GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Dr. Strange ~ Page Two

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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 / Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment1989 (GN) 80 pages

cover by RussellWritten by Roger Stern. Pencils by Mike Mignola. Inks and colours by Mark Badger.
Letters: Jim Novak.

Tabloid dimensions

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Aug 2017

One wonders if the idea behind this graphic novel -- an unusually long 80 pages -- was simply someone thought teaming up the two "Doctors" would look neat on the cover.

The plot itself is sort of momentous in that it deals with villain Dr. Doom recruiting hero Dr. Strange to help rescue the soul of Doom's mother from Hell. I say "momentous" because Doom's mother's soul being trapped in Hell had been referenced in a few Doom stories over the years and so I wasn't sure if this was simply recycling the idea or whether it was, indeed, finally going to resolve it -- and it does the latter.

But with that said, it's a pretty thin, straightforward handling of the plot -- making the 80 pages seem excessive.

It starts out with a kind of arbitrary competition among sorcerer's for some magic title -- a competition involving Strange and Doom and a host of other characters. It's really just a prologue (despite taking the first third of this book!) that sets up the rest of the story. Afterward Strange agrees to help Doom in his attempt to rescue his mother's soul; we spend few pages of Strange trying to tutor Doom in the mystic arts (Doom already a novice practitioner) and then they go into Hell to confront Mephisto (Marvel Comic's longstanding Devil figure).

There aren't really any supporting characters to speak of (in the opening magical competition sequence we meet a bunch of quirky fellow sorcerers, but Stern didn't really develop them much, and Mignola tended to draw them in his trademark aloof/long shot way -- but then I realized it was because they disappear from the rest of the tale). There aren't a lot of plot twists or sub-plots to embellish the story. Along the way we get convenient recaps of Doom's and Strange's origins -- but mostly just as recaps, rather than things to further this plot. Strange and Doom don't even really seem to have much of a plan to save Doom's mother other than: enter Hell, fight demons, hope for the best. Not exactly the sort of cunning strategy that you might expect someone to work up if they're going to face the immortal Devil in his domain, eh?

(Partly this is because there is a plan -- well, sort of -- but it's deliberately kept from the reader to allow for a surprise twist).

Stern was a long time writer of Dr. Strange, so it's not like he's unfamiliar with the character or his milieu, and it's not like anything here seems out of keeping for a Strange story. But neither does it seem especially clever or ambitious (despite the core idea of entering hell and barely touched on themes of guilt and redemption). Strange remains largely implacable and Doom stoicly brusque.

Mike Mignola would of course go onto great acclaim with his atmospheric Hellboy comics, and certainly he's comfortably in this milieu of mysticism and hellscapes. But equally, as I've said before about Mignola's art, he tends to favour long-shots, figures as silhouettes, and when he does show faces, rendering them fairly impassive in their expressions. In other words he's great at atmosphere -- not always great at bringing out the human emotion side of things. As well, this is Dr. Strange he's working on -- a comic that, at its best, defined weird and head trippy visuals like few other comics. The visual language established by original artist Steve Ditko really evoked the sense of other-dimensional, mind-altering scapes (supposedly some 1960s fans were convinced that Ditko and writer Stan Lee were taking LSD) and other artists have usually managed to achieve some emulation of that look. As such, Mignola's visualization of Hell -- though certainly appropriate with its stark, crimson landscapes and demon monsters -- seems positively banal compared to the Salvador Dali-esque dimensions Strange is often depicted in.

With all that said, Triumph and Torment warrants one of those middle-of-the-road reviews. It's not terrible -- but probably doesn't warrant a feverish hunt through the back shelves of your comic shop. If you like Strange, Doom, and can find it cheap -- it's an OK page-turner. But otherwise...


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


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