Doctor Strange has always been one of the most difficult characters to write in the world of comics. As many Superman writers will attest to, it is a challenge to create interest in a character that is essentially invincible. The difficulty in writing a Doctor Strange story comes in writing him as anything other than a deus ex machina plot device. Strange is the man called in when a problem has become too great for other heroes to solve. He will swoop in, work his magic, and the conflict is instantly solved – such as in Avengers: Disassembled. This does not make for interesting story possibilities with Strange as the main protagonist. Why would people want to read about a guy who can snap his fingers and solve any problem in the world? This is the challenge faced by author Brian K. Vaughan.
Vaughan more than ably rises up to this challenge in Doctor Strange: The Oath. Collecting the entire five-issue mini-series from 2006, Vaughan manages to construct a story starring the Sorcerer Supreme that is both interesting and enjoyable. This story begins with a very brief overview on Strange’s origin, followed by the main plot. Strange’s faithful servant, Wong, is dying of a terminal brain tumor. In order to save his life, Strange ventures into an otherworldly dimension to retrieve a fabled bottle of elixir, said to relieve the ills of man. What Strange does not realize is that he has stumbled onto the legendary panacea, the cure for all diseases. This sets off a mystery, as a hidden antagonist is looking to take the panacea for an unknown purpose. Meanwhile, Strange must decide whether to mass-manufacture the elixir and eradicate disease in the world or stay true to the Hippocratic Oath that every surgeon takes and save his patient Wong, whose time is critically short.
There have been dozens of Doctor Strange stories written over the years, mostly focused on Doctor Strange, the powerful Sorcerer Supreme. Vaughan differentiates his story by focusing on Stephen Strange, a human being who happens to be the Sorcerer Supreme. At root, Stephen Strange is a cocky, arrogant person and Vaughan realistically shows that these traits are still present within Strange. While his trials for his powers have humbled him, Strange still has moments in which he ridicules “amateurs” and expresses impatience for those that are unable to keep up with him. Vaughan makes Strange’s powers secondary and chooses to highlight his personality instead. This makes for a much more interesting story and portrays Strange as more than a deus ex machina plot device.
Vaughan also adds to this story through Strange’s supporting cast. Wong is portrayed as the loyal servant that he is and Vaughan does a good job in communicating the bond between Wong and his master. This series also co-stars Night Nurse, a character used sparingly in the Marvel Universe, a woman devoted to patching up wounded superheroes as repayment for being rescued by one of them in past. Night Nurse serves the story particularly well, as she is a somewhat mirrored version of Strange. While Stephen Strange is a hero wishing to be a doctor, Night Nurse is a doctor wishing to be a hero. The chemistry between the two is undeniable and makes readers hope that their relationship is revisited in later stories.
Sprinkled throughout this story are touches of humor and witty dialogue. Lovers of magic need not worry about the additional character moments, as there is plenty of magic and occult presence throughout the title. Vaughan succeeds where many writers have failed in the past by writing an engaging and enjoyable Doctor Strange story. Even more remarkable is the fact that Vaughan stays away from Strange’s main rogues gallery (Nightmare, Dormammu, Mephisto) and relies on a different type of antagonist than the one the Sorcerer Supreme is accustomed to. The only complaint about this story is that it is far too short and once readers are treated to Vaughan’s take on Strange, they will find it hard to return to any lesser writer’s portrayal.
For those looking to whet their appetites for the upcoming Doctor Strange DVD, this is a fantastic paperback story to collect. Vaughan has indicated that he would leave the character of Doctor Strange to Brian Michael Bendis for future tales, which is a shame, because Vaughan did a great job with this tale. Strange was never a hero with a “quintessential” story, but Doctor Strange: The Oath may become just that.