Doctor Strange: Season One
It turns out I’m somewhat over-particular when it comes to superhuman feats and their attendant trappings; If you’re going to leap tall buildings in a single bound or use the Washington monument as a bat to swat nuclear missiles away from the White House then I accept, in fact I implore, that you wear a primary-coloured cape and your underwear over your trousers, and if by night you turn into a howling, snarling beast then, by all means, wear whatever such accoutrements or chest-exposing shirts as might suggest the truth to a genre-canny observer. But if you make your bones by casting them, if your chants are more performative utterance than Gregorian, or if magic is more to you than a radio station which plays comfortingly twee music to despairing commuters then I beg of you that you might eschew the flowing robes and costume jewellery of fairground mages and theatrical Victoriana in favour of something less eye-gouging camp.
Well… It’s actually the absence of internal consistency and a lazy reliance on a power so nebulously defined as to be essentially limitless that really makes magical super-beings deeply uninteresting on the whole, that and the purple prose of faux-arcane incantations and earnest invocations. So, said predilections and prejudices being the case, Doctor Stephen Strange, earth’s erstwhile Sorcerer Supreme, was by far my least favourite of Marvel’s pantheon of superheroes and has remained so, exiled from my favour, until only a few days ago. Nonetheless as part of said comics company’s ongoing attempts to increase their readership they’ve borrowed the more familiar language of television in creating a series of ‘Season One’ books which retell the origins of their characters and teams whilst lending an overarching structure and less-dated aesthetic to stories which were once disjointed serials, the most recent of which is Greg Pak and Emma Rios’ Doctor Strange.
I went in wary; beyond my general disinterest in Doctor Strange as a character the quality of the Season One books has fluctuated rather wildly between those which have stayed hidebound to the disjointed nature of the original periodicals and those which have used these source materials as the basis to renew the archetypical myths of their creations. Doctor Strange, happily, falls not only into the latter category but reads as though it was and always has been a single grandiose tale of a man’s rise to grace after a fall from selfish, misused power. Greg Pak’s writing paces the action and exposition in an almost-perfect balance, the interplay between Strange and his eventual aide and assistant Wong invigorated by an initial distaste and disrespect for one another which mellows only slightly, and slowly enough that it doesn’t seem forced nor there simply for effect. The dialogue is similarly punchy with only the most ingrained trappings, the afore-feared “the hoary hosts of Hoggoth”, upsetting my delicate sensibilities.
Nevertheless, and despite how much I enjoyed the story, any book with art by Emma Rios is going to find its writing as something of a secondary player. The lines of her work flow around the page such that her figures appear in constant, balletic motion and when Strange begins to use magical energies and spells the lines of mystical force run through those used to draw him, making the character a conduit and continuation of those energies and giving them a visual grounding which ties the supernatural and inhuman elements more closely to the character of the protagonists and the villains. It’s not quite as striking as her work on the (relatively) recent Cloak & Dagger miniseries, where the design of the former was a gift to the fluid style of Rios’ pencils, but supported by a strong story she brings Doctor Strange: Season One to life and helps create a book which could put Doctor Strange back amongst the A-list of Marvel’s characters.