Doctor Strange 21

Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing Doctor Strange 21, originally released May 31st, 2017. As always, this article containers SPOILERS.

Taylor: Here are Retcon-Punch, we read a lot of comics. This is great in so many ways, but primarily because at no other time in history has their been so many quality options for monthly reads. However, the deluge of great comics can take its toll. Given too much of something good, even great comics, a person quickly becomes numb to their pleasures. Reading so many wonderful series means that it becomes easy, on occasion, to overlook just how amazing and unique some issues really are. It’s for this reason that Doctor Strange 21 stands out to me. Not only is it an excellent issue on its own, but it reminds me why comics are some of the most innovative mediums going today.

Issue 21 (which has been released before issue 20. go figure.) is part a tie-in to the recent Secret Wars event. As such, the stakes are high from the very beginning. New York city is enveloped inside a Darkforce bubble and it is up to Doctor Strange and some fellow heroes to fight their way out and free the city from the grasp of Mordo and his dark magic.

For Steven, this means beginning his adventure inside the belly of a giant, magical beast controlled by Mordo. In typical Doctor Strange fashion, Stephen is in over his head in more ways the one. His first order of business is to escape the digestive tract of this animal and in so doing has to battle the creature’s tongue as a sort of final obstacle.

Niko Henrichon draws this scene wonderfully with a full page spread that offers a masterclass in panel layout. The primary panel that first grabs our attention in the scene focuses on the tongue Stephen will have to overcome if he wishes to free himself from the belly of the beast. The tongue acts as Stephen’s nemesis here and by focusing our attention on it, Henrichon gives us a taste of its importance to the scene. Henrichon uses the curl of the tongue and some fluid panel edges to keep it clear where we should be looking. These sloping lines also remind us that everything here is taking place in an organic, curvaceous body, so much the better to accentuate the absurdity of Stephen’s plight. Unique artwork and panel layouts such as these is something only a comic can pull off, and it reminds me just how much fun reading a comic can be.

Henrichon and writer Dennis Hopeless continue this trend of embracing the unique storytelling capabilities of comics later in the issue, as well. Just as Stephen is about to be re-eaten by this same monster, Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, drives his limo into the monster’s head, killing it and saving Strange. The lead up to this event builds tension while also doing something only a comic can.

As Stephen and his comrades are about to be beasty bites, as is seen in two large panels which attract most of our attention, there are three overlayed panels showing the Kingpin’s limo driving furiously.  The tension of this scene lies not in knowing if the limo will save Stephen (because obviously it will somehow), but in just how it will be done. On earlier pages, we were teased with its appearance as well, and with each successive panel we see the car, the more we can only wonder how it will kill this monster. What makes this page so much fun to read, however, isn’t the tension, but once again the way in which the panels are laid out. Here, a reader can choose to read the panels showing Stephen’s party all at once first. Or a reader could choose to read all the limo panels. A third option is to read the panels all linearly. All three options are fine, but it’s that choice that makes this page fun and once again something only achievable in comics.

Speaking of things only comics can do, I love the freedom that writers have to debase their heroes in ways that would never be seen on the big screen. It’s well known that Strange has been down on his luck since the Last Days of Magic, but he stoops to some new lows in this issue. Most notably, he has to use to trash to fight the forces of evil.

There’s something infinitely entertaining about Stephen lighting some old Chinese food on fire and calling it a “fine witches brew.” While Marvel has done an admirable job of working levity into its movies (unlike some other comic publishers), it’s hard to envision a world where they make a movie about Doctor Strange: Trash Wizard. However, comics writers enjoy much more leeway and the result is some truly inventive and fun story telling where an un-lucky rabbit’s food becomes a prime weapon in the fight against evil.

Drew, at you can probably tell, I enjoyed this issue quite a bit. It’s unique not only its content but also in the way it delivers its story. Did you like it as much as I did? Did you get a good chuckle out of Daredevil’s misjudgment of magic in the same way I did? And if you were tasked with making a cauldron of trash to combat the forces of evil, what would you throw into it?

Drew: Gosh, looking for items vaguely associated with superstition on Manhattan? I guess I’d scour bodegas and pizza-by-the-slice places for framed first dollars made — those should have the same totemic power (and combination of good and bad luck) that Doctor Strange was working with, and would be in relative abundance.

The Daredevil cameo was definitely fun, but I think I was most fond of seeing Hopeless write Jessica Drew and Ben Urich again. It’s only been a couple of months since Spider-Woman ended, but just knowing that these two are still up to goofy adventures together — even in the depths of Darkforce-shrouded New York — warms my heart. As far as I’m concerned, Hopeless is the writer of their bicker-y banter, so I couldn’t be happier that he took the opportunity to catch up with them here.

Which I suppose brings me to their inadvertent destruction of Strange’s witches’ brew:

Mystic Moons!

Taylor already mentioned Henrichon’s intuitive sense of flow, but I want to echo that praise just to point out that it works even in these more boilerplate layouts. The motion of Jessica and Ben smashing into that first panel carries us into that closeup of Strange in panel two, but his gaze turns us back to the left for panel three, which then directs us down for that big, full-bleed image that takes up most of the page. It establishes the geography of these characters, both to one another, and to the large, charred monster in the background, all while gracefully leading our eye around the page.

If there’s one criticism I have of this issue, it’s Henrichon’s muted color palette. I understand the motivation to limit the colors, making the setting in the Darkforce dimension crystal clear, but the effect is a lot of these action sequences all feel kind of ruddy-brown, making it hard to distinguish one element for another. A contributing factor might be that it’s unclear what, if anything, is lighting these scenes, limiting our sense of how light should fall on everything (and thus, where they are in relation to one another). Is it white light, or does it have some kind of hue to it? Are we understanding that everything would darker than shown, but is brightened here for our benefit? It feels like some specificity might have lent some clarity to the color work.

But on the whole, I really enjoyed this issue. We’ve seen Fisk’s role in Darkforce Manhattan teased a bit in Secret Empire, but I love the idea of having his relationship with the Defenders expounded on here. He’s just about the last character I’d expect to see rushing in in such heroic fashion, which makes me all the more nervous about whatever he’s expecting in return (and how Strange, Jess, Ben — and especially Daredevil — will react to it). I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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?

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8 comments on “Doctor Strange 21

  1. I kind of want Hopeless to write Defenders. His cameo with Matt Murdock was small, but really well thought out. The magic sword kept locked away was a cool touch. And of course, he’s already proved himself adept with Jessica Drew and Ben Urich (I love that idea of needing a hero with a Master’s Degree in Literature).

    On this issue, I’m a little bit warmer than you guys. A good issue, but not fantastic. One really impressive thing is how well Hopeless uses in medias res that you don’t really realise that this is a Secret Empire tie in. If you are readign Secret Empire, you know why the situation is like this. But it also feels like you’ve just walked into a Doctor Strange adventure. Very elegant, especially for a writer who unfortunately has to deal with the fact that their run starts in the middle of a crossover. Certainly a much better way to start a run in these conditions than Spiderwoman did. Hopefully Hopeless continues this.

    But I think it suffers by feeling a little like a more generic version of what came before. Hopeless has committed to Aaron’s ideas instead of reverting tos tatus quo, but can’t reach Aaron’s heights. The artefacts and spell strategies feel more generic. FOr example, the witches’ brew is a good example. There are some cool ideas (my favourite is the chinese food), it is a very basic, well worn trope. A bunch of meaningful items thrown into a brew (one was even a rabbit’s foot). While trash mages are on the more obscure side, this is very typical of a trash mage. Makes thing sless weird, because this is what I expect to weirdness to be like.

    On the art side, I will happily admit that both my preference and my expertise is for formalist layouts, so this sort of thing won’t create the same response with me as it would for you guys. While you could never get me to shut up about Omega Men’s layout, this is not the sort of art to provoke an amazing response in me (though the panel of Matt’s danger sense is certainly a fun example of what you can do).

    Henrichon’s ar tis certainly great, though. There is a very lived in quality that works, at least for a darker Doctor Strange storyline. Organic elements feel real because it feels like they are affected by things. Such detail is given to how every element, whether it is Strange’s tired face or a giant monstorous tongue, would exist, that the human elements feel human and the monstorous elements have a real physicality that sell their monstorous nature. While the building have a lived in grit that works really well in a dark place like this.
    Though, Drew, I completely agree with your criticism about the lighting. Considering how the Darkforce dimension is lit in Secret Empire, this place feels very vaguely lit. Probably a big reason why this didn’t fully engage me, it doesn’t feel like a new dimension. It lacks the final bit of flavour to really sell the book.

    • One of the things I’m enjoying the more I really understand the medium is catching those formal elements in layouts that don’t draw a ton of attention to themselves. Henrichon directs our eyes very deliberately in this issue, but it’s just not as flashy as, say, Marcos Martin or whoever. He’s still making a ton of choices that impact the pacing and flow, they’re just a little less obvious. Henrichon uses eyelines and direction of motion to direct our eye to the next panel really intuitively, whether that next panel is immediately to the right, straight down, or zig-zagging back to the left for a new row.

      • Yeah, I’m the same. It is fantastic to notice all the subtle ways that layout can be used to provoke meaning. Things like eyelines are great stuff to explore, and I’ve discussed them when required (like in Hulk 5).

        But I do feel a lot more comfortable with formalist layouts than layouts like this. This is largely because I prefer to discuss the way an element provokes meaning, which formalist layouts easily lend themselves to. Discussing the specific rules that a formalist comic uses, the effect those rules have, and the effect of breaking those rules to create meaning is something I find very easy to discuss, which is why I can discuss something like Omega Men all day. With a book like this, that isn’t as formalist, the effect is, as you say, on the tone and pacing. And usually, I prefer to discuss how tone and pacing influence meaning/effect, than how individual elements influence tone or pacing.

        Certainly a fascinating thing to discuss, but at the moment, I know my strengths align better elsewhere. It something I am continuing to develop as I continue to read, but also know my style of discussion best suits other components of a story

  2. Weird to read a Secret Empire tie-in with no political perspective! Still a cool Doctor Strange story, and a welcome influx of Hopeless’ humor, but almost startlingly apolitical.

    • A thought: do the folks inside the Darkforce Dome even KNOW about Secret Empire? Are they getting any sort of communications from outside the dome? Their greatest threat right now is trying to survive the immediate danger of the dome; even if they’re aware of America’s current political upheaval, it would kind of have to be put on the backburner for these particular characters.

      • Oh good point! To them, New York being in the Darkforce dimension is the only crisis right now. They think they’re headlining the “Darkforce” summer event.

        • That’s part of what I really love about this issue. The fact that it works both as a Secret Empire tie in and as a story that could easily be a normal, in medias res Doctor Strange story. It works largely because of the nature of the Darkforce storyline – no one knows why they are trapped, so the politics of Secret Empire are meaningless.

          To do a tie in that is meaningful if you read Secret Empire, but also makes you never feel that you aren’t missing anything by not reading Secret Empire, is impressive. Honestly, it is very interesting that Secret Empire’s tie ins have such an easy way to avoid Secret Empire’s core story

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