problem: this is a character in the Marvel Universe so it's unlikely the story will end with him actually destroying the world as we know it. Secondly, it's such a dubious idea (killing millions) it forces Strange to act according to the needs of the writer's story rather than seeming true to his nature. I mean, really -- wouldn't most people faced with that dilemma say, "Uh, nyah, dude -- there's something funny about this"?

One thing about DeMatteis is that I've never been too sure of his actual religious/philosophical beliefs (I'm sure I could dig up an interview in which he addresses it, I just mean as a reader of his fiction). So when he gets all hifalutin and mystical I'm not sure if this is just a guy trying to write all hifalutin and mystical -- or whether he really is prosletyzing, expounding on a codified view of the universe he gleaned from studying Hinduism or something. The reason I say this is because that can be a problem with Into Shamballa's denser passages -- a feeling that DeMatteis is trying to articulate something he truly believes, but fails to translate into a universal message for the rest of us.

In the end, maybe the biggest problem with Into Shamalla is just the length -- it's visually atmospheric, and certainly wants to seem deep, but in the end it's wrapped around a simple premise, a simple execution (Strange ruminates on the meaning of life between battles with otherworldly guardians) and never really allows Strange himself to emerge as a fleshed out protagonist (and he is pretty much the only character in the story).

Cover price: ___

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: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

This is my review after one reading -- followed by an addendum added after re-reading it a few years later

Largely buried in the hype surrounding Marvel's Civil War company crossover, was this Doc Strange mini-series (the good doctor then-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.

Addendum after a later reading (Apr. 2016): I still enjoyed this story but, I suppose, some of the initial bloom had worn off -- despite re-reading it a couple of years later so I had time to forget the particulars. Maybe it's because when I first read it I had no expectation, so was pleasantly surprised. While the second time I had (vague) memories of really liking it...memories it couldn't live up to. I was a little surprised that the story felt a bit thin, given it takes five issues -- there weren't really any big twists or sub-plots that I had forgotten. And the glib tone (though still married with serious undercurrents) is a style I'm mixed on in modern comics. On one hand it can make for cute quips and witticisms, on the other hand it can serve to undermine the gravitas, the sense that there are real consequences to the scenes and the conflicts (despite the fact that there so obviously are, given the plot). Somehow it seemed to me older writers -- like Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and others -- could throw in the gags and wisecracks, without taking away from the idea that these were real people in costumes, engaged in serious struggles. A lot of modern writers, I think, tend to end up making it all a little too cutesy, like the characters are just, well, comic book characters. Still, it remains a good, enjoyable page-tuner.

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


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