Strange Days Indeed

We’re only days away now from Marvel Studios’ newest release, the first Marvel film to stray into the world of the  supernatural. Scott Derrickson’s DOCTOR STRANGE, introducing Benedict Cumberbatch to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Doctor Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme and Master of the Mystic Arts.


But where did this Doctor Strange character come from? We’re ever so glad you asked…

Back in 1963, as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were laying the groundwork for what would become the Marvel Universe, there were other books still being published by the company as well, remnants from the company’s days pumping out sci-fi and monster comics in the late ’50s and early ’60s. As Marvel editor Stan Lee began to realize that superheroes had become the company’s bread-and-butter, the remaining anthology books like JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, TALES TO ASTONISH and STRANGE TALES began to feature super-types as well. In the case of STRANGE TALES, Lee decided to split the book in half, and devote half the pages every month to solo adventures of Johnny Storm, a.k.a. the Human Torch from the pages of Marvel’s big hit THE FANTASTIC FOUR. When sales immediately jumped, Stan decided that another superhero would nicely fill out the second half of STRANGE TALES’ monthly page count. So who came up with the new character, Marvel’s resident Sorcerer Supreme? Well, here’s where it gets a little hazy…


In Lee’s chapter about Dr. Strange in his 1974 book ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, he goes into far less detail about the inception of the character compared to the others featured in the book. Sure, Stan discusses his love for the 1930s radio show CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, and cites it as an inspiration of sorts, but there’s no discussion of the character’s actual creation or development, merely “Anyway, Steve Ditko once again took up the art chores while I penned the words,” which is hardly a blow-by-blow account. Correspondence from Stan Lee at the time of Dr. Strange’s first publication has been printed in numerous sources, in which Stan notes (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Steve Ditko has come up with a magician character, Dr. Strange…”

It would be great to hear Ditko’s account of the creation, but the artist’s absolute refusal to do interviews (“My work speaks for me” is pretty much the extent of Ditko’s public statements since 1965) makes that unlikely at best. Ditko has, in several fits of pique, publicly asserted himself as the creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, usually when Stan Lee has been the subject of particularly good or widespread publicity. And to Stan’s credit, he unfailingly mentions Kirby and Ditko as co-creators. Although I can empathize with Ditko’s desire for privacy, the knife cuts both ways: if you refuse interviews and don’t talk about your work, you can’t really be upset when the media overlooks your contributions.

Although it was most likely Ditko who created the character, Lee’s characterizations and dialogue played a more than significant role in the increasing popularity of Dr. Strange. Lee’s knack for creating insanely catchy names and phrases that just roll off the tongue was going full bore in this strip, as evidenced in Dr. Strange’s opponents, like the Dread Dormammu, his spells and mystic talismans, like the Eye of Agamotto, and his expressions: “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” Thanks to Steve Ditko’s psychedelic dreamscapes, the “Dr. Strange” strip looked like nothing else out there, and thanks to Stan’s dialogue, it sounded like nothing else out there as well.


Let’s take a look at the good doctor’s first appearance, from STRANGE TALES #110, entitled “Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic!” This economical little 5-pager opens with a man tortured by recurring dreams of a chained figure, who turns to the mysterious Dr. Strange as a last resort. Dr. Strange agrees to enter the man’s dream and determine the cause of the disturbance.


Entering the man’s dream in his astral form, Dr. Strange is told by the spectral figure that the dreamer knows why he’s being tormented, and that he should “ask Mr. Crang” if he doesn’t believe. Before Dr. Strange can return to his body, he’s confronted by Nightmare, the ruler of the dream dimension and Strange’s “ancient foe.”

Nightmare points out that Strange’s mortal body is about to be snuffed out by the dreamer, who heard the hooded figure speak the name of the mysterious Mr. Crang. Before the man can fire a bullet into Dr. Strange’s helpless body, Strange manages to mystically contact his master, the Ancient One, who remotely controls the mystic amulet at Strange’s throat, commanding it to open, revealing an eye that freezes the gun-wielding man in place.


Strange returns to his body, darting past the furious Nightmare, and disarms the paralyzed dreamer, who promptly confesses that he’d ruined many men in business, and that Crang was the last of them, who, he’d robbed, but Crang was unable to prove it. Dr. Strange counsels the man to confess: “It will be the only way you can ever sleep again.”

As stories go, this one’s pretty routine. A fairly standard “Twilight Zone”-ish riff about a man’s own guilt torturing him, the plot’s nothing to write home about, and Lee’s script is pretty blah as well. If anything got this story noticed, it was Ditko and Ditko alone. Starting off with the character design: Dr. Strange stood out from most other comic-book magician types like Zatara, Mandrake or Sargon, who tended to wear variations on the evening-wear attire favored by most stage magicians. The subtle emblem on Strange’s tunic implied dark forces dwelling within him, straining to get out, while the black dots on his orange gloves seemed to symbolize the power bubbling from his fingertips.


As for the storytelling, Ditko’s conception of Strange’s astral form leaving his body and entering the dreamworld was unusual, groundbreaking stuff in comics back in ’63, and his heavy use of inks and shadows gave the book an overall sense of moodiness not seen in any of the other books Marvel was publishing at the time.

By Dr. Strange’s fourth appearance, there seemed to be a recognition that Marvel had another hit on their hands, and Stan began devoting the same amount of attention to the scripting that he did on the other books. All of a sudden, the Dr. Strange stories weren’t just moody space-fillers, but full-fledged Marvel comics, with the same attention to characterization and human nature that the other series had become acclaimed for. You can definitely see the difference here, in STRANGE TALES #115’s “The Origin of Dr. Strange”:

The story opens with an exhausted, haggard Stephen Strange arriving at the remote Indian chamber of the Ancient One, where he demands that the wizened figure use his rumored healing powers to help him. The Ancient One peers into Strange’s mind to learn the real story.


Stephen Strange had been a successful but haughty, uncaring surgeon, self-absorbed and only concerned with money and material gain. However, after a terrible auto accident, Strange found that he had suffered incurable nerve damage in his hands, rendering him unable to operate ever again. Strange’s life went into a tailspin after the accident, ending up a drifter, until he heard rumors of the healing powers of the Ancient One.

The Ancient One refuses to help Strange, but does offer him an opportunity to stay and study under him. Strange rejects the offer, but is unable to leave due to a mysteriously arriving snowfall.


Forced to remain in the Ancient One’s temple, Strange witnesses a sorcerous attack on the Ancient One, and soon discovers the culprit: the Ancient One’s scheming pupil Mordo.


Mordo slaps a spell on Strange, rendering him unable to warn the Ancient One of Mordo’s villainy. Strange soon discovers that the spell only prevents him from speaking about Mordo’s plot, so he returns to the Ancient One and asks to study under him, so that he can defeat Mordo and protect the elderly sorcerer. With that, the Ancient One accepts Strange as his disciple and releases him from Mordo’s spell. The Ancient One, it turns out, knew that Mordo was evil, but preferred to keep him underfoot where he could be controlled and monitored.


In this appearance, not only had the plotting and characterization been tightened up considerably, but Ditko had also begun refining the character designs, with Dr. Strange, Baron Mordo and the Ancient One all appearing pretty much as they would through the rest of Ditko’s tenure on the strip. Ditko also shows the first steps toward what would eventually be his trademark portrayal of mystic battles and spells, both with the attack on the Ancient One and Mordo’s curse on Dr. Strange.


Things really picked up in STRANGE TALES #126, with the introduction of Dr. Strange’s most powerful adversary, the Dread Dormammu. Much talked about before his eventual debut, Dormammu first appears in the logically named “Domain of the Dread Dormammu!”, in which Dormammu threatens to leave his dark realm and enter the world of man. The Ancient One dispatches Dr. Strange to enter Dormammu’s realm and stop him from invading. Soon Dr. Strange is in the fight of his life against Dormammu’s many minions, and attracts the attention of a beautiful white-haired woman, a resident of Dormammu’s realm.


In the following issue, “Duel with the Dread Dormammu!” Strange agrees to a duel with the powerful Dormammu, with the white-haired girl’s life hanging in the balance as well.


Strange and Dormammu fight to a standstill, with Dormammu gradually gaining the advantage, until Dormammu is distracted by an invasion of his realm by the Mindless Ones, immensely powerful mystic beasts. When Strange uses the power of his amulet to help Dormammu rout the invaders, Dormammu is forced to cede victory to him, unable to slay the man while still in his debt.


Strange makes Dormammu agree never to invade the Earth and not to harm the woman, but further enflames Dormammu’s wrath in the process. The Dread Dormammu was probably Ditko’s most inspired design on the DOCTOR STRANGE strip, with his enormous curved collar dramatically framing his featureless, flaming head. Dormammu just looked like trouble, no two ways about it.


Although Ditko’s art on DOCTOR STRANGE was always stunning, the stories tended to get into something of a rut, as it seemed Dr. Strange was always up against either Nightmare, Baron Mordo, Dormammu, or Baron Mordo working for Dormammu. The white-haired girl would also continue to appear sporadically, finally revealing her name, Clea, in Steve Ditko’s final issue on the strip, #146. While there wasn’t much variety in the opponents, Ditko was still conjuring up amazing new visuals and concepts, such as this sequence from STRANGE TALES #138, in which Dr. Strange travels to the dimension of Eternity in order to save the life of the Ancient One, and meets Eternity himself, the personification of the very existence of the universe:


Steve Ditko left DOCTOR STRANGE after 35 issues, and although many a talented soul worked on the book in his stead, none was really able to capture the freaky flavor that Ditko had brought. One of the better replacements early on was Marie Severin, who brought a classical, Alex Raymond-style look to the series. Suddenly Dr. Strange and Clea (who were rapidly becoming an item) were much, much more attractive than they had been under Ditko’s pen.


Throughout the 1970s, Dr. Strange hung on to his own magazine, but just barely. In fact, Dr. Strange is best remembered in the’70s for his membership in the Defenders, Marvel’s second-string superhero team that managed to retain its popularity for quite sometime despite a continually fluctuating membership and no real central concept.

The DOCTOR STRANGE comic had a strong renaissance in the early ’80s with a run of stories written by Roger Stern and drawn by Paul Smith. Kicking off the run was the excellent “A Mystic Reborn!” from DOCTOR STRANGE #56. The story deftly retells Dr. Strange’s origin in the context of a TV interview, only to switch gears into some kickass mystic combat when the camera crew is revealed to be three disguised enemies of Dr. Strange, long forgotten.


Stern even reveals some new tidbits in the origin, such as Strange acquiring his Greenwich Village townhouse on Bleecker Street, the famous Sanctum Sanctorum, as well as the arrival of Wong, Dr. Strange’s longtime manservant.


Stern’s tight scripting is complemented by Paul Smith’s elegant linework, capable of both cosmic action and smaller, more intimate and personal moments.


Dr. Strange has had a rough time of it in comics for a couple of decades, with only a couple of failed DEFENDERS revivals, a miniseries or two and a handful of guest appearances throughout the ’80s and ’90s.  Dr. Strange had some notable guest shots in issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in the ’00s by J. Michael Stracyznski and John Romita, Jr.


While JMS’s Dr. Strange seemed out of character at first, (a little too heavy on the yuks, if you ask me),  he eventually got a better handle on the character.  Most recently, Strange found more exposure than he’s had in years as a member of various Avengers and New Avengers teams when the Avengers were under the pen of Brian Michael Bendis, but since Bendis has transitioned to the X-books. the good doctor has found himself somewhat out of the spotlight. Until recently of course, with several new series making their way to shelves in preparation for the good doctor’s big-screen debut.

Unlike many of his Marvel cohorts, Dr. Strange hasn’t had a lot of luck in making it big outside of comics. His first TV appearance came in the 1978 CBS TV-movie DR. STRANGE.


The movie came in the wake of the successes of the INCREDIBLE HULK and SPIDER-MAN TV projects, and was intended to act as a pilot for a series to follow. However, the movie wound up being broadcast at the same time as the ratings smash ROOTS, so practically no one saw it.


Not that it would’ve much mattered. The film, written and directed by Philip DeGuere, was pretty mediocre fare, featuring Peter Hooten as a rookie and somewhat befuddled Stephen Strange pitted against (and fending off the advances of) sorceress Morgan le Fey, played by ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’s Jessica Walter. Nothin’ special here. Go ahead and have a look.


Dr. Strange has also occasionally guest-starred in various Marvel animated series, including the 1981 SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS series, the 1994 FOX series SPIDER-MAN, and the 1996 syndicated INCREDIBLE HULK series. The 1994 SPIDER-MAN appearance earned the good doctor his first action figure, manufactured by Toy Biz in their SPIDER-MAN toyline.


Sad but true: that was not the first attempt at a Dr. Strange action figure. In the heyday of the Mego “World’s Greatest Super-Heroes” action-figure line of the 1970s, Mego toy execs had planned a Dr. Strange figure, but cancelled it due to the high costs of manufacturing Strange’s ornate costume and cloak. However, never one to let toy parts go to waste, they took the already sculpted head and sold it as — wait for it — a “Jordache Jeans” fashion doll.

megoStrange days indeed.


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