Saturday, August 09, 2014

Comic Bookshelf: Doctor Strange Season One

Things get serious for Stephen Strange. Words by Greg Pak and stunning artwork from Emma Rios.
"I'm not evil. Just a little bit selfish. Just like you." 
Dr. Stephen Strange to fellow student Wong in Season One.

Though I have read quite a few back issues featuring Stephen Strange's Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr. Strange has never really been a headliner for Marvel Comics. With a Marvel movie in development, it is a safe bet that interest in Dr. Strange is likely to increase, and that whatever direction is taken with the character's origin will become the accepted standard.

Cover by
Julian Totino Tedesco. 
Marvel's hardcover Doctor Strange Season One, written by writer Greg Pak (Planet Hulk among others) and rising star Emma Rios (Osborn and Pretty Deadly), is one of the publisher's more recent attempts to introduce the character in a dynamic way that sticks with readers. Published in 2012, eight years after J. Michael Straczynski and Sara Barnes' 2004 more grounded take take on the origin story, Doctor Strange Season One again takes a pass at establishing a modern, cinematic view of the story. As heralded on the back cover, this was intended to modernize "the formative first days of Marvel's Master of the Mystic Arts." Unlike other characters that received the Season One treatment, such as the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Spider-Man, Dr. Strange has always seemed to function on the periphery of superhero-dom, a fact that for me actually increases his appeal.

Consistent with early
Marvel tropes, green is
the color of evil, in
this case Baron Mordo's
Pak wisely jumps into Strange's origin at the entrance to the Temple of the Ancient One in the Himalayas, electing to recount the events that led our protagonist to this point in his life via flashback. A successful surgeon who has lost the use of his hands to a car accident, Strange is seeking the Ancient One's special "techniques" (at this point he cannot even bring himself to say "magic") in an effort to return to the selfish life of wealth and adulation he lived previously as an American doctor of medicine. It is from this point, and within the context of a search for "three rings of tremendous power," that the reader is introduced to the most common characters and elements of Strange's backstory: the evil Baron Mordo, his future servant/partner Wong, and his true flaw (which in classic Marvel-style is mental/psychological rather than purely physical), hi won hubris.

Usually portrayed as serious and somewhat humorless, here, the characterization of Stephen Strange is more glib. As a cinematic retelling of the origin, it is difficult not to look at it in light of Marvel's most popular onscreen re-imaging in recent memory, Iron Man. While the character has always had something of a physical resemblance to Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark, in Season One it is hard not to see much of Robert Downey Jr.'s goateed (in the early days both Stark and Strange were mustached), wise-ass in Stephen Strange. The characterization plays much like a magic-based analog to Stark's tech based character arc, though Strange's access to power is earned while Stark's is the product of his own innate intelligence. Not surprisingly, this theme of "earned power" or "earned worthiness of power" is echoed throughout Pak's retelling and is key to avoiding too great a similarity with Stark.

Likely in part due to both the characters she's been asked to draw and the dynamic staging of action panels, Rios's work has often been deemed "Ditko-esque". (For non-fanboys, artist Steve Ditko was the original artist for Spider-man and co-creator if Doctor Strange.) Rios does had a fantastic eye for filling in the panel completely with detail and action, squeezing as much out of each moment as possible. As drawn by Rios, at the onset, Strange is a weary and broken man. As he slowly begins to regain his humanity as he makes progress on his mystical path, there is a lightness to his presence on the page that reinforces the growth suggested in Pak's dialogue.

One minor drawback (depending on your personal cash flow) to Dr. Strange Season One, and for that matter the entire series of hardcover Season One books, is the cover price. Yes, the hard cover presentation and binding is gorgeous, but for your $24.99, there are only about 100 or so new pages of content. Additionally, this particular volume, there is also a 20 page reprint of the most recent effort to restart the Dr. Strange led team book, Defenders as well as a nine page sketchbook by Rios. My own willingness to purchase the hardcover upon its initial release was based on two factors: my desire to see Dr. Strange given the "star treatment" by his publisher and the creative pairing of Rios' artwork and Pak's writing. To its credit, Doctor Strange Season One is a highly entertaining reintroduction to a character whose presence in the Marvel Universes continues to grow. It also maintains a high level of readability value, thereby making its purchase price easier to accept, and my recommendation of it as very worthwhile.

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