With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Artists: Marcos Martin
Issues: Dr. Strange: The Oath #1-5
Ex-surgeon turned Sorcerer Supreme Dr. Stephen Strange is not a hugely popular Marvel hero, yet he crops up nearly everywhere as the resident magic expert. Any time a superhero has to deal with magical foes or spells or summoned creatures, they call Dr. Strange.
Despite his usefulness he hadn’t warranted a solo series since the mid 90s, instead cropping up in a few limited series but mostly as a recurring guest star in Amazing Spider-Man or joining the New Avengers after the Civil War.
My options for exploring Dr. Strange’s modern, solo adventures via Marvel Unlimited are, ironically, quite limited. Thankfully there’s one fairly high regarded series that explores Dr. Strange’s background and origin in five issues called The Oath.
Acting as a bridge between Civil War and Stephen’s stint with New Avengers (though the timing of the series really doesn’t matter), Dr. Strange is carried into the Night Nurse’s secretive, superhero friendly office by his apprentice Wong. Strange has been shot! A mercenary known as the Brigand stole a magical elixir that Strange had procured to heal Wong’s brain tumor, and the foe was armed with the magical mojo of Hitler’s own gun, penetrating Strange’s defenses. All of this is told by the good Doctor himself via his famous Astral Projection even as the Night Nurse operates on him.
The series is written by Brian K. Vaughan, whom I’ve previously had the pleasure of reading in Runaways and Saga. Vaughan’s style is incredibly relateable and down-to-earth. Dr. Strange’s background as a sorcerer is effectively given the broad strokes treatment and we’re allowed to peer into the kind of person that Stephen is and has become, rather than focus on what he can and can’t do with magic.
Stephen Strange’s personality and story closely mirrors that of Tony Stark. He began as an arrogant surgeon that cared only for money and furthering his own career, until a fateful car accident ruined his hands. Seeking to repair them by any means, he traveled to Tibet to learn the mystic arts, tutoring under an old wizard known as The Ancient One.
And that’s pretty much it. Dr. Strange becomes a powerful sorcerer and vows to help people. The oath that the title refers to is the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors take – Strange is adamant about saving the life of his faithful servant and friend Wong. Since he can no longer operate with his hands, he uses his mystic knowledge to research a cure and goes into a crazy dimensional realm and defeat a giant monstrosity to recover a panacea – all in the span of a few pages.
Turns out this elixir not only would cure Wong’s cancer, but all cancer and illness everywhere on Earth. Dr. Strange first has it analyzed in a lab (though he practices magic, his background as a surgeon makes him amiable to the sciences) and it’s there that his secret is betrayed and he’s robbed. Strange goes on a quest with the dying Wong and the resolute Night Nurse to recover the elixir and discover the one who sent Brigand after him.
After some nifty scenes of spell-flinging and mind-ripping, Strange learns the identity of his true foe, an old colleague of his, Nicodemous West. Dr. West had been tracking down Strange to try and bring him back to the practice, and in doing so learned the same magical arts from The Ancient One. Thus Dr. West becomes the anti-Strange, a former surgeon turned magician, only West is still concerned with himself and money as he takes orders from a shady board of directors at a pharmaceutical company.
West and Strange’s confrontation is fun and satisfying, as they both get to sling guilt-trips and regrets at each other, as well as the interesting moral and scientific ramifications of suddenly introducing a mass cure to society. Ultimately their battle takes them to the rain-soaked rooftops (as all climactic fights should) and West produces an artifact that nullifies their magic. The two go mano y mano, and Strange reveals that Wong is both his apprentice and his master. After sustaining a few blows he proceeds to kick West’s ass with his superior kung fu. West slips and falls off the building, shattering the elixir on the ground below.
Predictably there is only a single drop left and our hero is forced to make a choice – take the time to reproduce it and provide a cure for all the world’s sicknesses, or heal his dying friend. Wong’s state had deteriorated over the course of the series lending a sense of immediacy and urgency to Strange’s quest, and by the time West falls he’s completely unconscious.
Strange saves the life of his dear friend, gains the respect and love of the Night Nurse (who never reveals her name) and warms his way into my heart. The Oath succeeds in delving into Dr. Strange’s background and personality while still providing a fun, action-packed adventure. New readers worrying about delving into a psychedelic, magic-fueled ride need not fear. Vaughan uses the magic stuff sparingly and keeps it easy to follow, while the focus remains on the strong characters and excellent supporting cast.
The only real bummer is the art style. Martin’s work isn’t bad at all, I just didn’t find it very memorable. I think it tries to evoke an old, Silver Age Jack Kirby style but mostly comes off as a little plain. Still the overall series is the perfect introduction (or further reading) into who Dr. Strange is and why you should care about the Sorcerer Supreme.