Doctor Strange is an odd character. Most of the time he comes off as the magical equivalent of Reed Richards: Brilliant, but kind of a dull character who’s only there to be the Magic Guy. I’ve read only a handful of Doctor Strange comics, and honestly can’t remember any of them. Most of the time, he’s the guy who shows up in other people’s books to explain the horrible magical problem that’s going on and to help out as much as possible without actually being terribly useful. I enjoyed his role in the Dead Girl series, but that was a more tongue-in-cheek role that had a bit of fun with Strange’s typical role in the Marvel Universe.
There’s not a whole lot that could persuade me to buy a Doctor Strange comic other than a very good creative team. Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman could probably do wonders with the character, but it’s still beneath either one’s talents. Peter Milligan wrote a good Strange, but probably not the kind that would hold up to serious, long-term storytelling. Brian K. Vaughan is probably one of the creators I’d least associate with the good doctor: His work is usually more grounded than one expects from the Master of the Mystic Arts, his stories more about average people put into extraordinary circumstances. It’s hard to see him writing “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth”, unless it’s coming out of Yorick’s ironic and pop-culture-plagued head.
But Vaughan nevertheless turns in a good story with the character, though I haven’t the faintest idea if it’s consistent with history and continuity. The magical elements are present, but relegated to the background as much as they could be in a comic called Doctor Strange. The central story elements are as grounded as most of Vaughan’s work: Doctor Strange is shot by a robber and taken to the local superhero hospital by his trusty sidekick, Wong. After kicking Arana and Iron Fist out of the waiting room, Night Nurse sets about saving Strange’s life, with a bit of help from his astral projection.
It’s here that the story unfolds in flashback: When he found out that Wong was suffering from an inoperable, fatal brain tumour (is there any other kind in fiction?), Strange dedicated himself to helping his long-time friend and companion. The usual medical treatments being ineffective, Strange does what any other doctor would do: He travels to another dimension, fights a gigantic monster, and retrieves a mystical cure for Wong’s cancer.
For a story about cancer, The Oath is probably more fun than it should be: Vaughan brings a light, yet human, touch to the magical master. The opening scene in the waiting room is funny (“No, I don’t know where Power Man is. We’re partners, not a couple.”), and his portrayal of Night Nurse as a woman who’s almost seen it all very nearly makes me wish for a Night Nurse mini. Strange and Wong have an almost Odd Couple relationship, with Strange handling the big, important, magical stuff while Wong deals with the down-to-earth stuff like cleaning and beating up muggers.
As is Vaughan’s style, though, the humour doesn’t distract from the humanity: Strange and Wong clearly care for one another, and the way they look out for each other in their own way is touching. Nor does it get in the way of a compelling plot, as Vaughan gradually ratchets up the tension before concluding it with one of his trademark cliffhangers. Marcos Martin’s art suits the story’s tone, alternating between light and dramatic as Vaughan decrees. It’s a lighter, style that at times reminds me of Mike Allred, treading the line between humour and drama and only occasionally slips.
There was a time when Marvel churned out series starring their second and third-tier characters like a drunken butcher making sausages. Lately, though, they seem to be realizing that throwing a bunch of books on the shelves without much in the way of promotion or high-profile creators doesn’t really get them anywhere. Vaughan’s Doctor Strange is a book that approaches the character from an artistic angle instead of merely a copyright retention one. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, as it’s likely to produce at least one first: Me buying at least two issues of Doctor Strange in a row.