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Doctor Strange: The Oath

(Marvel)

The doctor will see you now.
—Night Nurse, Doctor Strange #1


That’s certainly a potential catchphrase if I ever heard one, and one that may have even gone on to rank up there with classics like “I’m Batman” and “It’s clobberin’ time” if only the doctor himself didn’t dismiss it as “very droll”. Of course, I prefer “By the Hoary #%*-ing Hosts”, but that’s just me. Regardless of your taste, these little poetic exclamations give the reader a pretty good indication of what to expect from this mini-series by writer Brian K. Vaughan (Runaways, Y: The Last Man, The Escapists) and artist Marcos Martin (Batgirl: Year One, Breach). Quite remarkably, the pair manages to reinvent a classic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko creation by bringing it back to basics, and they craft what is certain to be one of the definitive Doctor Strange tales.


For many years, the Doctor Strange character has been relegated to being one of the Marvel Universe’s resident deus ex machina figures: he usually functions as a problem solving plot device rather than an actual character. The question is often brought up in regards to Strange; how can someone whose powers are theoretically unlimited ever be in any real danger? Vaughan opens the story by addressing that very problem in quite a dramatic fashion. He has someone pop a cap in him.


Vaughan is very good at finding the root of a concept and finding a fresh take on it. The initial premise of the book is a good one—a quest. In this case, the quest is to find a cure for Strange’s loyal servant Wong, who Strange discovers is suffering from a brain tumor. This fires the first shot, so to speak, that brings the good doctor down to a more earthly plane. Strange is then reminded of something that forms the main hook of the series: the Hippocratic oath. This not only connects the doctor with his past as a medical doctor, but it also sets up a situation where Strange is forced to walk the line between his sincere desire to help people and the inevitable arrogance that betrays someone known as the Sorcerer Supreme.


Thankfully for him, Strange has some help. The re-introduction of the obscure character Night Nurse as a strong female lead is an inspired choice, injecting a refreshing dose of sexual tension into Strange’s generally solitary and austere world. Both she and Wong form a Scooby gang of sorts and are as much the stars of this book as the doctor. The chemistry and wit that Vaughan generates with this group through the use of snappy, Whedon-esque dialogue provides brilliant comic relief even in the face of genuine danger.


Martin’s artwork, which has a very friendly and appealing retro feel to it, compliments
Vaughan’s approach by keeping things light while still conveying an atmosphere of mystery and drama. It’s obvious that he gets the comic eeriness, for lack of a better term, that characterized the Ditko art of the 1960’s. This doesn’t mean that Martin is a Ditko imitator, by any means, as he certainly has his own distinct style. His artwork simply has a similar vibe. The slight changes he makes in Strange’s wardrobe are a nice touch as well, switching out the leotards and orange sash for a classier and more sophisticated dress pants and shoes, while still keeping the more recognizable and unique Ditko-designed elements.


Another key idea that Vaughan incorporates here is the idea that the Doctor must live up to his title and realize that sometimes, as a physician, you have to get your hands dirty. It’s only fitting, then, that the climatic battle between Strange and his nemesis throws the magic gloves aside for a good, old-fashioned fistfight. How else could Strange prove that he’s more than just an aloof prick with a magic amulet? If I had to sum up this series by choosing only one panel, the close-up of Strange as he takes his glove off, his scarred hand in the foreground, pretty much says it all.


In the end, the best part about this series is that it happens to be both smart and fun, two qualities that you can never have enough of in a superhero book. Vaughan and Martin deliver an engaging, well-crafted and highly entertaining supernatural mystery-adventure that also happens to enrich the origin and history of one of Marvel’s classic characters and sets the stage for a new era for the Sorcerer Supreme. This Doctor Strange is Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes, and Indiana Jones all rolled into one cool New York package. Let’s hope Marvel keeps him this way.

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There is no cheap, theatrical melodrama or long, pseudo-Shakespearian deathbed monologues here, leaving us with no easy comforts and little else but the quick, unforgiving finality.
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