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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. Today, most people in the US will be able to head into their local multiplex and enter a world of sorcery and psychedelia and super heroics with Marvel Studios’ latest installment in their cinematic universe; “Doctor Strange”. The character has been around since 1963, and was one of Marvel’s earliest critical successes. But in recent decades, the character’s prominence faded. That all is about to change, as the good Doctor Stephen Strange is about to become the latest Marvel-based phenomenon.
This week, I’m going to look back at the history of Marvel’s Sorcerer Surpeme through some of his most celebrated eras and stories. So, polish the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto and get ready to peer into the mystic webs of time and space.
STRANGE TALES (1963-1966)
“Strange Tales” was an anthology title that starred the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four in mostly insipid solo adventures. But, as with all anthology comic books since they first appeared, the title was a great place to try out new and weird concepts and ideas. According to legend, Steve Ditko brought the initial concept of Doctor Strange to Stan Lee. Lee wasn’t impressed overmuch, but he liked the idea of doing a black magic themed super-hero and utilizing that to try something new. Ditko saw the character as a chance to cut loose and push the boundaries of visuals and surreality within the medium.
After a five-page intro story in Strange Tales #110 and a follow-up in #111, the character began co-starring in the title with issue #114 after enthusiastic fan response. Though Lee and Ditko as a team are probably better remembered today for their collaboration on the creation and early days of Spider-Man, it is their work on Doctor Strange that arguably proves to represent the height of their powers. Certainly, it’s almost universally agreed that Ditko’s time on the title is his best work for the company, maybe the best work of his career.
The Doctor Strange stories in “Strange Tales” embraced the “strange” all right. Lee’s contributions are most evident in the same fashion as the rest of his work of the period; a skill at crafting bombastic dialogue and grandiose plots and grounding them in resonant melodrama, enabling the characters to come alive as real people with real concerns. Stephen Strange is a man who struggles with his arrogance and the rigours of his duties taking a toll on the rest of his life. A man who has found inner peace but must fight to preserve it.
But, it must be said that it’s Ditko who makes these tales come alive. While Lee may have provided initial plot details in some cases, Ditko seems to have turned off the realistic part of his brain and pulled stuff directly from nightmares, surreal art and increasingly complex visuals. The crazy vistas and alternate realities he creates during his run of Doctor Strange stories immediately place his work at the peak of Marvel’s art output of the time, easily matching the mythic dynamism and energy of Jack Kirby on “Fantastic Four.”
And while the FF was Marvel’s most visible critical and popular success, Doctor Strange soon became the example people pointed to when making the case for Marvel’s books being more than kids stuff. Inspired by Ditko’s pages coming back to him, and by the ideas they were kicking back and forth, Lee delivered in his other strength; the ability to build a cohesive mythos around a character. What began as catchy and alliterative exclamations about the Vishanti and Osthur the Omnipotent soon fed into the creation of a cohesive continuity and world that inspired Ditko and then re-inspired Lee and so on and so on. Using old pulp tales from Robert E Howard and Lovecraft, mixing them up with the “Chandu the Magician” radio show and then adding in liberal dollops of real ancient mythology resulted in a heady brew that felt both well-realized and unusual.
All this coincided with a mood of growing experimentation on college campuses across the US. Doctor Strange, with his trippy visuals, weird settings and splashes of Eastern mysticism, felt hugely contemporary and groundbreaking to college kids looking for more meat to their comics. Soon, he became the hip comic character to read at universities, and Marvel didn’t miss a trick in promoting him as the signature proof that their comics were more than trashy kids stuff.
Ditko and Lee pushed the envelope in other ways, ones more familiar to long-time Marvel readers. They were unafraid to let plot lines simmer over multiple issues, for instance. The threat of the dread Dormammu loomed over multiple issues of “Strange Tales”, culminating in a two-issue adventure that saw Strange finally encounter the being. And, over the course of Strange Tales #130-146 they (with additional writer Dennis O’Neil) created one of super hero comics’ first “graphic novels” with the Eternity Saga. The tale found Strange’s foes Dormammu and Baron Mordo teaming up while the good Doctor must try to save Eternity itself.
Through it all, Steve Ditko continued to push himself and pour his talent into the stories. The tales weren’t limited by reality or logic, nor barred from the realms of the mind or impossible settings. Strange seemed incredibly cool, housed in the hip counter-culture mecca of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. That is, when he wasn’t flitting in his astral form across cosmic landscapes battling against foes like Nightmare, who were more sentient concepts than physical beings. But more than that, the stories represent the purest example of Ditko attempting to see just how far comics can go, visually. He embraced a hallucinatory style both in his art and his plotting that ensured the character would never have a wide enough appeal to be Marvel’s top seller, but did ensure his run would remain one of the most experimental of the Silver Age. Though Stan Lee would remain for most of the run, and his grandiose and bombastic style would permeate the stories and offer much, the Lee/Ditko era of “Doctor Strange” must be viewed as primarily Ditko’s triumph, and celebrated as a the high-water mark that all other subsequent creative teams must try to meet.
The best place to find this classic run of stories is undoubtedly the recently released Doctor Strange Omnibus, available wherever comics are sold.
In 1966, Steve Ditko abruptly left Marvel Comics. It was a huge loss to the company, and no title was more affected in the negative than “Strange Tales” and its “Doctor Strange” feature which lost its driving creative force.
“Strange Tales” ended two years later with #168, but Marvel wasn’t ready to give up on Doctor Strange. Doctor Strange #169 (the series continued the “Strange Tales” numbering) launched with writer Roy Thomas at the helm. Thomas was Stan Lee’s chosen successor, a young fan turned writer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of comic history and pulp writing. He was initially paired with the workmanlike Dan Adkins on the title. However, the series clicked once Thomas was teamed with Gene Colan. Under Thomas and Colan, “Doctor Strange” took on a darker and more spooky flavor. Thomas continued the title’s propensity for longer story arcs, with much of this series dealing with new demonic foes Satannish and his sons.
Despite Thomas and Colan’s best efforts, “Doctor Strange” continued to struggle with sales. And after Ditko’s departure, it never truly recaptured the buzz it had in its mid-sixties heyday and the series was cancelled in 1969 with issue #183.
MASTER OF THE MYSTIC ARTS (1972-1976)
Even though Thomas and Colan’s run was entertaining, it didn’t achieve the innovative and experimental heights of the Lee/Ditko era. For a while after his title’s cancellation, Doctor Strange was relegated to guest appearances and a co-starring role in the team book “The Defenders.”
Luckily for the good Doctor, however, he was about to encounter one of the most creative, ingenious and iconoclastic creators of the 1970s. By 1972, Steve Englehart was a rising star at Marvel. In quick succession, he had gone from minor writing assignments to launching “The Defenders” and taking over as writer for “The Avengers.”
That same year, Englehart was paired with the supremely detailed artist Frank Brunner on “Marvel Premiere,” a series that typically offered less successful characters that had trouble supporting their own series a spotlight run. Since its third issue, the spotlight had been trained on Doctor Strange. Englehart and Brunner took over with # 9, and things immediately got weird and bold.
Here’s how Englehart remembered devising their approach to the character:
“When I’d first encountered Stephen Strange in “The Defenders,” I’d written him basically as a superhero who shot rays out of his palms. When I took on his solo series, I decided I should learn a little about actual magick – and it led to a continuing interest in the subject.
Frank and I each had ideas for what we wanted to do with this series, so we’d get together at my place or his, lay out our respective interests, and spend the evening – often a long evening – in the extremely fun process of merging the two. In the end we always had more than the sum of our parts, and it led to some very advanced storylines.”
Advanced is one way of putting it. If the Lee/Ditko era had experimented with a pulp-influenced post-Beat poet surrealism, then Englehart and Brunner was “Doctor Strange” for a post-hippy, acid influenced generation. The stories during this period were metaphysical new age epics that nakedly embraced concepts designed to blow the mind. After an initial arc that saw Stephen Strange assume the mantle of Sorcerer Surpeme following the Ancient One’s death, Englehart and Brunner began a hugely ambitious arc that focused on Strange battling Mordo before encountering a being from the far future named Sise-Neg. This sorcerer is traveling backwards through time, collecting all magical energy as he goes, hurtling towards omnipotence. Sise-Neg eventually travels back to the moment of the Big Bang itself, achieving his goal before realizing that the best outcome is for the universe to be created exactly as it always had been.
Yup, Englehart and Brunner actually told a story that featured God. The story more than suggested that Sise-Neg had perhaps always created the universe, that this was always the way things happened. Initially, Stan Lee wanted the ending changed to make it more ambiguous. Not wanting to alter their vision, the creators doctored up a letter from a non-existent pastor heaping praise on the story thus far, and Stan bought it and relented, allowing the ending to go ahead as originally conceived.
After the run in “Marvel Premiere” wrapped up, Englehart and Brunner launched a new series for the Sorcerer Supreme with Doctor Strange #1. They start off strong with the “Silver Dagger” storyline, which features a new villain and an extended sequence where Strange and his supporting cast find themselves trapped in the mystical realm contained within the Eye of Agamotto. Like all of Englehart’s run, there’s a killer sense of humor wrapped around a big concept that supports a story designed to be both epic and cosmic.
Soon after the “Silver Dagger” story ends, Frank Brunner leaves the title. According to Englehart, his richly detailed, expressive and groundbreaking art, the closest anyone came to regularly replicating Ditko’s innovation, was also too time-consuming to keep the book on schedule. And so, Brunner had to depart. He was replaced by an old “Doctor Strange” pro in Gene Colan. Unlike Brunner, Colan had no interest in co-plotting and so Englehart took full charge of the storytelling, leaving Colan to focus solely on art.
Colan continued to experiment in his own way with his more horrific and dark tone giving the book less of a druggy new age vibe and more of an occult flavor, which served to ground some of Englehart’s more eccentric proclivities. The book clicked in a subtly different way than had before, and for the first time in the title’s existence, the sales got strong enough to take the book from a bi-monthly to a monthly, at least as long as Englehart was on the book. Their highlight is probably a three issue arc that saw Strange battle Mordo once more and even featured the destruction of Earth. Englehart left the title in 1976, and the second great era of “Doctor Strange” came to a close.
The best selection of this era of Doctor Strange is collected in the Doctor Strange Epic Collection: A Separate Reality, wherever comics are sold.
THE SORCERER SUPREME (1978-1986)
In 1978 Roger Stern took over as writer of the title, and proceeded to take the series inward. Bolstered by a rotating slate of artists that included some of the best of the era (Marshall Rogers, Alan Kupperberg, Paul Smith, Brent Anderson, Kevin Nowlan, Sal Buscema and a returning Gene Colan), Stern delivered action-packed adventures mixed with introspective examination of the character of Stephen Strange. Stern would show strange time-hoppingg to interact with Marvel characters of the past and popping in on classic stories. But he also drove Strange and Clea apart, and forced the Doctor to confront his own failings in his character.
Stern’s signature run of stories occurred in the middle of his tenure, around 1983. There’s a classic issue that takes place following his separation with Clea that is a variation on “It’s A Wonderful Life” that has long been regarded as one Marvel’s best ever single issues. Drawn by Michael Golden, the issue is both moving and creepy.
Stern quickly followed this issue with his signature story arc, the epilogue tying up all the loose ends from classic Marvel Horror series “Tomb of Dracula.” In “The Montesi Formula” storyline, Doctor Strange must face off against Dracula in an attempt to defeat the Lord of Vampires forever. From issue #58-62, Stern tells a story both epic in thrills and chills and capable of being moving and heartfelt.
Though Stern’s era wasn’t as groundbreaking as either the Lee/Ditko era or Englehart’s run, it nevertheless yielded several storylines that ranks as some of the best in the character’s canon, and until recently represent the last sustained period of brilliance for “Doctor Strange.”
Stern’s run is a little harder to track down, but there are some collected editions on Amazon that collect bits and pieces.
TRIUMPH AND TORMENT AND THE OATH
We close our look at the essential “Doctor Strange” with two shorter stories.
In 1989, Marvel published an original graphic novel starring Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom entitled “Triumph and Torment”. Written by Roger Stern, with art by a young up and comer named Mike Mignola, the novel focused on an effort by Doom and Strange to journey into hell itself to rescue Doom’s mother from Mephisto’s clutches. Like much of Stern’s best work, it combines a strong central plot with searching character work to result in a brilliant story that touches the reader even as it delivers the thrills. And Mignola’s work shows much of the brilliance he would display regularly through the rest of his career.
Then, in 2006, came “The Oath”. In this mini series written by Brian K Vaughan (“Y: the Last Man,” “Saga”), Strange nearly dies during an apparent burglary that obviously hides a more sinister plot, but can’t focus on uncovering the threat as he is consumed with efforts to cure his loyal assistant Wong’s recently diagnosed cancer. Vaughan’s work is clearly in the Stern model, combining a strong threat as a central plot with the more personal subplot of Wong’s illness as well as introducing a new love interest for Strange in the form of the Night Nurse. The mini also boasts the gorgeous and Ditko-influneced art of Marcos Martin, who gives the story a classic tone that nevertheless has a modern feel.
Both of these stories are collected and available wherever comics are sold.
Doctor Strange has never been Marvel’s biggest seller, but the upcoming movie may very well change that. The most recent volume of his title, written by Jason Aaron with art by Chris Bachalo, has been excellent with a strong central theme of how to keep magic alive in a hyper-rational era as the one we currently live in. Will it join the company of these stories, some of which represent Marvel’s boldest and most innovative output? Only time, and the Vishanti, can tell.
See you in the quarter bins, unless Shuma-Gorath gets you.