After revisiting the adorable Doctor Strange of the Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur comic last week, I found myself craving more Strange stuff. And while I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to watch the MCU movie, I do own a few trades’ worth of Doctor Strange comics. I remembered enjoying them well enough when I first read them, so I figured the time was nigh to revisit one and see if older, woker Saika still thought they were any good. And that’s how I ended up rereading the 2007 comic Doctor Strange: The Oath, by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin. Turns out, while it’s a good standalone story to read if you’re interested in the good Doctor, it’s also full of some tired tropes and isms.
The Oath follows Doctor Strange and his manservant Wong in the wake of a burglary. Strange was shot during the confrontation, and Wong drags him to Night Nurse, a doctor (yes, a doctor) who specializes in treating vigilantes, to get patched up. During said patching, it’s revealed that Wong has terminal brain cancer, and the thing that was stolen was a magical cure for cancer. Strange hadn’t dosed Wong with it yet because he was running tests on it, and now, it seems, it’s too late. Night Nurse joins the hobbled duo, hoping against hope, as they track down the thief’s boss. It turns out that the guy pulling the strings is on the board of a pharmaceutical company, and the tests had shown the elixir Strange had was not just a cure for cancer, but for all illness. Of course, the bad guy wants to pour it down the drain to maintain the company’s profitability, deaths be damned, but Strange is determined to retrieve the elixir and save Wong.
In his climactic fight with the villain, who turns out to have dabbled in dark magic as well as being a horrible asshole, bad guy and bottle alike get thrown off the side of a building. In the ensuing wreckage, all that’s left is a tiny drop of elixir. Strange must choose: take what is there home and duplicate it, enabling the world to be cleansed of disease forever—or use the drop to save Wong, who is barely holding on to life. In the end, he saves his friend rather than going full John Stuart Mill on it, allowing disease in general to continue so that Wong can live.
This is such a complicated story to unpack, but despite the kind of feel-good ending, I didn’t find myself super moved. Allowing Wong to die for the greater good would have felt justifiably racist; he’s already a throwback character to problematic “Asian manservant to some white moneybags dude” stereotypes from the fifties and sixties, and killing him off in such a way would send the message that Asian lives don’t matter. But Wong doesn’t really do much in the story besides get Strange to the doctor’s at the beginning. His climactic move is to collapse under the stress of his tumor, forcing Strange’s hand in the final showdown. There’s even a troubling flashback where Strange finds out about the cancer, and Wong calmly reassures him that he’s already found Strange a replacement for himself, as if the only real problem with his impending death is the way Strange will be inconvenienced. This comic came out a mere ten years ago – barely long enough to qualify for this column, and far too close to the present to excuse the problems it presents as racism of the past.
At the same time, the story’s conflict is a trolley problem writ large—can one human life, no matter what, possibly be worth the lives of billions of others? Strange does seem to care about Wong above and beyond their master/servant dynamic—at the end, as he weighs pros and cons, he says “I can’t condemn the world to save my friend” (emphasis theirs)—but that doesn’t make Wong less of a servant when push comes to shove. And in the end, it’s the titular oath that convinces Strange. The oath in question is not some magical promise but rather the Hippocratic oath, and it’s that—Stephen’s sworn word as a doctor to never withhold treatment from his patients—that tilts the balance in Wong’s scale.
I also didn’t love the way Night Nurse was treated. She has to insist to come along when they go after the thief, and is treated with a vague undercurrent of “gotta protect the girl” by Strange and Wong throughout. While she may not have powers, she’s also the only one of them who isn’t in a debilitating medical crisis for the duration of the story, so treating her like she can’t take care of herself is laughable at best and sexist at worst. They also shoehorned in a romance plot between her and Strange for good measure, because two attractive white people of different genders can’t possibly share five issues of a comic together without falling totally in love.
Probably my favorite part of the whole story is the intro, which doesn’t feature any of the main characters at all. Rather, it’s a brief interlude in Night Nurse’s waiting room, where Iron Fist—who pulled a hamstring fighting ninjas—and Anya Corazon (going by Araña at this point in time)—who got hit with a mace—dish about how they got hurt and wait for their turn with the Nurse. Something about the tongue-in-cheek realism of this scene clicked for me in a way the rest of the comic did not.
Brian K. Vaughan is one of the masterminds behind Saga, so I suppose he has grown as a writer since then, or maybe was at least just constrained by Marvel editorial decree to keep the existing power structures of the basic Doctor Strange mythos intact. Whichever it was, I’m not particularly impressed by my return to this comic. I guess I’ll just have to keep waiting for a Doctor Strange story that fits my particular desires. Is it too much to ask for a cute, wise, kind of sad Doctor Strange who’s tossed all his -isms and does some kind of fun magical consultation service out of his Bleeker Street apartment? Maybe double down on the kind of homophobic “your boyfriend” jokes Night Nurse uses referring to Wong in The Oath and rewrite Strange’s origin story so that they’re actually boyfriends?? Psst, come on, Marvel: that idea’s on me.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!