I'm becoming more convinced over the years that Steve Ditko put a curse on the character of Doctor Strange, so that no creator after him would be able to do right by the good Doctor. Sound crazy? Well, yes. But once again, we're seeing a prime example of some top-notch creators tackling the character, and none of them feeling up to par.
The opening story by Kieron Gillen and Frazer Irving sounds on the surface like a good idea. An insane asylum, magic slowly changing everyone's personalities to heal the world, a nasty surprise waiting for the reader at the ending, and an epilogue that is bittersweet at best. Both Gillen and Irving are creators whose comics in the past I've enjoyed a great deal. It's odd, though, because it feels like the emotion in this story got drained away and never put back. There are scenes that should grab the reader's attention immediately, like Clea preparing to rob a bank, but they feel flat and slightly lifeless. Even Irving's art feels strangely posed and unmoving, and that's something I never thought I'd have to say about his comics. The characters are still all beautifully formed, but there's no oomph behind any part of this story. It's a shame, too, because Gillen's basic plot is perfectly crafted from start to finish. I'm just not sure why it didn't all come together.
Peter Milligan and Frank Brunner are up next, at which point it started to become clear that "The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange" is a book with rapidly diminishing returns. Milligan is telling a story about memory and loss here, but once again there's no pizzazz, no energy inside this story. It just quietly plods along for a dozen pages, with all the excitement of a social studies teacher lecturing in a monotone voice. Brunner's art is the high point here, some nicely shaped characters, and even little details like a bowl of noodles are well drawn.
The best art in the book is from Ted McKeever's story, full of sharp angles and distortions within his characters, plus moody shadows to create the backgrounds in a way that reminds me a lot of artists like Peter Kuper. With floating half-heads, monsters with massive maws, and a Doctor Strange with a tattoo on his forehead, McKeever's art is out of sight. On the other hand, the story itself doesn't quite ever come together; if there was a theme to this Doctor Strange anthology, I'd like to think "not quite right scripts" wasn't supposed to have been the suggested formula.
The book ends not with another comic, but a three-page prose story written by Mike Carey and with two spot illustrations by Marcos Martin. I've read prose by Carey before and enjoyed it, but this feels leaden. This story early in Doctor Strange's career about a trip into the Dark Dimension should have been interesting, but once again it's a story that just doesn't ever hit the target it was aiming for.
It's odd, really. Gillen, Milligan, McKeever, and Carey are all capable of writing mystical-themed stories with great success; "Phonogram," "Hellblazer," "Metropol," and "Lucifer" all being prime examples. So why did none of these stories work? Your guess is as good as mine. I have come to one conclusion this year, though; reading "Doctor Strange" comics is always going to spell disappointment sooner or later.