Saturday, September 22, 2012

DOCTOR STRANGE: SEASON ONE
AN IN-DEPTH REVIEW




Writer: Greg Pak
Illustrator: Emma Rios
Additional Inks: Alvaro Lopez
Color Artist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles
Cover Artist: Julian Totina Tedesco
Editor: Ellie Pyle
Consulting Editors: Alejandro Arbona & John Denning
Executive Editor: Tom Brevoort
125 PAGES
 Hardcover
$24.99




DOCTOR STRANGE: SEASON ONE
AN IN-DEPTH REVIEW




---------- THE INTRODUCTION ----------

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 brought with it the long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated release of DOCTOR STRANGE: SEASON ONE by writer Greg Pak and illustrator Emma Rios (as well as the other members of the creative team, listed above).

Here’s how it is described in the solicitation text (which also happens to be the back-cover blurb):

“A window-crashing, high-flying, globe-traveling, ghost-battling adventure from the earliest days of Doctor Strange’s training in the mystic arts! Part Indiana Jones, part Lord of the Rings, thrill to this new tale of how a selfish, arrogant surgeon collided with a hot-headed martial artist to become the greatest team the mystic arts have ever seen! If only they can stop hitting each other and figure out how all this magic stuff works anyway.”

That sets up some pretty heady stuff and lofty goal for the creative team of Greg Pak and Emma Rios; both of whom have shared their talents on previously told exploits of Doctor Strange. Writer Greg Pak frequently used the good Doctor in his work on the ‘INCREDIBLE HULK(S)’ title, and artist Emma Rios having last delineated a Doctor Strange mini-series, entitled ‘STRANGE’ (vol.2), written by veteran writer Mark Waid. Thus readers can have a fairly clear idea of just what is going to be presented (at least as far as quality) in the pages of this original graphic novel. Depending on your opinions based upon experiencing those past works, this creative team-up could either be a good thing – or not.

Behind a majestic cover, painted by Julian Totina Tedesco, Greg Pak sets out to weave a tale showcasing a heretofore unknown, untold story of the formative early days/months of Doctor Stephen Strange’s tutelage in the mystic arts at the Tibetan lamasery of the Ancient One.

Such a timeframe has long been territory left untrodden by generations of previous Marvel writers – which always struck me as “strange” (no pun intended). Within that time, we have a period of great learning of new wisdom and shedding of old beliefs. A time of great supplication and the rising and advancing of the spirit. A time when all that the selfish, avaricious Doctor Stephen Strange; the man, who once was, would be shed to be replaced by all that Doctor Strange; the mystic, will become.  Few and far between are the glimpses into this time of formative experience for the Master of the Mystic Arts.

Thus it is that Greg Pak seeks to be one of the few to leave his footprints in those rarely traveled snowy peaks.


---------A BRIEF SUMMATION & CAVEATS---------


Just as a head’s-up, this is to be less a typical “review” and more an examination (a dissection), as I go into the full depth of this work. As followers of this blog may know, my “reviews” tend to be much deeper than the norm. This review is less for those looking to determine IF they should purchase this book than for those who have already bought it, read it and wish to see if their experience is shared – or who are looking for greater context (or those who may not yet have read it, don’t mind the spoilers and just like to read my take on things).

To me, the most important demographic that can read my review would be for those who may never have read the origin of Doctor Strange, this perhaps being their first foray into the early life of the character, and thus, my in-depth cross-analysis with other, similar, previously told versions can help them determine what has been added, changed, retconned or enhanced in this new novel.

If you simply wish to know IF you should buy the book, I will simply state, that I am sure there are other, more traditional reviews, on both sides of the spectrum, which may shed light on the work. Still, in my opinion, if you are simply looking  to read the origin tale of Doctor Strange, you could do no better than the original 8-page Stan Lee / Steve Ditko story from ‘STRANGE TALES’ # 115 (or obviously, any reprint of same). Of course, you could also read my personal favorite: ‘DOCTOR STRANGE’ (vol. 1) # 169 (which was really # 1, since the original Strange Tales ended with # 168, and the title continued, renamed after its then-rising star) by Roy Thomas and Dan Adkins, and/or issue # 56 of ‘DOCTOR STRANGE: MASTER OF THE MYSTIC ARTS’ by Roger Stern and Paul Smith, which is often the most reprinted version of the origin tale (with the possible exception of the very first). Those are THE best of the many tellings of the origin story.

However, since this graphic novel only briefly deals with the origin and soon delineates a story of “what came next”, if perhaps, you are interested in reading stories of those “early days” of Strange’s training in Tibet, then aside from this work there are, sadly, few other resources (but I do list them elsewhere in this review).

Still, and all, while this work is entertaining as all heck, fast-paced, exciting, with some good laughs, delivering on ALL promises in the promotional blurb, and has many excellent points of merit, I find it little more than an oversized (and overpriced) issue of “WHAT IF?”, that could have been - should have been – better. 
I know... if it was so good, how can I say it should have been better?

Well, it was good as a stand-alone work, not tied to the history (past or future) of published Doctor Strange "canon".


To me, Greg Pak's "DOCTOR STRANGE: SEASON ONE" seems to be an attempt at a movie-script-friendly modern origin update.

Thus, I can only truly recommend it for the die-hard Doctor Strange completeists, and/or fans of Greg Pak and/or Emma Rios – or those who are more open to major change / retcons in their classic tales. Although, and I feel that I truly SHOULD make this known: as far afield as some of these changes are, MOST (but not all) of them can fit into the current canon (or at least be made to fit, with a little forgiving and tweaking of previously published canonical reference).

That said, if you wish to know WHY I think the way that I do, then read on – HOWEVER - I will begin this review to IMMEDIATELY STATE that there are SPOILERS APLENTY!

I give away much of what happens, as I examine this work in some great detail. ALSO, I am reviewing this work not only as it stands on its own, but also how it compares and contrasts to other works that deal with this time-frame in the tale of Doctor Strange; his origins and early steps into magic. For while this original graphic novel is partially just that; an original story, it also serves in many ways to retell (or more accurately, re-imagine) the classic origin tale, and as a reinterpretation (like a remake of a film) the review must look at the original work upon which this exploration is based.

The review is broken-down into sub-categories:
  •         THE REVIEW: PART THE FIRST: “THE ORIGIN”
  •         THE REVIEW: PART THE SECOND : “WHAT CAME NEXT”
  •         THE WRITING
  •         THE ARTWORK
  •         FINAL THOUGHTS

Of course, as is obvious, all opinions are merely as I see them. Opinions and tastes differ.

Also, as I order my comics from an online discount resource (Discount Comic Book Service - since there are no local shoppes in my area), my physical copy has yet to arrive. Thus, I am reviewing this work based upon the digital download code that a friend gave to me from their own physical copy.

Ready? Then let’s get on with the review of this adventure!


--------- THE REVIEW ---------
PART THE FIRST: “THE ORIGIN”


In the original tales of Strange, told in the pages of STRANGE TALES (vol. 1), by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Strange is nearly immediately portrayed as a competent mystic; no learning curve being shown. For one story, his origin tale (told several issues after his introduction), we are given the all-too brief look at Strange’s fall from grace and the first formative steps to his rise to greatness. In 8 pages, Lee and Ditko told an origin tale that carried with it the weight of more than even a full issue. The economy of craft (and limitations of space) hindered not the abilities of those two icons to produce something that has lasted the test of time – one of the all-time greatest origin stories ever imagined for a Marvel comics character (if not ANY character in the history of publication). They crafted an origin tale of great highs, deepest lows, the path of personal growth – and redemption. Still, they left ample room for others to come in and expand the story.

This is what is attempted in the pages of this book. It succeeds in many places, and in others… does not.

Greg Pak starts the story with Strange about to enter the Lamasery – his long, tiresome journey already a fait accompli. This is a shame, as the journey has yet to be told, in depth, by any writer, and remains unexplored. A literal and literary terra incognita.

There have been a few glimpses into the trek as written in other, earlier works: first undertaken in ‘DOCTOR STRANGE’ (vol. 1) # 169 by Roy Thomas and Dan Adkins, Strange’s journey, by plane and then on foot, is beautifully – yet all-to-briefly – illustrated. The journey next explored in the original graphic novel; DOCTOR STRANGE: INTO SHAMBALLA by J.M. DeMatties and Dan Green, Strange is shown walking the last leg of the journey – again - with scenes shifting from his then-current time, with Strange by then already Sorcerer Supreme – as well as the original, fateful trek, shown in flashback. Next we were given a brief account, in the pages of STRANGE TALES (vol.2) # 5 & 6, by Peter B. Gillis (in dialogue between Strange and his former Sherpa) of the broken-down Stephen Strange’s original sojourn thru the Himalayan mountaintops, as well as a renewed passage of the peaks.  J.M. DeMatties revisted the journey (while also mentioning the SHAMBALLA work) in DOCTOR STRANGE: SORCERER SUPREME # 84). Interestingly enough, probably the most intensive foray into that aspect of the story took place in J. Michael Straczynski’s ‘STRANGE’ (vol. 1), which, like this new story, sought to re-work Doctor Strange’s origin for a more “modern” audience (as it was originally penned as a movie-treatment). It failed, and was immediately rendered out of canon - into an alternate universe tale – and thus, out of our consideration, like several other origin re-imaginings.
You may wish to remember that particular point for later.

Still, with those other brief looks into the journey, (ironically, with the sole exception being the JMS ‘STRANGE’) we are never really given a glimpse into the villages and people that lay below the mountaintop retreat. Here, Greg Pak at least touches briefly upon the matter (as much as Peter B. Gillis before him), by showing Strange enter a tavern somewhere in the village below - or at least he will – further on in the book.
However, here at the start, Strange is about to take his first steps into his destiny.

His first words at seeing the Temple: “What a Dump.”

Thus, Greg Pak returns us to the days and mindset of the arrogant Stephen Strange, a man used to the finer things in life. For a man who has always seen great rewards for his labors, no doubt he is unimpressed by the humble, unadorned edifice that has been the goal of his long and torturous physical endeavor.
The interior of the temple is another matter, as immediately, Emma Rios begins to gift us with a sense of atmosphere, showing gossamer thin, wispy, wafting fabrics, carried to and fro by the obvious chill drafts that permeate the finely detailed and ornamented ancient Himalayan retreat.

When we first see Stephen Strange, he looks like some old-world explorer, with sideways-sweeping, winged mustache and choppy-looking beard. Rios’ costuming choices for the journeying Stephen Strange are quite good, authentic (and almost exactly as drawn by Steve Ditko in the original): fur-rimmed parka and baggy pants tucked into insulated hiking boots. Only the curious choice of a wide-rimmed fedora style hat seems incongruous (both in Ditko’s version as well as now), as surely the winds that would whip around the snowy peaks would blow that sort of hat off one’s head in short order. Sadly, with Rios’ unrefined inking style, the hat (along with the overall depiction of Stephen Strange) only lends itself more to the old world explorer (Spaniard or Frenchman… or Dutchman for that matter) as if a portrait rendered by an old-world artist utilizing an unrefined technique.

Immediately Pak and Rios deviate somewhat from the classic Lee / Ditko origin tale in several ways of ever-differing levels of seriousness.

First by having Strange try to bribe the Ancient master with cash (or credit card “if you’re set up for that”), as opposed to every other incarnation of the tale wherein Strange had to sell or pawn off the last of his possessions with which to make the trip, here Strange seems like he’s still fairly liquid. He’s not as completely destitute as in other versions. For good or ill, this might allow him to retain a level of cockiness and arrogance that the earlier versions had nearly tempered out of him.

Next, Strange states that his hands have been crushed, when in the original his hands had merely suffered nerve damage, with no outer harm. I can see nothing to be gained by this alteration of events. Interesting, that Pak also crushes Strange’s hands in his earlier work, “World War Hulk” (in a bit of “made-no-sense” new interpretation of rules for astral form interaction).

Also different, the choice made to NOT have the Ancient One levitate the arrogant westerner, while mystically examining his spirit. Here, the Ancient One is portrayed less as a stoic, sedimentary living statue and more as a walking, humorous and somewhat eccentric curiosity. The loss of this simple act has more weight than you might well imagine, as I’ll detail soon enough.

Also changed, that in the original, once Strange decides that the Ancient One is a fraud, his desire to depart the temple was halted only by the onset of a freak snowstorm. Created as if by… magic. Here, the storm is apparently already transpiring (even though the artwork doesn’t quite show that to be the case). Strange is merely told to stay a few days – and he does – in defeat, as opposed to the original where he has no choice despite his protestations. Here, Strange is cowed, dejected somewhat. What is odd here, is that while Strange seems to have more still left in reserve (as shown in the bribery scene) he has less overall determination than shown in the original tale, where he was totally down-on-his-luck and frustratingly grasping for any lifeline that could anchor him to his former life. As this line of thought is not pursued in this version, it turns out to be just a weird observation by myself (but one that continues to demonstrate – perhaps subconsciously - wherein Marvel renders Stephen Strange as being portrayed lesser than he once was.)

Although truthfully, if I were in his penniless, well snow-peaked-mountain trod shoes, I’d also be less inclined to simply storm off and turn back to an unknown future.

I might need to pause here and point out a possible coloring error, as it is one that could be confusing to the story. When Stephen is showing his hands to the Ancient One for the first time, they appear to be glowing – as they are haloed by a pale yellow. Perhaps, as in later scenes, there were squiggly lines which the colorist may have mistakenly taken to mean “glowing with power”, which were really to portray nerve-damaged shaking. This is evident, as in the next scene where Strange is trying, in vain, to open a can of foodstuffs, and is unable to manipulate the can-opener (resorting to then smashing the can against the countertop repeatedly. A nice, comical touch, presumably written in by Greg Pak). I will speak more of the coloring in this work near the end when I also examine the artwork as a whole.

However, speaking of Strange’s hands, Rios draws them as being deeply lined with scars with obvious signs of surgical stitching from operations intended to heal his damaged hands. This makes more sense here than it did in the universally-acclaimed mini-series; ‘THE OATH’, by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin. In that earlier piece, the scars are used as a shocking story’s-end reveal, but being that the events therein took place so many years after Strange’s accident, made little sense to be so evident. Here, in this story, the wounds are fresh, the scars still new, and they can be easily accepted - even welcomed - by this reader.

While this Lamasery is home to the Ancient One, within established canonical record it is also inhabited by at least one acolyte, (Hamir the Hermit – the father to Wong,) although, usually more than one have been seen, who serve as caretakers of their ancient master and the temple where they meditate and study. Here, no acolytes or even other students, save for Baron Mordo, are shown to be present. Maybe they are in other parts of the building, and are not seen during our “visit”. Since this is such a minor thing, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and say that they are. There is a valid reason why I am pointing out something so trivial. You’ll find out soon enough when Wong enters the story.

Baron Mordo, who at the time of Strange’s arrival is already a pupil of the Ancient One, has succumbed to the “dark side” of magic, and is still represented very close to his early canonical appearances. Older, more driven to use magic to garner power to himself, Mordo replays his earliest Lee / Ditko tale as trying to use the power granted by the other-dimensional warlord, Dormammu, to slay the Ancient One, and thus take his power and place.

In the original tale Strange stumbles upon Mordo’s treachery and finds himself concerned for the wizened master. In this new version, Mordo himself, mistaking Strange’s selfishness for dark strength tries to take Strange under his wing and shows him what he is up to. This is an interesting twist. It shows Mordo as feeling more secure in his vile ways than the cravenly, secrecy-coveting version in Strange Tales of old.
Unfortunately, with the usage of the mystical mouth-clamp – which makes it impossible for Stephen to warn the Ancient One to Mordo’s machinations (of which are also examples of Mordo’s magic to which Strange is witness) – it is Mordo’s magic which Strange first feels and not the more gentle probing of the Ancient One. Strange is first introduced to dark magic, with no reference of good magic with which to counterbalance. A seemingly minor alteration, but a strong one, as to the uninitiated Strange, he might not know that there IS a difference, but may merely believe magic can be used for good and/or evil.

Perhaps this is why later, when Strange sees the name of Dormammu in the Book of the Vishanti, he speaks the name with little heed to its consequences. (Note: even in the earliest Stan Lee-penned Strange Tales, Doc used to call on Dormammu every now and then (heck, even the Ancient One did so). Lee hadn’t nailed down the finer workings of good and evil entities at the time.)

Also within this sequence of magical treachery and discovery, we see a huge diversion from the original. In the original Lee/Ditko joint, Strange struggles to warn the Ancient One of Mordo’s plot, but due to the invisible magic clamp can not do so. He struggles and realizes that he can speak of OTHER things, just not Mordo. It is thus, that he first foregoes his selfishness and begs to study at the feet of the Ancient One – to protect him, and the world – from Mordo. Here, in this new version, Strange’s acceptance of the offer is seemingly for the same reason, but without much of the weighty context of the original story, and for those who may never have read the original that point might be lost. This is, unfortunately, due to passing out of vogue the use of “thought bubbles” which could show the inner struggle that Strange underwent in the original tale. Here, Strange simply adds the addendum; “So I can help you FIGHT”, (which removes all the inner conflict of the original).

I feel I should also point out that when the Ancient One accepted Strange’s offer of discipleship in the original tale, the Ancient One conveyed his acceptance with much more spiritual balance (and/or a perhaps clichéd or perceived stereotypical manner as a “wise Asian mystic”) than Greg Pak’s new version of the Ancient One, who retorts with the inane; “No takesy-backsies”. This may be to better “humanize” the Ancient One who in tales of old had oft been portrayed as more removed (or at least stoic) to the others around him, but to me this simply reduces the overall (suggested) greatness of the learned master into someone that Strange aptly surmises is; “…really weird.” However, even this “weird” type of personality is immediately dropped and never pursued again, so I wonder… what was the point? If Pak was hoping to bring the Ancient One more “down-to-Earth” then why only the one cutesy statement?

One last point on the origin, before we move on to “what came next”, and that is the departure of Mordo. In the original telling of Strange’s origin, after the Ancient One removes the mystic restraints that Strange placed upon Stephen, there is no suggestion that Mordo discovered that the Ancient One knew of Mordo’s deception and role in the mystic attack upon the aged master. It wasn’t until ‘Doctor Strange’ # 56 that Roger Stern detailed that Mordo stayed on, under the watchful eye of the Ancient One (better to keep a known evil where one can monitor it). Then it was not until an envious Mordo challenged Strange to a magic duel, which ended with Strange the victor, that Mordo departed the lamasery in shame. Here, in Pak’s rendition, Mordo departs immediately after his attack on the Ancient One is foiled, and Strange has made his bid for discipleship. A simpler, neater chain of events? Perhaps. Pak certainly gives information that the Stan Lee / Steve Ditko origin did not. A forgotten plot point (or open for later telling?) that Pak quietly wraps up. However, I confess to liking Stern’s later interpretation even if Pak’s does make more sense. Either way, to help keep this tale in canon, one could suppose that the upcoming battle between Strange and Mordo in the rest of this original graphic novel could be seen as being the battle that Stern first mentions.


--------- THE REVIEW ---------
PART THE SECOND: “WHAT CAME NEXT”


As many fans already know the origin of Doctor Strange, this new work only truly gets started once the formality of retelling of that chapter is complete and Strange begins “what came next”.
Jumping two months ahead, we see Strange in a small, dark chamber within the Ancient One’s retreat, attempting to learn his first spell; a flame conjuration. The truly odd thing about it is that the entities entreated to summon the flame is not the Faltine (as in the oft-summoned: “the flames of the Faltine”) but instead the trinity of the Vishanti themselves. Perhaps their blessing is required for any pupil of white magic, but it does seem a bit of overkill; like if you lost your keys and you were asking God to open your locked door when a call to a locksmith would do. But I digress.

After months of unsuccessful attempts at this first (and assumedly basic, entry level) spell, Strange, in disgust, simply lights a match. (An ironic thing, as he was unsuccessful at even that mundane task, instead having his matches snap in half, when he first entered the lamasery.)
Immediately afterwards, in a particularly hard-to-discern panel, the Ancient One seems to blast the former surgeon through the window and into the mountain snow. Not sure why. Tough love, perhaps? Either way, it seems that according to the Ancient One, the Vishanti have rejected Strange as unworthy – his desires clouded, his faith unclear.

After this altercation, Strange leaves to go to the village below (still carrying the Book of the Vishanti) and heads into a bar.

I want to THANK Greg Pak for sidestepping the all-to-frequently mistaken memes of having Strange be either a “Chosen One” or some kind of alcoholic, as those are simply wrong-minded directions to follow. This is as I discussed in parts 1 and 2 of my FINGERS OF DEATH FOR DOCTOR STRANGE series [PART 1: “chosen one” HERE] [PART 2: “alcoholic” HERE], [Intro to the Series HERE].

Still, while Strange is trying to work out his frustrations with a drink, he still has the discipline to ask the tavern keeper for a candle, with which he can continue his practice. A beautiful touch by Pak.
Still, Pak’s Stephen Strange seems, at the onset, to be wavering between his pledge to the Ancient One and his desire to simply find the cure for his hands and go. Thus, when he sees the name of Dormammu in the book, the name obviously remembered from the power-play with Mordo, he speaks the name aloud and all the lights in the bar go out… but his candle begins to glow! POWER! MAGIC!
But also aglow, are Strange’s eyes… red. Thus, one direction that the story could go would be for Strange to be tempted by this dark power, but he never has the chance as at that moment Wong bursts through the door.

Upon realizing the name that has been uttered, Wong attacks Strange and accuses him of being Mordo.
It is here that I remind everyone of my point very early on in the review wherein I pondered at why there were no other acolytes or students shown in the temple. For here Wong states that he has studied all his life in the mystic arts of Kamar-Taj to protect the Sorcerer Supreme - but he doesn’t know that Strange is not Mordo. Thus, are all the students kept separate and anonymous from each other? The retreat is vast, so it could be possible. Sadly, it is not really explained.

Either way, the two mystic students begin to pummel each other until the intervention of the Ancient One who punishes them by decreeing that they train…together.

The inclusion of mystic study in with Wong's duties as protector of the Sorcerer Supreme has never been one ever shown (or even mentioned) in any other Doctor Strange story before. It wasn’t really until the fairly recent ‘THE OATH’ by Brian K. Vaughan, or ‘NEW AVENGERS’ by Brian Michael Bendis that Wong’s even being a pupil of Doctor Strange had ever been mentioned.

So as not to basically give a blow-by-blow reading of the work, I’ll now jump to a few different, yet vitally important, points within the story.

While Greg Pak managed to avoid the clichéd (and wrong-minded) memes of having Strange be either a “chosen one” or an alcoholic, he falls squarely into the trap of trying to make this a modern tale – and thus ignores the fact that Doctor Stephen Strange’s origin should take place in the 1950’s-1960’s. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum in other posts, according to Marvel’s own Official Handbooks, Stephen Strange was born in 1930. For a better timeline, feel free to read my summation which can be found in Part 3 of the FINGERS OF DEATH series [HERE].

Pak transgresses this point in three ways: Once by an off-hand remark by Strange wherein he asks if a mystic device (a magic map) “gets email”, the second by having the characters communicate to each other by cell-phone, and the third by the inclusion of his pet character; Sofia Di Cosimo (of Il Museo Della Mitologia Antica, Rome – which she states every time she says her name) – a modern character (who was previously seen – albeit later in history – in the pages of ‘INCREDIBLE HULK(S) ). Thus, unless Sofia is, by some untold story, a long-lived person somewhat outside of the passage of time, this tale is set in the very present day. And while cell phones and email have been available to the general public for several decades, the availability of tablets (which the mystic map resembles) and/or other devices which can receive email have only been on the market for only about 5 years. Thus, this origin can’t even be at the “10 years ago” point of Marvel’s sliding timeline. The Fantastic Four have been given the status of the 10-year mark (by which nearly all the Marvel Universe is measured) and it has been long accepted that Doctor Strange’s origin predates the FF’s by several decades (Strange having finished his mystic studies and returning to America when a newly scarred, college-age Doctor Doom was still searching the far east for the monks who would help him forge his mask and armor.) With one vanity project (Sofia), a casual usage of very modern technology and a seemingly innocent line (a joke for the sake of being “with it”), Greg Pak truly screws the pooch of Doc’s history.

Pak’s “pet” is present to initiate a quest for the story’s maguffins; a trio of long-lost magic rings that allow the wearer to command the Vishanti – despite the wearer’s worthiness. Convenient, huh? A seemingly unworthy Stephen Strange can’t seem to command the Vishanti to empower his spell (and he also can’t seem to get his hands fixed). Well… here ya go!
Ugh.

Also of all-too convenient coincidence is that there are 3 Vishanti, 3 Rings, and the 3 protagonists to quest for them. In fact, each ring is acquired - one-for-each – by each member of this impromptu, ersatz team by the usage of their particular strengths: Strange’s medical background, Wong’s audacity and Di Cosimo’s ties to her museum.
Team-building via design…er…serendipity.

To make sure readers fully grok how cool it is to have a ‘Lord of the Rings’ riff going on, Sofia Di Cosimo, who acts as “ring-bearer” for much of the story, is referred to as their “Hobbit”. Also, in one scene, a power-hungry Strange has his own Gollum moment as he glares at the rings hanging around her neck, hissing his “S’es”, his eyes again glowing red with evil intent. Yes. Yes. We get it. They’re rings of power and he is tempted.
Sadly, this obvious LotR “homage” was probably an important selling point of the story to Marvel editors. It is believed by today’s standards to be “kool” to reference pop-culture, and it makes a new project more palatable if it is comparable to something popular that already exists (exactly as JMS’ ‘STRANGE’ was a heavy-handed riff on THE MATRIX).

As an aside, it strikes me that many of these new “retellings” of classic origins are really just R&D enterprises by which to use as compost for the new Marvel Hollywood money-tree of which Disney/Marvel is now seemingly but an I.P. greenhouse.


Without giving everything away, Strange does manage to summon the Vishanti – a situation of which I can not express the magnitude of “wrongness” (despite their awesome visual stage-entrance as drawn by Emma Rios – although she is only redrawing their classic incarnations, it is very well done).

The Vishanti first appeared to Doctor Strange in the pages of ‘MARVEL PREMIER’ # 5. The second time he saw them, in the classic ‘DOCTOR STRANGE / DR. DOOM: TRIUMPH & TORMENT’, Strange states that he had only seen such energies manifest “once before” – thus alluding to the Marvel Premier story. Of course, just to play ‘Devil’s Advocate’ for Greg Pak, we can assume that perhaps, in THIS instance, the Vishanti did not coalesce in the same energy glow that Strange found so singular. Thus his statement in Triumph & Torment could be seen as technically true and accurate.
 However, such a summoning in this story, within two months of Strange’s entering the Ancient One’s tutelage, just seems infinitely wrong to my sensibilities. There was no effort to achieve this. Strange has no pedigree at this point. To be able, in essence, to not only see the face of “God”, but also make commands of same with no study or sacrifice, is like winning the inter-dimensional cosmic lottery. The odds against it are so immeasurable, and the prize far, far too immense. It’s an iteration of exactly what is wrong with today’s culture. Instant gratification. Immediate fame. Think of the “American Idol” phenomenon, wherein people, some who have never truly “earned” it, are suddenly, overnight, granted fame and fortune. Now, take that to a universal scale. If Doctor Strange’s origin and apprenticeship into the mystic arts is to mean anything, then such a feat has to be earned, else he’s little more than “Harry Potter”, destined greatness, or Charlie of the “Willy Wonka” tale, winning the ultimate “golden ticket” (to use two more pop-culture references).
It also lessens every other meeting with other-dimensional entities that Strange would go on to meet in the many, many stories which had been told. For if Strange saw the Vishanti, when he was but a novice, then how impressive can meeting any other entity truly be? Gone is all (or most) sense of future wonder.

The story of the quest for the rings does, at least, have some interesting turns, and at least one excellent character-growth moment for Doctor Strange, in which he, while aiding a fellow doctor in a foreign land, almost tenderly forsakes his selfish, arrogant ways for a renewal of his potential early motives as selfless healer. To help. To heal. To do good.
Bravo to Greg Pak for this sequence, and to Emma Rios who sublimely shows the subtle change in Strange.

As the adventure unfolds, and the need for magic-usage increases, it is certainly odd that Strange, who has seemingly only attempted one spell (and has been trying to use it in even the most nonsensical situations) suddenly pulls new ones out of his head. It seems that if it rhymes, it’s a valid spell. It could be understood that if the Vishanti-flame spell was a “graduation” spell of sorts, and that Strange had passed many other, lesser challenges, then he would have a decent array of spells to choose from in these later instances. However, it had been fairly obviously stated that he was only beginning his studies and the Vishanti-flame spell was lesson 101, so these new off-the-cuff spell castings are more “writer needs a way out”. It might have made more sense to have Wong recite the spells for Strange to cast, since Wong had been studying the magicks since he was a child. His studies had yet to be successful, but he would know more than Strange. However, Wong is given the role of “kung-fu fighter” in this story, with only minor mystic abilities, despite his years of study.

There are some strange and interesting divergences from the historical portrayal of the use of magic of the Marvel Universe which Dr. Strange has ever partaken. However, for Strange to use some of them here, at the onset of his studies, would make it seem truly odd that he never again sought to tap those long-dormant sources. Such is Strange’s calling upon the gods of Greek and other pantheons. Again, if this were a modern tale, and not an “origin-era” story, this would be PERFECT, and would set up Strange to access newer sources for magical energies.

Sadly, Greg Pak set up far too many drastic changes to the characterizations and histories of Strange and Wong. Perhaps that is why the “final battle” with Mordo later in the story, seeming ever so much more wrong than Strange’s summoning/commanding of the Vishanti is when Wong does so. I won’t say anything more about it, because while a fabulous piece for inclusion in the annals of “WHAT IF?” (aka: “official fan-fiction”), it has no business being considered for inclusion of canon, or for this story as a whole to be anything that will ever be accepted as more than a fun alternate-universe tale.

Still, the pacing of the story is break-neck, and the action is dynamic! All that the solicit blurb text promises is delivered! If you care not that significant portions of canon are either changed, ignored, or “fan-fictioned”, and are not a die-hard Doctor Strange “historian”, or if you are simply looking for an exciting tale, then this will undoubtedly be a must-read! Part action-thriller, part buddy-cop comedy, and all ghost-busting, Indiana Jones style adventure!


---------THE WRITING---------


Obviously, much of my critique of the writing can be found in the body of this review. Still, there are some finer points that I can call attention to here. First off, Greg Pak is a writer whose work I appreciate. I won’t state that he is without flaw in his prior handlings of Strange, but at least he has tried to do right by the good Doctor. It is obvious that Pak has affection for the character, and that does shine through.

Thus, I am fairly sure that none of the slights, slip-ups and/or “wrong-turns” (at least as perceived by this reader) presented in this work (or his other, earlier handlings) are meant maliciously – or are intended to be means to “take Strange down a peg”. In fact, it seems that despite some contrary steps, Greg Pak is trying to elevate Doctor Strange to a much more dynamic level of high-adventure. (As long as Pak steers clear of making Doctor Strange a “super-hero” – which has been Marvel’s main problem in their handling of Doctor Strange – then he’s one step closer to doing it right.)

However, as you could tell from my review of this work, all was obviously not what I would consider to be “right”.

This is besides the fact that Doctor Strange’s origin needed no tweaking, updating or renewed interpretations – as it is one of the cleanest, clearest and universal origin stories ever told (a tale of growth and redemption). Pak (perhaps at Marvel’s behest) simply mucks around with the story for no reason that I can identify.

One nit which I feel I must pick at is Doc’s overall speech-pattern. It seems that nearly every page has Doc saying; “Dammit!”(8 instances), “What the hell?” (7 instances), “Stupid.” (4 instances), “Whoa.” (5 instances), a bunch of  “Ack!”s , “Hey, wow”’s, a “whatever” or two and even an “oy”.
Nearly every word out of Wong’s mouth is “Shut up!” (although, oddly, as soon as Strange stops saying Dammit that is when Wong starts.)
Hardly, eloquent for either a world-class, highly educated, high-class Surgeon or a monk-initiate.
That’s still not the worst of it. When the Vishanti first appear (and this is really GOD-appearing-to-mere-mortals-LEVEL stuff here), Greg Pak has Doctor Strange say; “uh…hi.”

In speaking of the Vishanti and the 3-ring maguffin, I must ask WHY would the Vishanti create artifacts that could be used to command and control them? Mystic entities oft impart some of their mystic energies within an item as a means of reserve or a device that engenders its user to be beholden to them. I can not recall of any “god-level” entity creating something that can bind them to the will of a mortal. Usually, such things are created by an enemy of that entity. So is that what these rings are? Some other mystic entity’s “genie lamp” with the Vishanti “trapped” by it? As a maguffin, Pak gives no explanation.

I am going to do my best here to assist Greg Pak in making this tale correspond with what has been accepted as canon. In order for the Wong of this story to ever be the one who first appears on Strange’s doorstep, as shown in ‘Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts’ # 56, it can be explained ONLY if he has been long-away from Doc after this tale and/or is truly, drastically changed so that he needed to introduce himself, humbly, as a servant, to the man with whom he shared this adventure. In fact the change in him needs be quite drastic, which would explain why Strange had to use the Eye of Agamotto to see if this was in fact true. Then, this portrayal of Wong can synch-up somewhat with what has been told. In point of fact, the statement that Strange says in that issue (DS: MotMA # 56)  that he did not reveal “everything” while recounting the tale of his origins, would help Pak’s case.


---------THE ARTWORK---------


I’d like to take this moment to discuss the artwork – that of Emma Rios as well as Color Artist, Jordie Bellaire.

I will come right out and state that for a project aimed purportedly at new readers, Emma Rios might not have been the best choice.

Before I get into any negative areas, I must state that Emma Rios' storytelling - her use of ‘panel-by-panel continuity’ - is excellent. With a few instances where overly-detailed panels became difficult to parse, the overall page layouts told the story without any use of words (I know because I made a point of trying to do so). This is a sure sign that the artist is doing their job in the graphic narrative. The body language and facial expressions which she imparts on her “actors” is often a joy. At times dynamic, other times sublime her characters “feel” real.

Conversely, her portrayal of people, - their physical forms, not their acting - leaves much to be desired here. Almost ALL of Rios’ characters are drawn with peculiar anatomy, most often with elongated limbs and malformed heads; a mess of grotesque faces and curiously proportioned bodies. Mordo is often drawn as if seemingly suffering from microcephaly (a skull that never developed properly and thus has little room for cranial or brain growth).

Of all the characters in the book, the female character of Dr. Sofia Di Cosimo is the most realistic, while nearly all of the men are poorly drawn. Perhaps not-so-ironically, this is a reversal of the frequent occurrence by male artists where they draw male figures excellently but females are rendered poorly (or as sex-objects).  Even in her portrayal of the giant heads of the Vishanti, while the artwork is breathtakingly beautiful, her portrayal of Oshtur (a woman) is gorgeous, while Hoggoth (a man) is a sketchy, poorly drawn portrayal. Agamotto (rendered as a lion’s head) however, is fabulously drawn.

While I have called into question Emma Rios’ rendering of men in this work, I have to give her a world of credit for capturing perhaps what could be the best incarnation of the Ancient One ever put to print outside of Steve Ditko's original. Her portrayal of the aged master makes him look as ancient, as wise, as weird, and as Oriental as he should be. (You’d be surprised how many previous artists drew him as simply an old guy, with maybe the inclusion of a beard or a slanted eye.) At times (towards the middle of the tale), Rios’ Ancient One absolutely looked picture perfect!

This uneven showing is not usual for Rios, as I have seen her do beautiful work in other publications (Cloak & Dagger: Spider-Island, Spider-Man, etc…) but here (and coincidentally in her other, earlier published work featuring Doctor Strange) she seems to produce work sub-par for most (American) publication. Of course, this work, with its many sweeping, blur-effect brush-strokes, with speed lines and typically European sensibilities, is the stuff which Manga and Euro-comics are made. Perhaps it is just the stunted visual “taste-buds”, of a comic-reader used to an ocular diet less exotic that is at fault. Still, while I have read and enjoyed many Japanese Manga (including ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’) and European comics (mostly French and Italian original works) I find that Emma Rios’ work – here, at least – to be, if not an unpalatable, then at least difficult to digest, stylistic blending of the two.

Her inking is often rushed-looking, sloppy, and smudged, seeming to this reader as someone with whom inking is not a comfortable exercise. Often dozens of blotchy lines are used when only one or two would do. (Perhaps, in an attempt to hide inferior – or rushed - drawing behind too much technique? Or merely an experimental technique, not quite mastered as of yet.)

Of course, the confusing listing on the creative team of Alvaro Lopez providing "additional inks" makes it hard to assess proper blame or credit. Suffice it to say, the overall effect with the inking is mixed.

Many of these swirling, frantic etchings are an attempt to portray movement. Sometimes this effect works. Most times it is distracting and confusing, as these lines always compete with so many other lines which are there to give (often unnecessary amounts of) detail.

Sometimes Rios is effective in her use of her inks to convey mood. She manages to effectively play with light and shadow, but then only as long as nothing too dynamic is happening to confuse matters.  Sequences of events are often difficult to discern.

Still, if anything, Emma Rios’ strength (and it is shown here in numerous instances) is her use of non-paneled sequencing; events blending one into the next as a miasma of phantasmagoric swirling pictorials. In most of those instances, she shines!

She also draws some visually interesting and imaginative demonic entities! One such instance is the attacking onslaught of spirits and demonic manifestations that seems like a 3-dimensional representation of Picasso’s famous “Guernica” – with a bull-headed entity at the forefront of a mass of bodies, faces and otherworldly (or perhaps just deceased from this world) horrors.

Much credit and thanks has to go to colorist Jordie Bellaire. Looking at Rios’ too-busily-inked artwork and trying to discern what is what and where one thing ends and another begins must have been a daunting task. Overall this visual work is only understandable because of Jordie Bellaire’s vibrant palette and keen eye. If this were printed in black and white, I think I’d still be reading it trying to figure out what was going on. 

* UPDATE*
I have just seen Emma Rios' ORIGINAL inked pages... and they are BEAUTIFUL!
They are for sale (link to the art site: HERE) and seeing them at original size, would actually endorse someone purchasing them. The prices are great!
So, to this, I can only surmise that the busy inking style, looks excellent at ORIGINAL SIZE, but when reduced to comic size, becomes a murky mess, lines coalescing into masses of ink instead of being seen as individual lines. Oddly enough, that was my original thought when seeing the work, but I'd have thought that a published professional would have sidestepped that beginner's pitfall.

If only this was printed as an oversize book - OR - in black/white/greytone... then her work would have appeared much better.

Such a shame.


---------FINAL THOUGHTS ----------


Of course, many of my points, counterpoints, comparisons and finger-pointing can be laid at the feet of my being a dyed-in-the-wool, own-and-read-every-appearance, life-long fan of Doctor Strange, and that this work is intended for a new, fresh-faced market. That is totally understood (and understandable). Marvel is trying to attract the “next wave” of reader; fans of the films and other media franchises (video games, toys, etc…) to bring them in and introduce them to these characters, without forcing them to be steeped in 50 years of continuity. That should be a constant goal. However, I do not see that the two are mutually exclusive. One can produce a canon/continuity-friendly piece that appeals to both the uninitiated and the lifer. Also, if universal appeal is to be the goal, then perhaps a choice of artist who can produce clearer, less difficult-to-follow visuals should also be a top priority. If a world-wide base was the demographic (as Manga is a much more popular style than typical “American” comic art, world-wide) then perhaps choose a Manga artist whose style is crisper and more refined.

If the goal of these “Season One” books is to hook new readers, I see no reason to try to fix what isn’t broken. Doctor Strange’s classic origin tale works perfectly as-is. The dynamic between Strange and his assistant (if you want to steer clear of the un-PC term; “manservant”) Wong is fine as it has been cultivated over the years. While, yes, Wong was originally strictly a subservient acolyte, he had been given much greater weight and importance in the service to the mystic master. While the role of servant, caregiver and some-time body-guard for the Sorcerer Supreme is no small duty, Wong was gradually turned into a student of sorts, as well as a teacher to Strange (keeping Strange’s martial-arts skills finely honed), a confidant, and an aide-de-camp. A friend.

So, it seems to be an unnecessary alteration of events to turn Wong into some Jet-Li bad-ass rival, and a total dishonor to have him be anything other than what his family’s tradition had trained him to be; THE caretaker of the Sorcerer Supreme – as his father and father’s father were before him. Certainly, it would be a typical Hollywood angle, to have the young man rail against his fate and strive to be more than what he is destined to be, but look at the culture from which he is raised. Great honor and prestige is already his for the duties in which he is bestowed. Any self-sacrifice that might entail is a badge of honor and to shirk it or reject it would bring shame to his family line – something that Wong is far too loyal to do. Perhaps that is why Pak removes any mention of Hamir the Hermit (Wong’s father, and caretaker of the Ancient One), for if the father is no longer a factor, Wong can rebel with no repercussions.

I mean no offence to the man in saying so, but I know, Greg Pak takes Asian portrayal in media very seriously, often tweeting about the slights given to Asians by those sticking to stereotypical (and often insulting) assumptions. I couldn’t agree with him more. Just because a practice or erroneous belief once was a reality (or a falsely perceived one) doesn’t mean that it should be propagated into the current or future of the world.

However, that probably doesn’t fit into the cultural mores where an honorable servitude to those who serve “the gods” might be one’s fate (be it destined or a self-sought calling). There is nothing wrong with being of service to others – just as long as you are treated in a respectful and humane fashion by those you serve. Wong stands alongside a grand tradition of helpmates to “crime-fighters”, such as Batman’s Alfred and The Avengers’ Jarvis. Oft of late, Wong has been much akin to Green Hornet’s Kato (whom everyone knows is far cooler than the Hornet anyway). Wong can also be seen as a monk serving a high-priest, such as the Dali Lama, with a total submission of self in the path to his service of another, greater personage. There is no shame in such a path. Indeed, it is of high honor. 

Perhaps, it is time for many vanguards of Politically Correctness to rethink some of their knee-jerk reactions to perceived wrongs, and look at the whole of the portrayal. Wong as a manservant is un-PC? Get over it. He need not be turned into some kung-fu/mystic/bad-ass. Wong as man-servant (and sometimes protector) to the Sorcerer Supreme of the entire dimension is a job that is more important, and with more responsibility than that of the President of any country. Sometimes the greatest among us are given the lowliest tasks. That they do not see it as making them any lesser than the rest, continues to make them greater than us all.

There is a GREAT sequence from an old issue of Doctor Strange's book (Master of the Mystic Arts # 15), written by Steve Englehart, where Wong is grocery shopping in Chinatown, and some other Asians give him grief for being a servant to a rich, white Doctor.

Wong tells them that service to a wise man is an honorable calling. Especially in his native land, which is the tradition that he is upholding, and that if they have any problem with that, it is THEIR problem to get over, not his.

This is the same thought that modern naysayers of the Doctor Strange / Wong relationship should keep in mind. 

---

I guess I should mention that this volume, like the other entries into the ‘Season One’ publishing project, also comes with a modern tale reprinted as a back-up. Included with this original graphic novel is the first issue of the most recent ‘DEFENDERS’ series, by writer Matt Fraction and illustrated by the Dodsons. For a complete and comprehensive review of that issue, feel free to check out my post on it [HERE]. Otherwise, let’s just say that if Marvel was looking to include a recent comic that featured Doctor Strange it is curious that they would choose one that was selling so poorly, and seemingly destined for cancellation (which, as point of fact, it has been). Of course, they may have been hoping that this exposure would help bolster sales of the Defenders title, and help save it from the chopping block, but still, if you wish to choose an issue from that series, would it not have been better to use issue # 4 (a Doctor Strange centric issue)? My detailed, in-depth review of that issue can be found [HERE].
Otherwise, a better selection for inclusion would have been the fairly recent; “Doctor Strange: From the Vault” # 1, by Roger Stern and Neil Vokes, which detailed a “Year Two” type of tale, showing Strange’s first night in his Sanctum Sanctorum. Still, I’m sure that Marvel was hoping to turn sales of this new work into a stepping stone for new readers to follow the modern adventures (and continue to purchase publications) of its star. Sadly, with exception to the flawed ‘DEFENDERS’ series, the only other exposure to Dr. Strange available to current audiences is his appearances in Brian Bendis’ ‘(NEW) AVENGERS’ franchise, yet even there, finding an issue that shows Strange in his best light is a near impossibility.

If a new reader comes to me and asks me what to read to “get” Doctor Strange, my suggestions, almost exactly as stated at the top of this review will ever be; First find a reprint copy of Strange Tales # 115 – the origin story. A mere 8 pages, and it gives you all you need to know – all told beautifully. Then, read Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts # 56 – the origin expounded – with some magical battles tossed in. Then read # 55 for the full effect. After that… you may read what you wish with full understanding and appreciation. Of course, my personal favorite retelling of the origin tale: ‘DOCTOR STRANGE’ (vol. 1) # 169 by Roy Thomas and Dan Adkins is lushly illustrated and gives many of the first views into the two lives of Doctor Stephen Strange.
(Of course, I’d also toss in: DOCTOR STRANGE; INTO SHAMBALLA, DOCTOR STRANGE & DR DOOM: TRIUMPH & TORMENT and lastly “THE OATH”.)

---


As I stated at the start, to me, Greg Pak's "DOCTOR STRANGE: SEASON ONE" (like JMS' "STRANGE" before it) seems to be an attempt at a movie-script-friendly modern origin update and this “SEASON ONE” tale, while filled with some truly good stuff, can only truly be assessed as a giant-sized issue of “WHAT IF?” (“What If? Doctor Strange had his origin TODAY?” – or – “WHAT IF? Wong was Totally Bitchin’?”), and like JMS’ “STRANGE” (vol. 1) which was meant to be a new in-canon reinterpretation of Doc’s origin, Greg Pak and Emma Rios’ ‘DOCTOR STRANGE: SEASON ONE”,  should be seen as an alternate universe tale that had many good points, but probably should not be included into canon (or at least CAN not, if taken as-is), and is suggested only for the die-hard collectors, the completists, and/or fans of the creative team.
However, as it IS a rip-roaring, fast-paced, high-adventure story, if you care not that significant portions of canon are either changed, ignored, or “fan-fictioned”, and are not a die-hard Doctor Strange “historian”, or if you are simply looking for an exciting tale, then this will undoubtedly be a must-read!




---END---

3 comments:

JoeMD said...

Hello Ptor,

Just wanted to say that I LOVE your blog. I'm a big fan of Dr. Strange myself. Last year I graduated uni and started working and the first thing I put my money towards was building my Dr. Strange back issue library. I'm doing pretty well thus far, having almost completed the 1st and 2nd Strange series (not Strange Tales, his solo titles).

Also, this year I went to a comic convention here in Australia called Supanova where I cosplayed as the good Doctor. Just anted to share this with you, you can see the images at this link > http://dustycartsnlongboxes.tumblr.com/post/25358854554/this-weekend-my-girl-and-i-attended-the-supanova

Keep up the great work on the blog. Looking forward to reading more.

Cheers

H said...

I put my thoughts on the Comic Book Resources forum, but in short I think it's a good book that would have been better if Pak hadn't been trying to do so much.

Post is here: http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?426575-REVIEW-Doctor-Strange-Season-One&p=15908210&viewfull=1#post15908210

Mario Di Giacomo said...

I was hoping you'd review this one.

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