Best Shots Advance Review: DOCTOR STRANGE #1

Marvel Comics October 2015 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Dave Johnson (Marvel Comics)

Doctor Strange #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Al Vey, Mark Irwin and Kevin Nowlan
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Jason Aaron occupies an interesting place in the current comic book landscape. He hasn’t yet shunned Big Two comics for creator-owned work like many of his contemporaries, but he stills churns out original ideas that are consistently lauded. He’s not as divisive among readers as someone like Brian Michael Bendis. Jason Aaron is a picture of consistency and that continues in his approach to Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme. If ever there was a creative team tasked with reintroducing the next big Marvel movie star to the masses, Aaron and artist Chris Bachalo are probably among the first to come to mind. Their work on Wolverine and the X-Men transformed the ideas we had had about Logan’s place in the Marvel Universe and allowed for the expansion of the X-franchise in small increments (Krakoa, Broo, the Bamfs) that made their world a little bit more nuanced and exciting. But without as much history to draw from and room to expand, Aaron and Bachalo can do little more in this issue than make their intentions known and hope that’s enough.

Doctor Strange’s characterization has been all over the map over the years and his recent turn in Secret Wars is no exception. Sometimes a magic-wielding womanizer on par with Tony Stark, at other times a world-beating, all-powerful master of the mystic arts, Strange needs a team like Aaron and Bachalo to help ground him. And they do. But the introduction is a rocky one. Aaron catches readers up on the character’s origins with a bit of narration lazily placed over a reprint of his actual origin story. But the narration won’t do much to endear readers to the character. As Strange takes on monsters on another plane of existence in the opening gambit, it takes a little while for the action to really come into focus and the opening narration is ridden with cliches about “playing for keeps” and rolling up your sleeves to get your hands dirty. The snarky tone comes across flat, and it stays that way for most of the book.

But like Wolverine and the X-Men, where Aaron excels is in creating a world that readers might care about. This iteration might be a charmless, third-rate Tony Stark knock-off, but the world Strange inhabits is wildly different than the rest of the Marvel Universe. Finding out how Strange sees the world with his third eye open does wonders for the book’s sense of scope. His worldview is unique and it will inform the book significantly as it continues. Aaron also makes it a point to include some of Marvel’s other magic users, such as Doctor Voodoo and the Scarlet Witch, and build out their relationships with their powers. The idea that magic requires some sort of sacrifice is not a new one in fiction but it’s not something that has ever really been explored in great depth in the Marvel U. Aaron’s work has long held themes of a character’s power being detrimental to their health in some way and he looks to be continuing that idea to some extent here.

I think that Aaron’s work in this issue might be betrayed by his artistic collaborator, Chris Bachalo. Bachalo is one of the best artists working in comic books today when he’s on, imbuing his pages with a sense of style and urgency that is almost unmatched in the Big Two’s current stable of talent. But there’s a lack of clarity in his action work here and a reliance on old tricks to get him through the book. There’s little effort by the artist (or the team of inkers) to consistently render a face when it’s not a close-up. By far the most compelling part of the book is the scene depicting Strange’s view of the world, as he sees a black-and-white humanity infested not just with everyday bacteria, but with colorful mystical parasites, as well. A lot of that as to do with the fact that Bachalo doesn’t have to fully color the pages - when he does, Bachalo’s muted tones make some of the work (the opening scene especially) look a little muddy.

The last few pages feature a back-up from Aaron and artist Kevin Nowlan giving some context to what is mentioned in the story as “The Coming Slaughter.” There nothing much to say about it. Nowlan’s art is very strong, but as even the Scarlet Witch dryly notes in the main story, the idea of a rising tide of darkness taking over the world is pretty standard fare for magic-based stories (see also the entirety of NBC’s Constantine, among others).

What Aaron and Bachalo achieve here is merely a foundation. We’ve met our main player. We’ve met some ancillary characters. We now understand what Strange is doing when he’s not Doom’s lapdog or being a part of the illuminati or the Defenders. But this isn’t an essential Strange story - at least not yet. His new sword and shield notwithstanding, it’s not even really a bold new direction for the character. It’s an opportunity for the creators to properly define the character without the weight of an event looming over them or a maze of team dynamics to navigate. On that level, it succeeds. Aaron’s work is usually like that - issues like this fly under the radar when they aren’t a debut but they speak to the consistency of Aaron’s approach to storytelling. Bachalo’s work is a couple of notches under what we’ve seen from him in the past, but hopefully that’s due to the introductory nature of the title and impossibility of getting three inkers to render pages the same way. All told, we’re looking at a solid, if imperfect, post-Secret Wars debut.

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