Monday, April 12, 2010

The Mystic Hands of Dr. Strange #1

Marvel, 48 pages, $ 3.99

Writers: Kieron Gillen, Peter Milligan, Ted McKeever, Mike Carey
Artists: Frazer Irving, Frank Brunner, Ted McKeever, Marcos Martin
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Cover artist: Lucio Parrillo

Credit where it's due: With The Mystic Hands of Dr. Strange, editors Jody LeHeup and John Barber have made the book that succeeds where the previous Indomitable Iron Man failed—it's another black-&-white one-shot inspired by the similar Marvel magazines that had their heyday in the 1970s, and this one has the proper amounts of weirdness.

The lead story, a 22-page piece by Phonogram writer Kieron Gillen and artist Frazer Irving, perfectly captures the spirit of some of the better and odder superhero books from the 1970s. The plot, about a German psychologist who references Faust and traffics in his patients' souls ("Call me Doktor."), perfectly fits the quirky tone of the story. It's deadpan comedy a lot of the time, but it's got a strong enough center to prevent it from trailing off into silliness. Ultimately, the story leaves Doctor Strange—and the reader—wondering what, if anything, was accomplished by the hero, much like, say, Steve Gerber used to in his period stories.

The characters, brought alive in lush and sensual lines and shades by Mr. Irving, move like they're dancing to something that must be sounding very much like Blondie's "Atomic." (Not exactly, though, since the story is explicitly set in 1975, four years before the song was published; but who knows—it's magic!) Mr. Gillen has some good fun with Mephisto, meanwhile, whose casual, self-consciously grandstanding evilness and fabulously flowery dialogue constantly remind me of Deadwood's Al Swearengen character here. "As the father of lies, I recognize those who are providing my children with fine lodgings," he says at one point, with a diabolical grin on his face. He looks the part, too, come to think of it. (B+)

Written by fellow Brit Peter Milligan and drawn by Frank Brunner, a veteran of the American comics industry and an archetypal 1970s horror and "weird stuff" artist, the second story starts with a cheeky and furious set-up. In the two-page sequence, the creators grab a handful of the worst gender stereotypes and storytelling clichés imaginable and use them to escalate their scene in a way that's laugh-out-loud glorious. The rest of the story is a very disciplined and effective riff on a single, insightful idea, with a suitably clever and ambiguous punch line. This is everything you could hope for from an 11-page Doctor Strange story by two masters of the form. (B+)

Next up is a surreal 11-pager written and drawn by Ted McKeever, which is odd in the way Ted McKeever stories tend to be. As far as I can tell, the piece ties in thematically with Strange's attempts to drown his demons in alcohol right after the accident that damaged his hands and made him lose his job as a surgeon. I can't make heads and tails of it, to be honest, and I suspect it doesn't make a lot of sense as a story. But it's pleasantly arcane, rather than annoyingly pointless, if that makes any sense. (C)

Finally, there's a four-page prose story by Mike Carey, with illustrations by the always splendid Marcos Martin, about Strange's first brush with the Mindless Ones on the "astral plane"—a somewhat formulaic, but nonetheless well-written and solidly entertaining piece. (C+)

Mystic Hands is a fun package overall. This is what we talk about when we talk about good, deliberately trashy 1970s pastiche comics that are worth people's time and money.

Grade: B

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