*Ties into the Secret Empire crossover
Alright, after a weekend of writing San Diego Comic-Con news articles, we're back to writing comic reviews. Everybody cheer!
Now stop cheering, because we're about to tear into a comic series I previously liked by a writer whose work I generally enjoy.
For those who haven't been keeping up with the Doctor Strange tie-in to Secret Empire, with New York under the Darkforce dome: Strange has found himself some odd bedfellows in Kingpin, Spider Woman, and Ben Urich in his attempts to remove the dome, cast out its demons, and take back the Sanctum Santorum from Baron Mordo, who has captured Daredevil.
In this quest, Fisk led Strange, Drew, and Urich to an old witch with an unholy arsenal of deadly magic weapons. After a struggle with the witch, Mordo, and some Mindless Ones, the four of them have managed to take a look at the arsenal.
That brings us to this issue. Strange is very reluctant to use any of these magic weapons, as the cost for using them will inevitably be very high. Fisk still raid it with abandon, finding himself possessed by a demon inhabiting an enchanted skull. Urich finds a white set of armor that takes him and holds the demon inside Fisk at bay.
Meanwhile, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Cloak take a stand against Mordo.
Doctor Strange, Kingpin, Spider Woman, and Ben Urich arrive on the scene to use their new weapons against Mordo, including a haunted biplane that decides Spider Woman is its new pilot, and they go to war with Baron Mordo.
If a lot of this might seem a tad goofy to you, then you have landed on the main problem with this issue of Doctor Strange. While Jason Aaron definitely had a sense of humor in his Doctor Strange, it was a bit glibber and took the events in stride. They didn't seem intent on parodying the events that are transpiring.
Baron Mordo is hard to take seriously as a villain here, despite the fact that he is holding New York City hostage, the people inside are starving, without food, and are constantly attacked by demons and looters, and hundreds of innocent people have probably died already. All of these things are incredibly undercut when he says the words, "Bring it, Strange. Bring. It. On." He feels like a petulant 13-year-old instead of a dangerous sorcerer who is starving millions of people to death.
The constant one-liners and picking at one another that takes place with Strange's odd squad undercuts a lot of the tension too. It also gets a bit incessant.
I have nothing wrong with humor in serious stories like this. I wouldn't be a Brian Michael Bendis fan if I couldn't handle a lot of jokes in my superhero comics. However, context and delivery are what separate insulting and unbearable train wrecks like Secret Empire: Uprising from genuinely fun diversions like Secret Empire: Underground. Doctor Strange #23 falls more into the first category.
Dennis Hopeless is a talented writer who can play with humor without it becoming annoying as well as tell serious stories that grab your attention. His Spider Woman is one of my favorite series to come out in recent years, and I genuinely enjoyed his Cable and X-Force material, despite my well-documented distaste for the character of Cable.
However, this comic just falls into the realm of outright annoying. You can still have a story that feels like it has actual stakes and tension with humor and one-liners. However, you still need to make it feel like the threat is a threat. There needs to be something holding the reader's attention, and they need to feel like if the heroes lose something is genuinely lost. If you don't do that, you get Deadpool, a comic with unbearable lead characters where nothing is at stake, and there's no point to reading any of it. This comic feels a little too close to Deadpool.
The lack of stakes does, in part, come from the fact that this is a tie-in to Secret Empire, and, when something of actual consequence happens within New York and the Darkforce, it will be told in the mainline story. That being said, that is no excuse for the lackluster storytelling at play here. I knocked the most recent issue of Uncanny Avengers for feeling like nothing really happened, but it at least felt like it had stakes and pretended that its story was impactful. It cared about what happened in its pages. That's another dire problem here, Doctor Strange didn't feel like it cared what happened to Doctor Strange.
The art is the prime saving grace here. Niko Henrichon's artwork is really damn good. Every page is dripping with atmosphere, the character designs are unique and eye-catching, and the characters express themselves with their faces and body language. It all looks really good and deserves a better story being told in the scripting and dialogue.
It's not fun tearing into a book like this with a talented team and a track record for being really good. Hopeless' last issue of Doctor Strange had some of the same problems as this one, but they were downplayed and not as damaging. Here, those problems are amped up and fatal. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this comic.