Up until a few years ago, Doctor Strange was a boring, almost unlikable character. Sure, the character’s mystical nature attracted a lot of unique and interesting artists in the 60s, but the Doctor had emerged as more of a walking deus ex machina than a character that people can actually relate to. However, much like Iron Man before him, the character was largely reinvigorated by his inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which saw the once stodgy master of the mystic arts transformed into a suave, debonair bon vivant that just so happened to be a powerful wizard with the ability to essentially do anything. Basically, he was Tony Stark with magic replacing tech. As always, it fell on the creative team at Marvel proper to make sure the books followed suit — and though a few teams had tried to reinvent Strange as the pithy, urbane, dare I say Cumberbatchian character he has become on the big screen, no one has been as successful at rehabbing the character as the creative team of Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo.
Under the one-two punch of Aaron’s scripts and Bachalo’s frenetic pencils, the Doctor Strange series has been a bit of a revelation. Gone was the grand wizardry and lack of consequences that often came with characters as powerful as Strange, and in its place was a humbled, if sarcastic, Doctor struggling to channel even a fragment of his former might. The introduction of Mr. Misery as the literal embodiment of Strange’s hubris come to haunt him was a cool — if on the nose — method of showcasing who the character is. Bachalo’s knack for drawing amorphous Lovecraftian horror contrasted against often beautiful character models reflecting appreciation for Asian, Latin and European folklore proved the perfect fit for the kind of random craziness the good Doctor typically goes up against. All in all, it was a sublime series that made readers like me — who never really gave a rat’s ass about Doctor Strange — take a hard turn on the character and embrace the wonderful weirdness of Doctor Strange. That’s why it’s a touch heartbreaking that the fourth and final volume of the Aaron/Bachalo run is a bit of a let down.
Collecting issues 17-20, as well as the Doctor Strange Annual, Mr. Misery is less a coherent close to the overarching storyline set in place during the Last Days of Magic arc. Naming the trade after the central villain is a cool idea, but considering M’sieur Miserable only factors into three of the five issues in this book, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that it’s so flat.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad book — far from it, actually. I really enjoy the further development of the Doc’s relationships with Wong and Zelma, and Strange sneaking into an otherworldly magic auction disguised as a beagle was good fun. Also, while Chris Bachalo is one of my all time favorite artists, I have to also express my appreciation for the painterly approach that Frazer Irving takes to issue #17. There’s plenty to like here and it’s a decent read, but there are more than a few blah moments throughout that kind of sink this collection compared to the rest of what has been a pretty strong run.
For one, the Thor cameo just doesn’t work for me. I know that she is a medical professional and has the power/knowledge of a god, but come on. Brain surgery at lightning speed? In what context does that sound like a good thing? It feels like the laziest way to wrap this leg of the story, frankly — and that’s an issue that both characters have worked through for years. It felt like a literal deus ex machina to just suddenly claim “god magic” and wipe a problem off the board. With so much of the Aaron run focussing on making the Doctor a more human character, with a power set that creates actual challenges that can’t simply be “magicked away,” this just feels out of place. Similarly, I don’t really like Zelma’s solo adventure in Weirdworld. I’m glad to learn more about her, but her survivalist journey to revive a comatose Steven was easily the second weakest portion of the book. Part of that has to be laid at the feat of artist Kevin Nowlan, whose more simplistic art style does not mesh well with the ornate linework of Bachalo. His version of Weirdworld just seems undercooked, and missing out on the kind of beautiful nightmare that Bachalo could bring to such a unique setting leaves me with some serious FOMO.
The actual weakest portion of the book has to be the Annual story, which sees Wong and Zelma facing off with the greatest evil all — a shifty contractor — while the Doc himself goes through his failed(?) relationship with his beloved Clea. Annuals in general are pretty lame, and this is certainly a more engaging read than some of the year-end issues I’ve read in the past, but it just comes off as a lesser effort than the rest of this collection. Admittedly, it is the only story in the book with a completely different creative team (being written by Kathryn Immonen and illustrated by Leonardo Romero) and it’s a perfectly fun little romp that handles a serious issue (the deterioration of a romance when neither partner truly dislikes the other) in a lighthearted manner, but it doesn’t feel like a part of the story that Aaron, and to a certain extent Bachalo, created. It’s a fairly common problem with Marvel trades, actually, as the publisher will often pad the length of a TPB by throwing tangentially related bonus issues in a collection.
Overall, what we have here is A students producing B work. Mr. Misery was an interesting concept and would make for a great villain, but he goes out with more of a bang than a whimper. Aaron and Bachalo did amazing work to make Doctor Strange and his supporting cast interesting, but it feels like most of their great stories have already been told. That leaves this trade in the odd position of being good, but forgettable — not the best way to wrap what has otherwise been a character defining run, but it easily could have been worse.