One of this year’s big Hollywood films had humble beginnings. Doctor Strange, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the soon to be released movie, first appeared in Strange Tales # 110, July 1963. ‘Strange Tales’ was a comicbook anthology of short Science Fiction and fantasy stories and the character was almost certainly named to fit in with the title of the mag. Stan Lee is not renowned for giving creator credit to other people but he admitted in a letter at the time that the character was mostly Steve Ditko’s idea. Ditko is the artist for just over half of this volume and it’s among his best work.
The first five page story ‘Doctor Strange, Master Of Black Magic’ has a man consulting our hero at his sanctum in Greenwich Village, New York because his dreams are haunted by a dark figure in chains staring at him. That night, Doctor Strange enters his dreams and, while in the Dimension of Dream, is attacked by Nightmare, an ‘ancient foe’. He gets in trouble but is saved by his magic amulet and his mentor, the Ancient One, setting something of a pattern. The ‘Black Magic’ part of the title was soon dropped because it wouldn’t sit well with religious America and Doc became a ‘Master Of The Mystic Arts’.
In Strange Tales # 111, Doc fights Baron Mordo, a disciple of the Ancient One gone bad. Mordo is a pretty low grade villain but keeps coming back in these early years. He and Mordo duke it out in spirit image form which became ethereal for a few issues before finally settling in as ectoplasmic form in future issues. As a child, I spent some time trying to separate my ectoplasmic form from my physical body but never succeeded. I think it comes with age. After a two issue gap, the Doctor returns again in Strange Tales # 114. Mordo is the villain again but this story introduces Victoria Bentley, an English lady with dormant mystical talent who will appear in many future issues.
Finally, in Strange Tales # 115, we learn the origin of Doctor Strange. He was a brilliant but arrogant surgeon who cared not a jot for his fellow man. A traffic accident damaged the nerves in his hands and his career was finished. He became a bum but, having heard whispers of the Ancient One in far off Tibet, a man of power who might cure him, goes to Tibet. How a bum gets from America to Tibet is not examined but, on arrival, he is allowed to stay and then recruited as a disciple when he alerts the Ancient One to Mordo’s evil plotting. A good eight page story and the name of the Dread Dormammu is invoked for the first time in a spell. There’s a lot more of him later.
Possibly, because of the tight page counts, Ditko uses a nine panel grid for many of the early yarns. I love Ditko’s work in small panels. As the page count expanded to ten, he went more for six or seven panels per page, still first-rate art. Ditko generally inked himself in those days and turned in a very complete product. When Strange enters other dimensions, he managed to create unique landscapes of floating islands and odd shapes connected by thin ribbons of road.
I won’t do an issue-by-issue guide but I did note, as I went along, the first use of those terms that were to build up a solid background for the strip. I once saw an interview with Stan Lee in which he explained that for drama he just made up a load of weird names, usually alliterative because it sounded good. In Strange Tales # 116, we first hear of the Book of the Vishanti, the All-Seeing Agamotto and the Hosts of Hoggoth, soon to become ‘Hoary Hosts’. In Strange Tales # 124, the Seven Rings of Raggadorr come up and in # 125, Oshtur gets his first mention and Mordo is imprisoned in the Crimson Circle of Cyttorak, which later became bands. In issue #126, someone mentions the Shades of the Seraphim. I never knew angels wore sunglasses. Strange Tales # 144 is the first invocation of the Shield of the Seraphim and of the Curse of Watoomb, who also has a wand. These are all fantasy creations and, apart from the aforementioned Seraphim, the strip avoids Christian theology such as demons, Heaven, Hell, God-like and the plague. This was to change over time.
Like Kirby, Ditko said in future years that he plotted all his stories and sent in the pages and had no contact with Lee. Well, whoever did it, the strip really took off after Strange Tales # 126, ‘The Domain Of The Dread Dormammu!’ This led off a long cycle of stories which introduced Clea, the Doctor’s future love interest, and ultimately led to a great battle between Dormammu and the cosmic entity known as Eternity. On that high note, in Strange Tales # 146, Ditko left Marvel to pursue his own eccentric interests. He was never to produce such great work again as this on ‘Doctor Strange’ and that on ‘Amazing Spider-Man’. There’s much controversy about Lee’s work as a writer but there’s no doubt that, as an editor, he really got the best from his pool of talent.
It might have been satisfying for ‘stalwart’ Steve Ditko if his characters had slumped mightily in sales and success following his departure. Unfortunately, ‘Spider-Man’ went from strength to strength with John Romita at the helm and ‘Doctor Strange’ carried on with some very strong stories. There was a bit of bumpy period at first with Dennis O’Neil scripting and Golden Age favourite Bill Everett on the art but it wasn’t terrible and included ’The Origin Of The Ancient One’ in Strange Tales # 148. Then when Stan Lee teamed up with Marie Severin, they launched into another grand epic featuring Umar the Unspeakable (Dormammu’s sister) and leading onto Zom and the Living Tribunal. This was all terrific stuff and I remember, as a kid, waiting with bated breath for the next exciting instalment.
Marie Severin has never claimed to be a plotter, so it must have been Stan. For the scripts, he wrote melodramatic dialogue that gets a bit wearisome read continuously instead of in monthly instalments. He also developed a new line in mysticism with talk of a thought that is not a thought but more than a thought or a bridge that is not a bridge but is more than a bridge or a world that is not really a world and so forth.
Finally, Doctor Strange’s endless chasing from world to world and strange being to stranger being to save the Earth goes on a bit too long. Stan drops it and it’s wrapped up by Raymond Marais, Jim Lawrence and Dennis O’Neil with some interesting art by Dan Adkins, an accomplished illustrator. The last few stories introduce Nebulos, Lord of the Planets Perilous, an evil legless dude and Yandroth, a bad super scientist. The overall story arc that started with Umar ends on the last page of Strange Tales # 168, which concludes this volume. There’s an announcement that the next issue features Doctor Strange in his own book so maybe they dragged it out until that could happen. Marvel got a new distribution deal at the end of the 60s and characters formerly confined to anthology mags, Iron Man, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk, advanced to twenty page stories in their own magazines. In general this was a good thing.
Despite the stories being interesting and entertaining, ‘Doctor Strange’ never became a major title. Instead, it has been frequently cancelled over the years. At the same time, as can be seen in further volumes of ‘The Essential Doctor Strange’, it has attracted some of Marvel’s best writers and artists: Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart have made notable contributions to his history. On the pencil, Gene Colan and Frank Brunner both turned in great work and there are those fabulous early stories by Ditko. Perhaps the character himself sits ill with the rest of the Marvel Universe, though he has been blended in at times, even leading a team of super-heroes, The Defenders. Unfortunately, it’s often the case in the world of comics that quality doesn’t equal sales. At least, Doctor Strange has made it to the silver screen and I’m presuming and hoping that Benedict Cumberbatch wouldn’t get involved with complete tripe, so the movie might be pretty good. We’ll see.
As to price (Geoff always asks) this cost me £11.99 back in 2009 but is certainly available for a lot more now. Hopefully, it’s also available for less.
(pub: Marvel Comics, 2002. Price: current prices vary a lot and very expensive so you have to wonder why Marvel haven’t done a reprint yet. 608 page black and white softcover graphic novel. ISBN: 978-0-78510-816-0)
check out website: www.marvel.com