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Cronin Theory of Comics – Dr. Strange Isn’t a Walking Plot Device

Dr. Strange is a fine character, so I would like for comics, when they use Dr. Strange, to actually USE Dr. Strange. Except for Peter Milligan in the recent X-Statix mini-series (and that was more of a co-starring role than a guest appearance), when writers use Dr. Strange, it seems to boil down to the following:

1. Either Dr. Strange is there as a deus ex machina to wrap a plot up, a la Avengers Disassembled

or

2. Dr. Strange gets beat up quickly so that the heroes of the book can save the day, a la every other comic book.

Quite often, Dr. Strange gets beat up in what appears to be an attempt to show how powerful the bad guy is. But Dr. Strange is REALLY powerful!! So it just makes him look silly when everyone keeps beating him up.

This was repeated in this week’s Ms. Marvel, where Dr. Strange gets beat up by the bad guy Ms. Marvel has to stop (besides him getting beat up, though, Strange was handled quite well by writer Brian Reed).

Why not just use Dr. Strange when you have a story that requires Dr. Strange to DO something?

He’s a really cool character. And it is my assertion that he should be used to demonstrate WHY he is such a cool character.

Hopefully, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin will show us all with their upcoming mini-series!

14 Comments

I liked his portrayal in the old Defenders series, as the one trying to run the show, is insanely powerful but struggled relating to others because of that power and his equally massive responsibilities.

Are you referring to the old Steve Gerber run from the 70′s? Because I adored that run, but I don’t think that was how I would characterize his portrayal.

I have an upcoming column expanding on this idea, so I don’t want to get too into it. But really the Gerber Defenders — Doc, Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and the Hulk — were so awesome because they most resembled the actual readers. They were outcasts and nerds who were brilliant and talented but lacked the social skills to have any kind of real life. Later the X-Men picked up the outcast ball and really ran with it but in the 70′s it was the Defenders. And Dr. Strange was the cool friend — every nerd gang has one, it’s either the guy with the cool computer or the one with the great record collection — who’d let them hang at his house because they didn’t want to go home.

You know why nobody has been able to make Dr. Strange work since the 70′s? Because none of the people trying it understand that. They keep making him aloof, stuffy, a stodgy professorial square. No no no. Doc worked in the 70′s because he was COOL. He had the hipster pad in the Village and was shacked with the hot otherdimensional chick (actually Living Together Without Being Married, which was pretty racy in 1974.) You just knew that Captain America and the other Avengers thought he was a little too much of a swinger.

moose n squirrel

June 20, 2006 at 6:30 am

There’s also the Silver Surfer corollary to this rule (where you replace every instance of “Dr. Strange” with “Silver Surfer” and the rule still turns out to be true). I tend to like Dr. Strange better than the Surfer, but they’re both rich, interesting characters who get used as plot devices by writers too dopey to figure out how to use them.

Rumor has it that Dr. Strange is what Bendis calls the eraser on his pencil.

Brian, using that Ms. Marvel serie as an exemple of bad use of a character is way too easy. ’cause, u know there is nothing good in it. ;)

I guess the concern can be pushed to all powerful heroes.
Silver Surfer, Thor, Hulk (who is now in a planet where his supa dupa strengh is nothing special compared to the people who live there), Sentry (since in New Avengers he’s only here to quickly kick @$$es or to show that the bad guy is way to powerful)…
I guess the current Marvel isn’t confortable with that kind of characters.

Bat2supe.

Read Roger Stern’/ Marshall Rogers & Co.’s ’80s run to see a _human_ Dr. Strange. He loved, he lost, and he grew as a person. Great stuff.

The term you are looking for is “Worfed”!

When a)Nominal Royal-Ass-Kicker is beaten by b)Surprisingly Powerful Bad Guy, which only makes it that much more impressive when c)Nominally Weaker Character Who is Actually the Hero saves the day, that’s good writing and works, sparingly.

However, when a) is ROUTINELY beaten by b)s and c) routinely saves a)’s bacon, that hurts a)’s believability as an actual bad-ass and is BAD writing. A) looks like a wimp and is made fun of behind his back. He has been “Worfed.”

Superman was “worfed” in the first season of Justice League. Dr. Strange has been “worfed” by most writers.

And of course, Worf…

Mmm. I’d love to write Dr. Strange. It’s a great concept.

moose n squirrel

June 20, 2006 at 3:18 pm

Okay, now this is going too far. Dr. Strange getting busted by a tool like Ghost Rider? Damn.

The Indestructible Man

June 20, 2006 at 6:04 pm

Just more of Marvel hatin’ the moustache. First they shame Tony Stark into growing out the van dyke, and now this.

C’mon Stephen — let the ‘stache loose and show them who’s boss…

I like Dr. Strange, especially the Ditko stuff there’s alot of early visual experimentation going on there. Part of me wonders if his strong visual resemblence to Vincent Price (who was fairly popular at the time) played a part in his percieved “coolness” for a while and if said actor’s death hurt the character just a little. Yes, that’s one of those silly fan theories, but fictional characters often hold a different sort of pressence when you have someone real to mentally compare them to/base them on.

That little pondering aside, I think what really presently hurts him, as well as several other characters (Thor, Silver Surfer, Superman, Aquaman), is the perception that there’s only one way to approach superheroes or superhero like characters. The approaches taken on franchises like Spider-Man, X-Men, or Batman isn’t an across the board formula for success for each and every super-character type.

I agree, JR; Strange is a character who has definitely suffered from supehero-itis (Thor is another). Characters like Dr. Strange and Thor demand to be taken out of the box, rather than shoved into typical fistfights with lame villains. Reading the old Essentials has really opened my eyes to a couple of things:

a) Extremely powerful mystical characters fighting people like Stilt-Man is a really, REALLY dumb idea.
b) Steve Ditko was and most likely still is one of the greatest geniuses in comics, based solely on his long Dr. Strange arc in STRANGE TALES. Actual character growth … in a (nominally) superhero book? Astounding even now, but nearly unthinkable in 1965. Well, played Mr. Ditko.

Strange hasn’t had it as bad as some as far as being locked in the superhero box, but he certainly does get the short end of the stick a lot of the time. He should be portrayed (as was stated above) as the cool guy no one really gets; you might get invited to his party, but you’ll never really figure out everything that’s happening there.

Stephen Strange, the All-but-Unknowable Swinger. I like it.

Offhand, I can’t think of any stories like the ones you mention in which Strange gets beaten so the ‘real’ hero can save the day. But I’ve only recently started buying comics again (after more than a decade), and there’s a lot I’ve missed.
But I have seen some stories in which he’s the Deus ex Machina.
I think one big problem with Strange is that his capabilities have rarely been well-defined, so he can be either nearly omnipotent or very weak, depending on what the writer wants. I really think someone at Marvel needs to put together a very clear and detailed character bible for Strange, explaining very clearly what he can and can’t do. (As well as what he can do only occasionally with great effort.)

Maybe the problem is simply that he hasn’t had his own series in so long, that the current writers are unclear as to what he is like. I don’t know why Marvel won’t give him his own book anymore. His earlier series were never big sellers, but they did well enough to last a decade or so at a stretch.

So if anyone at Marvel is reading this, I am available to write the next Doctor Strange series. I have several great ideas.

Mychael Darklighter

July 29, 2012 at 1:16 am

number 1 in the dc universe is zatanna.
strange + zee are two of my favourite characters, but one has to really lay out what a mystic character is + is not capable of, otherwise they risk just becoming a deus ex machina.

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