Strange: Beginnings & Endings
Written by J.M. Straczynski and Samm Barnes, art by Brandon Peterson
Dr Stephen Strange is a curious character in the Marvel universe. Much loved, a useful cameo in stories concerning magic and counter-culture icon, yet unable to sustain his own series for substantial lengths of time. This mini-series is the latest attempt by Marvel to update him and make him more ‘palatable’ to the modern universe.
J.M. Straczynski is a big fan of Dr Strange, and is a celebrity in his own right, so was presumably given carte blanche to modify, make it relevant and change aspects of this niche hero for the current Marvel world. With co-writer Barnes, he has set about redefining the position of the sorcerer supreme for the noughties.
Dr Strange is a cool character and I have enjoyed some of his own stories and his appearance in others in my time as a comic book fan. I have tried to read the classic Lee & Ditko stories but found them hard going, personally. (I hope that I don’t bring about the wrath of Neilalien by saying that, or he’ll destroy this blog with the massive powers at his disposal). I found the old stories very formulaic; Strange discovers a magical problem, a chase or extended fight occurs leading to Strange nearly being destroyed, only for him to win out in the end, sometimes bizarrely.
Take, for example, Strange Tales #122, where Nightmare has him trapped in the Nightmare World, and he is powerless in this form, only for him to win by hypnotising Nightmare into believing that the Gulgol, the one foe Nightmare cannot defeat, has entered his domain – how can a presumably astral projection hypnotise anything, let alone the master of the Nightmare World in his own dimension? Some of the logic involved in those old stories can make me nutty, and I can’t stand reading more than one 8-page story at a time due to the presence of exclamation marks at the end of every sentence and the garish writing of Stan Lee. (I will state, however, that Ditko produces some very impressive work, which I think is where most of the love for Dr Strange heralds.)
Anyway, I’m digressing. Basically, I’m not an expert on Strange, so I do not know the full extent to which this story veers away from the original. What I do know is that this is a very good modernising of Strange and I would love to see more stories set in this re-imagining. The story sees Strange in Tibet as a medical student on an exchange programme, who meets an old man on a steep walk to a disused monastery after helping an orphan called Wong, who talks cryptically with him before suddenly vanishing. Strange vows to return to Tibet after graduating, only for him to become a plastic surgeon to the rich and famous and forget his promise. He has an accident while skiing at night, which destroys his hands. He becomes embittered as he tries to find someone to fix his hands, losing his money in the process, only to discover that Wong has become a specialist in alternative medicine, now living in New York. When he turns up late, he decides to go to a bar, where a woman called Clea, whom we have seen on the periphery of Strange’s life, rescues him from an attack by Walkers, out to kill him. She then takes him to meet The Ancient One, who believes that Strange is The One, the next Nexus, ‘the guardian at the gate between the worlds’. However, Strange doesn’t believe him …
The original Dr Strange stories weren’t really big on back story, which is an obsession in these continuity days, so this version sees an enriching of the fabric that makes up the origin story. The Ancient One, Wong, Clea, Mordo and Dormammu are integrated into the narrative chronicling of Strange assuming the mantle of ‘Master of Mystic Arts’ (as he is described in the blurb on the back of the trade paperback). This feels more cohesive for someone like myself who has limited dealings with the Strange mythos, but might cause offence to long-term fans, depending on how much has changed. However, as a jumping-on point for new readers, this book is accessible and enjoyable and gives a sense of the breadth of the world in which the character inhabits.
The only problems I have with the story are the overly strong echoing of The Matrix (there is an old mentor, the Ancient One like Morpheus, using a talented female, Clea like Trinity, to search for the One, Strange like Neo, and initiating him into a world he didn’t know existed and refuses to acknowledge, but he is all powerful within once he accepts his gift) and the turning point for Strange, where he goes from cynic to believer – we might believe in the world already, being comic book fans, but the Strange character never makes the believable change into accepting it.
There are some nice lines throughout the book that elevates the yarn (Clea tells Strange: ‘You won’t find any of them tattooed on my ass.’) and the dialogue has a fun flow to it to counter some of the heavier parts, trying to explain the dilemmas behind becoming Sorcerer Supreme. Brandon Peterson does a good job on art duties. A slightly different style to accentuate the panels of flashback, the detail in earlier pages to contrast the reality of the world with the surreality of the magical, to the use of the clock as motif while Strange is in hospital. There’s a nice use of splash pages in Chapter 4, where Clea is fighting an agent on one side of the page and when you turn over, she and the agent are in their magical forms but in the same poses so, if you hold it up to the light, you can see their normal aspects through the outlines. He’s not perfect, however; there is a lack of facial detail in characters when in medium or long shot, that makes them look like cartoons compared to the detailed linework of close-ups. Also, some transitions are awkward and the ‘camera’ doesn’t move around, giving a limited visual range, but not enough to detract from enjoying the story.
I normally wouldn’t have got this book if it hadn’t been for my girlfriend’s interest in Dr Strange. I’m glad I bought it now, as I enjoyed this reworking immensely and would be glad if Marvel would get their act together and sort out a Dr Strange ongoing series.