Friday, March 12, 2010

The MYSTIC HANDS of DOCTOR STRANGE
- An In-Depth REVIEW.

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The MYSTIC HANDS of DOCTOR STRANGE
# 1.
Review
(Updated and edited - March 13, 2010)

(click to postersize)
Sure, a more truthful title may have been;
"The nerve-damaged Hands of Doctor Strange",
but that isn't quite as catchy.

With a gorgeously lavish and atmospheric cover, painted by Lucio Parrillo, the MYSTIC HANDS OF DOCTOR STRANGE # 1 is a "magazine-style" formatted (as touted with cover blurbs) "SUPER-ISSUE" with "More Pages" and "More Thrills" in "48 All-New Pages in Glorious Black and White!"

I can assure you, the blurbs do not lie.


----overview---

This black and white (and greytoned) artwork format "magazine" intentionally evokes the 1970's heyday of the oversized b/w Marvel Magazines (started as Marvel's "Curtis" publications) when more adventurous, "adult-oriented" takes on classic Marvel properties were paired with such classically beautiful artwork. Art that was frequently presented in its naked beauty. No garish colors to muck it up, or make murky the base structures of the artwork.

There was something special about those old black and white mags, because even though they still featured much of the same guys-in-tights that standard 4-color comics always did, there was something "more" to them as an art form.
What they lacked in color, they gained in non-comics-code-approved themes and more experimental styles of illustration and story presentation.

This new series of "SUPER ISSUES" that Marvel has recently been producing (previous entries being the "Shang-Chi; Master of Kung Fu", "The Indomitable Iron Man" and "Rampaging Wolverine" issues) are a welcome revival of style and format.

The only "down-side" to this new revival is that these "Super Issues" are not actually magazine-sized, instead just being regular comic-sized issues with extra pages.
More like the "Giant Sized" or Annual comics than anything else.
Still, the ability to rack and store these issues without undue stress for retailers and collectors alike has to be worth something.

With 4 stories (3 traditional "comic-style" and one prose story with spot illustrations) set (mostly) in the same time frame of those 1970's-era mags, each brings something different to the offering.

Let's go through the issue, story by story, (but without causing any -or many- spoilers):

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1st "Strange" Tale: "The CURE"
Writer: Keiron Gillen
Artist: Frazer Irving

OK. I should get this one thing out of the way immediately...
characters who need to have their names be READ rather than spoken, in order to "get it" are just unfortunate by-products of a visual medium.

A psychiatrist who goes by the name; "Doktor" is the baddie in this tale (although there IS a much bigger and badder villain in the tale as well but I'm not giving away that "detail" (hint, hint)), and he stipulates that he prefers to be called "Doktor" rather than Doctor, as he obviously has issues with his fellow medical professionals.

The "Doktor" mentions that "philosophically, I am from a different country. My name should make that clear".
He seems to be fixated by other such "Doktors"... Faustus being chief among them.

Well, unless it is pronounced; "Doc-TORE" as opposed to the traditional "Doc-TER" (and really, it could very well be), then he's just adding to the neurosis of his patients. Much like a rendition of the old "Who's on First?" comedy shtick, "Doctor?" "No, call me Doktor." "OK, Doctor." "No, Doktor!"...

Writer Keiron Gillen has the "Doktor" in question try to do "good" via evil means by utilizing foul sorcery in a deluded attempt at using his patient's "sick" perceptions of the world to change it from it's current "well" status quo. And it is up to Doctor Strange to see how far the "sickness" spreads and just how dangerous - or extreme - the "cure" might have to be.

Frazer Irving's grey washed artwork is very clean, yet filled with some nice "special effects" techniques to keep it interesting for the modern reader.

As the story takes place as stated in 1975, artist Frazer Irving seems to have taken a few stylistic pages from one or two Doc artists of that era.

The curly-cue aspect of the headpiece of Doc's cloak is directly from famed Doc-artist; Gene Colan's classic interpretation, a stylistic choice that was echoed by other artists who followed him thereafter.
One panel leaped right out at me, and it was an example of the Eye of Agamotto being summoned forth from it's housing in the Amulet, and looking like a rubbery doorknob stretching out from it's housing.
This look is a direct "homage", it seems, to Alfredo Alcala's work on Doctor Strange # 19. (See PICS).


Irving's fine portrayal of Dr. Strange...


including the riff on this old Alfredo Alcala bit.

Alcala was indeed one of those who also used much of Gene Colan's design template during his fill-in issue(s).

Coincidentally, one or two issue prior to Dr. Strange # 19 was exactly around the timeframe that this story would have taken place. Specific mention is made to one of my all-time favorite storylines wherein the Earth is destroyed and everyone, save Strange, is an exact replica - recreated by Eternity (Doctor Strange; Master of the Mystic Arts # 10 - 13). So, it seems to me, that Frazer Irving had that issue on hand to use as reference.

Kudos go to writer Keiron Gillen for using that story aspect as background material here.
Sadly, that plot was retconned out by editorial fiat by issue # 19, but it is wonderful that Gillen touches on the unreal nature of Strange's experience to aid him in his quest to infiltrate this "psyche ward".

Frazer Irving's Strange is a good example of making the character appear "real', not overly handsome and not "strangely creepy". He looks like a 50+ish man who appears tired and drawn, as would anyone, rightly so, who held the responsibilities (and off-hours) of the Sorcerer Supreme.

There are several subtle niceties to his artwork as well. One is that he is one of the few artists who doesn't slavishly draw Strange's hands in the

"American Sign Language" symbol for "I Love You"


- or as the "devil's horns". Several spells are shown with Strange having other distinct hand gestures and fingering positions.

That is something that I have always appreciated. I hate the laziness of many artists who don't bother to do anything more than the traditional finger pose.

Also, a nice look to Doc's astral form being shown in negative, as opposed to it being just a pale contour drawing.
I prefer it this way it adds to the "unreality" of the astral place, as opposed to making him look like Casper the friendly ghost.

I did get a sense that computer programs like sketch-up were used to form the buildings, and then Frazer just repainted them in washes.
Everything else in the art seems artistically organic except for the structures which appear "generated".

A minor quibble is that while it is always good to see Clea, I was not thrilled with the "teenage girl in a wig" aspect to her appearance.
Ageless interdimensional princess or not, she shouldn't appear like jailbait for an obviously older man like Strange.

Keiron Gillen's dialogue is quite excellent and his plot is an interesting, if not totally unique one.
"Faustian" pacts are a tale as old as any, (as are those when the pact is made by deluded acolytes) even in Dr. Strange's own published history (issue # 76 of the M.o.M.A. series, and even similarly in the "Flight of Bones" mini, to name but two) and the manner with which he sets his tale, as having those that society has deemed "deluded" be instruments of change is one that I've read and heard before (as anyone who had ever heard the John Lennon song "Imagine" would rightly attest), but it was a good vehicle for Doctor Strange.
Magician and HEALER.

My main beef?
The ending. I won't give it away, but while Strange has done things like that before, it is so rare as to make it almost unconscionable.

STORY = 3 out of 5 orange stars

ARTWORK = 4 out of 5 orange stars

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2nd "Strange" Tale : "MELANCHOLIA"

Writer : Peter Milligan
Artist : Frank Brunner

"Melancholia" is an apt name for this tale as it unfortunately fills me with that selfsame feeling.

The writing, by Peter Milligan is sadly more basic than what he is truly capable of, and in other places, it's even quite hackneyed. Here's one such line that was a "wha...huh?" moment:

"Time passes... For that is what Time, in its wisdom DOES..."

Wait... whazzaWHAT?!?!?
Not in my worst 9th grade creative-writing essays would I have written something that bad.
(Reminds me of the quote from the "Amazing" Criswell;
"We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.")


Peter Milligan even has Strange mention that should a grieving man who might seek his wife to be returned from the dead should (ill-advisedly) seek out a master of the DARK Arts instead.
Such a thing Strange would NEVER utter.

Another bit of off-character writing is having Strange actually AGREE to have the man forget his poor behavior with his late-wife instead of having him instead focus on the good times that they must have shared and then learn to come to terms with his less-than-kinder old ways and to then learn and grow from them.

Certainly, by the mid-point of the tale it seems that, as a Master of Mystics Arts, Strange must have already sensed that the man's wretched state had allowed demonic access to his subconscious, but even so, Strange would normally perform any magical "treatments" without the subject being any the wiser for it. There would be no costumed "showmanship" in any traditional Strange tale.

I DO like Milligan's usage of Strange's Sanctum as a magical entity all its own. Having rooms like the time-altered one is a nice touch, but unfortunately, in this instance, artist Frank Brunner dropped the ball, visually. It was written that when Wong LEFT the room it was marginally EARLIER than when he arrived, so, instead of the cliched floating clock-faces, having Wong pass HIMSELF (or walk THROUGH himself) in the doorway, (much like Albert Einstein's suggestion that passing through the singularity of a black hole would allow passage back in time and permit you to pass, while leaving, the earlier aspect of yourself that was just started going IN...) would have been much cooler.
Definitely a lost opportunity.

Not the best page in the issue, but not the worst. A medium example.

By tale's end, we know that Strange does indeed want the man to learn and grow from his past ways, but Strange's over-the-top histrionics just before and during the kitchen scene make it seem that a second battle-scene with possessing demons (or Nightmare) was edited out.

The wrap-up to the tale is utterly disappointing as it seems that Strange, after lecturing his patient against magically erasing bad memories had ignored his own sage council.
Doctor, heal thyself.

I expect much more from Milligan, as one who has worked on the DC / Vertigo series HELLBLAZER (among others), often hoping to see the mystic worlds of John Constantine adapted to the broader scopes of Stephen Strange. Sadly, this was not what I had hoped for.
Milligan also penned the oft loved "X-StatiX presents ; Dead Girl" mini series (which was really more of a Dr. Strange vehicle, although there too, he made missteps in regards to an "accurate" portrayal of Strange - not to mention a completely WTF? take on the Ancient One).

As for the artwork, well... this isn't your father's Frank Brunner. More's the pity.
Frank Brunner illustrated Doc's adventures during what is arguably the high-point of Strange's popularity - certainly a by-product of Brunner's fantastic visuals, which accompanied writer Steve Englehart's scripts in the 1970's - a run that stretched from Marvel Premiere # 9 - 14 and then directly into Strange's "new" title; Master of the Mystic Arts # 1 - 5.

Certainly, Brunner's Strange here still has a little something "magical" to it, especially when shown reclining in his Sanctum, but otherwise, the rest of it is a far cry from his best days all those years ago, which is in itself "strange" as I know that he still produces work of excellent quality. A shame that he didn't use this opportunity as a new "business card" for modern fans who may not yet know of him.


Grade:
STORY = 1 out of 5 yellow moons
(points ONLY for the time-altered room scenario)

ARTWORK = 2.5 out of 5 yellow moons
(Brunner's STRANGE still has something to it, but it might be nostalgia of better years)

---

3rd Strange Tale: "So This is How it Feels..."

Writer / Artist: Ted McKeever

Ted McKeever is, as always, someone from whom one should expect the unexpected. The experimental. The "other".

This short story seems a bit lost in it's place in "continuity" as it features a drunk and derelict Stephen Strange, but one with whom the title of Master of Mystic Arts have already become enjoined.

It MAY take place after Strange's most recent loss of the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, but I doubt it, as Strange wouldn't sink to inebriation at that time, knowing full well that he needed to atone for his transgressions, not imbibe himself until lost once again in self-destruction.

Most of the story's dialogue seems takes from rambling "enlightned" generalities as might have been heard from a mararishi or yogi, and features the trite old plumb of not giving in to one's anger or self destructive nature.

It was good for McKeever to trot out the long since abandoned use of the "Ankh" appearing on Strange's forehead when life-affirmation is needed.

Possibly the only "coherent-looking" page in the story.

An interesting 11-pager featuring a derelict Strange, a wizened old bum-turned talking-head and a demonic thug. Sadly, while this might have been something that would pass for a good Dr. Strange story, IF properly presented, is poorly implemented here due to lack of proper "setting" or context. It survives purely on McKeevers "out-there" nature and the "granola" aspects of the message.

Oh, the story's last-sentence joke... makes me fearful that the fate of the "wise old bum" was predicated on that crusty old nugget.

STORY = 2.5 out of 5 green clovers

ARTWORK = 2.5 out of 5 green clovers

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4th "Strange" Tale : "Duel in the Dark Dimension"

Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Marcos Martin


Much like the black and white marvel magazines of old, adding the finishing touch to this issue is this 3-page prose short story by Mike Carey with spot illustrations by Marcos Martin.

Written as an excerpt from the journal of Doctor Stephen Strange, while still a neophyte pupil of the Ancient One, this short story embarks Strange on his way as a new wanderer into the Astral Planes and presents but a few of the dangers which might present themselves therein.

Well written, with descriptive imagery and interesting concepts on the magical nature of the otherworlds, this was perhaps the most enjoyable of the pieces presented in this volume.

While that might be due to the fact that whenever I read comics, I always read the words first and usually only on my second pass, read and look at artwork more in detail.
This story allowed me to just immerse myself in the story and use my own imagination as palette and canvas.

There are very few prose-only stories featuring Doctor Strange, and those have always been my favorites.

That is not to say that there were NO graphic representations to be found in this story.
The wonderful Marcos Martin (who had illustrated the fabulous Dr. Strange miniseries "The Oath") who is ALWAYS welcome to draw Strange and his world, presents three illustrations for this story.
One a "cover" or "Splash Page" full-page frontispiece image and the other two more chapter-book style "spot" illustrations, highlighting single instances within the story, rather than panel-by-panel continuity style of "comic-illustration".

A must read for any Doc fan, this story fits perfectly in with Strange's continuity and unlike each other story in this issue, has no contradictory behavior by the Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange.

STORY = 5 out of 5 blue diamonds

ARTWORK = 5 out of 5 blue diamonds

(if only there were MORE of BOTH)



----

A preview of the first 6 pages can be found [HERE].

My recommendation is that this is a MUST HAVE for any fan of the good Doctor, and for anyone who might not be a fan as of yet, but often wondered what the appeal Dr. Strange has on his die-hard following.

As you may have guessed by the measures by which I graded the strange tales within, I found
THE MYSTIC HANDS OF DOCTOR STRANGE # 1
to be "magically delicious" reading!


Tamam Shud!
~P~

8 comments:

plok said...

Shoot, but Frazer Irving draws some fine stuff!

I never minded the "off" elements of Deadgirl's Doc, myself...since it read just like X-Statix, and X-Statix messed with all sorts of conventional presentations of Marvel characters. I mean, forget Doc, what about Wong and (more importantly) the Ancient One? But in the context of Milligan and Allred's X-Statix a lot of things feel refreshing that would otherwise feel garbled.

Gonna have to get this. Oh paycheque, when will you arrive?!

Richard Guion said...

I liked that retro special as well. I was surprised Brunner's artwork was not that good, his commission work is usually better than this.

Joe said...

Great review P, and I agree with pretty much all you said however I really enjoyed Ted McKeever's art. I loved the sketchy darkness of it and the energy it had. I felt it fit Strange quite well, especially with it being a slightly darker tale. I'd have given it at least a 4.

Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the resent Strange min (you haven't done that yet, right?)

skjam said...

Re: Melancholia...

I got the impression that Dr. Strange had employed his amnesia spell on himself *before* the story began. Thus his lecturing the patient on the bad effects isn't hypocrisy as such, but speaking from personal experience.

~P~ said...

Yes, skjam, that is most likely what happened (as evident from the first pages).

That part is understood.

However, Strange would have known (or SHOULD have, anyway - as the Sorcerer Supreme - or even just a Master of the Mystic Arts) what the effects of such a spell would do to him.

The entire concept is flawed, however, since as a MYSTIC trained in many ways to rise and advance his spirit, he would be able to purge the negative emotions of that "worst day ever" from his mind WITHOUT the use of such a cowardly way out.

Besides, there have always been other methods of erasing memories and Strange has used them on multiple occasions.
MOST of those were usually temporary memory blocks - meant to wear off over time.
Still, he HAS used permanent memory erases in the past.
Why would this one be so traumatic?
Perhaps due to the severity and permanence of the trauma related to the memory?

I don't know.
Either way, it's just a bad bit of writing.

Inaccurate characterization.
sloppy construction.
Poor story.

I do appreciate your comment.
Please don't think I'm taking a hostile attitude toward you.
Just the unevenness of that story.

gah.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, I was under the impression that Strange: The Doctor is out, was correct continuity for the Doctor Strange series leading into Heroic Age, so where does this take place exactly? And does anyone have any idea of what will be next? Is 'Strange" going to continue or will there be a Heroic Age Doctor Strange title?

~P~ said...

Yes, Strange : Doctor is Out IS in current continuity.

This MYSTIC HANDS one-shot features tales out of time - I believe I detailed when each tale could have (or should have) taken place within the body of each mini-review.

Suffice it to say, NONE of these is current.


The Keiron Gillen / Frazer Irving story takes place just prior to Dr. Strange # 19 (of his "master of the mystic arts") 1970's series.


The Brunner illustrated story is most likely from that same time-frame of his earlier works on Strange's tales.

The McKeever story was questionable in its sequential place as it uses the long abandoned trapping of having the ANKH appear on STrange's brow when he was in danger - and requiring life-affirmation.
Thos stories were usually in the early 1970's as well, but had been revived briefly by Roy Thomas in the 1990's for one or two stories.

The fact that Strange is a derelict in the tale makes it occur in one or two possible time-frames (re-read my review for the detailed analysis of that).

And of course, the prose piece takes place while Strange is a novice pupil, studying under the Ancient One.

I'm sorry my review was filled with so much blather that you missed where I point out the timeline of each story.
I need to be more concise.

As for where STRANGE is going next - in continuity, you had better be picking up Avengers # 1 and the first story arc of New Avengers (both on sale now July 2010).

As for a new series... well... it'll have to wait until the end of the New Avengers arc.
You'll see why.

Thanks for stopping by!

~P~

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading this. Oh, I wish the last story wasn't just prose and three images... I do LOVE the cover! (I enjoyed a lot the art of "The oath", too -the art and the story, of course.)

[Unrelated comment: we all greatly enjoy your comic reviews; are you planning to do one about the "Infinity" arc? :) ]

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