Mark: Do comic books—straight up comic books—make money? Like, remove the merchandise licensing, remove the blockbuster movies and animated releases, are comic books a profitable business? Both DC and Marvel operate under the umbrella of their corporate parents (Warner Bros. and the Walt Disney Company respectively), and while the publishing of comic books probably continues to bring in a tidy sum, these books are really just generating intellectual property that the real money makers (the aforementioned merchandise and blockbusters) can continue to exploit. It’s with that lightly cynical viewpoint that I approach the relaunch of Doctor Strange. Like Ant-Man earlier this year, Jason Aaron’s Doctor Strange feels like a timely relaunch intended to bring Stephen Strange to a more prominent role in the cultural landscape after years of languishing on Marvel’s bench.
Last we really saw Strange he was a tortured soul in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers (granted, everyone in that run was tortured). His powers grew to be rather overwhelming, culminating in the ability to erase beings and planets at will. With such awesome power, where do you even go as a storyteller? There are two popular ways to reintroduce comic book characters to the public at large: de-power them in an attempt to make them more relatable (see also: Superman, time and time again), or ramp up the humor (ala Ant-Man, Squirrel Girl, etc.) to make an otherwise more esoteric character—you guessed it—more relatable. This new Doctor Strange does both.
Far from the cosmic action Strange has had a hand in recently, Doctor Strange 2 takes place entirely in Strange’s Greenwich Village home. Gone is the heavy weight of determining the survival of entire species. We’re still getting to know this new Doctor Strange, and the problems here are on a much smaller scale. Likewise, there are only three players this issue: Strange, his friend Wong, and the uninitiated Zelma Stanton—a young librarian whose head gets infected by Mind Maggots. When the Maggots escape Zelma they wreck havoc on Strange’s mansion until he is able to trick them into entering his body rather than return to feast on her.
In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange 2 feels like it belongs to DC’s The New 52. I don’t think Strange has been officially de-aged like DC’s heroes were, but he undoubtably feels younger, more vibrant. Part of that is certainly the attitude. This is not a Strange burdened by his knowledge. He’s also a bit more neurotic than in the past and his home more like Hogwarts. Take, for example, Stephen and Zelma’s exploration of his home. Not only is his home impossibly large, it’s filled with the oddest assortment of characters, like cat-calling snakes. Are some of these rooms and creatures dangerous? Absolutely. But it’s all presented in a spirit of fun, rather than foreboding.
The same is true of the art by Chris Bachalo’s (pencils and colors) and Tim Townsend, Al Vey, and Mark Irwin (inks). I especially like the choice to keep Strange’s eyes in shadow except in more humanizing moments like when he’s taken by surprise.
I’ve had a hard time getting into a lot of Marvel titles recently. With the soft relaunch of their universe they’ve been dropping a lot of new titles on us, and so very few of them have anything of interest to offer. I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about Doctor Strange. I like that it’s more lighthearted, but at the same time I feel like every single relaunch of a familiar character is following the same fold. Yet judged on its own merits (and ignoring other titles with a similar style) it’s good at what it does. What say you, Spencer?
Spencer: Yeah, I can definitely see how Marvel’s current crop of books are somewhat similar in tone (you can probably trace that all the way back to Hawkeye), but I can’t really complain, because I like that tone quite a bit. Like most of those titles, Doctor Strange is just a ton of fun.
In fact, now that I think about it, Doctor Strange is exactly what I wanted The Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. to be. This title is thoroughly bizarre, but keeps its strangeness low-key, mining as much humor from Strange’s acceptance of his world as it does from Zelma’s shock and confusion. They really are a wonderful comedic pairing — Strange takes everything so much in stride that Zelma really has no choice but to crack jokes and pretend none of this is happening, lest she go insane from the sheer weirdness of it all.
Strange can be such a larger-than-life, perhaps even pompous character that it’s nice to have someone around who can take the wind out of his sails, and it appears that Zelma will fill that role nicely.
Speaking of “larger-than-life,” as fond as I am of Doctor Strange‘s humor, I’m even more happy with the way Aaron and Bachalo have brought the good Doctor down to Earth. “Magic characters” are always tricky narratively because they can essentially do anything. People complain about Superman being too powerful, but at least his actual abilities have been pretty consistently defined over the last four decades (occasional solar flares aside); characters like Doctor Fate, Zatanna, and yes, Doctor Strange just have to say a few words and they can solve any problem put in front of them with minimal cost.
Lesser writers often use this as a crutch. Take the climax of this issue, where Zelma must admit her deepest secrets in order to draw the Mind Maggots back to her. It would have been both easy and narratively justified to just have Strange find a spell in his book and use it to draw the Maggots back himself, but it would’ve been awfully boring as well. Instead, the solution Aaron chooses is clever, reveals a lot about Zelma’s character, and shows us a side of Doctor Strange aside from his ability to recite spells.
Perhaps most impressively, Aaron pulls this off without spending a ton of time nerfing Doctor Strange. Yes, there is a subplot about his magic not working, but as of now it’s still a rather minor plot point — Aaron doesn’t let this derail the story and become its singular focus the way it has in, say, the Superman books currently. Instead, Strange doesn’t use his magic because he doesn’t need to. His victory is still informed by his skill and experience as Sorcerer Supreme, but from the knowledge and cunning he’s gained in the position as opposed to just some spell he memorized.
Indeed, perhaps my favorite aspect of Aaron and Bachalo’s Doctor Strange is that he’s as much an adventurer as he is Sorcerer Supreme. In a way, he reminds me of the Doctor, relying on knowledge, skill, preparation, and subterfuge more than raw force, power, or technology. Not only does this give Strange more personality than his just being a big magical dues ex machina, but as far as I’m concerned, it actually makes him look more impressive as well. Strange is able to keep a cool head and use only a fraction of his power to defeat the Mind Maggots despite the fact that he’s never encountered them before; moreover, his victory comes down to magical safeguards he established long before the Mind Maggots were a concern, because in his line of work, you’ve always got to be prepared for this sort of thing. This Doctor Strange is competent without being infallible, powerful without being unstoppable, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes for a far more interesting, varied narrative. Here’s hoping Aaron and Bachalo can continue to strike that balance in future issues; if they can, this book is going to be a blast.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?