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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: DOCTOR STRANGE #1 Lacks The Magic Touch

Doctor Strange. Earth's Sorcerer Supreme. Though he's been a mainstay at Marvel for decades and is getting his own movie in 2016, Strange has always presented Marvel with a problem. He's older, he's academic and a bit more dry, and his adventures have tended to be heady explorations in allegory and acid-tinged philosophy. Jonathan Hickman managed to make him a compelling mainstay in his New Avengers book largely by playing up his intellect and arrogance in bleak, sometimes intriguing ways, but for the most part, Marvel has struggled to make the character relevant to modern audiences. Well, worry no more! The new Doctor Strange takes an axe to the foe - no hiding behind arcane knowledge here - before bedding down with his now-swooning otherdimensional adversary, and that's just the beginning.

If I sound a bit cynical, I am. It's not that revamps like this can't work or can't bring fascinating things to the forefront - it's a page taken straight from Sword of the Atom's playbook - but as presented in Doctor Strange #1, it all feels fairly rote. Add in a standard 'otherdimensional invasion' plotline that's teased with cryptic hints before given away fully in the background, and Doctor Strange #1 often feels like a book on autopilot.

Thankfully, Chris Bachalo is along to save the day. I'll be up front about this: Bachalo tends to rub me the wrong way on action-oriented books, so I was a bit leery of his work here going in. I shouldn't have worried. His design work is absolutely beautiful - there are pages here I'd like to blow up and hang as a poster. And he also does some really phenomenal work here with color and crowd-scenes. On Doctor Strange, he may have found the action book that suits him most, because the action, and the book has a fair bit of it, is all energy bursting in every direction all the time, it's a punk rock blast of fuck-you-too... slowed down and made almost inconsequential by the excessive amount of narration. I don't love the punk rock blast of fuck-you-too stuff - I prefer tight, choreographed action with a well-defined sense of space and movement - but it's an aesthetic choice that could work very well, as it mostly did in ACO's similarly-busy Midnighter #1. But for that to work, we can't be pausing between every panel to read about how Doctor Strange's hands aren't shaking (show don't tell!) and how the bad guy is totally hot for him.

There are moments of sublime beauty in Doctor Strange #1, particularly in the middle of the book. It never gets better than the two-page sequence where Strange walks through New York City with his third eye open, the 'real' world in black-and-white while the supernatural world exists in surreal, vibrant color. It's a lovely little sequence, and not the last one (a trip to the Bar with No Doors, where pink-inflected earth tones dominate the palette is similarly memorable). Hell, even just scenes where two people stand around talking is well-staged, capturing the season, the neighborhood, the motions, everything with style to spare.

But as with Ming Doyle's very similar Constantine: The Hellblazer, Aaron falls prey to a tragic need to over-explain every little thing on the page. This is very similar to the opening pages of Waid's Daredevil reboot from a few - a lighter, more carefree take on a classic character that opens with a statement-making action sequence. But where Waid and Rivera signaled Daredevil's change of personality with a wordless, cocky grin before he leapt into unknown danger, Doctor Strange has Strange say, "I'd be lying like hell if I said I didn't love this," while grimacing and leaping from an unknown danger to an unknown place. Waid's is part of a sequence that shows a manic, risk-taking character with a romantic streak; Aaron's is a context-free bit of exposition that seems to contradict the image on the page. And it happens over and over throughout the book.

If Jason Aaron can learn to trust Bachalo a little more and cut most of his extraneous narration, Doctor Strange could grow into a good book. Sure, the plot is trite - it's literally the same basic thing that we already saw in both The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage and Constantine: The Hellblazer, but without a personal attachment to give it some dramatic heft - but Bachalo really does do some lovely work here, work that deserves recognition. But as a debut issue and as an attempt to sand off all the rough, weird edges of the character and make the good doctor 'hip and sexy' (fucking ugh), Doctor Strange #1 leaves a lot to be desired.

Doctor Strange #1 was written by Jason Aaron, illustrated by Chris Bachalo, inked by Tim Townsend, Al Vey, and Mark Irwin with letters by VC's Cory Petit and a back-up story featuring illustration from Kevin Nowlan. Published by Marvel Comics, Doctor Strange #1 costs $4.99.
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