|A quest to save a dying friend delivers Doctor Stephen Strange to death’s door as the surgeon-turned-superhero seeks a magical elixir with lifesaving properties. Brought into contact with demons, assassins, and faces from his past, the Master of the Mystic Arts discovers the aftershocks of past decisions even as he tries to shape the future.
|Brian K. Vaughan
|October 2006 - February 2007
“As a member of the medical profession, I solemnly pledge to dedicate my life to the service of humanity.”
Initially adopted after World War II, the Declaration of Geneva serves as a modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, the historical pledge taken by physicians. For close to 70 years, the Declaration remained relatively unedited, until a newly revised version was updated in 2017 by the World Medical Association General Assembly in Chicago.
“The health and well-being of my patient will be my first consideration.”
Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1963, Doctor Stephen Strange was an egotistical surgeon who sought his own fame and fortune first. A driving accident damaged his hands, leaving Strange unable to perform surgery. Seeking healing, he stumbled upon the Ancient One, who mentored the former medic in magic as a means to protect and benefit the world. Strange took a different pledge, becoming the Sorcerer Supreme, wielding spells instead of a scalpel.
“I will respect the autonomy and dignity of my patient; I will maintain the utmost respect for human life.”
In the comics, the good doctor has served as both a Defender and Avenger, battled his famed nemesis Dormammu, and even temporarily lost his title as Sorcerer Supreme. Outside the panels and pages, Benedict Cumberbatch has portrayed the mystic marvel in two Doctor Strange movies as well as Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home (with a brief cameo in Thor: Ragnarok). With the release of Strange’s most recent cinematic escapade, fans have the perfect opportunity to see what spell Brian K. Vaughan (Saga) and Marcos Martin (Amazing Spider-Man) cast over this limited series, considered one of the best Doctor Strange stories of this or any universe.
Violence: A man and a monster are shot. A few folks are blasted with magic bolts, Harry Potter-style. Some people engage in fist fights. A man’s face is slammed into a wall. Someone falls to their death. We see a few corpses. Perhaps most gruesomely, someone explodes.
Sexual Content: A few quips are made about the nature of Doctor Strange and Wong’s friendship, though the actual idea is never lent credence. Two characters kiss.
Drug/Alcohol Use: A character takes a drink of alcohol. Magic potions are discussed and used.
Spiritual Content: All kinds of magical shenanigans materialize throughout the pages. Characters reference or use magical spells and incantations abundantly. Strange casts astral projections of himself, magic items and weapons are used or alluded to, and creatures are referred to as ancient gods or demons. References are made to zen, ley lines, and prayer. A character discusses forgiveness. A few spiritual lines are uttered, such as “O ye of little faith” and “leap of faith.”
Language/Crude Humor: A few uses of God’s name in vain, plus a couple instances of h*** and d***. Someone says “S.O.B.” A bleeped-out profanity appears and an unfinished “son of a…” lingers.
Other Negative Content: A character threatens another perhaps too harshly.
Positive Content: Strange, Wong, and Night Nurse serve and aid one another as friends and allies. When Strange needs a blood transfusion, Wong willingly offers his services. Strange’s primary goal in the series is to save Wong’s life. Strange reminisces about his days as an arrogant doctor and hopes he’s experienced change in the time since.
Stan Lee’s greatest origin stories forced his heroes to challenge their worst characteristics. Peter Parker, after losing his Uncle Ben to his own self-centeredness, chose heroism over fame to honor the man’s memory. Tony Stark became Iron Man after a near-fatal incident convinced him he needed more meaning than his luxurious lifestyle. Stephen Strange, through the loss of his hands, learned new ways to help others which didn’t glut his hubris.
Strange’s origin is never far from Vaughan and Martin’s The Oath. Though the title refers to a singular commitment, the creators explore multiple vows – Strange’s medical oath, his camaraderie with his manservant and friend Wong, and his dedication to his current role. Through these lenses, Vaughan and Martin capably analyze how the Sorcerer Supreme has grown and changed as a person and superhero since his inception.
The Doctor Will See Himself Now
Each oath is given equal weight, yet all stand together under the banner of Vaughan and Martin’s central idea. Strange’s medical oath, referenced verbally in passing, serves as the backdrop against which the “old Strange” is painted. Flashbacks see (medical) Doctor Strange refuse to help a patient unable to afford his exorbitant care; he kicks the man to the curb, focusing instead on more important patients, i.e. those with sufficient dough.
Post-car crash Strange is later shown raving at Nicodemus West, the medic who operated on Strange’s hands. The arrogant surgeon criticizes the man without recognizing Nicodemus’ efforts to salvage what he could or even acknowledging Strange’s own culpability in the accident. The movie version of these events operated similarly, with a hospitalized Strange insisting he would’ve saved his hands had he been in charge.
Vaughan wonderfully contrasts this past version of Strange with his current, magic-manipulating self. I am not well-enough versed in Doctor Strange lore to understand how often other writers focused on Strange’s prior self-absorbed personality. While I know Spider-Man often reflects on his Uncle Ben’s death and Batman builds his crime-fighting foundation on the memory of his parents, I am not certain how often Strange comments on his previous arrogance.
Vaughan makes this change – this “the old doctor is out, the new doctor is in” concept – a core tenant, precisely to draw attention to how Strange has grown. Strange reflects on his past at various moments: he mourns the death of a colleague he took for granted as a surgeon, watches a contemporary lose himself to corruption, and goes to great lengths to find a cure for Wong’s condition. He contrasts himself with the man he used to be and relies on that contrast to encourage himself to move forward with his mission and motivations.
The Treatment of Wong
Wong’s part in this series is, hopefully, encouraging to readers. Fans have often derided the character’s early history, pointing out stereotypical influences surrounding Wong’s mannerisms and role. Throughout The Oath, Vaughan redirects these early notions, setting up Wong as a character equal in several ways and, as the doctor himself points out, superior in others to the Master of the Mystic Arts.
Certainly, Vaughan and Martin’s narrative is couched in its “Strange seeks to save Wong’s life” premise. Additionally, the men refer to each other as “master” and “servant.” But this isn’t intended to be derisive towards Wong by making him just a manservant who needs rescuing. Strange and Wong, along with the Night Nurse, aid each other on this quest, driven by a common purpose. The terms they refer to each other by are meant, as far as I can tell, to be respectful and representative of their positions.
Some readers may still feel bothered that Vaughan doesn’t overhaul Wong’s role and may wonder if some respectful verbiage is enough to pull the character away from his racist roots. Vaughan’s narrative may not do enough to significantly alter Wong’s position, but the writer works with Wong as well as he can, presenting him as a fleshed out character instead of relegating him to butler or sidekick status.
Bad Business Practices
Vaughan contrasts Strange’s origin and growth with a previously untold story – the narrative’s central villain is constructed as a foil for Strange, a man who found the same magic yet never learned humility. This character is a twisted version of the doctor, using his magic for financial gain. He and his bosses are so corrupt they try to deprive Strange of the elixir he seeks, fearing how such a balm could upend their profits.
I enjoy the direction Vaughan takes this character, though I was not too impressed with the setup. The Oath’s villain is never directly stated to be Strange’s narrative opposite, but this evil twin’s origin hews too closely to Strange’s own. I appreciate Vaughan’s attempt at creating a parallel character, but the specifics are unfortunately clumsy. Outside his origin, this villain is used to great effect, allowing the reader to draw their own parallels. Vaughan never has to tell us this selfish, greedy wizard darkly mirrors Strange’s heroic personality. Once you bypass the origin, this Menacing Mage stands in stark contrast to the Sorcerer Supreme.
Magic Made Modern
Speaking of contrast, Marcos Martin weaves worlds of wonder for Strange to wander through. His designs are almost certainly inspired by Steve Ditko, who wonderfully gave the earliest Doctor Strange stories a psychedelic quality: panels awash with otherworldly designs, bursts of vibrant color, and shapes twisted into uncanny geometric designs. Martin’s magical masterpieces, though beholden to Ditko, feel a tad more grounded and infused with horror.
Strange faces a demon which takes the form of a elongated, gray, emaciated cat. A journey into a man’s subconscious paints entwining purple synapses, which at one point give way to a twisting centipede. In an early scene mirrored by the first film, Strange’s eerily transparent “astral form” hovers above a surgeon saving him from a gunshot wound. Through Martin’s panels, the esoteric and empirical collide. Magic feels real in these pages, a little dark and a little scary when used selfishly.
Fans should also take a moment to enjoy Martin’s attention to detail. Strange reiterates his origin early, inset panels depict the past set against the trunk of a tree where Strange crashed his car. Strange is brought face-to-face with an illusory host of current and former enemies, including Doctor Doom, Baron Mordo, Umar, and Dormammu. A final confrontation between two foes is situated against a rainy backdrop, lightning slicing the air. Settings are vivid, made real through gorgeous background details. Considering how often the series jumps through different environments, Martin’s control over his settings is necessary to convey a sense of space and pacing.
Throughout the series, Vaughan and Martin beautifully draw focus to Strange’s hands. After all these years, they still shake; only once is Strange able to keep them perfectly still. Martin dials in on the details, creating fluttering motion lines around Strange’s hands in instances where the doctor desperately tries keeping them still. In these moments, Vaughan wisely allows Martin the chance to speak through art what words would clumsily convey. Remnants remain of the old Doctor Strange. His hands are a reminder of the accident which claimed his old life yet birthed a new purpose.
Strange no longer deals with the Hippocratic Oath directly, the pledge he should have followed when his hands were fully intact. He must now, somehow, choose to fulfill the oath of the Sorcerer Supreme, with tarnished hands. As one character sums up late in the series: “All you can do is ask which choice would allow you to look yourself in the mirror come morning.” In a series fascinated with paralleling characters, including Strange and his misbegotten adversary, a mirror reflecting the true nature of a person, revealing their scars, is a fitting image through which Strange, and the audience, can analyze our cast of characters.
+ Engaging, introspective reflection on Stephen Strange's character
+ Fantastically atmospheric, detailed art
+ Strong use of supporting cast
- Weak villain backstory
The Bottom Line
Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin create one of the most character-driven Doctor Strange stories of all time, a fan-favorite series highly deserving of a place on your bookshelf.