Saturday, November 26, 2011

Does Matt Fraction Add or Subtract from the Equation?


A favorite Marvel comics property - to me anyway.
Founded, and usually led by Doctor Strange, the team has been, more often than not, a loosely united assemblage of loners, monsters and freaks.
First starting from the 1970's, with several incarnations, iterations, and volumes - of varying success - which have come and gone sporadically through to recent years, Marvel is once again going to try to have this "team" burst forth into the realms of the unknown.

I WANT to enjoy this title.
I truly do.

However, to anyone who has read my past few posts which reviewed material from the upcoming DEFENDERS volume, it may seem obvious that my enthusiasm for the project, as well as my faith in the creative team in charge (writer, Matt Fraction and artist(s), Terry and Rachel Dodson) has all but vaporized.

Those posts dealt with the poor – many should say ‘destructive’ – characterization of Doctor Strange, about to be set into canon by the (perhaps) poisoned pen of Matt Fraction (as well as the unusually sloppy artwork being showcased by the Dodsons).

First, I took issue with the preview pages from DEFENDERS (v4) # 1, and their portrayal of some uncharacteristically unsavory sexual predilections of Stephen Strange, which can be read [HERE]. My unease continued when I read the prequel story that was a part of Marvel’s POINT ONE anthology issue, touted as the roadmap to Marvel’s 2012 publishing direction, and its off-base written and visual handling of Doctor Strange  - which can be found [HERE].

Another source of contention is that with 6 covers for the first issue and at least 2 or 3 covers for each subsequent issue (for each issue solicited, thus far anyway), I am rapidly losing any good-faith with Marvel. With the fleecing-the-flock predatory practices that Marvel is subjecting to its loyal fans, I wonder how much longer I can remain loyal, and not feel like a victim who has finally decided to stop going back for more abuse.

Now, before I launch into a lengthy diatribe, which will come not from some fan-nerd sense of entitlement (“GAH! They’re breaking MY character”), but instead from a position of “unofficial historian and caretaker” of a well-established property, let me just state that it is because I truly care about the proper handling of these modern myths. I don’t wish to see any writer mangle the better, more heroic natures of these 4-color heroes simply because it suits the whim of some half-baked story – or worse, because the writer just felt like it.

 I want to let it be known that I am not against changing a character, be it for “personal growth” or even to keep up with the times, but some changes are obviously wrong-minded and detrimental to the character. I should state that I am not one of those who insist that characters need to be preserved in amber. In fact, some of my favorite tenures of Doctor Strange are from when writers took him into deeply troubling, radically different, supposedly detrimental territory ( - for instance; Peter B. Gillis’ Strange Tales v2 [1987], where he turned Doc to the dark side and transformed him into a practitioner of black magic) . 

Strange Tales v2 # 15
Part of one of my all-time favorite character arcs for Doctor Strange.

The difference is; those had a plan for a complete character arc, a way for him to emerge from the troubled path renewed and refreshed. Fraction’s direction seems more for “coolness’ sake”.  Most likely, these poor changes will be later retconned away, or flat-out ignored by future writers, but still, the missteps can be made, and in this age where everything in the past, present (& future) canon is being reprinted in trade format, and thus available to be read, any missteps are “eternal”. 

The latter is my usual complaint of Marvel’s handling of Doctor Strange these past few years. Too many writers don’t do proper due diligence and neglect to fully research the characters in their charge. Some just fit any character into whatever plot they had in mind, paying little heed as to how the character, based upon their multiple decades of published history, would speak, behave or even if they might do such a thing.

Or, worse still, Marvel has thrown up its collective hands and said; “We have NO IDEA what to do with this character. Do what thou wilt.” It is that devil’s deal which I address first.

“Kitty Porn”:

This is the area, of which, I find myself most perturbed. In the preview to Defenders v4 # 1, Matt Fraction has Doctor Strange engage in an improper sexual hook-up with a nubile, young grad-student who had approached him for help with her thesis research. 

Wrong, Matt Fraction. Wrong on EVERY level.

As far as I can hazard a guess, this is ostensibly due to the ill effects of the rise of NUL (the big bad of the story). Supposedly, Nul is able to influence everyone and everything on earth, for the worse, merely by his being manifest on the physical plane. So, having Stephen Strange fall victim to a poor moral lapse due to this negative nul-effect would be acceptable – and almost excusable.

 In a recent interview [HERE], Fraction states:
 "... I'm doing a creepy, f*cked up Doctor Strange love story right now. The Tom Waits/Doctor Strange song I've always wanted to do. The first time we see Doctor Strange [in Defenders] he's in bed with a girl he shouldn't be in bed with. He's a teacher who sleeps with his students. I think that crosses a line, and I also think it speaks volumes to his character. It's an interesting lack of character.”

“An interesting LACK OF CHARACTER.” But, how can it be a lack of character when it is THE WRITER who just added that wrinkle to the character’s make-up? Never before has Strange done such a thing! And before anyone toss Strange’s carnal relationship with his former disciple; Clea, let me reaffirm that they started as lovers first! (Check out my post on the subject – and read the comment section where the Clea relationship is deeply discussed – [HERE].) Then, when Clea’s natural other-dimensional magical abilities faded away, Strange started to tutor her. While it might have been wrong to do so, while still retaining their intimate relationship, is a source of contention. (As I looked at in a slightly humorous, yet straight-forward examination of their relationship [HERE].) It should also be readily known that Clea, as a denizen of another dimension, is far more long-lived than we mere humans, and is, in fact, centuries old, thus removing any old-man/young-girl sexual accusations from the equation.

Doctor Strange & Clea discuss their Strange relationship
Doctor Strange; Master of the Mystic Arts # 45,
by Chris Claremont (story) and Gene Colan (art)

 I need to be fair and state that Fraction does show a pattern of not-so-coincidentally improper behavior among the other Defenders, who are also involved in improper relations at the story’s beginning. This also hints at a tainting of personages by Nul’s existence. So, in this instance, Strange is not being singled out.

However, Fraction expounds upon his assessment of Strange’s inappropriate sexual proclivities by stating;
Yeah, it's not that you're weird, it's that you're an a**hole. With Doctor Strange, he's a little grungier, a little creepier. Doctor Strange is a creepy dude. He sleeps with his students; he crosses lines most peoples wouldn't cross...”
“…Wolverine has never slept with Kitty Pryde. Doctor Strange totally would.”

Is he serious? Has the man EVER read ANY pre-Bendis-era comics with Doctor Strange? Please, no one tell Steve Ditko of this character maiming, because I truly think that Ditko would flay Fraction alive for such a transgression. Not just to his former creation, but to the heroic ideal itself. 

Many have been the situations where a female character has shown an attraction to Stephen Strange, and in each instance, Strange has politely, but definitively sidestepped the pitfall. Noble. Honorable. This is even in an instance when the woman throwing herself at him was a former incarnation of his then-current girlfriend; Morganna Blessing! One of his lover’s past lives (a hand-maiden of Rama-Tut from Ancient Egypt) – and from whence her deep, soul-mate-level love for him originated – and he politely lets her down easy, only to vanish in a puff of smoke. If ever there was an easy lay, having sex with the young-girl-who is-totally-enamored-and-whose-soul-would-eventually-evolve-into-his-then-girlfriend would BE the easiest of conquests. She was a total groupie for him. And he left her unmolested.

"Hush, Little One. It Is Not Meant To Be."
From Doctor Strange; Master of the Mystic Arts # 53

Stephen Strange has only ever had mature, consensual relations (and/or sex) with adult, fully-consenting women.
If you were to ask me, (or I’d wager, many X-Men fans,) I’d have put good money on Wolverine indeed having HAD sex with some of his young charges. Certainly, I’d believe that his sense of honor would demand that he would turn away any such schoolgirl-crush advances - maybe twice - before he would let it happen, with the thought of; “Hey. I tried to wave ‘em off, but if they want some animal sex… I’m gonna give it to ‘em.” Kitty Pryde might have had no interest, during her younger, Colossus-infatuated years, but later, when she was being trained by Logan, she may have had a weak moment or three and had the primal urge for the strong, male dominance that is Wolverine’s stock-in-trade. Jubilee and some others I can definitely see being attracted to Wolverine (in a “girl-with-daddy-issues” kind of way). But still, whether or not Wolverine ever had improper sexual relations with any of his young students, I know that there is no way that Stephen Strange would do so.

Not that Doctor Strange hasn’t been indirectly accused of such lascivious behavior. In the mostly forgotten mini-series; ‘WITCHES’, (by Brian Patrick Walsh and Mike Deodato) each of the three “Witches”; Satana, Topaz & Jenifer Kale, cast accusations against the others of sleeping with Strange. But, that’s all it amounted to: verbal cat-fighting between the three women. Strange was never in the room when these barbs were tossed about.

As listed in my complete listing of every woman that Stephen Strange has had any kind of romantic relationship (that epic post can be found [HERE]), there was even a case (in a recent Marvel Christmas Special) where the female heroes; Felicia “Black Cat” Hardy, Monica “Photon” Rambeau and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker teased Angelica “Firestar” Jones about her infatuation with Dr. Strange. They told her to buy a sheer, negligee and just show up at his door. He was never a part of this exchange. But, this was also (I hope) lighthearted fun, as the age difference (even without taking Strange’s true age into account, as he was born in 1930,) or should I say the “apparent” age difference - since he no longer ages as a mortal (due to his defeating "death", as I discussed in detail in a previous post [HERE])- would still be too large for an “appropriate” relationship. Firestar’s “love” of Strange was the by-product of a reverse “Florence Nightingale syndrome”, since he helped to administer to her during her battle with breast cancer.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t cases where a much older man is married to a very much younger woman, but those usually fall within the realms of foreign-countries with outdated marital arrangements, rich old billionaires and the gold-digging floozies who want to give them myocardial infarctions to inherit their wealth, and Elvis Presley with his child-bride (I’d even list Woody Allen and his “daughter”, but that is just TOO weird).

While I appreciate trying to return the creepiness-factor to Doctor Strange – a trait that he has been sorely lacking over much of his history – being a sexual predator is NOT the way to do it. This is an especially touchy subject recently, as the Penn-State sex conspiracy is a hot-button issue everywhere in the country. A trusted, older person, tasked with the enlightening of a younger person’s horizons, should never do so “horizontally”.

“Strange Tales”:

Counterbalanced, and to bring me back to his good graces, Fraction adds:

“Back in Strange Tales (vol 1), there are stories where he's in an ascot, waistcoat and fedora fighting wraiths in weird back alleys of unspecified Asian countries. I wanted that vibe from that first year or two of Strange Tales.”

To this I say; “I hope he succeeds!” Those Ditko/Lee Strange Tales issues are among the very BEST of the Doctor Strange stories, and a style only infrequently revisited in Strange’s subsequent history. 

Strange Tales v1 # 131
Lee / Ditko

But, as I made mention in my blog post about the Point One issue, I surely hope that Terry Dodson learns how to properly draw a hat.

But, he follows up with:

“Do you know what my way into Doctor Strange was? James Spader. Would you want to be on a road trip with James Spader? Just imagine three days in a car with James Spader. It's that "you're not from around here" feeling. He's a metric dude in a standard world. He's silently judging you constantly because he knows more than you…”

While truly a fan of James Spader, I don’t see him as the “voice” of Doctor Strange. Certainly, he has the dry, wry, knowledge-fu delivery that can be an interesting take, but if you are looking for someone with whom to liken the “creepy, know-more-than-you” aspect of Doctor Strange, I would suggest Jeff Goldblum. Just the way that Goldblum LOOKS at you is unnerving. When he speaks, you feel. Freaked. Out. (and not to mention, dumber then he is).

Heck, if you want to be on a road trip and get spooked out of your mind, sit in the passenger seat on a trip with Christopher Walken. Or Crispin Glover. That’ll teach you not to hitch-hike a ride.

I also put forth the truly classically accurate suggestion of Vincent Price. Price was known for his sojourns into the darker side of characterization. Not only a master thespian, known for his dramatic delivery, Vincent Price was also a fiercely intelligent man – an accomplished art historian and chef. Price possessed all that and his creepy voice, mannerisms and chilling laugh.

I have trepidations about Fraction’s infatuation of James Spader. Spader’s most recent star roles are from “Boston Legal”, where he played an affected, sexually dysfunctional and predatory, morally challenged bizarro, and now his taking over the lead role in “The Office”, as a manipulative executive shows me that Fraction is looking in the wrong direction for his inspiration.

Still, I am unsure WHY Fraction needs a "way in" to Doctor Strange at all. You know what MY "way into" Doctor Strange was? Reading DOCTOR STRANGE!

“No one likes the Golden-Child”:

The sexual misconduct, and Spader-ness aren’t the only missteps in Matt Fraction’s approach to the Defenders title. In fact, it is but a minor, easily explained away, error of judgment as compared to the real problem. Fraction has set in motion some universe-spanning machination that is supposed to “explain everything” in how the Marvel Universe came to be – the heroes, the history, everything. He’s likening it to Einstein’s oft-sought-after “Grand Unification Theory”.

Fraction states that everything that has happened, and will happen has been the secret cultivation of some outside force.
However, the very nature of having a “method” behind the madness of the Marvel Universe betrays the very essence of what it is that causes it to be special – or even relatable. The very nature of fandom for these characters is that, in some cases, a reader can picture themselves in the place of their favorite heroes- if only the accident or happenstance that led to the fictional person becoming a superhuman would have instead happened to them (and, y’know… that you’d get spider-powers and not cancer from a radioactive arachnid bite, or that a trip to study at the feet of a Himalayan guru would give you occult mastery, and not just a deep sense of harmony with the universe).

I am talking about the “chosen one” dilemma. Not to get into the theological debate of Calvinism vs Catholicism vs Lutheranism vs Unitarianism, but If things “happen for a reason” or more to the point; if things happen to a predestined plan of some cosmic googum, then there exists little (or no) hope that the possibility of greatness could be bestowed upon an average Joe (or Jane) of the 99% of us. Instead, the golden apple is held out of reach, except only for the select few. The 1%.

There have been a few instances of writers branding Doctor Strange as a “chosen one”, and that he was predestined to become the Sorcerer that he would become and that the Ancient One even protected him as a child, to ensure his continuing along the path. This ruins the “road to redemption” aspect of Strange’s origin, that it was only through great loss, soul-searching and acceptance of a greater power than he that he was able to ascend to greater heights. Personal growth.
There have even been similar attempts to introduce the same “chosen one” status to heroes like Spider-Man – the ultimate example (aside from Batman) of an origin that any child can imagine as being possible for them.

Such secret puppetry with invisible strings connected to an all-powerful hand diminishes the specialness of the heroic ideal. Despite the tag-line, Captain Universe may NOT be the hero who could be you or me. Perhaps the uni-force doesn’t come to anyone that needs it, but only those whom the cosmic machine has pre-selected. Truly Deux ex Machina.

A hero may or may not truly have free will to act heroically, but instead is merely performing a part, pre-written for them, like a play where they are unknowing performers.

To help counterbalance this, Matt Fraction details;

“… It's not about what-if minutiae stuff. I wanted to tell a story about the root of all the Marvel myths. What if there was a reason why they happened? What if it was something that was grown and cultivated rather than this collection of stories that we happen to be looking at? I wanted to tell a story about the Marvel Universe, not about the specifics. Every now and again, a pawn gets all the way down the board and gets to upgrade. The Defenders are pawns that have accidentally made their way down the board and get to upgrade and learn a little bit more.”

The idea of his last line there, that every so often someone gets to look behind the cosmic veil to gain a “level-up” of knowledge is an exciting one. There is a famous illustration from a centuries-old woodcut that portrays an ancient philosopher (or truth-seeker) peering beyond the curtain of the sky to behold the mysteries of the cosmos beyond. This image has always held some fascination for me, as it is a basic representation of all that we, as humans, strive to attain. The same sense of curiosity that caused man to leave the safety of the cave and to eventually voyage to the stars, is portrayed in this sentiment.

 colorized adaptation of a centuries-old woodcut

To have the Defenders be the cosmic seekers of truth (or, finders of truth) is an exciting prospect. 

With this direction - and the fact that due to the nature of the threat, the team is made physically unable to even discuss the conflict they are in - the best title for this title would have been; THE SECRET DEFENDERS. That seems more appropriate now than it was for the 1990's Defenders series of the same name. 

However, if the truth is that they find that the Prime Mover and the Shaper of Worlds are putting on a puppet show on the Earth, that would be less ideal.

“The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating”:

Lest I be accused of criticizing a product before it has even been released, I assure you that I have tried to be as fair and balanced as I can – given what evidence has been made available.

But, to act as my own defender… if you are being given an official, behind-the-scenes tour into the inner workings of a 5-star restaurant, and the chef is showing you his very best recipe for a pudding, but his ingredients are all wrong (or, perhaps even poisonous) – would you want to eat the pudding? Or even want to dine there anymore at all? 

Still, tastes differ, and I am sure that there will be many fans who will not see anything wrong with the handling of the characters and title’s direction, and may absolutely love it. Who is to say that they are wrong? Especially, if what we are being shown as teasers and previews are not the best representations of the title.

Still, as someone who can safely state to be a bit of a resource on the history and overall character of Doctor Strange, I am wary. However, I await the first few issues and hope that my concerns are addressed and allayed by some rational explanations in the plots.  

I WANT to enjoy this title.
I truly do.

I have read the issue and gave a FULL review of it [HERE].
The long and the short of it: It's not bad. But it's not very good either.


Anonymous said...

Actually, according to some of those who know him: Spader is extremely intelligent, very eccentric, weird, scary sexy, and can be quite intimidating. (They also will add that he is a nice guy as well.)

Anonymous said...

The article admits that Spader is intelligent and weird. Just that he is not the correct "voice" for Strange.

Nothing in this article states that he isn't nice.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes. Agree on everything you said. Fraction might have less of a handle on Doc than Bendis..if that's even possible. Vincent Price will always be the ideal way into Strange. Scary, classy, smart. Spader while an excellent actor is just not right for Doc.

Anonymous said...

Ugh I agree completely. I was SO excited for a Defenders reemergence and after seeing the same stuff you've pointed out I'm almost apprehensive about the whole thing. But I want it to be good, I want Dr Strange to have his come back, I just want it to be good! Is that so much to ask? Fingers crossed its just all because of Nul and even though that's kind of lame I will take it in face of totally defaming and screwing up such a historic important character and title. I've been a good girl, please Marvel, don't ruin my Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Your comments about Dr. Strange being written out-of-character and continuity being cast aside are exactly the same gripes Thor readers have had since Fraction took over the title. Don't expect that to change; Fraction is pretty pig-headed about how he writes.

Post a Comment