Doctor Strange has failed as the Master of the Mystic Arts, and all the other mystic characters in the Marvel Universe are the heirs apparent. Who is the all-new Sorcerer Supreme?
New Avengers #51 is one of the best issues of the book in quite some time as Brian Michael Bendis leaves many of the title's previous threads behind in order to concentrate on a new story. While the Skrull invasion and the rise to power of Norman Osborn are both mentioned, and both elements play an important part in setting the scene for the issue, this newest arc looks as though it's going to be all about Dr. Strange's search for a new Sorcerer Supreme.
Dr. Strange is a slippery character at the best of times. Although a lot of writers seem to like him, very few have been able to make him work effectively. Whether it's his completely sidelined role in Civil War and Secret Invasion, his uncharacteristically reckless actions in World War Hulk, or his wildly fluctuating power levels when he was a member of the New Avengers ("My cape won't work under these conditions!" indeed), even A-list writers have struggled to get the best out of him in recent years.
Here, Bendis wisely avoids getting too bogged down by details of his magical abilities (which is probably a good thing after seeing how his Dark Avengers arc has been fudging its magical elements). Instead, Strange is given a new function to fulfill that relies on his humility--a key attribute given the character's origin story--and casts him in a fatherly, teacher-like role that suits him well.
Strange's quest to find his successor leads him to Wiccan of the Young Avengers, and the two share a discussion of the importance of discipline and responsibility in wielding magic. Their conversation makes the subject more meaningful (and human) than any amount of magical fireworks and gobbledegook incantations could manage, and I look forward to seeing whether the book will be able to maintain this grounding as the arc progresses.
I also like the fact that Bendis is setting up several possible candidates for the new Sorcerer Supreme. The Hood and Dr. Doom are both suggested as potential successors, and the cover of the issue implies that other characters could be in the running too (such as Brother Voodoo and the Scarlet Witch). Even if this search for a new Sorcerer Supreme is all misdirection and Strange is going to retain the title in the end, it looks as though this arc is going to provide an interesting exploration of the magical side of the Marvel Universe as it applies to both heroes and villains--which is one of the better uses of Dr. Strange that I've seen lately, and I hope to see it continue.
Elsewhere, there's yet another extended Avengers team discussion--something that has been a regular staple of Bendis's run. This one is more compelling than most, however, as the team decides who should be their new leader--and it also addresses the thorny issue of Spider-Man's secret identity.
I was fully expecting to be disappointed by this latter element, as the sudden change in Spider-Man's status thanks to "One More Day"/"Brand New Day" has already caused logical problems for the series. In the early issues, everyone on the team knew who he was, but now, and without explanation, they don't.
I expected this scene dealing with Spider-Manís identity to be yet another unwelcome acknowledgement of the ďBrand New DayĒ reboot that has led to everyone in the Marvel Universe forgetting that the character is Peter Parker. To their credit, however, Bendis and Marvel have come up with a sensible way to address the problem, enabling Spider-Man to function as a member of the New Avengers team without compromising him too much. It's a surprising development--especially given the hard-line stance that has been taken on the subject in Amazing Spider-Man--but a very welcome one.
However, the main reason that I rate this issue so highly isn't connected with Bendisís writing, it's the presence of Chris Bachalo as artist. He shares the issueís art chores with Billy Tan, but Bachaloís work is far and away the most enjoyable.
Bachalo's pages are beautiful, providing possibly the best work that I've ever seen from him. His characters are stylised but consistent and well defined, there's inventiveness and variety in his layouts, and his pacing is perfect--especially the moment that shows the terrifying appearance of the Hood in his monstrous form.
Antonio Fabela's colouring really enhances Bachaloís pages, giving each a strong sense of atmosphere--whether it's the bright springtime feel of the scenes with Wiccan and Dr. Strange or the smouldering, sulphurous appearance of Dormammu. There's nothing wrong with Billy Tan's sections, but they don't pop off the page in the same way that Bachalo's do.
I'm wary of being so positive about the first issue of a New Avengers arc as experience has taught me that these things rarely end as well as they begin, and story elements that seem promising rarely live up to their full potential. However, this issue is a surprisingly enjoyable read that's elevated by Bachalo's great visuals. And, for the first time in a long time, I'm actually interested in seeing where the story is headed.
There is a lot of talking in this latest issue of New Avengers. Yet again the Avengers are sitting around and talking, but a lot does seem happen regardless--and there should be more happening next issue. All of which is good, but there is also bad--and enough of it to keep this from being a great read.
Itís nice to see an explanation for Wonder Manís departure from the Avengers (Mighty or New or whatever), and while it does fit the general mood of the Marvel Universe these days, it just sweeps too much under the rug too quickly. I canít buy that he believes his time as an Avenger to have been just a waste of time. Itís all introduced in two panels and then we see Carolís response, and itís all just too brief.
We also get a contrived connection between Spider-Man and Jessica Jones, which takes about three pages. This scene stems from the fact that this issue solves the problem of Spider-Manís secret identity, which takes some of the bite out of the "One More Day" and "Brand New Day" stories. However, to be fair it was something that had to be dealt with. In the process, though, we get a lot of pointless drama, and it doesnít amount to much, except perhaps a fan-boyish: ďOh, wouldnít it be cool!Ē
So what was good?
Well the part about Doctor Strange searching for a new Sorcerer Supreme was pretty good, and the art was fantastic. I actually enjoy Bachaloís art, and itís a great fit for all the mystic stuff going on in the issue. Seeing the Hood approaching Doc Strange with his demonic mouth gaping open and twisted tongue hanging out is just great stuff. It was definitely a good choice to alternate between Bachalo and Tan--Bachalo doing the Doc Strange scenes, and Tan the Avenger round-table conversation.
Additionally, the Avengers finally get a definite leader--and itís no real surprise. After his appearance on television last issue, he had more or less appointed himself anyway. So a lot does happen in this issue, which is great. Unfortunately, there are some distractions along the way that make me wonder what else could be happening.
For example, there is a battle between Doc Strange and the Hood that happens entirely off panel. Perhaps Bendis will show it later, but that would have been more interesting to see in this issue than a contriving connection between Spider-Man and Jessica Jones just for the ďcoolĒ factor.
Is New Avengers #51 worth the $3.99 price tag? Yeah, if youíre a diehard Avengers fan, otherwise donít bother. Also, if you want to know about the next Sorcerer Supreme, you can probably wait until next issue.
New Avengers #51 kicks off the search for the new Sorcerer Supreme as Doctor Strange searches for the person who will take his place as the master of the mystic arts. Iím not a Doctor Strange fan, so the fact that he isnít Sorcerer Supreme any more doesnít bother me. I normally would not care about the mystical and magical side of the Marvel Universe, but this idea of him having to find his replacement has piqued my interest.
While Strange searches for his successor, the Avengers are organizing themselves to work better as a team--and figuring out how to deal with a world that has Norman Osborn as the top cop. The first thing on their agenda--the identity of Spider-Man!
The story was very much a first chapter to a bigger story--which, of course, means that the pacing isnít necessarily fast and there are a lot of things to establish before the story can continue to the more interesting parts. Even with this limitation, the story comes off strong and has me wanting more. However, there is no action in this issue.
I know for a lot of people the lack of action can be a problem, but I enjoy the character moments and dialogue in the issues that are between the big fights and adventures. Luckily we are in the hands of Bendis here. I donít think anyone can stress enough how well he does dialogue.
Bendis is not the best team book writer, but issues like this one in which the characters act and sound like themselves make up for his problems writing stories with teams. The scene with the team sitting around the table asking Spider-Man to take off his mask and identify himself worked really well, and I was entertained by it. I actually had a smile on my face while reading the conversation between Peter Parker and Jessica Jones. Its little scenes like that one that validates Bendisís abilities as a writer.
The art duties on this issue are split between Billy Tan, who handles the Avengers scenes, and Chris Bachalo, who handles the Doctor Strange and magic scenes. Tanís art has grown on me. When I first saw his work on this book back during ďSecret Invasion,Ē I wasnít very impressed. However, I can now say that Iím comfortable with him on this series.
The one gripe I have is that Ms. Marvel and Mockingbird look like the same character when they are out of their respective costumes. I was confused at first when I thought Ms. Marvel was Mockingbird.
Chris Bachalo has always been a great artist and I love everything Iíve seen of his. I really enjoy artists that have a very unique style that stands out. Unfortunately Bachalo didnít bring his A-game to this issue. The scene between Wiccan and Doctor Strange just seems a little off. I was distracted by thinking Wiccanís head looked a little bloated. Also in the first scene in which Wiccan appears, I thought I was looking at The Hood.
However, aside from some confusing art, this issue is definitely worth reading. I think it is going to set up some really nice plans--not just for the New Avengers but for the Marvel Universe as a whole. If you are like me and donít care about a new Sorcerer Supreme being chosen, donít let that scare you off from this issue. There is still enough substance here that will entertain you.
What did you think of this book?
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