Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From the Vault: Doctor Strange

When you’re running a business in the creative industry, there are bound to be unexpected casualties. That’s just as true in comics as it is anywhere else, perhaps more-so, and this long-lost Doctor Strange story is one such victim. Originally plotted and illustrated thirteen years ago, it sat in an unfinished state for over a decade when Marvel Universe, the series it was intended for, ran headfirst into an immediate cancellation. As with cold bodies anywhere in this landscape, however, you’d be foolish to think that the death of a nigh-complete story such as this one could ever be a thing of total permanence.

This kind of story, in particular, seems especially suited to such post-mortem revival. An out of continuity glance back at Doctor Strange’s early-career search for his mystical base of operations, the basic premise of this story feels as fresh today as it likely would have back in 1998. Which is to say, as fresh as a jar of pickled eggs. It’s a chapter in the character’s history that isn’t going anywhere and should always be set in a familiar period, barring a significant reboot such as the one seen in the Ultimate Universe a few years ago. But while it’s that lukewarm, not-quite-fresh setting that was more than likely responsible for this story finally seeing print after so many years, it also asks the reasonable question of whether such familiar territory was worth dusting off at all.

To that question, I’d respond with a tenuous “yes.” Roger Stern does uncover some new ground in his exploration of an easily recognizable chapter in the character’s history. Though the mystique of the Doctor’s Sanctum Sanctorum has always been present, the root of Strange’s relationship with his abode has, as near as I can recall, never been given this kind of attention. Pity, then, that Stern’s storytelling is so shallow and transparent. This is a very basic story, carried by a few mildly spooky coincidences, that telegraphs almost every one of its twists. It weighs in at a light twenty-two pages, with very little of consequence in its bag of tricks. Strange feels a bit too passive for his own good, with the few stumbling blocks he encounters ultimately providing very little in the way of a real threat.

Artist Neil Vokes can be held partially responsible for that lack of circumstance. While Stern seemed dedicated to telling a story with hints of darkness and an underlying sense of unease, Vokes’s bright, merry illustrations paint an entirely different picture. His artwork isn’t without its place - in this instance a few panels of an unnamed, abstract-influenced extradimensional realm - but on the large it’s a bad match for the mood and weight intended by the story. The poor fit isn’t that much of a surprise, given that the series was so close to cancellation at the time of the creators’ pairing, but the valid excuse makes it no more tolerable.

Some bodies should remain buried, and unfortunately it seems that this forgotten issue of Marvel Universe is proof of that fact. While the concept showed promise, shedding new light on an old chapter in the life of one of Marvel’s cornerstone figures, the execution was an excursion in sleepwalking, offering nothing of consequence. Badly matched artwork is just the icing on the cake. Skip it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 2

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