Monday, March 30, 2009

The Search for, Nature and History of...
the Sorcerer Supreme :
New Avengers # 51 - a Review

While THIS post will handle a review of the issue itself...
the previous post detailed what has led to the issue and the Search for a NEW Sorcerer Supreme.

- NOTE -
There will be SPOILERS if you have yet to read the issue in question.
This is your only warning.
*all images can be made Supreme Sized by the clicky*
Before I get into the heart of the review, I want to give credit to the creative team involved:

Written by:
Brian Michael Bendis
Art by
Billy Tan, Chris Bachalo (pencils) / Matt Banning, Tim Townsend (inks)
Colors by
Justin Ponsor, Antonio Fabela
Letters by
Albert Deschesne
Covers by
Billy Tan (and variant by Chris Bachalo)

You'll notice that there are two different art teams on the issue, with pencilling duties on this book split between Billy Tan & Chris Bachalo, and their own respective inkers and colorists,
(Tan, Banning, Posner / Bachalo, Townsend, Fabela) as each renders completely divergent aspects of the issue's events.

Tan's team handling the "Avengers" portions and Bachalo's team portraying the journey of Dr. Strange, as he is already along his search for a successor for the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.

The issue starts off with Bachalo's burn-your-face-off confrontation between The Hood and a redesigned Dormammu! This look is a redesign of a redesign, as it's a reworking of Billy Tan's rendition from the last page of New Avengers # 46.

Bachalo's retooling adds creepy new features, like tiny blazing skulls - shrieking in torment along with writhing figures who exist in a painful, hellish environment.

With flames and heat spewing forth from the mandible of his skull-like head, gone is the simple "cartoony" flaming head of old.

This is Dormammu?
The devil you say.

I can't say whether I am a fan of this new look. It's a cool visual - but Dormammu is a 44-year veteran Marvel villain - created and designed by Steve Ditko.
I don't see that as being something easily tossed aside for "basic demon-visual # 101".

If it weren't for the fact that he calls himself "Dormammu" I'd have had NO clue who this was.
Ghost Rider's old patron-demon, Zarathos, perhaps. Either way, colorist; Antonio Fabela should be commended. I can FEEL the heat emanating from the page! Well done!

From a story point of view, we get to the point immediately.
Dormammu wants the Hood to find - and KILL - Doctor Strange, so that he can inherit the mantle of "Sorcerer Supreme". And... to do so BEFORE any of the others who are attempting the same plan can do so.

The problem, it seems, is that Strange has gone into deep cover and has seemingly stopped using his magicks, so finding him is nearly impossible for the neophyte mystic; Hood.

It's not a new angle for someone to think that they will become the new Sorcerer Supreme by eliminating the old one - however, I have to wonder if it is an accurate belief.

Certainly, Strange first became the Sorcerer Supreme when he was forced to kill his mentor; the Ancient One (to prevent a greater evil; Shuma Gorath, from gaining access to the world via the aged mystic's mind). However, that gaining of the title wasn't because his master was dead - but because the spirit of the Ancient One, which had become one-with-the-Universe after death (4 years before Obi-Wan-Kenobi) appeared to him and granted the title and whatever remaining abilities he possessed to Stephen Strange.

It was bequeathed.

Job description:
Find. Kill. Inherit Mantle.
45 minute lunch break.
No personal calls.

However, Bendis does address this after a fashion. He has Doc explain that the reason there will be rivals attempting to due battle with Strange isn't necessarily for the title itself, but for the articles of mystic power that the possessor of the title would be entitled to - namely; the Eye of Agamotto, Cloak of Levitation and more.

THESE are valid temptations for someone to wish to gain the title, since each of those mystical items hold some level of power that they embue to their possessor - making him or her stronger in the ways of magic.

However, this is a point for another time (and my next post - about the NATURE of the Sorcerer Supreme).

As the issue continues, we find Billy Kaplan, the "Young Avenger"; Wiccan - supposed son of the Scarlet Witch, walking along the street when he helps to prevent a crime by causing the escaping vehicle to crash.

Not sticking around for accolades, he turns the corner to bump into Doctor Strange, who had been watching Billy, and who tells the young mystic that he has done well.
Perhaps not well enough, since there was a possibility for civilian injury, but well enough to possibly be trained and groomed in order to be... more.

Strange then goes into detail the nature of his quest, and the reasons for it's undertaking.

"What's a Man-Thing?" Ahhh... stupid kids.
If I had MY way... Manny would be the next Sorcerer Supreme.

Readers of this blog (who bother to also read the comments section) will find this statement, by Strange - that he firmly believed Jennifer Kale to be "the one" - to be a familiar thought.
As presented in the comments of a sequence of posts I wrote several months ago, detailing the many choices of who could be the Next Sorcerer Supreme, long-time blogger; Plok, suggested that Kale would have been the obvious, and most qualified choice.
(Post 1 - HERE ... Post 2 with germane Comments - HERE)

We both continued that engaging conversation in the comments and agreed - that she should be the most likely choice.

It seems Strange ALSO thought so - but alas - she was not meant for the mantle.

Wiccan is next in line for an interview, but while he is a candidate, he doesn't seem to be "the One" either. When asked why a successor is even being sought, Strange lets drop his past "failures".

The "purity" aspect is one that was brought up the last time Strange used dark magicks that corrupted him (the entirety of the most excellent Strange Tales vol 2). It is a valid statement, and I am glad that he states that it is the "Master of the Mystic Arts" who need be pure and NOT the Sorcerer Supreme, since that is merely a fervent HOPE for the bearer of the title to be good and pure, and NOT a prerequisite for becoming the Sorcerer Supreme.

(Although, it isn't even a requirement for a "Master of the Mystic Arts" either, as Baron Mordo, Strange's oldest foe, and also a former pupil of the Ancient One is also a "Master of the Mystic Arts". Perhaps not as masterful as Strange is, but still, a mystic master, nevertheless.)

There have been many holders of the title of Sorcerer Supreme, and some of them have been EVIL (or at least, less than good).
(Yet, another aspect of my upcoming post on the Nature & History of the Mantle!)
Obviously, it isn't a necessary mandate, since Dormammu wants his less-than-worthy pawn to become the next bearer of that title.

Another possible recipient for the mantle is Doctor Victor Von Doom! Also, an "evil" man
( - although, one could argue that Doom isn't truly evil, but Machiavellian- firmly believing that he is the best person to rule the world, and that anything he does in the quest of that goal is permissible).

Here, Strange admits that Doom may have more than a few gauntleted fingers into that pie.

Acknowledging that Doom has unearthed mystical secrets that even Strange doesn't possess is a chilling revelation (but a damn cool one). It also proves that one doesn't have to be the strongest wizard to hold the title (and another point that I'll have for you in the next installment - I'm glad Bendis is addressing all the points that I had prepared. Excellent).

In the course of their Diner conversation, Strange admits that he's having a hard time knowing just who is supposed to be the choice, but that the Ancient One stated that it would be obvious to Strange when the time came.

It's unclear if this instruction was old information passed on, either - when the Ancient One was alive - or - perhaps knowledge passed on via scrolls and texts - OR - if the spirit of the Ancient One was consulted, as Strange used to do on occasion.
What is known is that there is a list of candidates, and that Strange will know who it is - when the time is right.


I find some fault with the very idea of the fact the someone from "the list" is "the One", as that harkens back to the WORST faux-pas that has been perpetrated by writers; the making of the Sorcerer Supreme to be a "Chosen One" and not just someone who is worthy and ready to assume the mantle. Perhaps Bendis is not overtly trying to make the connotation of "the One" with a pre-destined "Chosen One", but instead is merely - "the One" who is right for the job - right now.
If that is the case, I retract my accusation.


Suddenly... somehow seemingly without any of the difficulty he begged Dormammu to understand, the Hood has indeed found Strange.
In a panel by Bachalo that portrays the mystically empowered street-tough as a misshapen demonic berzerker, the Hood advances upon Strange and Wiccan - whom Doc tells to beat feet and get the hell away from there, immediately.

Strange's interlude ends - for now.


As for the rest of the issue, it follows the "secret" New Avengers team... mostly as they sit around and talk to each other for pages on end.

The first scene replays Clint Barton (aka Ronin, formerly the Avenger knows as Hawkeye) on television taking to task Norman Osborn and his so-called "(Dark) Avengers" as being the villains that they are.
The broadcast is being watched by Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel) and she doesn't take his brazen act all that well.

The rest of the issue has the entire team sitting around Bucky Barnes' (the new Captain America) secret digs, eating Chinese take-out and trying to organize themselves into an actual team, with Barton using the old-school Avengers "charter hand-book" rules of procedure to do so.

The most interesting event in this issue is a MAJOR one at that.
Honestly, I'm surprised it hasn't had Marvel touting this issue as some "major-event" and clamoring that it's on it's 15th printing (not that it is, mind you).

Remember, full *"EVENT" SPOILER WARNING* in effect here...
If you want to avoid the MAJOR SPOILER then skip past this section and don't read anything until you see the yellow text again. OK?

Alright... everyone else here doesn't care that I'm about to blow the BIG SECRET of the issue.
Here goes...

As the team becomes more organized, with Clint as team leader and Carol as his Second, the order of business turns to the rest of the roster, and specifically, the fact that everyone on the team is open about their true identities... everyone, except Spider-Man.

Remember, this takes place after the Mephisto-induced amnesia that was the end result from the "One More Day" event that took place in the Spider-Man titles, last year.
Because of that deal-with-the-devil, the previous Spider-Man unmasking (from "Civil War") was rendered null-and-void. It never happened.

So, the Avengers have NO idea who he is. And, as Clint rightly points out; in the current "post-Skrull-invasion-who-can-you-trust" environment... they really NEED to know.

While Wolverine tries to vouch for him (in a bit of dialogue between him and Clint that I found to ring true to both characters), it comes to a head:

Spider-Man either unmasks - or takes his webs and goes home.

In a hesitant attempt at a switcheroo, Bendis has Peter hem and haw about the fact that he really can't divulge his ID, and that he knew that when this time came, he'd have to quit the team.

To all present, it seems as if he's going to do just that, but in a last second twist, he reveals his full face and name to all assembled and stands before them as Peter Parker.

Just WHAT that means to the nature of the Spider-books is unclear.
Honestly, the Avengers of old have been able to keep secret identities, both from each other as well as the world, but this new breed of Avengers isn't as "standard" as the old-guard.
Being more likened to an army platoon in the trenches and under fire, these New Avengers can probably be entrusted with keeping secret such as this from the rest of the world.
So, in effect, with the exception of this tiny bubble of people, his identity is still unknown to the world.

One other side-note, is that Jessica Jones, whom readers of her first solo series; "Alias" might recall, went to high school with Peter Parker, and here she is overjoyed to see him.

She also reveals that she had a major crush on him as a teenager - something that Luke Cage doesn't think is all that cute.

Peter does manage to put his foot squarely in his mouth by revealing that after her high-school car accident, that he referred to her as "Coma-girl" for lack of her real name. That doesn't go over all that well with Jones and she leaves the room, disheartened.

So... we can only wait and see just how all this will pan out in future issues.



Billy Tan's artwork is perfectly suited to straight up superhero situations, and even the sitting around chatting (in costume) scenes are handled very well.

My main complaint with his work is that it's somewhat choppy-looking.
That could be the fault of his inker, Matt Banning, but the fact that everyone's face seems to be drawn as if it's carved out of rough driftwood, doesn't make me enjoy looking at anyone not in a full stocking mask.

There were a few beats where panels were re-used. One being where Spider-Man is being hit with the big news that was revealed in the "SPOILER" section above, and Tan has Peter, with the mouth part of his mask pulled up, eating noodles, and having them hang out of his mouth.
When the panel is re-used, three panels - and a lot of dialogue by himself and other characters later - the same noodles are hanging out of his mouth.

If this was drawn using the old-school Marvel-method, where the penciller receives only a rough plot and after he has drawn it all, then the writer would write the dialogue, then I could understand the humor of the drawn comedy shtick.
However, Bendis uses full scripts.
So, Tan should have had a clear blue-print of the dialogue beats and known that it would have been too long a period between the re-used panels for them to work.
That's not to say that it wasn't Bendis' script itself that asked for that to occur.
I have no idea whose idea it was.

To that end, I call: "someone thought it would be funny without really thinking it through. A bit done for the bit's sake."


The issue ends with a loud crash outside, and the team rushing to see what it was... only for them to find Stephen Strange, crashed to the floor, still crackling with magickal energies, looking all the worse for a mystic battle.

You can bet it is "To Be Continued"... and I will, of course, be there for the next installment, and will delve into it here on the blog for your satisfaction.


Personal notes on the issue:

My personal belief is that it is Stephen Strange himself who will be the choice for Sorcerer Supreme, and that, when the time arises for him to step forth into the role again, and cease his self-doubt and self-recriminations, he will once again BE the Sorcerer Supreme!

I don't doubt that Brian Michael Bendis could pull this off. Truth be told, I ENJOYED this issue.
While not perfect, it was still entertaining to a certain degree.

I'll readily admit to being thrilled that Chris Bachalo is handling the Doctor Strange portion of the issue, not only because I'm a fan of Bachalo's quirky, chunky style, but also as I find Billy Tan's rendition of the character to be... off.
Looking at the covers of this issue and some future solicited, Strange appears too stiff and out of proportion, as if the tunic is off-putting to Tan.

Another thing is that Tan appears to have "swiped" his pose for the cover from another source (as well as elements for future covers - that I'll detail as those issues ship).

Look at the cover for this issue. (reproduced here, so you don't have to scroll to the top of the page):

Now look at the wrap-around cover for "House of M" by Olivier Coipel.

Take a look at Doctor Strange's pose. Notice the way the cloak of levitation has cropped and pointy front panels. Note his finger and hand positions.
Here's a detail:

They're not identical, but it seems that the Coipel pose was certainly used for reference.

So... swipe? Or not. You decide.

Story-wise, I'm still somewhat trepidatious about the entire "Search for a Sorcerer Supreme" enterprise, but not because of the subject-matter of the story. As I have stated before (HERE) and will do so again (once again... in my upcoming series of posts), this isn't the first time Strange has suffered a massive "de-powering". Neither, is it the first time that Strange has lost the mantle, nor is it the first time he used dark magicks that currupted him, forcing him to relearn and rededicate himself.

No. These things have come and gone before - each to their own ends (and each with their own success or failure). While it may seem as though I dump on Bendis, it is only because that, while he may have fun (and at the same time provide me some enjoyment) with his talky portrayal of other characters (although, some of that characterization has been waaay off-template), his handling of Stephen Strange (in pretty much every project where he has had the mystic master present,) for the most part, has been poor.

So, I'm not a "Bendis-hater".
I'm a "Bendis-writing-Dr. Strange wary-reader".

There's a difference.


Overall grade for this issue: 3 out of 5 possible Eyes of Agamotto.



In the next installments of

The Search for, Nature and History of...the Sorcerer Supreme
series, we examine the history & nature of the Mantle.



Holly said...

Alright, well I feel better about this story line after reading your review. The only thing I could think of at the end of the issue was "Oh no, he's hurt AGAIN?!" ...because I feel like that's been happening a lot laitly.

I mean, it was the Hood. I know he has new evil powers, but really, the Hood? He got his ass kicked by the Hood? Sad. I hope you're right about how the story plays out, I'd love to see Strange throw around some amazing mystical whoopass and regain his title. But my hope are fairly low. Ahh, can't wait until next month though...!

Shadow Mood said...


Another enjoyable review! The only thing that would make NA #51 better (and the subsequent issues) is if the ENTIRE STORY was devoted to Doc Strange! Although I enjoyed Barton's attempt at old school team organization; I sincerely could have done without the unmasking of Spider-Man (again!) and the Coma-Girl bit. I understand the need for Spidey to unmask for the team, but I think it's an overused plot device. Hopefully this is the last time we will see it happen (ever). As for Coma-Girl . . . . whatever.

The best part of this issue is Stephen and Billy chatting about the mystic arts over coffee. Whatever Billy was drinking looked really good, too. Whip cream on top? Stephen had some really interesting things to say. And I'm glad that you (S.S.C.) pointed out how the reasons for Stephen's concerns aren't totally valid. They are interesting yes, but many of them don't line up with Marvel canon.

Thinking on those lines, I just had a thought. Wouldn't it be cool if Stephen was setting everybody up? In other words, his being on the run and weak is only an act. He's doing this to draw out Dormmamu, the Hood & Company & anyone else so that He can whip up a Vortex of Valtor (or some such spell) and send all these villains into the Microscopic Molecules of Menagerie. Forever! Who needs the Hood! No one, really. The only reason he is interesting is because Dormmamu is possessing him. Other than that, he's just another two-bit player in the Marvel universe. No where near as sophisticated or powerful as Strange. Holly's comments about Strange being defeated are right on the money! It's absurd that Strange should lose to the Hood. But then, it really wasn't the Hood, but Dorammamu.

And speaking of Dormmamu, he is definitely one of the coolest Marvel villains. But one of the unfortunate things (imho) in the Doctor Strange canon (of the past five plus years) is that rarely are the other Doc Strange antagonists used. The reason for this is two fold. Sadly, Doc doesn't sell well. And thus when we do get a Doc "mini", it's usually Dormammu who is the villain. It's as if Marvel is trying to keep Doc in publication, but only as a cameo character. So whoever ends up writing him, goes for the obvious. "Oh, let's have Doc battle Dormmamu!" Again, nothing wrong with the Big D. He rocks! But what about all the other villains that Strange has opposed over the years? There are too many to list here. I trust that those of us who follow Doc's Canon can recall most of them by name. I guess that's one of the reasons I liked Brian K. Vaughn's The Oath so much. No Dormmamu, a NEW villain, and a totally unique look at the life and relationships of Stephen Strange.

But back to my previous thought. I wonder if Strange is pulling an act. I do remember his problems with dark magic as you (S.S.C.) cited in Strange Tales Volume 2. So that aspect has already been done. So why not do the same thing but with a twist. Stephen is playing a game with everyone. Two options. First, he is still the Master of the Mystic Arts/Sorceror Supreme and drawing out some enemies with a grand master chess move. Or, he is truly having problems both with his powers and wondering what the future holds. But, he's got an ace up his sleeve that he's not telling anyone about. There are probably more options we could think of. But they key here is subterfuge and deception. And this is executed with great care and detail. The reveal then will take a long time to divulge what is going to happen! Layers and layers of mystic mystery. That is what is needed at Marvel for whoever writes the Doc. Return him to being a mysterious character who meditates and acts in shadow. Someone who can't be figured out. Someone who does what we least expect, but in really cool ways! That would make for an interesting Doc Strange story, whether in New Avengers or in his own book. Peace!

Anonymous said...

Much much later re-reading your posts... Dr. Strange can't mind whammy Spider-man so he forgets House of M but can wipe the memory of the entire world of Peter Parker's identity? Lovely.

Btw, (obviously) I love re-reading your blog.

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