Dr. Strange: What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen?
Written by Marc Andreyko; Art by P. Craig Russell
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Penciller/Inker
When it comes to superheroes my personal favorite is Dr. Strange. It's not because of his powers; they tend to be loosely defined and vary based on the needs of the story. And it's not because of his stories; if I took the hundreds of issues of Dr. Strange written since the character was introduced I might be able to point out three dozen that are really great. What I like about Dr. Strange is the core concept. It's the classic Marvel story cranked up all the way. You have an arrogant man who has been corrupted by worldly things until a tragedy of his own making brings him low. Now in other Marvel comics they deal with this by building a suit of armor and punching criminals. Or by climbing down walls and punching criminals. Or hitting their brother with a big hammer and punching criminals. Dr. Strange on the other hand got to the bottom and then reevaluated his life, realized his failings at a person, and then worked hard to change his ways. He was far ahead of the curve in terms of comic book characters and completely different from any other superhero out there.
What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen? is the only time that my favorite superhero has won an Eisner. That makes sense since as I mentioned there's aren't a lot of good stories featuring Dr. Strange. In fact this book isn't a good story; it's flawed in every way possible. It also exists as a showcase for gorgeous P. Craig Russell artwork and on that level it succeeds.
Dr. Strange's friend is abducted, and a monastery of the same order that trained him has been slaughtered. He follows the trail through strange dimensions to an evil sorceress who demands his assistance is maintaining her dying kingdom. Naturally complications ensue.
Andreyko's story is not coherent. An individual page can hold together well but let me run through the first nine as an example. Strange finds a strange message in his fortune cookie delivered by a demonic waiter. Goes home and realizes his friend is missing. Gets a telepathic message from his mentor sending him immediately to the Himalayas. Goes to a strange universe where he talks a pack of monsters into opening a door for him. Gets to the monastery to find nearly everyone dead. One of the survivors has been brainwashed to kill Strange and the doctor knocks him out. After extracting information from the potential killer's mind he then goes to another universe. Really, that's nine pages. And most of it doesn't matter a bit to the actual plot that runs through the whole book. The demonic fortune cookie message that provides the title of the book doesn't tie into anything. The taunting monsters at the doorway don't matter. The death of the monks is never mentioned again.
The reason for this is that Andreyko seems to be blindly following the Joseph Conrad's hero's journey without actually bothering to build a story out of it. The hero's journey as a storytelling framework only works if you're actually telling a story. What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen? is just a series of events. One station per page is insufficient to deal with the developments.
He does eventually locate a narrative but it comes in over halfway through this very short book. From there it's a by-the-numbers affair though considdering Andreyko was actually painting by someone else's numbers that shouldn't be a surprise.
There's only a few characters who are around for more than a page in the story and none of them are interesting. Strange is following the steps of the plot because it's there. The villain never is developed further than evil queen. There's a person who shows up toward the end to hand out the exposition and not do anything. I didn't have any reason to care about any of these people or what they did.
While I may not have a single nice thing to say about Andreyko's story I also have nothing but praise for Russell's artwork. He dives into the psychedelic artwork that has been the hallmark of Dr. Strange comics from the beginning and draws fantastically elaborate set pieces. The panel structure itself warps and extends as part of the surrealist effect. These are beautiful pages.
Unfortunately they're beautiful pages that are unreadable. I love the art and because I love Dr. Strange I don't regret reading What Is It That Disturbs You Stephen. On the other hand if you don't share my fondness for the character or Russell's art then you'll wind up annoyed with the book.