The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange #1
Keiron Gillen, Peter Milligan, Ted McKeever, Mike Carey, writers
Frazer Irving, Frank Brunner, Ted McKeever, Marcos Martin, artists
Marvel, March 2010
I’ve read enough Hellblazer to understand the appeal of an anthology-style series of self-contained stories about a sorcerer jumping ugly with the dark supernatural and coming out on top, but at a price. John Constantine himself, though, is not for me. The spiked hair and stubble and cigarettes, the rumpled trenchcoat and English curses…obviously that’s cool with a capital C for many people, but it’s just not a set of character descriptors I can get terribly invested in. I think my favorite Hellblazer stuff I’ve ever read was a Jamie Delano thing back when he had longish wavy hair and spent the arc in jeans and a clean white t-shirt.
Doctor Strange, on the other hand? Oh yes indeed. People like NeilAlien and Tom Spurgeon have made much more convincing cases on behalf of the once and (hopefully) future Master of the Mystic Arts than I could ever do, but I’ll simply say that he’s a collection of images and ideas that I really like when they’re all smushed together. I like his big high-collared cloak, the Eye of Agamotto, his goatee/gray-temples combo, his Steve Ditko hands and Steve Ditko psychedelic vistas, his Greenwich Village lair that’s got more mysterious rooms than you’d find in its official floorplan, his pal Wong, his origin as the world’s biggest dickhead who suddenly realizes what a worthless tool he is when his hands get broken in a car wreck and he can no longer be a hot-shit surgeon, his vision quest in the Himalayas, his gorgeously designed enemies like Dormammu and the Mindless Ones, the idea that he’s constantly fighting against so many massive threats that neither the other heroes nor civilians could ever possibly appreciate the magnitude of his gig, all those great gibberish names and epithets Stan Lee cooked up for him to invoke, his highfalutin speech pattern derived from years of study of the most esoteric subjects imaginable, and on and on and on. I understand why the strictures of Marvel’s publishing model with respect to its superheroes probably prevents this, but a largely continuity-free solo Doctor Strange series in the vein of Hellblazer? I bet a small but loyal audience would be there for every issue, in large part because a large and loyal number of writers would love to sweep in for an issue or an arc and tell the one Doctor Strange story they’d always dreamed of telling, and an equal number of artists would wanna give their Ditko chops a major workout. I’d be there with ‘em.
And lookee here! One of a series of pulpy ’70s-style black-and-white one-shot anthologies featuring stories about some of Marvel’s rough’n'readier characters (we’ve also seen War Machine and Ares), The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange is (wait for it) just what the Doctor ordered. I was entertained as the dickens by all four tales contained herein, for all the reasons I enumerated above.
I think my favorite take on Strange here comes from Kieron Gillen in the story that kicks off the book. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that he’s working with the awe-inspiring Frazer Irving, who was born to draw Doctor Strange’s world. (He was also born to work in color, and you can feel him wanting to–for god’s sake it’s a Doctor Strange story set in the hippie era–but I’ll take what I can get.) But I was intrigued by Gillen’s conception of magic as a sort of cosmic whodunit, where when something’s going down, the Doc must figure out who had the means, motive, and opportunity to do it…in an arena where none of the rules of cause and effect, physics, or human behavior with which we are familiar are necessarily operative. In both the Gillen/Irving and Milligan/Brunner stories, there’s a final twist that emphasizes Strange’s self-martyrdom, his willingness, whether through necessity or weakness, to do some bad thing that will hurt him to get the job done. It’s really only he who gets hurt in the process, though, which is what separates him from your run-of-the-mill anti-heroes. When the Sorcerer Supreme crosses a line, he’s the only collateral damage. That’s what makes him the Sorcerer freakin’ Supreme, you know?
While the first two stories are period pieces set in the same timeframe as the publication of Marvel’s original black-and-white magazines, the second two are different. Ted McKeever’s one-man showcase of scratchy, angular blacks and weirdo creature designs–yep, that’s our Ted!–is a timeless tale, in which a devastated Doctor Strange roaming around on an alcoholic bender nevertheless encounters a demon and a benevolent spirit and learns an important lesson about his sorcery…which is exactly the kind of thing that should happen to a Sorcerer Supreme on an alcoholic bender. (I like to believe he’s discovering hidden knowledge when he’s on the shitter, even.) The final story is a short prose piece by Mike Carey in the style of an early 20th century weird adventure, featuring an impressively evocative Frazetta Death Dealer-style antagonist, a simplistic but effective take on mind over matter, a grin-inducing tease of Doc’s archenemy, and a pair of killer spot illos from Marcos Martin, including one that’s almost Paul Pope-ish in its riotous kinetic energy.
All told, it’s as an effective a disquisition on what makes Doctor Strange worth making comics about since Martin and Brian K. Vaughan’s memorable miniseries The Oath–perhaps even moreso, since while that series was clearly an attempt to say “See? Doctor Strange still works!”, this one-shot feels like it was constructed with that basic proposition never once in doubt. I got from it precisely the modest but indubitably pleasurable pleasure I wanted. More like this, please.