Robot 6

The Fifth Color – The Familiar and Strange

the fifth colorSo, Brother Voodoo dusted off his doctorate, hung it high above his name and became an Avenger of the Supernatural last October.  While skeptical of how he went about it, I felt the first issue was fast, hard-hitting and looked ready for action.  This was new!  All new, one might say… maybe even all different.  After a lot of hemming and hawwing, the House of Ideas was finally going to show us what it wanted from a Sorcerer Supreme, reinventing the man in their own image.  If Stephen Strange didn’t do it for Editorial, let’s see who did.

Oh.  It’s canceled at issue 5, you say?  Hrm.

Personally, I thought the second issue wasn’t as good as the first.  The dialogue sounded stilted, character voices started to blend together the longer you read it and… well, something was missing.  A lot of ominous atmosphere, a fight with Doctor Doom is always cool, but the momentum of the narrative slowed down.  This was not a good sign for the book and honestly, as creative a villain as Nightmare is, I know I was at least burnt out on him since Peter David’s Hulk story ‘Tempest Fugit’, oh way back when.  Something was missing, the book sold poorly and Rick Remender will probably scoot Voodoo and Pals into his surprisingly entertaining and fun FrankenCastle story.  He’d play better there and have a more specific set of goals herding giant monster terrors as well as helping out the undead Frank Castle (hey, voodoo!), more than is was with the ‘you’re going to get important, hang tight’ theme of his own book.  I don’t see this is as fall for Jericho Drumm, more a return to his strengths.

But where does this leave Wong, the fate of our dimension and the Sanctum Sanctorum?

Well, the Sanctum Sanctorum will remain safe right above the Pinkberry (no, really!), but the setting of an old familiar story and the way it’s told isn’t as in jeopardy as you may think.

Four years ago (also in October, coincidentally), Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin wrote a little ditty called ‘Doctor Strange: the Oath’ and personally, it’s the first thing I always hand customers in my store who want to know who ‘this Doctor Strange guy is, anyways’.  It’s a tight little mini-series with amazing artwork that deals with the incredible power of being the Sorcerer Supreme by bringing it all down to the human equation: Doctor Strange can either save the life of his best friend and student, Wong, or cure the world of disease with a magical elixir.  Through the series is a mystery of where this magical elixir is, who and why they have it, as well as a team-up with the Night Nurse to be our eyes and ears for this story, the heart of humanity (will Wong live or die?) and a moral choice that all the magical power in the world can’t solve for you.  There’s also a martial arts duel on the the roof in the rain, so really, this book has it all.

Years later, despite ups and downs, power drains, foolish actions and a sort of floundering with a character assumed to be too big for his own britches, Mark Waid has been actually doing a fine job over in the Strange mini-series with Emma Rios. #3 came out this week and was a solid and fun little story of the evils of child pageants and the general theme of devilish deals and responsibility.  Strange is seeing his job in a new light, first without the ‘protection’ of the Sorcerer Supreme mantle (I see it as more of a big giant target to the supernatural, but hey) and secondly through the eyes of a very ‘Gertrude Yorkes’ looking girl by the name of Casey.  While having a hip, teen, female sidekick is overdone to the point of exploding in the microwave, she’s our eyes and ears for this trip and has a little magical potential to boot. The series has that trademark Waid cheeky kind of humor and a lot of heart; the story is full of people making deals with devils for all sorts of desperate and very human reasons and are given their due understanding in the problems they’ve caused for themselves.  We learn to read contracts very carefully and there’s always some incredibly clever loophole or trick that’s discovered with Holmesian inspiration.

I’m even going to jump the gun now and say that Matt Fraction writes a pretty darn good Doctor Strange story himself!  Sure, he just showed up in Invincible Iron Man #22 (and with a gorgeous cover!), but let’s look at what he came in with:  A mystery (they dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s but Tony Stark still isn’t waking up!), humanity (Strange is here to more than just save Tony’s life, he’s going to help him get his soul back), he’s at the door with skills beyond that of mortal ken (if Thor, Iron Man and Captain America can’t solve a problem together…), there’s a terrific psychedelic splash page of mystic art and five’ll get you ten that there’s got to be something clever in the works ahead.

Joe Quesada expressed the position at BACC last year (in October!  This is getting spooky…) that the character of Stephen Strange needs ‘re-spinning’.  From CBR’s report from the Joe Quesada Q&A:

“The honest answer is that Doctor Strange is one of a small handful of characters that whenever you see them guest star, you go, ‘Oh! Doctor Strange! I wish he had his own series,’” Quesada answered. “Then we launch a series, and nobody buys it.” Marvel’s current plan for Stephen Strange- aside from the upcoming “Strange” miniseries by Mark Waid and Emma Rios- is to re-spin the character in a way that would eventually support an ongoing series.

In some ways, he’s right.  How well does a Dr. Strange book really sell?  Revamps are the new black in terms of character creation; Star Trek did so well, I’ll say that ‘Blackest Night’ is a revamp of the entire Green Lantern mythos and even Marvel entire is going to go through a Heroic makeover once Siege is done.  The article goes on to say that Quesada “suggested Iron Man’s current success is proof that a lesser-known character could eventually become a household name, which should provide some hope that Doctor Strange will eventually attain A-list status.”

Ah, but how did Iron Man do it?  Was it a revamp, the Extremis virus, some new guy in the suit, a spunky teen sidekick?  No.  It was staying true to the heart of the character that inspired us in the first place:  a billionaire industrialist atoning for his sins in the weapons market by using his smarts and savvy to save the world.  That how he basically started out, and that’s what they showed us on the big screen with some glossy new effects and brilliant acting.

Doctor Strange is at his best when he is given mystery, humanity, inspiration and dignity.  No re-spin needed.

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Doctor Strange is at his best when he’s not the focus of the story. Admittedly, I haven’t been the biggest Strange solo fan, but as far as I know his abilities have never adequately been defined. He’s kind of like Superman in the 50s, when Superman developed new powers to suit the needs of the story. Likewise, Strange seems to always have a spell tucked up his sleeve for any emergency. It’s very hard to write compelling stories for a character who is as perfect as Strange is. Doctor Fate has had very similar problems at DC in that he’s very handy to have around in a team, but isn’t nearly as entertaining on his own.

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