a KC COLUMN by KC Carlson
It’s very weird to see Doctor Strange in the spotlight lately, after decades of being one of Marvel’s most obscure and arcane characters. Even his arguably most visible role wasn’t even in the pages of his own ongoing series; it was when he was the default (and often reluctant) leader of The Defenders, especially during the earliest years of that series, where the Doctor’s famous house (alliteratively named the Sanctum Sanctorum, by Stan Lee — of course) became the Defenders’ de facto headquarters.
Better known as “Magician” (at least to the Incredible Hulk), Doctor Strange is now in his fifth separate self-titled series (although one of those “series” is only four issues long). For a soon-to-be-feature-starring hero, his launch was distinctly under the radar.
The character first debuted wayyyy back in Strange Tales #110 in 1963 — as a five-page back-up feature by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in a story that isn’t even mentioned on the cover of that issue. That set a pattern for his next few stories. He appeared again in the next issue (again, only five pages and no cover appearance), only to then disappear until Strange Tales #114 and another five-page story. Doctor Strange then starts appearing regularly in Strange Tales — and in issue #115, we saw his origin for the first time in an expanded eight-page story! (Still not mentioned on the cover yet, though!)
Doctor Strange was finally first mentioned on the cover of Strange Tales #117 and got a tiny headshot on #118. Eventually, the good doctor keeps gaining story pages until, by the time of the Human Torch (and the Thing’s) ousting from Strange Tales in #134 (to make way for the new Marvel spy series Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. starting in #135), his page count is up to 10 per story, where it stayed until Ditko leaves the series (and Marvel) in issue #146.
THE MYSTERY OF THE ACTUAL CREATOR
Also notable in Strange Tales #135 is that artist Steve Ditko begins officially getting a plotting credit. At the time, fans had suspected that Ditko had been heavily plotting Doctor Strange since the beginning of the series. According to Ditko, he presented the original five-page story from Strange Tales #110 in pencil form to Lee as his own original idea. The official credits for the earliest Doctor Strange stories generally separate Lee and Ditko as writer and artist, respectively, but that changes (finally) in #135.
Ditko began being credited as sole plotter for the fifth installment of a massive (for the era) 17-part story arc in Strange Tales #130-146, which introduced the cosmic character Eternity. The last issue of this storyline in #146 was also Ditko’s last issue of the series.
The entire Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run on Doctor Strange (Strange Tales (1951) #110-111, 114-146, and the Amazing Spider-Man Annual (1964) #2) has been collected in the recently released 456-page Doctor Strange Omnibus Volume 1.
SUBHEAD… NOT JUST HEADS…
This early Ditko era of the series has been highly inspirational to subsequent artists and writers of the series. It also made a big splash in the media during the 1960s, due to the character’s embrace by the counter-culture (a then-buzzword for college students exploring different lifestyle options and choices). In other words, a lot of students in the 1960s liked to get high on mushrooms or pot and then read Ditko’s Doctor Strange, hopefully to enhance the reading experience.
A lot of writers and scholars have since pointed out how this run of the series remarkably predicted the counterculture’s interests in psychedelia and Eastern mysticism. Historically, Doctor Strange has always been one of Marvel’s oddest heroes. Depending on the talents of his subsequent chroniclers, the popularity of both the title and the character has waxed and waned depending on both the quality of the creators and the tastes in superheroes of any given comics era.
DECADE BY DECADE STRANGE
Lots of stellar creators tackled Doctor Strange over the decades, including some historically big names. Exceptional artists and writers who worked on the character include Gene Colan and Tom Palmer (better known for their collaboration on Tomb of Dracula with writer Marv Wolfman). Roy Thomas wrote the Colan and Palmer run until that series was cancelled. Strange was quickly included in the original line-up of the Defenders (appearing in the first three issues of Marvel Feature), having previously teamed with other members Sub-Mariner and Hulk (and occasionally, the Silver Surfer).
Thomas wrote the earliest Defenders tales until writer Steve Englehart stepped in when the feature got its own title. Meanwhile, Englehart would also be involved in reviving a solo Doctor Strange feature/title with artist Frank Brunner in Marvel Premiere. Englehart’s work on Doctor Strange with both Brunner and the returning Gene Colan was among the most popular (and controversial) series of that era.
Elsewhere in this 1974 series, there was some excellent work by folks such as Marv Wolfman, Rudy Nebres, Jim Starlin, Roger Stern, Tom Sutton, Chris Claremont, Paul Smith, Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin, and many others who produced a handful of issues before moving on. Strange also briefly shared the title Strange Tales (v.2) with Cloak and Dagger for 19 issues in the late 1980s.
The 1990s weren’t always good to the Doctor. He floundered a bit during this era. My impressions of this time period are an ever-rotating cast of creators, none of whom stayed on for more than 6-10 issues (and many did fewer). The better work from this era were the four Doctor Strange standalone graphic novels:
- Into Shamballa (1986) by J.M DeMatteis and Dan Green
- Doctor Strange/Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment (1989) by Roger Stern, Mike Mignola, and Mark Badger
- Spider-Man/Dr. Strange: The Way to Dusty Death (1992) by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Michael Bair, Mark Beacham, and Mark Texiera, and
- What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen? (1997) by Marc Andreyko and P. Craig Russell.
By the 2000s, the Doctor had lost his regular ongoing series and spent much of this era in guest-shots, team books, and an occasional miniseries. You could find him regularly in The New Avengers, where it was revealed retroactively (post Kree-Skrull War) that he was an original member of the secret Illuminati group. Notably, he allowed the New Avengers to use the Sanctum Sanctorum as a base of operations during the first Civil War event (even though he didn’t side with that team).
He also, for various reasons (see: House of M), began to doubt his abilities and gave up the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, which passed to Brother Voodoo. Which didn’t work out so well for the new guy when Agamotto subsequently killed Voodoo. But, because Marvel, Voodoo eventually got better.
Strange also appeared in many issues of Amazing Spider-Man around this time and regrouped a time or two with the Defenders in titles such as The Order. There was also something called Indefensible Defenders in a paperback collection but was actually just Defenders (2005, third series). As if the actual Defenders series wasn’t confusing enough itself!
Doctor Strange eventually regained the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, still in the pages of New Avengers, but he mostly had adventures again with the Illuminati as they attempted to prevent something that seemingly goes on for years (real world) but is eventually just revealed as Secret Wars. On Battleworld, Strange was the Sheriff to ruler and god Doctor Doom, but he eventually did the right thing to help set that cluster back to being right, winding up brutally killed by Doom for his actions. His sacrifice wasn’t all for naught, since we all got back to the Marvel Universe eventually. (But which Marvel Universe, you might ask… It’s obvious by now that this ANAD Marvel is NOT exactly what we had prior to Secret Wars.)
ENTER JASON AARON AND CHRIS BACHALO
One of the first relaunch Marvel titles out after Secret Wars (technically during, due to Secret Wars’ lateness) was a new Doctor Strange title by writer Jason Aaron and artist Chris Bachalo, both of whom are currently among my favorite writers and artists (from even before this title). What attracts me most to both of these fine folks is that both include much humor in their work. I know that I’m probably in the minority, but I want to maybe get a laugh or a smile out of a ridiculous situation or goofy-looking background characters (or critters) that add something beyond usual superhero punch-‘em-ups. I know I’m going to always be entertained by these guys, and it’s a huge plus if they make the effort to improve my (and everybody’s) overall mood for the better with their amazing work.
The team is on their third storyline already. “Blood in the Aether” only just started but already looks to bring back a lot of the classic Strange opponents that we haven’t already seen.
The first story arc (issues #1-5, beginning in late 2015) was “The Way of the Weird”. It’s an excellent story to remind both old and new readers what Doctor Strange is all about, as Strange’s neighborhood goes a little whack-a-doodle, and Strange must set everything right. Except it’s not as easy as it should be, and it appears that using magic now has a cost. Old and new characters appear, and fun, adventure, and weirdness are the new norm.
Then, in “The Last Days of Magic” (issues 6-10, plus one-shot specials for both Strange and Deadpool), the Empirikul (spell that three times fast!) arrive in the Marvel Universe, and not even a confab of the MU’s leading mystics — including Scarlet Witch, Shaman, Tailsman, Daimon Hellstrom, Monako, Doctor Voodoo, Mahatma Doom, Wong, and even more — can prevent some tragic deaths.
Both “The Way of the Weird” and “The Last Days of Magic” have (or soon will be) collected in hardcover and softcover volumes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of these skinny little collections, so I may hold out for the more attractive oversized hardcover format that should collect several storylines/issues. As of now, there’s no indication of this ever actually happening, but I have faith in the quality of this material that Marvel will get there eventually and do a nice, thick oversized hardcover. I can wait…
In the meantime, the monthly is amazing me… uh, every month! It’s not that often I can say that about a lot of titles. Even the fill-ins and extra issues for Doctor Strange feature folks the caliber of Kevin Nowlan and, in the Annual, an awesome Kathryn Immonen-written story featuring the return of Clea. Just around the corner is a second Strange book… Doctor Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme debuts very soon (today, in actual fact) after a substantial preview in the aforementioned Annual.
Marvel is looking very Strange these days… and it’s all good!
LET’S ALL GO TO THE LOBBY…
Many people (including me) are anxiously awaiting the new (and heavily-hyped) Doctor Strange Marvel Studios film opening in the US on November 4 starring Benedict Cumberbatch. (He’ll also appear as Strange in Avengers: Infinity War, currently scheduled to be in theaters in May 2018.) Most people have probably forgotten that there was a previous Doctor Strange live-action TV movie in 1978, staring Peter Hooten as Strange. That’s probably all for the best…
Doctor Strange is also referenced briefly in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test from 1968. Apparently Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters really dug the Doc!
Don’t we all? See you at the movies!
KC CARLSON: !EGNARTS ROTCOD EVOL I (Whoops! Wrong magic words… Uh, oh…)
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. Thing most irritating tonight: Rain! Please don’t flood, basement!
Classic covers from the Grand Comics Database.