Review: 'Doctor Strange' #381 Promises One Weird, Wild Ride

Doctor Strange #381 Review - Bleeker

Continuity can be an obstacle or an opportunity. In the world of Marvel Comics, characters carry decades of baggage and oftentimes just a few years leaves a very busy set of conflicts for a new creative team. There’s no comic in the Legacy relaunch for which that is more true of than Doctor Strange, but writer Donny Cates and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta transform potential burdens into a springboard. They use Doctor Strange #381 to take a far-less-magical Marvel and prove that it’s every bit as capable of wonder and weirdness as before.

There’s no clean slate or easy out from the prior run, in which magic was almost entirely destroyed and strict rules were set in place. This issue embraces those strictures and turns them on their head by introducing even more mischief in the most obvious fashion possible: Loki. It’s a brilliant solution to a difficult problem that compounds ongoing conflicts with even more intriguing ones. By the end of these 20 pages, the introduction of Loki as the new Sorcerer Supreme feels like nothing short of a master stroke.

Doctor Strange #381 Review - Bleeker

Loki is both a known quantity and a fish out of water in this scenario. He manages to provide new readers a lens into a very busy story with loads of history, while entertaining anyone familiar with what has come before. On both sides of that equation he provides a mystery as everyone, characters included, must ask how and why he is in Strange’s shoes. In the hands of a lesser writer all of these motives would be spelled out in dialogue, but Cates makes banter and action alike service story and these necessary elements of place setting. It’s a delight to watch Loki become increasingly flustered, so much so that you don’t notice him establishing key elements of what is to come.

The only stumble in Cates’ script comes at the start of Doctor Strange #381 in a series of captions as both Doctor Strange and Loki address the reader directly. Strange tackles the mysteries and issues of the comic that are already functioning within the storytelling of the moment. It’s gratuitous. Even worse is that these narrative captions disappear after rolling across the first few pages, making their purpose even more transparent. Yet a brilliant spread by Walta helps to make the longest series of these captions less distracting. Walta’s one big adventure moment in the issue where it shows Loki as a classic hero of incredible resolve fighting the hordes of evil is enough fun to make the words almost fade away.

Doctor Strange #381 Review - Bleeker

Walta’s skillset as a storyteller is well suited to what is being staged in this introductory issue. He emphasizes expression and reaction, allowing for the pitter-patter of insults and declarations to enthrall instead of bore. Doctor Strange #381 does not provide many big moments, but instead allows the smaller oddities to entrance readers. While the one big spread or a wide panel of the Sanctum Sanctorum’s convoluted interior are well-crafted, Walta normalizes more minor pieces like a floating head in a jar in a manner that makes Doctor Strange feel really special. Rather than shouting at readers that magic is fascinating, Walta’s pages simply fascinate.

Doctor Strange is the crown jewel of Legacy. It’s a comic that embraces the past while rocketing forward into new terrain. Cates and Walta have struck a perfect balance between pleasing old readers and inviting new ones by opening a story well and having faith in their audience. And that last twist? It’s perfectly understated, delightful, and incredibly curious all at once, much like this excellent comic.

Grade: A-

Written by Donny Cates

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Art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta

Colors by Jordie Bellaire