Doctor Strange Extravaganza!
As someone who had historically been more of a DC fan than Marvel, I’ve been curiously watching the upcoming Marvel superhero movie, Doctor Strange. Strange is one of those characters that I knew absolutely nothing about prior to seeing the plans for the movie. Since I have a deep, abiding dislike of watching a movie based on a book without having read the book (and I also like being timely!), this week in Graphic Reviews, I’ll be taking a look at some of the greatest Doctor Strange stories. It was too difficult to limit myself to just one series given the wealth of stories out there so I will take us on a Strange little adventure so that you can get caught up before seeing the movie!
Doctor Strange: Masterworks, Nos. 10-22 & Tomb of Dracula No. 44 (1970s)
Steve Englehardt, Marv Wolfman & Gene Colan
A friend and occasional fellow Aeither writer, Garion, was kind enough many moons ago to lend me this volume when I said that I knew absolutely nothing about Doctor Strange. The Masterworks volumes are a collection that Marvel put out in 2013 that collected what they considered the seminal works on the various comic book characters. This particular volume collects Doctor Strange #s 10-22 as well as Tomb of Dracula #44. In these issues, Doctor Strange is a mystical master who spends much of his time split between training his alien apprentice (and lover) Clea and saving the world from all manner of otherworldly beings (including Dracula at one point). The focus is often on the burden on Strange’s sanity created by being humanity’s protector and his desire to protect humanity from things that it would drive them insane to know. Strange must often wrestle with understanding occult things that are outside the reach of ordinary man and is often portrayed as being carried through these challenges by sheer force of will. As an introduction to the character, the Masterworks volume does an excellent job of showing how Strange isn’t just an occult master but a protector of humanity and exactly what it costs him to do so.
I will admit now that I’ve never been a big fan of the older comics from the 70’s and 80’s largely because I find the attitudes of the heroes to be obnoxious. It’s hard for me to get behind the gung-ho boyscout appearance that they tend to take and the lack of character development. So often, it seems like the hero always knows the right thing to do and the only struggle they have is making sure they beat up the other guy enough. But not too much! What I like about this run on Doctor Strange is that he’s constantly grappling with forces which he only understands because of his study with the Ancient One and which could easily overwhelm his sanity if he allowed it. This creates a much more interesting dynamic where Strange is sacrificing parts of himself for humanity without anyone ever knowing about it. They can’t know and that’s the beauty of it. Steve Englehart and Marv Wolfman write Strange as remarkably human, with all the pitfalls that come from that, even as he is simultaneously a master of magic. It’s a combination that works well. The artwork, done by a long list of creators including Gene Colan, Alfreo Alcala and P. Craig Russell, is not my favorite but it’s not awful either. I think my favorite is honestly the panel transition. In a lot of modern comics, you see a lot less willingness to play with how the eye transitions across the page and the way it’s done in these Doctor Strange issues really plays with that.
If you’re willing to put up with some older attitudes, the Masterworks volume is an excellent introduction to Doctor Strange as a character as well as his involvement with and attitude towards the occult.
Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment (1989)
Roger Stern, Mike Mignola & Mark Badger
Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment brings together two very different doctors as Doctor Strange offers to help Doctor Doom rescue his mother from hell. As someone who has read very little Fantastic 4, Doom was largely unfamiliar to me other than as a general villain. In this self-contained story, Strange and Doom are brought together by a challenge created by the Vishanthi gods served by the Ancient One (Strange’s mentor). The Ancient One brings together all of the powerful magic users on Earth for a challenge to the title of Sorcerer Supreme. The result of which is that Strange owes a boon to Doom, an opportunity that Doom takes not to further his power but to rescue the mother that sacrificed herself in an attempt to better the fortunes of her family. Doom and Strange must contend with Mephisto himself if they hope to rescue Doom’s mother and pitting the two very different men against the greatest evil in the occult world creates an incredibly compelling story.
I wasn’t expecting it, but I was extremely impressed by Triumph and Torment. The only creator involved that I’d ever heard of was Mike Mignola and I knew absolutely nothing about the story going in. The story not only shows the compassion of Doctor Strange in how he handles the pride and torment of Doctor Doom but also makes Doctor Doom a much more sympathetic character than he’s been in the past. Doom has always seemed to be just an arrogant megalomaniac but Triumph and Torment shows him struggling with the weight of losing his parents to an autocrat and his lifelong desire to rescue his mother from her own decisions. It’s honestly one of the more appealing tragic stories and characters that I’ve read and the writing is fantastically well developed. The artwork makes brilliant use of light and shadow, particularly in Doom’s appearance and is both simple and elegant.
Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment is an excellent stand-alone Strange story which develops the personalities of both characters in a way that is at once tragic and compelling. It’s hard not to like both characters once you’ve read it, despite them being radically different and only partially understanding each other.
Doctor Strange: The Oath (2007)
Brian K. Vaughn, & Marcos Martin
The Oath is a Doctor Strange story which delves into the relationship between Strange and his faithful friend and servant, Wong. Particularly in the early days of Doctor Strange, Wong appears to be nothing more than a general errand boy and butler who has no real personality of his own aside from serving Strange. In The Oath, Wong has discovered that his time has suddenly become very limited. As he finally admits to Strange when his health starts to deteriorate, he has no more than a few months to live thanks to a particularly aggressive brand of cancer. As is typical for Strange, this is intolerable and he resolves to save Wong no matter who he has to fight to find a cure. In order to succeed, Doctor Strange goes on the hunt with both Wong and the Night Nurse as he deals with evil pharmaceutical corporations and otherworldly beings alike in order to save his oldest friend.
The Oath is another one of those stories which will make you a Strange fan if you weren’t previously. What impresses me most about Strange stories is the way in which he stubbornly refuses to be beaten once he has his mind set on something. His refusal to accept Wong’s acceptance of death as yet another part of his devotion to Strange makes it clear how much Wong means to the occult master. And Wong himself is developed more in this than in many of the other Doctor Strange series. Instead of just being a servant, this stand-alone story shows how much Strange relies on Wong and how Wong balances Strange’s mastery of the magical with a mastery of martial arts and physical prowess. Despite being terminally ill, Wong kicks some serious ass in this story. I’ve been a fan of Brian K. Vaughn for awhile but I was really impressed with the nuance that he brought to this story of friendship and sacrifice. And the ending was different than I would have expected and even better for that.
Doctor Strange: The Way of the Weird (2015)
Jason Aaron & Chris Bachalo
Doctor Strange: The Way of the Weird is one of the newest Strange series to come out and is helmed by none other than Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo (right up there with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips as my favorite graphic novel creator duos of all time). Way of the Weird has Doctor Strange dealing with an unusual influx of magical parasites and monsters who appear to be fleeing from some larger, much more powerful threat. Strange must team up with his fellow magic users on Earth to defend against a threat not just to them and to Earth but to magic itself. It’s a struggle of magic versus technology, the weird versus the regimented and it’s utterly fantastic.
As I mentioned, I’ve become a pretty big fan of Jason Aaron and in this series he writes one of the best Strange stories to date. While other stories have shown the compassion and loyalty which Strange has for both friends and enemies, The Way of the Weird shows what Strange sacrifices to be our protector as Sorcerer Supreme. No other story has shown the cost of magic to be so high and I absolutely loved the sacrifices both he and Wong make in order to act as saviors of humanity. That cost makes Strange much more compelling as a character and the humor is Aaron’s typical tongue in cheek, highly amusing banter. And for all that I loved Aaron’s writing, I was blown away by Bachalo’s work on this. The illustrations themselves are fantastically rendered (in both the positive and fantasy meanings of the word) and really bring the Strange reality to life, but the colors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen better use of white space versus color to delineate different portions of what Strange sees versus what the rest of humanity sees. The use of shadow, explosions of color and simple white space are absolutely brilliant.
If there’s one creator team that you absolutely have to read in the Doctor Strange universe, it’s Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo. It’s hard to say that it’s the best story, because Triumph and Torment and Oath both are vitally important stories in establishing Strange as a character. But as a creative team, Aaron and Bachalo are impossible to beat in this character’s history. Well worth picking up if you have any interest at all in the Sorcerer Supreme.
There are many other Doctor Strange stories out there but the ones that I’ve highlighted today are some of the best creatives to have brought the character to life. For anyone who was as ignorant of Strange as I was when I first heard about the movie, I’d highly recommend picking up one or all of these stories to catch up before you see the movie. Each makes Strange fascinating in a different way and each handles a particular facet of the hero’s appeal brilliantly. While I might have picked out Mara as the worst science fiction has to offer, the stubbornness, wonder and sacrifice in these Doctor Strange stories show his character to be an exemplar of the best things about speculative fiction.