Saturday, December 6, 2008

A comic review:
Marvel Adventures Super-Heroes # 5



Marvel Adventures Super-Heroes # 5
"A Very Strange Day"

Paul Tobin - writer
Jacopo Camagni - pencils
Norman Lee - inks
Guru eFx - colors

Cruz & Quintana - cover


Behind a stunning, well-done and fairly dynamic (for a relatively still pose) front cover by Cruz & Quintana, the comic within Marvel Adventures Super-Heroes # 5, is an entertaining, yet uneven story, both in writing and artwork.

Entitled "A Very Strange Day", it is a very strange "mixed bag" of interesting ideas, novel execution and clean artwork. And yet, while a fun read and good "intro" for new (and older) readers alike, it fails in one of the most fundamental levels:

- Marvel's strange belief that constantly offering new variations on the origins of it's characters will make them more "accessible" to newer readers (aka: "teh kidz").

While there are many, most welcome, mythos-expanding concepts brought to this tale, (which we will touch upon in a moment,) there is also the addition of a new version of the origin of the main character; Doctor Strange, that is offered for no good reason (save to possibly make Stephen Strange's beginnings "friendlier" to the newbie reader).


If you're reading this blog, then there's a good chance that you're already a fan of the good Doctor, and know his origin.
However, since there is over 40 years of water under that bridge, and the fact that Marvel keeps offering up newer variations to his story, that I'll give a summation of it right here:


Stephen Strange, egotistical and avaricious world-class surgeon, wraps his car around a tree and suffers incurable nerve-damage in his once-great hands.
Falling into self-pity and self-dereliction, he hears rumors of a miracle worker in the Himalayas known only as "The Ancient One".

With the last dregs of his funds and strength, he journeys forth. Frantic for a cure for his hands he finds the aged mystic and demands to be cured.
The lama probes Strange's mind and finds his past deeds to be selfish and he unworthy of a cure. Irritated and unrepentant, Strange turns to leave only for a sudden blizzard to block his departure.

Forced to stay in the lamasary until the snows thaw, Stephen sulks around until he sees the aged mystic to come under attack by a magical menace.
Still unsure whether he believes any of this or not he witnesses the Ancient One's pupil; Mordo, casting a spell of attack upon his aged master.
Intent to aid the wizened man, Strange seeks to intervene, only to be magically prevented, by the treacherous pupil, from interfering with Mordo's actions or of warning the old man.

Discovering, however, that he can utter other words that are not accusations against Mordo or warnings to the old man, Strange instead requests to study at the old mystic's feet, calling him Master. At least in this way, he may be able to help protect the Ancient One and the world at large from Mordo's evil.
It is this act of selflessness that the Ancient One had been awaiting, and revealing that he knew of Mordo's evil intents all along, removes the spell that bound Stephen Strange.

Reaffirming himself to his desire to study at the Ancient One's feet, Stephen Strange begins the long road of redemption that will lead to his becoming Master of the Mystic Arts, and then Sorcerer Supreme.


The new origin keeps all the "arrogant & greedy surgeon" stuff, as well as the car accident, but instead of focusing upon his loss of the fine motor skills of his hands, the script adds a MENTAL BREAKDOWN as the primary need for a cure for which he searches (although they toss in a mention to a "mental breakdown" PRIOR to the car accident as well, that may be a throw-back to one of writer J.M. DeMatteis' missteps during his run on the last few issues of Strange's last series).

However, what has been added into the mix is the inclusion of "Jason Wong" a college friend, being the one who brings the post-car accident Strange for numerous cure attempts and then the final journey to the orient.
It is in this, and the deletion of any mention of Mordo, that Strange's life has all despondency or struggle of self removed. No longer must he struggle on alone and pull himself up by sheer strength of will. No longer must he strive to make himself better and seek redemption.
No. For now, he always has a long-time friend who is by his side, and the studies of the mystic arts are given to him freely (surreptitiously, in the guise of "mental exercises") as an act by an Ancient One who is just seeking to retire and pass on his mantle.

It seems in this origin that "Jason Wong" would have been a better selection as a candidate for the mystic training, since the very acts of never giving up on his selfish and horrible friend, instead traveling to the far ends of the earth to aid him, would be the very same traits required of a selfless guardian of the world.

I do appreciate the writer's need to simplify Strange's origin, since this isn't an origin tale, but merely required it to be injected into the story as a background introduction to the cover character. Yet, the very fact that it IS the cover character, the FEATURE character, means that you should honor the very nature of the origin OF that character.

It would be like relating a new origin for Spider-Man wherein he had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the "burglar". Instead just gaining the spider-powers and vowing to do good with them (and maybe using the death of his uncle - in a completely unrelated incident - as a good "reason" for doing so).
Without the act of selfishness, it makes the vow to use the powers selflessly null and void as a redeeming act. It's just a "fun" origin that any kid can imagine; "What if I got powers? Boy that would be kewl!"
No striving to better oneself. No personal demons to exorcise. No personal growth.
Just "Weeee! This is 'teh awesome'!"

And such it is with this new origin for Stephen Strange. Even though the car crash does remove Strange's ability to perform surgery, it is hardly accentuated in this version. Instead, focusing on the fact that he was a "bad" guy before, and the accident helped turn him onto the road to becoming "good" (or at least, prior to the visit to the Ancient One - "less bad"), by taking away the trappings of success and having a friend take him by the hand and helping (practically carrying) him down the road of betterment.

With the removal of (what veteran writer and long-ago Strange-scribe, Steve Englehart would term as) "the rising and advancing of the spirit", then it is just the finding of a magical ring, or a magic genie to grant your desire for "I can has powerz?". Useless. Pointless. Void of meaning.
And while certainly, to GAIN abilities, even without personal cost (like a finder of a lucky winning lottery ticket) could be used for the betterment of the world, by a "do-gooder"... without the baggage, (and a positive "trade" of a successful, but greedy life, for another successful, and all-powerful existence) is an easy ride. A pleasure cruise. A decidedly "silver age DC" origin for a "silver-age MARVEL" character.

Not to harp upon this one minor part of the story (because it is indeed only TWO pages worth of the comic that was devoted to the origin recap), but the only other added facet to this new origin is that now the "still fresh out of his sorcerer's apprenticeship" Doctor Strange now has his aged mentor "kickin' it" in the Sanctum and learning to play the X-Box with a young, hip, ponytailed friend; "Jason Wong".
Wong serves as the bridge between the Ancient One and the world (and is thusly "us"). He's young, and seemingly, implied because of his shared race with the aged mentor, totally "as one" with the whole mystic thing. This "friend" Wong is there to hang out with (and NOT to be in the service of a wise-man - how dare anyone think that the position of acolyte be a worthwhile one to pursue. Devoting oneself to a greater cause or higher purpose is not nearly worth a thought in this age of political correctness). Surely, his time is best served nuking pizza and teaching the Ancient One how to vote on "American Idol".

Such alterations to the origin of Doctor Strange are nothing new to veteran readers.
Many times, it is exactly the crucial point of it being a redeeming of an imperfect soul - and as such, a tale of inspiration for those who read it, that is sadly removed from the tale.

Too many times he is simply made into a prophesied "chosen one" (as was readily evident in J.M. Straczynski's Matrix-like "Neo-origin" mini-series "Strange" several years back - as well as the aforementioned uncharacteristically off-the-mark run by J.M. DeMatteis).

It isn't fair to bring up these past transgressions in a review of this new piece of work, and trust me, I do so only to show examples of the multiple times that it has occurred, not in any reflection upon this work, which I WILL critique on it's own merits.


However, ENOUGH with the origin.
There are MANY good (and some not so good) parts to this comic, and we should shed a light upon them, in hopes that other handlers of Strange's adventures might take notice of what to do (or not to do) in the future.

- Perhaps it's just my delicate sensibilities, but Strange drinking a cup of obviously store-bought coffee and eating a glazed donut while journeying about on his morning dimensional check-up's strikes me as wrong.
Certainly, as a westerner, perhaps Strange just likes a cup o' joe in the morning.
It certainly helps to engender him to the mass appeal and collective consciousness of many readers. Still, it still seems to this reader as a "rip-me-out-of-the-story" bit of twaddle. Maybe if he were sipping tea from a delicate china cup - or better yet, if he must be having his morning caffeine, out of a uniquely designed other-dimensional, or mystical receptacle.
Still, the "Starbucks"-like paper cup is a fairly unique anachronism (spacial, if not temporal) that could go either way. Some readers might enjoy that personal touch.
Maybe. Not I.

- In fact most of that opening sequence just strikes me as "lite". However, it brought a slight smile to my face to see Umar so relaxed and reading the morning paper (?) - as wrong as that is for the character.
But still, seeing her oh so sexy side is never the wrong way to go.


- I DO truly like the addition of "Nisilette the Unimaginable", an other-dimensional entity who would surely spell the end of all things... IF she were to be "imagined" into existence from the void. Very nice.

- Spider-Man is always a favorite team-up for Strange. Besides the fact that both are the product of the Stan Lee & Steve Ditko partnership, they are complimentary "super-hero" buddies. One an aloof, stoic mystic, powerful in the nether-realms, but only moderately so in the "real world" and the other a bantering, energetic super-powered everyman, who is out of his depth almost anywhere, but never out of his element, due to his agility and adaptability.

There's almost never such a thing as a bad Spidey/Doc team up. This is one of the good ones!

- A strange dangling plot-line is the "Gnarian Orb", the item that the Vulture has stolen, prior Doc's enlisting Spider-Man's aid.
In a later spell, Strange actually CALLS UPON the "Gnarian EYE".
Add to that the fact that the Vulture mentions (with emphasis) that he's stealing it for a "very important client", who is never mentioned again strikes me as odd.
Is this a precursor of a return to this storyline in a later issue?
Or the sign of an edited plot point, that was never fully edited out.
I guess only time will tell.

It's here that I noticed artist Jacopo Camagni's style; a blend of very early (raw) Charles Vess and any of the modern "manga-flavored" artists of today like Pop Mahn. It has some very good touches, like his choices of settings (although that MIGHT be under the direction of writer Paul Tobin's script). His alien designs are just a slight head above the usual unimaginative fair that passes editors' desks. However, even those designs seem half-finished.
Good, well-intentioned starts with no real end.
The Zakimaya (the end-boss for the story) is a mixture of old-school Strange Tales era "ZOM" and a rushed deadline.
Uniquely flavored, but not quite cooked.

Camagni's settings, as I mentioned are quite nicely drawn. His real-world (and alien world) landscapes, interior settings and layout designs are quite nice. His "interdimensional" landscapes however, need work. His dimensional pathways are, for the most part, less "Ditkoesque" and more "discotheque". Still, that's a personal touch. No one says that he has to render the astral pathways like Ditko did. To each their own, I guess.

Lastly, he seems to be one of the few pencillers who is better suited to drawing backgrounds than figures, since, in many places, his anatomy is slightly wonky. Limbs and joints bend all the wrong ways (even for Spider-Man). It isn't a problem everywhere, but the fact that it is there, means he needs a little time to work it all out.

Still, in a few years, with practice, he could produce some beautiful work.

I have no idea how much of all of this final product is the work of Inker Norman Lee.
Without seeing the original pencils, it's hard to say. For all I know, the "Charles Vess" touches are his.

Guru-Fx provide lush colors and nice "fx". I've noticed their credits on many projects that I've liked. Keep up the good work.

However, props should go where they are deserved, and Camagni, and I believe the team at Guru-Fx, are responsible for one of the first times since Ditko to have drawn the Ancient One as an ORIENTAL-looking man (at least in one panel).
And not a western face with white facial hair and a squint. It was a welcome sight and I immediately (mentally) thanked him/them for the effort.

As for the rest of the comic, Paul Tobin deserves many kudo's. The touches of various intricacies that surround the character of Doctor Strange and his tasks as Sorcerer Supreme are deftly handled;

- The presiding over the signing of a peace-accord allowing inter-reality travel.

- The bartering of safe passage with Spider-Man's loose change (more for their alternate reality souvenir kitch, than as anything of monetary value).

- The justification for involving Spider-man at all in this adventure; to use his Spider-sense to detect, and webbing (enhanced by magical means) to seal off multiple dimensional apertures, so that the skein of reality can heal itself.

- Strange's using guile and subterfuge to win a battle (without undue violence) against a foe of superior power (a nice throwback to the Lee/Ditko tales of yore).
In this case, casting one of his strongest spells against the Zakimaya, and then making it seem to all that he, Strange, is merely a pupil to the "all-powerful 'spider-man' of the hidden ones", and that should the 'Spider-Man' become involved, all of reality would suffer for it. It is enough to give the giant alien pause.

- A bit of a D&D flair with Strange combining spells to ramp up their power (merging the "Flames of the Faltine" with the "Seven Suns of Cinnibus"). It left me wondering if Zakimiya should roll the multi-sided die for a saving throw.
A Fun. Interesting. Different. Thoughtful usage of Strange's arsenal.

However, all is NOT wine and roses with this script. There are some fundamental flaws in it as well (aside from those I related with the origin, coffee and Umar, et al):

- The very magicifying of Spider-Man's webbing just seemed wrong. Especially it's being able to replicate the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak (as the Crimson WEBS of Cyttorak). It was a novel idea, but does nothing but weaken the cache of Strange's arsenal and uniqueness of his very being.

- The new twist that magic is empowered by CONFIDENCE.
According to this tale, rhyming spells aren't necessary in and of themselves, but merely act as confidence builders and aid a sorcerer's ability to more readily work magic.


Whatever the reasoning (or missteps), Tobin's Doctor Strange is just the right mixture of confident strategist, aloof mystic and enlightened spirit to make him enjoyable to read. During his scenes as the slightly disconnected, yet mystically in-tune guide throughout the alternate realities, as well as his scenes in full-on battle, I felt slightly saddened that this wasn't a "real" Dr. Strange appearance. It's been too long since I have enjoyed a Dr. Strange appearance as much as this one.

With all taken into account; the good, the bad and the neutral... I found this to be a fun comic. Not "canon", obviously, but I found myself wishing that parts of it were... or, at least, could be incorporated into Strange's tales later - whenever the power's that be at Marvel stop thinking that he's too powerful to use like this... and use him. Like this. least once in a while.

3 out of 5 Moons of Munipoor (or Suns of Cinnibus - whichever you prefer)
(Even though I forgave the other minor points, - because the good stuff helped balance it out, - I had to deduct 2 whole points for that revamped origin)

*** UPDATE***

This comic announced WINNER of 02008 "SANCTUM AWARDS" for "Best Dr. Strange comic appearance"!
As seen HERE!


viagra online said...

in my personal opinion this character deserve a movie, doctor strange is a great magician better than harry potter, in fact I don't know why marvel don't a movie based in this character.

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