Superheroes and magic are two of fiction’s most persnickety elements. Precise working rules for each need to be established clearly, or any hunt for genuine drama will turn up snipes. For much of the 2000s, Marvel Comics worked hard to ground their characters in realism and bring them to wider audiences (primarily moviegoers). While the X-Men and the Avengers continuously devoured more shelf space, characters like Doctor Strange, with his mystical Eye of Agamotto and Book of the Vishanti, shriveled.
That’s why The Oath, a five issue limited series by writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and artist Marcos Martin (Batgirl: Year One) is a precious object in its own right. Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme stars here, too briefly, as the wry, spell-casting ladies’ man that older fans remember from the 1960s and 70s.
The doc’s origin, a sweet concoction of agony and irony, is classic Stan Lee: famous surgeon Stephen Strange caters to the wealthy, disdaining any person or cause that even smells of charity. While visiting an illustrious patient at night, he totals his sports car on a lonely country road. His fellow doctors save his life, but they can’t fix the permanent nerve damage to his hands. Career halted, Strange seeks a deeper measure of healing in the mountains of Tibet. A sorcerer named the Ancient One pities the Westerner and decides to teach him the Mystic Arts.
Vaughan and Martin encapsulate this beautifully in a few iconic panels (sepia-colored by Javier Rodriguez), arranging them in a double-page spread. The background silhouette of a giant tree, gnarly and bare, hints that it’s winter, and black ice sped Strange onto his new life. One box shows our hero battling Baron Mordo, another student of the Ancient One and among the deadliest in the doc’s rogues gallery.
But it isn’t the Baron, nor demonic villains Nightmare and Dormammu, who plague Strange on this rare modern outing. This time he faces a pharmaceutical company, its gifted assassin Brigand, and former colleague Nicodemus West.
The Oath opens in the waiting room of the Night Nurse, a woman who’s dedicated herself to patching up superheroes after messy excursions. As 70s legend Iron Fist fends off the youthful mocking of newcomer Arana (“Yes, I’m Iron Fist. No, I don’t know where Power Man is. We’re partners, not a couple.), Doctor Strange is carried in by his faithful manservant Wong. Night Nurse leaps to work on the bullet wound in the doc’s chest, Wong gives some of his universal donor blood, and the flashbacks begin.
Wong has a brain tumor. It’s inoperable and barely slowed down by the drug Timelozar. In Strange’s Greenwich Village home (his Sanctum Sanctorum), we witness master and servant argue poignantly. “Journeys only find meaning at their destinations,” says Wong. “I am fully prepared to meet my final-”
“Oh, shut up with that zen crap,” says Strange. “How are you? Physically?” The bottle of pills has already fallen from the doc’s quivering hand. He cannot use magic to mimic science or technology, but he knows of an elixir, guarded in another dimension by Oktid the Omnipotent.
Martin, better than any current artist, echoes the nervous grace that Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko brought to his work. The scene in which Strange opens the adjacent dimension, oblivious to Wong cleaning up aisle three with a street gang, is bone-crunching and hilarious (like some of Ditko’s early Spider-Man art). Martin’s building interiors, showing hospitals and libraries, are miracles of thoughtful, detailed layout. Equally gorgeous are his otherworldly settings, that have Strange chasing Brigand through a neuronal jungle and across the back of an endless millipede.
Vaughan, who’s writing is occasionally too saccharine, balances a smart script with plenty of mystical fireworks for Martin to draw. We see Hitler’s handgun in action, fired by Brigand to pierce Strange’s protective barrier. We see a “beckoning cat” statue rotate through the air, firing emerald lasers from its eyes.
We also get a fist-fight between Strange and Nicodemus West, the surgeon who couldn’t save our hero’s hands. West, yet another student of the Ancient One (my appointment with him is this Thursday morning), casts a short spell to prevent either of them from using magic. “In some respects,” says Strange, after taking a beating, “the man you left to die downstairs is my servant.” He then strikes a martial arts pose. “But in others, Wong is my master.”
This ecstatically clever treatment is just what Doctor Strange deserves, both in the film Marvel’s planning and the potential ongoing comic that would support it. When the time comes, creating magical rules hopefully won’t scare writers away. The Sorcerer Supreme can do anything–but it’s the doctorate that makes him worth reading.