Careful with that Ax Stephen: A Review of Aaron and Bachalo’s Dr. Strange #1

Damn!! Chris Bachalo sure is talented.

                                                                     Damn!! Chris Bachalo sure is talented.

     A new Dr. Strange number one hit store shelves this week as a part of Marvel Comics’ All-New All-Different initiative that springs out of the multiverse spanning Secret Wars event. For those unfamiliar with Dr. Stephen Strange, he was an arrogant doctor that got in a car accident and injured his hands severely. He then went in search of ways to reverse the damage. This led him to the Himalayas where he met a being who would become his master,The Ancient One, who trained Stephen to become Master of the Mystic Arts and Sorcerer Supreme. Yes, that’s an actual title. Although Strange is one of the most interesting characters to populate the Marvel universe, he hasn’t been able to maintain a solo series for more than a few years. Writer Jason Aaron and artist Chris Bachalo, who also colors his own work, aim to change that with this new book. Aaron and Bachalo worked together previously on the fantastic Wolverine and the X-men.
Dr. Strange #1, as with many first issues of comic books, serves as a reintroduction to the mystic of Greenwich Village. The opening page does this really cool thing that Marvel has been doing a lot lately where, when a flashback occurs, they put the original art from the panel they are flashing back to in the background. The first page of Dr. Strange uses art from various retellings of his origin story, as well as his Steve Ditko illustrated first appearance from Strange Tales issue 110. It’s a really nice touch that gives the opening page a mixed media feel. The text of the page recaps the character’s origin from from his perspective.
The next page is a wordless double-splash page (two pages with one single image across them) of Dr. Strange fighting a soul-eater. The monster fighting section showcases the strength of its writer and artist while, at the same time, spotlighting how awesome being a wizard can be. Aaron has the doctor talk about the nerve damage caused by his hand injury and how his hands never stop shaking and aching except when he is casting a spell. In Strange’s words, “Which is good, since these hands are all that stand between you and the forces of darkness. There is a reason you aren’t currently dissolving in the belly of Shuma-Gorrath or groveling at the feet of the dread Dormammu. These hands are the reason you still have a soul.” The way Jason Aaron is able to portray the razor’s edge that Stephen Strange walks with confidence, while Chris Bachalo shows him fighting these visually-sumptuous monsters is amazing work. The use of nonstandard panel layouts in this sequence by Bachalo helps engender a very kinetic pace to the scene. All these elements help to ground the character. What’s really interesting here is that Aaron’s Dr. Strange is one that feels more akin to Spider-Man than his Defender’s teammate Silver Surfer. This is a much more grounded version of Strange than the one I’m used to seeing. In his interaction with the female soul-eater, it’s clear that Aaron’s Dr. Strange, at least in this first issue, is less of an academic and more of a Clark Gable styled rake. I’m not just saying that because Dr. Strange bares a striking resemblance to Gable’s Gone with the Wind character Rhett Butler. He finishes the fight after kissing his would-be killer. At the end of the big fight with the soul eater it’s revealed that the battle took place inside a nine-year-old boy. Strange explains with his trademark grandiosity, “On the ectoplasmic plane within the boys very soulscape.” He then leaves through the boy’s bedroom window as the parents look on confused and thankful. There is an inherent, and I assume intentional, juxtaposition between the book’s opening frenetic action and the quietness to the rest of the issue.
The next few pages depict Strange walking along the street to a bar. Here, the writer is smart enough to have the magician open his third eye as he walks through the streets of New York. This serves two functions: First, it gives our protagonist time to monologue, allowing the audience to get to know him better. Second, it’s an excuse for Chris Bachalo to be amazing, keeping the reader’s attention with his dynamite artwork. Whichever one of the pair made the choice to have these pages be mostly white with only pops of color is to be applauded; this choice takes four-star visuals and pushes them up to five. A nice dialogue touch comes when the doctor explains what kind of people seek out his services: “Your daughter started cursing in Latin and walking like a spider? Your dreams are trying to kill you? Dog keeps screaming at you to strangle your neighbors?… He helped my cousin Joey when the walls of his condo started bleeding.” There are two layers to this statement; the surface purpose being the references to The Exorcist, the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, the Son of Sam, and The Amityville Horror. One of these things is not like the other. Anyway, the emotional undercurrent of this aside is, of course, a man with Stephen Strange’s talent has to deal with these sorts of things. However, if you are The Master of the Mystic Arts, these events seem extremely pedestrian, although it’s a nice character moment from Aaron, showing that even the best magicians aren’t above their field’s equivalent of busy work. Again, I must single out the work of Chris Bachalo because his character design for street-clothes-Strange deftly incorporates the doctor’s iconic cape design as a scarf. It’s a nice little touch that brings a lot to the issue. On the way to his destination, Strange’s third eye sees a giant psychic fluke worm leeching onto a man’s soul or psyche. Dr. Strange kills it with a battle ax. The ax is prominently featured in all promotional materials for the book, including the cover of this issue. The ax is seemingly the All-New All-Different hook for this book, as historically, Dr. Strange uses straight magic when fighting, not actual weapons. Regretfully, the ax serves no story purpose that I can see. I can’t help but think this may be a case of Malibu Stacy Has a New Hat Syndrome, where you give an established character a new accessory for the sole purpose of making them seem fresh and new. As of right now it feels unneeded, even if it looks really cool.
The rest of the issue is devoted to foreshadowing and set up for the remainder of this first arc. Stephen goes to The Bar with No Door, a bar only accessible to magic users, where he meets up with Scarlet Witch of The Avengers, Dr. Voodoo, a former Sorcerer Supreme, and Shaman, of the Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight rounds out the Algonquin Roundtable of magicians. Strange recaps the events of his day and asks his fellow magicians if they’ve seen anything more out of the ordinary than usual. At this point, resident barfly Monako The Prince of Magic, who is Marvel’s first magician character, wanders up to the table to give the trio a dire warning about balancing the magic scales. The scene in the bar is oddly reminiscent of the scenes involving the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A group of young, confident and powerful people warned by an old crone type. The foreshadowing of dark clouds on the horizon gives the remaining pages a sense of unease and urgency. Strange walks home to the Sanctum Sanctorum. Yes, his house has a name. Outside he finds a hat-wearing young woman debating whether to knock on his door or not. Stephen then proceeds to do that annoying thing where he talks about himself as if he isn’t him as a way of gauging whether or not this girl is someone truly in need of his help. It gives our hero a chance to show how smart and powerful he is. It’s the one piece I dislike about this book; it’s an extremely well-trodden device that serves no purpose here. He convinces her to knock on the door and then lets her in, revealing his identity. He asks her how he can help, at which point she removes her hat and demons come bursting out of her scalp.
The issue closes with a post-credits sequence where we see a magician from another dimension trying to fend off something knocking at the door of his keep. He is terrified and sends out magical butterflies to deliver a warning to other magic users. Then, The Witchfinder Wolves, who are exactly what the name advertises, come in and attack him. The pack is followed by a hooded figure, referred to as the imperator, who closes the issue by burning those messenger butterflies. This post credits story is likely setting up the main villain for upcoming issues. This stinger has a very 1970s Marvel feel to it. Dr. Strange #1 is an enticing start to what is sure to be a worthwhile read.

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