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Range Mash: Douglas vs. the Marvels of 8/1

Brian Hibbs

How do you solve a problem like Dr. Strange? There’s something about him that doesn’t quite seem to work these days–he can’t sustain a series of his own, his supporting cast is the same tiny group of characters it was 30 years ago, and even though everyone seems to like him enough that he’s always positioned as one of Marvel’s big guns, he keeps generating narrative dead-ends or appearing in big stories only to be written out of them in short order.

The difficulty with making a Dr. Strange comic work is twofold. One of them is that his stories need to look absolutely gorgeous and sort of surreal or there’s no point, and nobody’s really stepped up to give him the kind of visual splendor he got in his prime from Steve Ditko and later Marshall Rogers and P. Craig Russell and sometimes Gene Colan. (I can imagine J.H. Williams III doing a perfectly terrific Dr. Strange, but who knows if he’s got any interest in the character? From my conversation with him at Comic-Con, it sounds like he’s already got a very full plate for the near future. And somehow I can’t imagine Paul Laffoley would be all that interested in doing comics.)

The other is that nobody’s ever been able to define or even suggest what he can and can’t do–which works fine when you’re doing a story that’s entirely within the realms of the mystical (or “imaginary solutions to imaginary problems”), but falls apart when you’re working in a setting where physics applies. Dr. Strange’s powers are, literally, hand-waving. I don’t even know if he belongs among the Illuminati, frankly. He worked in the context of the Defenders because the point of that series was that the group’s characters had nothing in common–he and the Hulk don’t operate within the same frame of reference. (It’s the same principle, in a way, as the Grant Morrison Seven Soldiers, where e.g. Klarion and the Manhattan Guardian may cross paths but understand what they’re experiencing in completely different ways.)

This brings us to New Avengers: Illuminati #4, which exemplifies the Strange problem, because he has to be present in it even though he has nothing to add to it–and even though, if Bendis and Reed wanted to make him solve the problem by waving his hands, they could easily have done so. The opening scene, with the cabal chit-chatting about their love lives, is a really good example of bad Bendis–maybe the dialogue’s actually Reed in a Bendis-imitating mode, but it certainly seems Bendisesque. It’s not just that they’re talking about things they wouldn’t talk about, it’s that their dialogue is intermittently way off from their established speech patterns. (Charles Xavier would never, ever say “Plus–if, listen, if I did do this…”) And four of the five characters on the cover don’t even appear in the issue, which wouldn’t bug me if they had a symbolic presence in the body of the issue, but the Marvel Boy stuff that makes up the bulk of the plot has nothing at all to do with the women-problems business from the first few pages.

The plot, yes–I like Graeme’s phrase “unnecessary continuity implant.” Two huge flaws with the story here. First, it requires a working knowledge of the Morrison/Jones Marvel Boy miniseries and the entire Kree/Skrull narrative to make sense. (I’ve read Marvel Boy, although not lately, and I can’t even remember what happened in it or how this would fit in.) Second, if you’re going to do a continuity implant, it has to change the meaning of what was happening in the original story; this doesn’t, and I don’t see how it can be meaningful to future stories, either, unless Noh-Varr ends up becoming the next Captain Marvel, which would mean 86ing the entire point of his character. An Awful issue.

I was afraid World War Hulk had gone way off course with last week’s also-unnecessary issue of Incredible Hulk–in case you missed it, the point was that Rick Jones and… was it Miek? The insect-thing… are, you know, Two Sides of the Same Coin. (Plus have we found out yet what happened with Amadeus Cho and his Legion of Hulk-Helpers? I’m pretty sure we haven’t, and that’s the part of this story I want to read most. I keep thinking that Cho is basically Peter Parker in the part of the story between where he gets his powers and where Uncle Ben dies: a very powerful, very arrogant kid who thinks he knows how everything works and is heading for a major fall.) With World War Hulk #3, though, I’m back on board, particularly since he’s figured out how to make Strange work in as physical a context as there could possibly be.

This is a massive, gleeful crank-it-to-11 action comic, and it works because Pak and Romita don’t try to get around the potentially corny bits–they just charge full-speed-ahead into them: “No, Doctor, you can’t.” “I can. And must. Now bring me the box.” Pak’s got a bad habit of repeating sequences and catchphrases–how many times do we need to be told how the ship blew up and Caiera died? or read someone saying “may he who dies die well”? But he’s very much in control of his characters thematically. The way he gets around the Strange-in-the-physical-world problem is to make Strange’s part of the story about his most physical attribute as a character: his hands, which are the instruments of his failed caretaking in his origin. (Strange reaches out his hands to Bruce in friendship, and has them crushed by the Hulk; at the end of the story, they’re replaced by immobile weapons.) Lots of great visual touches from Romita, too: the ’70s Sal Buscema-isms of General Ross’s flashback, the reversed-out linework when Strange drinks the Zom potion, the crinkly, extra-Janson-y artwork on the flashback inside Bruce’s mental landscape. A Good issue, elevated by what’s hands-down the best final page of the week.

In the non-Strange division, over in the corner, there’s poor cancelled Irredeemable Ant-Man #11–when a “fan-favorite” creator like Robert Kirkman can’t sell a Marvel Universe series for beans, there’s a problem. (The first comics store I went to this week didn’t even carry it. The second had two copies of this issue peeking out from behind an Essential Amazing Spider-Man TPB.) Next issue is the final one, but this one seems to have been plotted as the wrap-up, oddly enough–most of the dangling plot threads are brusquely dispatched here (I think the only ones left have to do with Eric’s love life), it’s called “Redeemed” for that soothing full-circle sensation, and it ends with the status quo of the beginning of the series mostly restored.

I’ve really enjoyed the formalist tricks of this series, especially the sixteen-panel grid Phil Hester’s given it–there aren’t sixteen panels on many pages, but the panel borders are always more or less where they would be if there were. Honesly, though, I don’t know how much longer Kirkman, Hester and Parks could’ve sustained it: the series is built around one joke, which is that Eric O’Grady is a weaselly jerk who keeps doing the right thing more or less by accident. His victory here consists of lying through his teeth to save his own skin, then selling out the person who’s come to rescue him–all of which is funny in theory, and only sort of works on the page. It’s an Okay issue of a series that’s generally been more impressive in its ambition than its execution.

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