THIS REVIEW OF ‘DOCTOR STRANGE’ #1-4 CONTAINS SPOILERS.
By Don Alsafi. In 1951, Marvel Comics (then known as Atlas) launched a new anthology comics magazine called Strange Tales. It was originally a horror book, in the vein of EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt, then changed with the times to feature monster tales like those of the classic 1950s B-movies. Shortly after the debut of the Fantastic Four, it switched gears again to feature solo adventures of the Human Torch (joined soon after by the Thing).
And then, the following year, Marvel threw something different into the mix. The Amazing Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko brought to Stan Lee a short 5-page story introducing an esoteric sorcerer intent on fighting the forces of evil from mystical realms. The character’s setup and origin story were not unproblematic—but Lee & Ditko’s combined imaginative powers surely filled a niche with these stories by doing something radically different than any of Marvel’s other Silver Age superhero books. Before long, Doctor Strange had graduated to his own title, which ran near-continuously (in one form or another) for the next three decades.
But while “different” can be a draw, it can also be a barrier. Doctor Strange was cancelled in 1996 due to low sales, with the next twenty years only featuring the magician in supporting roles or via the occasional miniseries. So Strange’s time back in the spotlight was seriously overdue when his ongoing title was brought back in 2015 courtesy of Jason Aaron & Chris Bachalo, with writer Donny Cates briefly taking the reins during last fall’s “Marvel Legacy” relaunch.
But even though the good Doctor has seen his profile raised in the past few years (due in no small part to his addition to the MCU), he’s such an unusual character that the question still remains as to what exactly makes him tick. Well, his newest creative team have some ideas about that…
Written by Mark Waid.
Art & colors by Jesús Saíz.
Letters by VC’s Cory Petit & Joe Sabino.
The magic is gone. Early on in issue #1, we’re told a shocking development has recently befallen Doctor Stephen Strange: After so many years as Earth’s reigning Sorcerer Supreme, he has somehow lost his affinity for magic. Incantations which had once been child’s play now fail with alarming frequency; his long-honed ability to pierce the mystic veil and see “the magic behind all living things” has suddenly left him. Everything that he has built his life around for so long has abruptly, incomprehensibly, vanished. And he doesn’t know what to do.
Thus, after exhausting all other options, he decides to seek advice from another hero who has faced his share of demons over the years, and hit bottom more than once: Tony Stark. Applying his engineer’s mind to the problem, Tony conjectures that Strange may just need a recharge or infusion of mystical energies. And if Doc has sufficiently lost his mojo that he can’t even traverse to other dimensions like he once did…? Well, why not stay in this dimension, but travel to different galaxies and brand-new worlds?
So Tony lends him a car that can fly into space—because of course he can! Over the next few issues, Strange encounters new allies such as Kanna (an intergalactic “arcanologist”) and Eoffren (a dwarf from the Asgardian realm of Nidavellir), as well as tangling in issue #3 with occasional Fantastic Four villain The Super-Skrull for possession of one of the Infinity Stones. Along the way, Strange starts to get clues as to why his magic had left him in the first place, and he begins to deduce that his biggest enemy might in fact be himself…
Magical words and dizzying colors. This newest run of Doctor Strange is penned by fan-favorite writer Mark Waid, known for celebrated runs on The Flash, The Legion of Super-Heroes—which even gets referenced in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter Egg in issue #4—and the “Marvel Legacy” run of Captain America. (He also wrote a 4-issue Strange miniseries in 2010, illustrated by Pretty Deadly artist Emma Rios.)
And holy heck, this might be the most fascinating Doctor Strange has been in years! Waid is seemingly taking a very deconstructionist approach, much like Alan Moore famously did in the pages of DC’s Swamp Thing, or Frank Miller’s seminal work on Daredevil, breaking down the character to his core, and discovering what’s left when everything he’s usually relied upon has been stripped away.
Marvel characters have always been at least somewhat flawed—recall that it was this simple innovation which caused Marvel’s Silver Age superheroes to become so popular, so fast—and Doctor Strange’s penchant for arrogance is something that had been intrinsically baked in to his 1963 origin story. But while that character trait has always existed to some extent (just as with Tony Stark), the focus in previous Doctor Strange stories has usually been on the cosmic/mystical battles, or trippy visits to other dimensions. By peeling all that away—at least at first—all that’s left is the original haughty surgeon… and an almost unhealthy drive to reclaim what he’s lost.
If there’s a real star to this show, it’s likely the visuals from artist Jesús Saíz. Saíz has been drawing comics for over twenty years (most of those over at DC, before he jumped ship to Marvel two years ago). But while he’s always had a solid grasp of visual storytelling, with this project he’s not only doing the art but the colors, as well—and the results are nothing less than phenomenal! Had he the time, Saíz could clearly excel as a dedicated colorist, as the subtle shadings he employs throughout lend an almost photorealistic depiction to his characters. And the otherworldly designs the story calls for are simply stunning; witness, for example, issue #1’s opening fight against the Elder God X’Axal, which looks like something out of Heavy Metal.
Exactly like it was—and nothing like it at all. A couple of months back, Marvel pulled a neat trick: They brought back the Hulk in a way that embraced his traditional roots, while also reinventing the formula. Here, Mark Waid & Jesús Saíz do much the same with Doctor Strange, initially giving us a Sorcerer without magic (but still taking him to far-off realms), and calling into question exactly how much the “Supreme” part of his sobriquet is perhaps less a rank… and more an Achilles heel of brash overconfidence.
Mark Waid’s encyclopedic knowledge of comic book stories is the stuff of legend, so it’s likely no coincidence that the tale crafted here explicitly recalls Doctor Strange’s origin story—as he first loses the abilities he has prided himself on for so long, then seeks out a master (originally of magic, now of technology) to advise him. More debatable, perhaps, is whether the thieving Kanna and diminutive Eoffren were deliberately crafted to recall the supporting cast (Gamora and Pip the Troll) of Adam Warlock, Marvel’s groundbreaking cosmic hero of the 1970s. This mix of old and new can be seen in Saíz’s art as well, in the way that this comic artist of two decades has seemingly reinvented himself. It even shows up in small touches, like how the gorgeous alien cityscape which Doctor Strange visits in the first two issues has a retro-futuristic style reminiscent of that one time a young Human Torch visited the Fifth Dimension—in, as it happens, a 1962 issue of Strange Tales!
Soaring to such heights. When Doctor Strange premiered in the early 1960s, his feature quickly became a hit not only because of the unique genre it occupied and the unusual stories it could tell, but also (perhaps primarily) due to Steve Ditko’s near-hallucinogenic depictions of the mystic dimensions. The lessening impact of the character in the many years since might honestly be down to Lee & Ditko having set the bar so very high and subsequent creators, no matter how talented, never quite managing to replicate that success.
But with Waid & Saíz on board for this newest iteration, Doctor Strange may now have the creative talent to approach the heights Lee & Ditko first charted, those many years ago.
At the very least, these first four issues show it’s going to be a very wild ride!
9.5 out of 10
Enjoy this cover gallery of ‘Doctor Strange’ #1-4, courtesy of Marvel!
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