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New Avengers Annual shows why Dr. Strange could be Marvel’s next big hero

Descend into the dark depths of Dr. Strange

Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s New Avengers Annual #1. Written by Frank Barbiere (Five Ghosts, The White Suits) with art by Marco Rudy (Marvel Knights Spider-Man, Swamp Thing), this one-shot explores the massive potential of Dr. Strange, a character poised for a big comics breakthrough as his Hollywood profile expands. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

“Everything dies.” It’s a phrase repeated over and over again by Reed Richards in Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers, an absolute certainty that has guided the team’s actions as it destroys alternate Earths to save its own. Death is coming, and if killing another planet is the only thing that can delay death’s arrival, then that’s a reasonable course of action.

That mantra is the opening line of New Avengers Annual #1, a dazzling one-shot by writer Frank Barbiere and artist Marco Rudy that challenges Richards’ claim by showing the lengths Stephen Strange will go to disprove it. Fans that have been disappointed by a lack of follow-up to Dr. Strange’s recent selling of his soul will definitely want to seek out this issue, which examines the positive and negative consequences of Stephen’s actions while showing how they relate to his life before becoming the Sorcerer Supreme. The $4.99 cover price may scare people away, but the deep, engaging story and stunningly imaginative artwork make it a must-read for fans of Marvel’s premier mystical superhero.

With a feature film by horror director Scott Derrickson on the horizon, Dr. Strange is a character whose profile is about to increase exponentially. Marvel is definitely going to have a Dr. Strange ongoing series on stands when the movie hits theaters, and New Avengers Annual provides a strong template for the publisher’s future treatment of the character. Dr. Stephen Strange is a man of two worlds, the magical and the medical, and Barbiere’s script balances both aspects to build an intelligent, ambitious narrative. Channeling Steve Ditko, John Totleben, David Mack and other comic-book greats in his mixed-media artwork, Marco Rudy provides breathtaking visuals that explore the vast creative opportunities afforded by the medium, breaking from traditional superhero-comic storytelling to show Dr. Strange’s unique place in the Marvel universe.

New Avengers Annual lands on the same week that Dr. Strange actually does something of significance in the main New Avengers title, and the events of the Annual greatly inform Strange’s intense behavior in Hickman’s story. Annuals have a tendency to feel like inessential side stories, but Barbiere and Rudy make this an integral chapter in Dr. Strange’s continuing evolution, revealing how his past as a headstrong physician has pushed him to make similarly reckless decisions in the present as Sorcerer Supreme.

“Everything dies” may be the Illuminati’s guiding philosophy, but Stephen has lived with a different viewpoint: “Nothing is impossible.” Back before the car accident that ended his career as a neurosurgeon, Stephen Strange believed he could save the lives of all of his patients, a ludicrous dream that his grad school advisor/lover Martha (introduced back in Matt Fraction’s The Defenders) desperately tried to wake him from. Stephen and Martha’s drama with a dying brain cancer patient in the past is presented side by side with present-day Dr. Strange’s journey to a Himalayan village where a young princess has been possessed, a situation that calls for a radically different kind of surgery, but one that is equally risky to the patient.

Barbiere does outstanding work tying the two plot threads together through shared themes, and the somber but peaceful flashbacks provide a wonderful contrast point for Stephen’s horrifying but exhilarating battle in the present. Colin has made peace with his inoperable brain tumor and is trying to get his young son Billy to accept that his daddy won’t be around much longer, but all the progress Colin and his family have made is destroyed when Stephen gives them hope that new technology could save the man’s life. Seeing Stephen’s first death as a professional surgeon grounds the story in a relatable human experience; you don’t need to be a doctor to understand Stephen’s feeling of failure in that moment, and the flashbacks provide the emotional depth in a story that is already brimming with philosophical complexity and visual splendor.

New Avengers Annual could easily serve as the first issue of a new Dr. Strange ongoing series, ideally one that would maintain a similar story structure. Flashing back to Stephen’s past experiences as a physician is an easy way to bring pathos to the character, and gives the book’s writer the opportunity to delve into medical drama, a genre that hasn’t seen much success in comic books. Barbiere’s work on Dynamite’s current Solar: Man Of The Atom revival has shown the wide breadth of his scientific knowledge, and his script for New Avengers Annual proves that he knows how to find the emotional core of a doctor’s relationship with his patients, an integral part of building a successful medical drama. 

Delving into Stephen’s past as a doctor may just be the key to making Dr. Strange appeal to broader audience, but the fantasy elements need to be on point if Marvel is going to satisfy long-time fans. Barbiere’s narrative in this issue offers a modernized take on the typical “Dr. Strange meets mountain monks” situation, taking the hero back to a village that he used to know, but has changed since he last saw it. The monks have embraced technology and used it to expand their search for knowledge, but their mission opened a gateway for a demonic parasite. Their change isn’t that much different from Stephen’s, which stemmed from a similar thirst for knowledge, and the monks’ current situation, along with the resolution of that situation, suggests that Stephen is going to be dealing with demonic parasites for quite some time.

Artist Marco Rudy has thrived since he made the transition from DC to Marvel, and New Avengers Annual is his easily his strongest work to date, achieving more clarity while maintaining the stylistic experimentation that has made him one of the most unpredictable artists in superhero comics. Looking at the first two pages provides a clear idea of how Rudy differentiates the two time periods visually: The first page in the present has a mercurial layout and bright watercolors while the second page flashback is all clean circular panels and dull browns and grays.

Placing the past events in circular panels—with the exception of two pages designed to look like brain X-rays—creates the illusion of looking at each moment through a lens, establishing a distance between the viewer and the material that visually reflects how Stephen looks back at this time. Inside those panels, Rudy sticks to browns and grays to emphasize a sense of nostalgia, but he helps dictate changes in tone and adds visual variation by putting little details and splashes of color in the panel borders.

Those borders actually tell a story when Stephen makes his first appearance in the flashback: The first border surrounds him in a rigid pattern of red triangles, emphasizing the rigid structure of his life as a doctor. The following border, appearing after Stephen tells Martha’s students that her idea of accepting death is unacceptable, destroys that previous pattern and replaces it with inky swirls against an orange background, a transitional strip that sets up the final border. “I was in your shoes but a year ago, timid and afraid,” Stephen says. “But fear? She’s just another illness. And we are doctors.” But the border that appears beneath him foreshadows a much different future for young Stephen, presenting a series of yellow runes signifying that while he may be a doctor right now, the universe has a different plan for him. 

Rudy is an artist that excels with striking page design, but in the past he has occasionally sacrificed clarity to show his creativity with layouts. His art in New Avengers Annual continues to push that unconventional perspective, but he shows a much stronger understanding of those panel-to-panel moments and making sure they have as much impact as the larger page design—and the impact of the page design is incredible.

Rudy does exceptional work with the flashbacks, but the major attraction here is his gorgeous depiction of the story’s fantasy elements. His fluid layouts for the present-day sequences radiate with energy, and his skill with different artistic mediums and visual styles makes it impossible to guess how the next page will look. A two-page spread showing Dr. Strange entering the astral plane in a dark room full of meditating monks showcases Rudy’s versatility: The bottom half of the page is a black-and-white image with clean, deep inks, creating a dark, silent atmosphere that explodes into brightly colored, fiery action across the top of the page, which shows the monks engaged in battle on the astral plane. The ghostly pale blue astral form of Dr. Strange emerges from his body to enter that plane, and the mingling of all the different colors and styles on the page emphasizes just how big the jump is.

Every page of Strange’s battle with the demon is stunning, but it’s the smaller details that really highlight Rudy’s passion for the character. One of the coolest images in the book is a shot of Stephen’s hands from his point of view, showing waves of magical energy emanating from his flesh while small circular panels detail the different finger positions Stephen cycles through to make the magic happen. Rudy’s figurative approach means that he can incorporate these kinds of details to flesh out specific moments and heighten the ambiance of a page, and it’s one that works exceptionally well for Dr. Strange.

New Avengers Annual ends with a series of pages that work together to create a sensation of falling when Dr. Strange saves the day by putting himself at risk, representing the descent of Stephen’s character into existential darkness through diminishing circular panels. While the flashback circles create snapshots of the past by mimicking a lens, the layouts of the final four pages have a much more sinister purpose, throwing Stephen down a hole that he may never be able to escape. Hopefully Barbiere and Rudy have the opportunity to continue detailing that fall, because the spectacle and emotion of this issue are exactly what Dr. Strange needs to sustain an ongoing series.