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Something Old, Something New:
Fantastic Four #540 & Doctor Strange: The Oath #1

By Michael David Sims
11 October 2006 — Each Wednesday I aim to review two recently released comic books: one from a series I've been reading for a while, and one from a series I'm picking up for the first time (or the first time in a long time). Something old and something new, just as the title implies. At the end of each review I will then note whether or not I'm going to continue reading the series. However, as you will see over time, dear readers, the options go beyond a simple yes and no.

Fantastic Four #540
Coordinating a massive crossover, such as Civil War, can't be an easy task. Counting lead-ins, direct tie-ins, indirect tie-ins and aftermath issues, Marvel will have meshed around 120 comic books and launched nine brand new titles by the time the event is over (or shortly thereafter). So mistakes are bound to happen. Some are minor (i.e. Tony Stark being portrayed with a mustache in one book, but a goatee in others), some are major (i.e. the victim of Thor's wrath died very violently in Civil War #4, and less so in Civil War: Front Line #6) and others, whether major or minor, change the overall tone of a sequence — such as Fantastic Four #540, which for all of Marvel's efforts to coordinate a well-structured, cohesive event threw everything Mark Millar wrote about Susan Storm straight out the window.

When Sue left Reed at the end of Civil War #4, there was a quiet anger permeating her letter. Not only was she upset with him and the pro-SRA heroes, but also herself for not speaking up much sooner. Their actions (or inaction) led to the death of a friend, and though that cannot be undone, Sue needs Reed to fix the mess he helped create.

The letter was calm, yet strong — like Susan herself — and it changed everything. Leading up to and during this war, friends have parted ways and taken up arms against one another, but now Marvel's first family has been split by the growing rift. Bonds once thought to be permanent have been cracked, and Sue's letter illustrated that not every disagreement in the Marvel Universe needs to involve a gross display of superpowers.

Then Fantastic Four #540 came along. Instead of letting Susan's letter stand, instead of having Reed discover it the morning after and chronicling his dive into despair, Straczynski pissed all over Millar's subtlety and subjected readers to Sue likening Reed to Nazis, Reed raising a fist to his wife, Susan threatening to cripple her husband, a "gross display of superpowers" and, finally, Sue leaving in an angered, destructive huff.

While this argument could have transpired after Thor's murderous rampage but before Sue wrote the letter, the fit isn't snug — square peg, round hole. For that to be the case, Susan would have had to come home after the fight in Fantastic Four #540, made dinner for and had make-up sex with Reed, scribed the letter and then fled, with Johnny, by the end of Civil War #4. Simply put: why would Sue have come home, tricked Reed into thinking she was staying (RE: dinner, make-up sex) and then left a second time? To complicate matters, there's Ben's involvement. Did he see the wreckage, speak to Reed about it, tell him he's leaving the country / team (all from 540), play with the kids (Civil War #4) after Sue returned (as conjectured above), say nothing to her and then solemnly watch as she and her brother left? Or did he, more likely, not realize she was leaving until that one sad, lonely panel in Civil War #4?

Even if you want to believe the fight preceded the letter, the characterization is absolute garbage!

Other readers have dogged Straczynski's early Fantastic Four work, while I was mostly indifferent — his Road to Civil War / return of Doom / return of Thor issues (536-538) were strong, but I could take or leave most of everything else. Meaning, while I haven't defended his position (as I have, say, Bendis' on Avengers and later New Avengers), I also haven't spoken against it. Until now.

If you listen to Earth-2.net: The Show, specifically episodes 58 and 62, you know I hate poor characterization. Portraying characters in a new light is one thing, it can add depth. Having them act out of character, ignoring X-many years of history, however, is a sign of poor writing. No matter what, Reed Richards would never in a million years raise a fist to Susan, nor would Sue threaten to remove his hand from his arm.

Yes, in the heat of the moment, people say and do things they wouldn't otherwise. But Reed is too passive to ever hit or threaten Susan. If this was part of his nature, why haven't we seen it before? They've argued dozens of times, over worse things than this, so why now?

Much like Reginald Hudlin recently portrayed Doom as a racist in order to vilify him (think about that) in the pages of Black Panther #19, Straczynski wrote domestic violence into this issue to give Sue more of a reason to leave her husband — never mind the fact that he's often an absent father and husband, the accident which turned them all into posthumans, the coup d'état he staged on Latveria, his secret plans, his reluctance to see Johnny in the hospital, the cloning of a god, the construction of a prison in the Negative Zone (which houses many of their friends), Reed's direct involvement in the death of a superhero and many other infractions that surely would have sent any woman running for a divorce lawyer. While I see what the author was attempting to convey — creating a universal line for Reed to cross — it sadly diminishes the death in Civil War #4: "Reed, honey, I know you didn't intend for your clone of Thor to go crazy and kill one of our friends... so I'll forgive you. But how dare you make a fist! *sniff* I'm leaving!" (Domestic violence is nothing to sneeze at, but neither is involuntary manslaughter.)

The way Mark Millar wrote it in Civil War, Sue's departure was due to her anger at Reed and herself — in her mind, she should have known better. Straczynski's take places the blame squarely on Reed's shoulders; in fact, he's tells her, "I think you should leave now." How he meant it is for readers to decide. Either way, it takes the power away from Susan, and, like the aforementioned death, diminishes the events which transpired within the seven-issue miniseries.

After this issue, I'm thankful Straczynski is leaving soon. (His last issue is rumored to be #541, but preview copy suggests he'll remain onboard until #543.) I'll still read his non-canonical Bullet Points and will give Thor a try, but I'm going to be very leery of the established books he tackles henceforth — including Amazing Spider-Man. In fact, if the reaming issues in his FF run weren't Civil War tie-ins (and if I hadn't already ordered them through DCBS), I'd be done with the series until his replacement was ushered in.

Doctor Strange: The Oath #1
It's always a treat when a brand new book comes out of nowhere, and surprises you with its quality. Especially a book you hadn't planned on buying for one reason or another. That's how it is with Doctor Strange: The Oath, which I erroneously called Doctor Strange: Blood Oath on a recent episode of Earth-2.net: The Show.

Whatever the title, what initially hooked me was the very first page and the calm way in which writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin handled Iron Fist. Araña, young and impatient, maybe even a little nervous, sits on the edge of her seat as she lingers in a nondescript waiting room. Like the relaxed Iron Fist — who, despite the icepack placed on his knee, sits comfortably reading a magazine — Araña is here to see the Night Nurse, mender of many the world's superheroes. The anxious teen leans into the green-clad veteran and asks, "Um..." Without skipping a beat, or even raising an eye from his magazine, Iron Fist responds, "Yes, I'm Iron Fist. No, I don't know where Power Man is. We're partners, not a couple."

As the scene continues on the next page, Araña rambles while Iron Fist delivers short answers from behind the magazine. In fact, it isn't until Wong brings a bloody Doctor Strange into the Night Nurse's waiting room that Iron Fist actually reacts to his surroundings. It illustrates the character greatly: though he's willing to answer Araña's questions, he's more interested in reading than actually talking to the young superhero — as if she hasn't earned his respect. Strange, on the other hand, has been at it longer than Iron Fist himself and so there's a certain level of respect there. Hence, his reaction to the wounded mystic: "Oh god."

The genius of the scene is not only in the body language of the two heroes, but Iron Fist's realization that, at least for the moment, he's second fiddle to the more popular Luke Cage. It's also in the way the scene can be interpreted: I personally see Iron Fist as being a little arrogant, but you may think it's that he can't get a word in edgewise. We may both be right, and we may both be wrong. That's the beauty of subtle character moments like these; they're marks of superior craftsmen, and reinforce my love for comic books. Not everything has to be punching and kicking, garish costumes and huge breasts, schlocky dialog and "you're bad, I'm good, let's fight" plots. Beating readers over the head might have worked in a bygone era, but modern storytelling techniques (which really aren't modern, by the way, they're simply new to comic books) allow writers to pace stories in such a way that characters can actually be developed through their words, actions, thoughts and body language over time. And all without having to resort to, "Why don'cha charge up one'a them playin' cards with some kinetic whoop-de-do and get this show on the road, sweet-cheeks"-like dialog. (Yes, that's actually from an X-Men comic book.)

Araña and Iron Fist exit as the real story begins, but with them subtlety and stunning characterization do not follow. They linger to nurture the remainder of the title.

Thanks to Vaughan's skillful pen, even the expositional bits of dialog do not feel forced. The astral projection of Strange hovers above his limp, wounded body as he coaches the Night Nurse along. He tells her his tragic backstory (aren't they all), but interspersed are nagging suggestions of where and how to deliver incisions, harsh words when it comes to how she will address his faithful apprentice and odd bits of dark humor. There's a certain natural flow to the chatter, if only because Stephen is explaining his situation to someone he's never met before — someone who doesn't mind talking back. Had this been a conversation with Reed Richards, the dialog would have fallen flat due to Reed's familiarity with Strange's history. Readers would have been left asking, "Doesn't Reed already know this?"

As we dig deep into the events which preceded Strange's need for medical attention, Vaughan adds even more wonderful character moments. When Strange becomes overwhelmed, his hands become spastic, sending him into fits of rage. For someone who's normally meditative, it's interesting to see Stephen lose control and throw a tantrum. Unlike recent events in other comics, this is not out of character. It's called adding depth: in what seems like a former life, Strange was the best surgeon, but now his hands are virtually useless and he can't operate on his sickly apprentice. This wounds him. It makes him feel helpless, which is something neither the doctor nor mystic in him appreciates.

Wong's faithfulness, like Stephen's frustration, is touching and defines their relationship. Master and apprentice, yes, but they also share a deep, spiritual friendship. Twice Wong addresses his master by his first name. Both times were intentional on Vaughan's part, I guarantee you that; they come when Wong reveals he's dying of cancer (when labels and titles no longer matter), and when the former doctor dives headfirst into an otherworldly dimension in order to find a cure for the illness which plagues the servant (when self-preservation is secondary to aiding a loved one). One could very easily overlook both usages and even mark them up as mistakes on the writer's part, but that's not the case. It's called detail. Learn it well, other writers. Learn it well.

Despite my high praise for the title, the twist ending is one I saw coming, but it leaves many questions in its wake. Specifically why someone was willing to kill Strange to procure the elixir he brought back, and why that certain someone wants to rid the world of it.

Along with my newfound attachment to Strange and Wong, the cliffhanger, the questions begged above, as well as Marcos Martin's stupendous pencils have me drooling for the next installment. If subsequent issues remain strong, and sales dictate the miniseries deserves an ongoing, there's currently no doubt in my mind that I would buy a monthly Doctor Strange title written and illustrated by this creative team.

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