Ha! Just when you thought the next float in the Remember When Parade was going to be Mech-Eng #1 you were wrong!! Haha!! Instead, considering the recent movie release, I figured it would be timely to rerelease the first article in the Deconstructing Comics series. So, without further misdirection, from way back in October 20th, 2015, here it is, folks!
There are two reasons why I feel that it is fitting to use Dr. Strange as the premiere comic for deconstruction. Reason one, Dr. Strange is one of my favourite characters and so doing a deconstructive read allowed me to spend a lot of time with this book. Reason two, just as this article is the launch of my new project, so is Dr. Strange #1 the launch of his new series! We march forth into the weird together.
Before we continue, I assume that you have read Dr. Strange #1. It is likely that through the deconstruction process much of the story will be spoiled.
If you read the article preceding this one (the Preface Edition) then you will be familiar with the categories of visual, narrative and craftwork that I will be sifting out of Dr. Strange #1.
I was going to move through the book in sequence with you but I think that that might be troublesome so I am going to instead do it categorically. Also, I will try to be brief rather than thorough (as I originally intended) because it would both ruin the experience of discovery for you and also turn this article into a novel. I haven’t decided one-hundred percent how far in depth I’ll go yet, though, so let’s start with this amount and see if we like it.
Let’s start with a reader’s first pull to comics, the visuals!
The best aspect of visuals to start with is exposition. This means the way in which the visuals tell a story. I will present two of the book’s best uses of visual exposition before moving on to the next aspect.
The first you will encounter is throughout the prologue. Dr. Strange is in the thick of combat against the Free Rovers and we note the heavy presence of teddy bears and sunflowers in the mix. At first glance these images are background, incidental and maybe even scenic clutter. It isn’t until we see the establishing shot of the boy’s room that we make the connection. Looking back at the action scenes we see how they detail that a) the teddy bears and sunflowers indicate the location of the astral battle, that of within the boy’s soul and b) that the teddy bears and sunflowers are fighting with Dr. Strange against the ghouls, indicating that the boy is as much a participant in the fight as Dr. Strange is. Without using a single piece of text, these visuals express a great deal of the action. They are a second story amidst the prologue’s narrative.
The second piece of visual exposition is after the prologue where Dr. Strange activates his third eye. The panels become black and white except for new characters only seen by him. Two stories are being told here. First, the change in colour reveals to us a glimpse of the other world. It is not a major change in environment, but it does not need to be because the combination of the third eye on his forehead and the black and white background tells us that we are no longer looking at our ordinary plane of life. The colour and third eye are visual signals that we’ve changed locations. Second, the manner of the new creatures also expresses this new world. Narratively they speak of microbes and bacteria while visually they resemble ocean life. Resembling fish and coral is a way to say that we do not notice the other world just in the same way that fish do not notice they live underwater. It is a visual analogy using comparable organisms – the spirits as fish.
Style can mean many things and stylistic choices can be used for different reasons. Without writing eight-hundred words on style alone, I’m going to quickly point to an easy example of this aspect and then get to further things. Although I used colour palette earlier as a visual exposition, it also counts for style. Additional to black and white as the means to express another world, the colours used in the Bar with No Doors evokes an eerie supernatural environment. It is a stylistic choice to use purple and green and tawny to describe this location. Colour is a language of style. It breeds atmosphere and mood (which are visual and narrative elements).
The second major draw to comics (maybe third), next to art, is the characters. Characterization is a major form of comic storytelling, if not the central drive (depending on the publisher?). Visually we are told that this is a modern Dr. Strange by his fashion (soul patch moustache combo, Cloak of Levitation turns into a scarf) but more importantly we can learn who he is through his internal monologue and through dialogue.
Characteristically, we learn he has traits such as confidence, courage and sincerity (he saves the child from possession without accepting any payment or compensation, he accepts the challenge to help Zelma) but also undertones of self-doubt (trembling hands comment, his hard-boiled egg speech to Monako) and vulnerability (socializing with wizards “who will still talk to him”). There is also a tinge of sexuality to this version of Dr. Strange in the way he flirts with the Lady Soul Eater. As the first issue of this new launch we cannot know how the traits will inhibit or propel Dr. Strange forward, but we can begin to count their threads and follow along.
If we were to grab a spoon and stir this soup around, we would see some bits of tone spinning about. There are many exhibits of tone in Dr. Strange #1, primarily humour and pathos, with a bit of impending conflict. The character of Dr. Strange quips and plays with the other characters (his foes, his friends and Zelma). We are supposed to find emotional sympathy with the child in the prologue, the old man in Act One and Zelma in Act Three who are all innocent and defenseless characters (another reveal of Dr. Strange’s courageousness) and also with Dr. Strange himself, who is the sole stalwart against the forces of the other worlds. I say impending conflict because they dropped ever so subtle lines and hooks, but really gave nothing else until the final five pages. If it was not for the epilogue we would only have caught a whiff of the conflict to come in the series. But the hints of conflict shape the tone of the work. We know there is some kind of doom coming (repeat: “the coming slaughter”) and so we cannot take this book to be all laughs and tears.
Let’s split the book apart to find key craftwork examples. The plot is carried visually, narratively and mechanically. The mechanical aspect is craftwork. Each portion of the structure contains action and questions that lead to the next part until the book’s end. One way craft is operating is how the phrase “the coming slaughter” is used as a thread throughout the book. It is quoted in the prologue by Lady Soul Eater, it is teased in the activities of Dr. Strange and it is the final hook of the series opener in the epilogue called “The Coming Slaughter.” It is used like a crumb trail from the forest to the lodge. It sets up the next story in addition to being the initial lure for this one.
Two more aspects of craftwork we see employed are pace and layout. I put them together to save time and because they work together to service the story. Pace simply means the speed at which the story is told. Contrasting the pages of the prologue with the remainder of the book, the prologue moves fast and exciting with visual elements such as a spread and the full and half page panels, also using slanted frames (or no frames at all) to remark frantic movement. Visually, the action and the layout denote the pace. Having some images larger than others, some characters in certain positions and using the layout (frame and panels) to show pace are craftwork choices. The motion of the plot is felt by the use of craft.
My favourite craft piece in this book occurs in the first two pages. Page one triples as the origin story of Dr. Strange, a harkening back to the heritage of the character (the background), as well as a spring board to launch the character into a modern tale of his own (the following spread page). Being the first issue of a new series, this single moment lands a very strong concrete block for all issues to come. The craftwork here uses visuals (the background) and narrative (captions) to evoke the feeling of the new launch of Dr. Strange. The audience is clearly aware of it because of these pages. That’s some pure craftwork going on right there!
It is easier to find strong examples of each of these categories in a premiere issue because the book is responsible for initiating a series as well as captivating the audience for the contained story. We find both long term arcs operating interwoven with the small arcs. It is exciting to determine which are which and where the story can progress from here!
If you have any recommendations for a book to deconstruct by all means share it with me. I look forward to doing this again next month!