Elizabeth over at Binary System Podcast has been trying to get me to read the latest Doctor Strange series almost since it first came out last October. I finally ran out of excuses when I stumbled over the gorgeous hardback graphic novel Doctor Strange – The Way of the Weird, collecting the first five issues of the series written by Jason Aaron (Star Wars, The Mighty Thor, Avengers vs. X-Men), with art by Chris Bachalo (Uncanny X-Men, plus a couple dozen other X-titles).
Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the character; Aaron gives you a quick history of the surgeon-turned-Sorcerer-Surpreme on the first page, and then throws you into a gloriously insane world of magic and monsters that’s hidden from most “normal” humans.
Ever since starting his new life as a sorcerer, Doctor Strange has been operating as something of a supernatural troubleshooter, driving out magical infestations from his home in Manhattan. But there are rumors that there’s something out there worse than alien parasites or demonic nightmares. And whatever it is, it’s getting closer, right when Strange is starting to realize that the price of using magic may be a lot higher than he can pay.
I’ll start with the art, since that’s the first thing that drew me to this title. I’ve been a fan of Bachalo since Death: The High Cost of Living back in the early nineties, and his style is perfect for this title. Doctor Strange routinely has to jump in and out of some very odd places, and the creatures who live in these realms cover the range from alien goddesses to man-eating snails. Bachalo’s art splashes all across the page, crossing over panel borders and making the reader pay close attention so you can figure out what the heck is going on. I especially liked how he illustrated the interplay between the “real” world, and the world that Strange can see: everything in the world of non-magical humans is in black-and-white line art, like an untouched coloring book, while Strange goes charging through in lunatic technicolor, throwing spells and swirling his cape dramatically (except in that one instance when he was naked).
The scenes set inside Doctor Strange’s house, the Sanctum Sanctorum, deserve a paragraph all on their own. Each page is crammed full of detail, and the house itself is wonderfully insane. Every door opens into a different world, hallways turn upside down like an Escher painting, looking at the wrong book in the library can kill you, and the refrigerator has to be kept chained shut, for reasons. The entire second issue is set inside the house (Doctor Strange and a hapless young librarian have to keep escaped mind-maggots from getting to the cellar, because of course they do) and I still wanted to see more of the house once the story ended.
Jason Aaron’s writing effortlessly introduces us to the world of hidden magic and magician-only bars, and walks the line between funny/clever and unsettling/weird. Doctor Strange has been doing this whole magic thing for long enough that some of it’s becoming almost normal for him, so he stays a little blasé even when the world seems to be losing its mind around him. This can really throw people for a loop, especially when Strange is trying to tell someone how to escape imminent doom, but his instructions don’t make any sense. It leads to some pretty hilarious scenes, like his latest client standing with her hat jammed down over her eyes as she yells out the worst secrets she can imagine. (“I think my sister’s baby is ugly! I hate my mother’s meatloaf! I voted for J. Jonah Jamison for mayor!”)
The story goes to darker places as well. The character of Strange invites some comparisons with Tony Stark – rock-star personality, charming rogue, terrifyingly good at what he does, plays fast and loose with the rules – but it’s hard to imaging Stark taking on the kind of suffering that Strange has to. Magic has a cost, and we’re not just talking about pain. Remember the chains on the refrigerator? Strange stopped being able to digest human food a while ago. The things he can eat look like something out of a Lovecraft story, and they taste exactly as horrible as they look. Every time Strange uses magic he has to pay a price for it, and the stronger and darker the magic, the higher the price.
By the end of the book there’s a lot of backstory to Doctor Strange left to learn, since we’ve only gotten a few tantalizing glimpses in flashbacks. And things are going to get a lot worse for everyone now that whatever it is that’s been wiping out magical dimensions one-by-one has set its sights on Earth. This title is bound to get more attention as we get closer to the Benedict Cumberbatch movie this November, and I hope some of the people who read a few issues just to find out who the character is end up sticking around, because it’s a hell of a fun story that’s only going to get more interesting.