I was reading the recently-deleted “Marvel B0y” Livejournal last week, by the guy purporting to be a “Marvel insider” and generally bitching a lot about Brian Michael Bendis and the like. And one thing he wrote stuck with me: that Bendis and Ed Brubaker and others were all submitting proposals on how to “fix” Doctor Strange, and how he, Marvel B0y, could fix Doctor Strange with ease.
And it’s weird. Because Dr. Strange doesn’t really need to be fixed.
The constant criticism of Dr. Strange is that he’s “too powerful” and can “do anything.” This is silly, of course – if nothing else, Dr. Strange obviously has at least the limitations placed on the Genie in Aladdin – no resurrections, no making people fall in love with you, and ixnay on the wishing for more wishes, pal… but I digress.
Let me put it to you this way. Dr. Strange is, well. A doctor. Are you a doctor? If not, kindly explain to me (without Googling) how chemotherapy works, beyond “they put radioactive crap in you and it kills the cancer.” And that’s complex. Explain how antibiotics work; how infection spreads into the bloodstream; how you get a sunburn. I trust you see my point here: simply, that doctors know more about something very complex and very important than most of us. (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko didn’t just pick the name out of a hat.)
And doctors don’t even know everything! As one medical friend of mine put it to me a while back, “look, twenty years ago, we didn’t have the slightest idea how aspirin worked. And now? We still don’t know, but we know enough to know a lot of ways that it probably doesn’t work. This is progress.” Apply that metaphor to Dr. Strange, now, and it works perfectly. Doc knows a lot more about the Dark Dimension and the neighboring areas than anybody else on the planet; it’s his job. But if next week the Fasdysops of Xxxxx7’l attack, he’s going to have to improvise.
That’s cool. That works fine. John Seavey already addressed Dr. Strange’s general storytelling module and why it’s good all on its own: the mystic superhero as guardian of our reality. And I don’t want to retread what he’s written, except to point out that the reason Strange’s model works so well is exactly the reason everybody seems to think he needs to be “fixed” – because he doesn’t really work all that well in a traditional superhero context. Yes, the Defenders, I know – but A) the Defenders never really worked that well as a concept, and B) the Defenders were, when you get right down to it, mostly a team book vehicle for fighting villains on a Dr. Strange level in the first place.
(I will, however, add the time-honored “superhero runs into problem his awesome powers cannot solve” shtick as being one that works quite nicely for Strange in particular – consider the recent entertaining Dr. Strange miniseries The Oath for a good example of this, as all of Strange’s power fails him when he needs to confront basic ethical conundrums.)
This is a classic case of trying to hit a hammer with a screwdriver. If you want to write straight-up superhero stories, there are no end of options for you to pursue. If you want to write Dr. Strange, then don’t write those stories. He flat-out doesn’t work in a lot of superhero stories because he really is extremely powerful, at the top end of the food chain. And that’s fine, and honestly, this sort of thing doesn’t happen to a lot of other characters; nobody insists on shoving, say, the Silver Surfer into a Daredevil story, but Dr. Strange constantly gets pulled into other characters’ stories whenever they go up against absolutely anything mystic, and writers routinely punk him out to make the Big Bad of their story look even meaner. That’s fantastic: Dr. Strange is the Lt. Worf of the Marvel universe.
In all seriousness, though, for his own series, Strange is simple: he fights Cthulhu and Dracula and Nyarlathotep and Hades and Mephisto and anybody else who is A) really mystical and B) really goddamned powerful and scary. And he doesn’t always know how to beat the bad guy. Why should he? He’s human, and for all his studying there are an infinite number of dimensions and therefore an infinite number of threats to Earth he won’t know about in advance, no matter how much he studies. This means that a lot of Dr. Strange adventures will end up being quest-model stories.
And finally, the powers issue. In the old days, this wasn’t a big issue, because in the old days, we had thought bubbles to say things like…
“…my Faltine blasts… useless against this new foe! Watoomb preserve me, but I must find a way to…” blah blah blah magic-cakes.
Hokey, yes, but they served the valuable purpose for the reader of establishing when Strange needed help. Nowadays, this type of writing is largely shunned. I’m not calling for a return to it. I mean, come on – stylistic shifts in the art form happen, and attempting to force things back to The Way They Used To Be, artistically speaking, isn’t gonna work any more than trying to make it to the top of the charts with a Buddy Holly cover band. But it does underscore the need for a way to exposit to the reader what Strange knows and what he doesn’t, what he can do (in this situation) and what he can’t.
Now, in a more modern style of writing, the easiest way to do this is with a DKS character. DKS stands for “doesn’t know shit,” you see. Someone who is not stupid, but completely unversed in the expertise at hand, so the expert character explains to him what the rules are right now. This is especially essential in any narrative about or involving magic, because whereas in other story settings you only need to explain the unfamiliar, in a magical story you need to explain pretty much everything. (In the Harry Potter books, for example, Harry himself was the DKS character, forcing everybody else to explain things to him all the damn time, or working his lessons into the “what the reader needs to know” portions of the book. This was actually a very elegant use of the storytelling device by J.K. Rowling.)
In short, Dr. Strange needs a non-magic sidekick. But now we run into a new problem: all his existing sidekicks know a lot about magic. Wong, for example, is himself more or less a walking magic encyclopedia second only to Strange. Clea arguably knows even more. And so forth. However, we’re lucky, because in The Oath Brian K. Vaughan put together the start of a relationship with Night Nurse that shows some promise in this regard, though, so even that problem is handled.
So tell me again: why is Strange broken? Because I honestly don’t see it. He does what he’s supposed to do very well, and it’s not his fault people keep wanting him to be an Avenger.