Monday, 3 November 2014

Doctor Strange: The Oath Review (Brian K Vaughan, Marcos Martin)


This is one of those reviews you read after you’ve read the book but if you’re just looking for a quick yay or nay take on this, I thought that Doctor Strange: The Oath was an ok-ish story for an ok-ish character. I haven’t read many Strange books so I can’t say where this one stands in his canon/continuity but it’s not a terrible read. Does Doctor Strange even have a great book – who knows? If you want to read a Doctor Strange book, I’d say this is the best I’ve read yet (out of the two I have! The other being Mark Waid and Emma Rios’ Strange: The Doctor is Out). 

But I’m going to dip in and out of spoilers throughout this review so fair warning from here on out. 

Alrighty then: in The Oath, Doctor Stephen Strange’s assistant Wong is struck down with an inoperable brain tumour. Apparently a magic spell won’t fix the problem but a magic potion will so off Strange goes for the quickest of forays into a magical realm to find said cure. But it turns out the panacea he gets won’t just cure Wong’s tumour – it’ll cure every disease known to man! Except the Evil Drug Companies won’t allow it as they make more money from treating diseases like cancer than offering one-time cures; Strange and the panacea must be eliminated! 

Two big things bothered me about this book: plot and character. Plot-wise, The Oath is very simplistic. Remember those Phase One Marvel Studios movies, Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, which had villains who were like the hero but EVIL, and were only used for that one movie? Same dealio here – Strange has an even double he must defeat. Now ain’t that convenient? And what do you think – does Wong die in the end? The character who’s been with Strange all these years and is the Alfred to Strange’s Bruce Wayne? Exactamundo! 

Or how about the rehashed conspiracy theory of the Drug Companies suppressing the cure for cancer because they’re EVIL and they’d lose billions if they cured cancer rather than kept treating it? I audibly groaned at the cheesiness of that inclusion. I know Brian K Vaughan’s very liberal, and so am I, but really, this was an embarrassingly corny and unimaginative motive. Who would a villain in a Vaughan-scripted Ghost Rider be – Evil Oil Companies who want to suppress the secret that cars can now run on water instead of petrol? What other dumb conspiracy theories can we toss in? 

And then in the middle of the story, a giant Lovecraftian tentacle terror appears – how will Strange defeat it? Answer: with a bullet from a handgun. What? I mean, sure, it’s Hitler’s personal handgun so it’s got all kindsa bad juju surrounding it, but – a handgun? One shot? How unsatisfying. And again unimaginative. 

Which brings us to the issues of character. Vaughan weaves Strange’s origins into the main story well, and it helps that it’s a fairly straightforward one: he was one of the world’s greatest surgeons whose hands were damaged, forcing him out of his profession. He went to the Himalayas to learn magic and became the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth. Yeah it’s silly but hey it’s Marvel! Couple big questions are puzzling though: what are the limits of his powers and how come his personality in this book isn’t consistent with the other stories he’s appeared in? 

Because while I haven’t read many Strange books (there just aren’t many out there and the Stan Lee-scripted ones don’t appeal in the least), he does appear quite often in plenty of other titles from big Event books like Original Sin and Infinity to regular stints as part of the Illuminati, to cameos in titles like Silver Surfer. In all of his appearances he’s well-spoken, learned, and a wit. In Vaughan’s hands, he’s, well, a prick! We see that he was worse before he became the Sorcerer Supreme, but he’s still quite arrogant and snooty in the present too. In other words, the kind of personality that’s hard to like and root to succeed.

And though The Oath isn’t an explanatory book of the character, seeing as Vaughan does go to some lengths to make the reader aware of many aspects of his character, why not go all the way, like explaining how his powers work? Because that’s one of the most important parts of Marvel superheroes, isn’t it – their power set? What can Strange do? I don’t know exactly. He’s the Sorcerer Supreme so does that mean he can do anything? This is a problem with magic characters – give them a new grimoire or spellbook and they can learn new powers. Strange’s powers might well be limitless – or, as the case might be, limited to the writer’s imagination and/or contrived situation. 

The finale is where this flaw becomes a problem. In a very Kirk/Spock moment, Strange has a drop of the panacea left and has to choose between saving Wong’s life or saving it to study/reproduce more and save literally billions of lives; the needs of the many over the needs of the few. Strange chooses Wong because of the Hippocratic Oath he took once upon a time. 

But was that his only choice – give the panacea to one or the other? Was it the “Wong” choice? (Thank you, thank you, I WILL accept the obvious joke award!) He’s the Sorcerer Supreme – why doesn’t he magically create a machine to instantly analyse the panacea and then another machine to instantly replicate it? Or maybe put Wong into some kind of stasis so he remains alive, while he produces more of the panacea enabling him to both save Wong AND everyone else on the planet? Maybe he doesn’t have those powers – I don’t know. Looking at all of this, I wouldn’t say Vaughan does a great job with Strange’s character in this book. 

Wong himself seems like a very outdated stereotype while the other character – Night Nurse – doesn’t really add anything to the book. She’s a generic love interest and a really obscure Marvel character - that’s it. Not to mention the fact that she’s actually a doctor but she calls herself Night Nurse because alliteration is very important to Marvel.

Which isn’t to say The Oath is terrible; I’ve read great and garbage Marvel books and this one falls in the middle. The story’s not amazing but it holds the attention and has some nice moments here and there. I liked that for a magical character, Vaughan does his best to humanise him, focusing on his friend and a love interest, and that in his final fight, Strange avoids the use of magic to win.

The opening page alone – Iron Fist in Night Nurse’s waiting room, casually waiting to get patched up - makes me wish Vaughan and Marcos Martin would write an Iron Fist series! And Martin’s art is gorgeous throughout though I wouldn’t say any panels stick out especially because they’re all so wonderfully drawn. It’s easy to see why Vaughan kept in contact with Martin so that, years later, they could do their digital indie comic, The Private Eye, together (which I highly recommend reading if you haven’t already!). Alvaro Lopez and Javier Rodriguez’s colours are a bit dull but not bad. 

Doctor Strange: The Oath may not be THE Doctor Strange book to read but you could do worse than start here. In the end it feels like just another Strange adventure. I didn’t really learn anything much more about his character than I already knew going in – he’s magical, etc. Marvel doesn’t seem to know what to do with the character when, in a post-Harry Potter world, a magical character should do really well. Maybe it’s because he rocks the Vincent Price look – you know, the actor all the kids love? There’s potential for this character but The Oath shows that Vaughan’s not the writer to achieve the definitive update for the modern era Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange: The Oath

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