Essential Dr. Strange, v. 4
Collects: Dr. Strange (v. 2) #30-56 (1978-82)
Released: June 2009 (Marvel)
Format: 584 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785130628
What is this?: Dr. Strange battles foes old and new and deals with Clea actually getting a personality
The culprits: Writers Roger Stern, Chris Claremont, and others; artists Gene Colan, Marshall Rogers, and others
I expected to be underwhelmed by Essential Doctor Strange, v. 4. I usually am underwhelmed by Dr. Strange stories, despite being a fan of the character. I think most Marvel fans are underwhelmed by Strange; it’s why everyone thinks a Dr. Strange series is a good idea but no one buys them .
But v. 4 surprised me, after a rough start. The book certainly has the pedigree to succeed; Roger Stern, who was at his peak with early ‘80s Marvel, writes most of the book, while Chris Claremont writes eight stories (#38-45) and the included Man-Thing story. Stern feels like the better fit. He’s remembered for writing Spider-Man, who’s a solo hero, like Strange. Claremont is known for his legendary X-Men run, which doesn’t seem to have much in common with Dr. Strange at all. But it’s Claremont, who wrote #38-45, who really gets things going in v. 4.
It’s through a typical Claremontian concern for female characters. Under Claremont’s pen, Clea, Strange’s lover and disciple, realizes she has learned somewhere between jack and squat from Strange, despite being raised in a more magical dimension. She draws the wrong conclusion from this — that she’s a bad student, rather than Strange being an indifferent-to-incompetent teacher — but at least it breaks the status quo and gives us a reason for Clea’s relative insignificance in magical battles. Claremont also develops Wong a little — well, mainly his forebears, but it’s something.
Claremont also introduces new magical enemies who look like Native Americans and gives Strange a business manager, Sara Wolfe, who’s both a woman AND a Native American. This reminds us that even when Claremont was at the height of his powers, not all his ideas were winners.
Stern gets the beginning (#30-7) and end (#47-56) of the book. His first run is a running battle between Strange and the Dweller in Darkness’s goons, and Strange never does figure out who is behind his assailants. The story ends abruptly, with the Dweller making a unilateral declaration of a nebulous, non-physical victory, as Stern leaves. His exit was probably the reason for the sudden stop — Stern had already switched to plotter (Ralph Macchio scripts) with #33 — but frankly, it had become dull even before then. Stern’s exit was a mercy killing. The only interesting bit is Stern reusing a character from a minor story from an issue of Chamber of Chills, but even that was done haphazardly.
When Stern returns, though, he picks up with Claremont’s disaffected Clea (and drops almost everything else). He introduces a romantic rival for Clea, which finally gives movement to Strange’s static personal life. He also brings back Mordo, one of the go-to villains for strange. Really, Mordo’s just there for credibility; the magician could have been anyone. But Mordo (and eventually Dormammu) lead Strange back through time on a great series of stories (#50-3) that brings in Sgt. Fury and his commandos, Nazis, the Fantastic Four, and Rama-Tut and ends with Clea leaving Strange. Another story has D’Spayre trying to convince Strange he’s a fictional character, even introducing him to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko analogues. In the final issue, Strange plays with former minions of Mordo who thought they were being clever. It’s a strong finish to the book, and it makes me eager for v. 5.
On the other hand, having such expectations of consistent quality is a recipe for disappointment. On the other other hand, the Unofficial Handbook of the Marvel Universe says the next 20 or so issues are Stern teamed up with artists Paul Smith (who did a great job on #54 and 56) and Dan Green with a few others.
Adding even more to the plus side, Stern also has Strange and Clea engage in a rather suggestive “tantric exercise,” which Clea describes as “wonderful” and one she wants to try “more often.” So points to Stern for that. On the other hand, Stern kills a cat. So no perfect score for him either.
The pencils are primarily from Gene Colan and Marshall Rogers. Both are excellent choices. Few artists in Marvel’s stable did shadowy and spooky like Colan, who excelled at it on Tomb of Dracula and Daredevil. (To be fair, Marvel’s bright spandex world didn’t need it so often.) But he does an excellent job here (#36-45, 47), atmospheric and moody and occasionally frightening. His Strange frequently looks a bit too much like his Dracula for my tastes, but they don’t cross over so there’s no confusion, and they’re both imposing, handsome figures, so that’s OK. He uses darkness effectively, so that the reader always suspects something horrible is about to come from the shadows. That expectation is frequently greater than any actual horror inspired by the creatures on the page, but I blame that on the rather plain demons and adversaries Stern and Claremont give him. The black-and-white reproduction doesn’t help him either; with no color to help the shading, his work occasionally looks blotchy.
I am shocked that I enjoy Rogers’s pencils, given how unimpressed I was with his work in Batman: Strange Apparitions. His run (#48-53) is shorter than Colan’s, which is a shame. His style is completely different than Colan’s; while Colan eschews clear lines and his characters look like they can find shadow in a desert at noon, Rogers’s work is clear and bright, even in black and white. His art looks more modern than his contemporaries’, and some of the panels in this look like something that could have been created in the ‘90s, except Marshall has a command of anatomy and exaggerates physical attributes only slightly. Rogers’s Mordo is impressive, full of menace. His work in #53, in which Strange breaks down after Clea announces she’s leaving, is heartbreaking.
I didn’t expect to enjoy Essential Dr. Strange, v. 4. After the first ten issues, I really didn’t, despite the beginning of Colan’s run. But the story grew on me, and the art, more than the writing, won me over. By the end, though, Stern was putting together an impressive run, and I’m looking forward to finding out if he continued it.