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Sunday 21 September 2014

Master of the Mystic Arts

“Speaking of Marvel, what about Doctor Strange? There’s some interesting occult retro-Forteana for you. Very much a part of the occult and consciousness explosions of the 1960s.” That’s what regular reader Ross wrote in one of the comments to last week’s post. There’s only one thing wrong with Ross’s suggestion: I can’t understand how this blog has managed to exist for three and a half years without it ever crossing my mind to do a post about everyone’s favourite Master of the Mystic Arts.... So thanks for prodding me, Ross!

I did mention Dr Strange a couple of times in my Marvel Age of Comics post last year, in the context of my earliest encounters with Marvel superheroes. As I said then, there was a Dr Strange reprint in the first British black-and-white “Power” comic I bought, Fantastic #54, and another in Marvel Collector’s Item Classics #9 – my first ever Marvel colour comic.

The latter reprint came from Strange Tales #119, when the series was still being drawn by Steve Ditko and scripted by Stan Lee. These have to be among the most innovative and ground-breaking comic stories ever written. Eventually I managed to get hold of all but one of the issues of Marvel Collector’s Item Classics (later renamed Marvel’s Greatest Comics) that reprinted Lee and Ditko’s Dr Strange stories. “Beyond The Purple Veil”, “Witchcraft In The Wax Museum”, “The Demon’s Disciple”... you can’t beat titles like that!

Dr Strange first appeared as a short back-up feature in Strange Tales #110, cover-dated July 1963. Like Spider-Man, the character was co-created by Lee and Ditko (although in a letter at the time Stan apparently said “‘Twas Steve’s idea”). Ditko drew the series for three years until he left Marvel in mid-1965, by which time Dr Strange had become a well-established cult figure among the more spaced-out and mind-expanded members of the comic-reading public.

The combination of mystical plotlines with dream-like art, often bordering on surrealism, were foreshadowed in some of the more esoteric tales Ditko wrote for Charlton Comics in the 1950s – which as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before (Giant from the Unknown and The Flying Dutchman in Comics) are now in the public domain and viewable online. Last year I bought a really nice volume called Creepy Presents Steve Ditko, featuring the black-and-white stories he wrote for Warren magazines after leaving Marvel. Again, some of these are distinctly reminiscent of Dr Strange in both theme and style.

It wasn’t just Ditko’s psychedelic artwork that made Dr Strange a sixties phenomenon. There was also Stan Lee’s inimitable way with words. By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! ... By the all-seeing eye of Agamotto! ... By the crimson bands of Cyttorak! ... By the mystic moons of Munnopor! ... By the eternal Vishanti! ... By the seven rings of Raggadoor!

At a comic fair a few years ago I saw half a dozen issues of Strange Tales, from the original Ditko era, at a knock-down price. Admittedly they weren’t in great condition, but I snapped them up anyway. The one pictured above (the open comic) is #126 from November 1964, which was something of a turning point in the series. According to Blake Bell in Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko:
The scope of the series exploded with issue 126. “The Domain of the Dread Dormammu” features Dr Strange transcending the physical barriers of Earth, delving into a dimension ruled by the powerful despot Dormammu, a character Devil-like in appearance and just as ruthless. Here the series makes the turn that catapults Dr Strange into alternate, parallel universes, with Ditko’s craftsmanship and imagination stretching the boundaries of known physical laws and dimensions.”
By the time I started reading Marvel Comics in 1968, Dr Strange had his own title, with the numbering continuing from Strange Tales. The series was cancelled after just over a year, and as far as I can remember I only ever had issue #177 (pictured above), written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Gene Colan. A second Doctor Strange series started in 1974, initially drawn by Frank Brunner and then by Gene Colan. I really liked these at the time, because the art seemed much more “grown up” to my sophisticated 16-year-old mind than the usual comic-book fare of the time. Issue #5 is pictured above (a “cents” rather than “pence” copy, connoisseurs will note).

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, Dr Strange is still around and scheduled to get the Marvel Cinematic Universe treatment in 2016. These days he’s a member of the Illuminati, along with Iron Man, Professor X, the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, Black Bolt and Namor the Sub-Mariner. That’s not to say they’re members of the sinister Illuminati I was talking about last week – this is a secret Marvel super-group that calls itself by the same name.

I bought New Avengers: Illuminati on the basis of the title, but I’m not going to pretend I liked it (although I shouldn’t be too critical of modern Marvel comics, because I’m about as far from the target audience as it’s possible to get). To my mind, any group calling itself the Illuminati has to be one that hides in the shadows and pulls powerful strings. They don’t have to be working towards a “New World Order” – in fact they can be doing just the opposite. You might expect a “heroic” Illuminati to be working behind the scenes to maintain stability and preserve the current world order. I think that’s what Marvel’s version of the Illuminati is supposed to be doing, but it doesn’t come across very clearly in the stories. All the crises they deal with (in the book I read, anyway) could have been handled just as well by the Avengers or the Fantastic Four.

But that’s a technicality. The real reason I disliked Marvel’s Illuminati is that – in my crankily old-fashioned opinion – they repeatedly break the first rule in the superhero team rulebook. That states that at some point in every adventure, each team member should use their special ability to achieve something that couldn’t possibly have been done in any other way. That just doesn’t happen in the Illuminati (unless you count Reed’s special ability as “talking a lot”, Tony Stark’s as “being rich” and Namor’s as “having an Atlantis-sized chip on his shoulder”).

I’m probably taking nonsense, of course, because I don’t know anything about modern comics. But things were different 35 years ago, when I did a school project on the subject at the tender age of 11. Among other things, I produced tracings of various Marvel heroes, one of the best of which was a Ditko pinup of Dr Strange. Some time ago (ten years ago this month, as a matter of fact) I made a scan of the tracing and had a go at enhancing it digitally to make it look less like the work of an 11-year-old. Here is the result, before and after:


Kid said...

The question of who created Dr. Strange - Stan or Steve - is an interesting one. When Stan wrote that it was Steve's idea, what did he mean? That it was Steve's idea to do a strip about a practitioner of the mystic arts? Or was Stan side-stepping the credit and 'blaming' Steve because he didn't have much faith in the idea? Or simply being generous in his partition of the credit on what he thought would be a minor figure?

There had been an earlier Marvel character called Dr. Droom, whose origin is pretty much the same as that of Strange. Droom was by Lee & Kirby (initially) and the origin tale was even inked by Ditko, so he must have been aware of the similarities between the two strips. Even if Dr. Strange was initially the idea of Ditko (with an obvious debt to Droom), it seems that it was Stan who created his back story, meaning that the 'finished product' as received by the comics-buying public, was as much a creation of lee as it was of Ditko.

Creator credits, eh? What a nightmare.

Andrew May said...

Yes, I was surprised when I came across that quote from Stan in Blake Bell's book. In "Origins of Marvel Comics" and "Excelsior!" Stan gives the impression Dr Strange was his own idea. But the actual creation of the character is no big deal. The idea of an arrogant Westerner being transformed into a do-gooder after encountering eastern mysticism was a cliche in comics, which both Stan and Steve had used before. Given that the character appeared in Strange Tales, the name "Dr Strange" almost creates itself!

I suspect the alter ego "Stephen Strange" was Stan's creation, simply because of the trademark alliteration. For the same reason, I'm equally sure that "Tony Stark" was brother Larry's invention. If it had been up to Stan, he would have ended up as Steve Stark or Stanley Stark!

Kid said...

I suppose both accounts aren't mutually exclusive. I'm indulging in pure speculation, but perhaps Steve, inspired by Dr. Droom, evinced a desire to do a similar (but more mystical) strip and, upon telling Stan, Lee cast his mind back to Chandu, the Magician, which he listened to on the radio as a kid (as related in Origins). Therefore, the resulting creation would be a product of both men, not just one. Indeed it was Larry who came up with the name of Tony Stark - as well as Don Blake and Henry Pym.

Andrew May said...

Sounds reasonable to me, Kid!

Ross said...

I think Lee Falk's popular comic-strip character "Mandrake the Magician" may have been an inspiration. (Lee Falk also created "The Phantom," by the way.)

Ross said...

Thank you for writing about Dr. Strange. I always found him to be among the most interesting MARVEL characters, though I suppose my favorite MARVEL character over time has been the Silver Surfer. Both characters have a spacey, cosmic quality.

Ross said...

Members of the Illuminati fighting to maintain the current world order would not be "heroes" in my book. Neither the current world order nor a corporate-fascist "New World Order" are worth fighting for or supporting. Neither are humane and just.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the various comments, Ross - and of course for the suggestion in the first place!

Anonymous said...

I first read the Lee/Ditko stories in a Dr. Strange "pocket book" which I bought in 1978 (aged 12) but I knew about him well before that of course. Surely it went wrong when they turned him into a superhero with a blue face (was it a mask, I'm not sure) and even a secret identity but at least they gave him another chance after that fiasco. Andrew, you say you are as far as can be from the target audience for modern Marvel comics but men in their 40's and 50's ARE the target audience these days as far as I know.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin. I'm not sure I agree with your last point, but it would be nice to think you're right!