February 27, 2010

, , , ,   |  

Doctor Strange: The Oath

Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by Marcos Martin (with Alvaro Lopez)
Marvel

Poor Doctor Strange just can't catch a break doing a regular series. However, every once in awhile, someone picks up the character and does an amazing job with Marvel's premiere mystic.

In this case, it's Brian K. Vaughan, who conjures up a story that combines Strange's past with his present in a way I've never seen before but in a way I wish we'd see again. Strange's faithful servant, Wong, is dying, and only a mystical cure can help. Turns out, it can cure a lot of things. Soon, it's a race against time for the life of Wong as the cure is stolen. With the help of the Night Nurse, can Doctor Strange save his friend and the world? Or will he be forced to choose?

On the surface, the story itself is a bit hard to swallow. The editors at Marvel aren't going to let a minor mini-series bring a major cure into the world, even if they did want to do something like that. That means Vaughan has to work very hard to make the dynamic work--and he succeeds admirably. Even though you know as a reader that things can't end well for Strange, the characters in the story are sure they can win the day--after all, they're heroes, and that's what heroes do. As a result, the reader doesn't feel like he or she's being fed a false hope. Instead, we know that tragedy will inevitably befall our characters, and how they deal with that tragedy after building up so much hope is the glue that holds the story together.

In a way, that makes this story a reverse of the usual plot, where a villain is convinced he will take over the world, but we as the reader know that he will fail. That alone makes this a comic worth reading--Vaughan takes a typical convention of the genre and turns it upside down.

That's enough of the meta-story concepts. What about the details in the pages? If you've ever read a Brian K. Vaughan story, you know that he's a very tight plotter--sometimes almost too tight, as characters seem to bend to his will just a bit too much. Here, however, he's a bit more restrained. Part of that might be due to working with established characters, rather than those of his own imagination.

While you don't need to know much about Doctor Strange or his world to enjoy the comic, fans of the good Doctor will be pleased to note that, with the exception of tweaking the origin a bit here and there, Vaughan tells his story without tramping all over your established feelings for these characters. We even get some nods to Strange's large volume of foes, a treat for longtime fans without going so far into continuity as to confuse people who don't know why Nightmare matters.

Vaughan also displays his signature subtle wit--Strange quips in a visual gag that the hardest place they'll have to visit is the Bronx--and just a hint of preaching in the story. Both of those are present in Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man as well. Fans of Vaughan's other work will find a lot to like in this version of Doctor Strange, even if they aren't big on the mystical parts of the story.

We move along at a very brisk pace, with Vaughan alternating between scenes of Strange's selfishly arrogant past mixed with his heroically arrogant present. It's a parallel story that only hits the reader when we get to the climax and see how everything that happened to make Stephen who he is will impact on his judgment now.

Along the way, we get to see Strange using his magic in some new ways, which I thought was pretty neat. I also love that Strange in Vaughan's hands is extremely human. We see him as a distant figure so often that having him tell Wong to "cut the Zen crap" or swearing in vernacular and mystical terms at the same time is refreshing. It is perhaps the biggest change for the character in this trade, but I thought it worked rather well. After all, you don't spend so much time with people like Luke Cage and Spider-Man without picking up some of their very human attitude.

None of this would have worked without the right artist. Marcos Martin is amazing, and perfect for the job. Any book I've read with his pencils (and sometimes inks, as is the case here) are simply gorgeous. In this case, Martin works to echo Ditko without trying to copy him note for note. Panel layouts, character placement, and facial expressions remind you of Ditko's work, but have enough of Martin's own style to be reflective and not a pale imitation.

He does make one major change that I absolutely love--Martin's Steven Strange is a dead ringer for Vincent Price. (Vaughan even makes a joke about it in the dialog.) If you have any doubts of this, just look at his sketches in the back of the book as bonus material. It's a perfect idea. Price is who I hear in my head when I'm reading any Doctor Strange books, and his alternation between brooding and action (pretty much the modern take on Strange, I think, no matter who is writing him) is the prototypical Vincent Price character. Had there been a Doctor Strange movie during Price's prime, I'm sure he would have been first on the list to play the part.

Doctor Strange: The Oath is one of those series that could easily be overlooked, a small part of the veritable avalanche of titles that Marvel puts out every year. However, it's far better than that and is worth reading for any fans of Vaughan's other comics series. Plus, you don't need to know much about the characters to enjoy the story. I really liked this book, and I think just about anyone would, even if they aren't a big fan of superhero comics. That might be a "strange" thing to say, but it's true!* This is a very good trade, and well worth picking up, if you can find it.

*By the Vishanti, I apologize for that joke.