I'll be reading through the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Dr. Strange stories as originally published in Strange Tales #110-146. So, let's begin:
Strange Tales #110 - "Dr. Strange Master of Black Magic!"
Cover Date: July 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
We are introduced to a "new" type of superhero, Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic. His look is similar to what many of us expect with a handful of differences--for instance, he's wearing gauntlets of some sort, and there's no Cloak of Levitation.
Our story opens with a man who cannot sleep as nightmares overtake him every time he tries. He's heard of Dr. Strange through whispers and rumors, and plans to see him. There's some really nice utilizaion of shading along with a limited color palette that sets the mood of the story nicely.
The next day, the man visits a place in Greenwich village. The door is answered by what appears to be a bald Asian gentleman, but no name is given. The man tells him he's there to see Dr. Strange despite the fact that the Dr. doesn't know him, but the Asian man says that Dr. Strange knows all. He bids the man to enter.
The man meets with Dr. Strange. He tells Strange that he has the same dream over and over again every night, and it's driving him crazy. Dr. Strange askss him to tell him more, and the man describes the dream: a figure bound in chains stares at him. Dr. Strange says that tonight he will come visit and find out what's happening. The man asks him how, and strange responds that he will do so by entering his dream.
Later that day, Strange says it's time for him to visit the Master. To do so, he sends forth his astral form, and we watch it travel across the world. Eventually, it reaches a cave somewhere in Asia where Strange visits his master, an aged man. He tells Strange that he senses danger and he must be cautious, as his days are numbered and one day Strange will take his place in the battle against the forces of evil. Strange tells him that he will be careful, and the master tells him to go as he's tired, but to rely upon his amulet if danger should threaten.
That evening, Strange goes to visit the man. He tells the man to sleep, and the man does so. Once he does, Strange projects his astral form into the man's dream. Inside the dream, he finds the figure bound in chains. As the figure torments the man, Strange asks it why. The figure replies that the man knows why. The figure explains that he is the symbol of every evil he has done, and that is why he is in chains. He tells Strange to ask a man who he refers to as Mr. Crang if he doesn't believe him.
At this point, a dark figure riding a horse shows up. He seems to know Dr. Strange, and he tells him that he has entered the dimension of dreams for the last time. Strange identifies the figure as Nightmare, his ancient foe. Nightmare tells him that he knows the rules of sorcery--anyone entering a hostile dimension must be ready to pay for it with his life.
Back on Earth, the sleeping man awakes. He understands now that the root of his problem is Mr. Crang, and that Dr. Strange has heard everything. He gets a gun from his dresser and approaches Strange's body, planning on killing him.
Nightmare gloats as he and Strange watch this scene play out. Strange beseeches his master for help. The master hears his pleas and concentrates. Back in the man's apartment, Dr. Strange's amulet glows until it opens up into an eye, which shoots out a ray that hypnotizes the man. In the confusion, Strange escapes from Nightmare and manages to return to his body. Nightmare tells him that he'll get him next time.
Back in the man's apartment, Strange takes the man's gun and commands him to speak the truth. The man reveals that his dreams were caused by the many men he'd ruined in business. Apparently, Crang was the last one that he'd robbed, leaving no evidence for Crang to prosecute him. He says he'll confess now.
My rating: 7/10
It's obvious here that there are a lot of details that Lee and Ditko were working through for this character, and there's a lot we'll see over this reading project. This particular story reads very much like a Golden Age backup comic--I found it amusing that they chose to name one of the antagonist's victim but not the antagonist himself--so the drama isn't exactly at a fever pitch.
That being said, the star of this comic--and the others in this project--is clearly Steve Ditko. His creativity shows through here, especially with his depictions of the dream world. At the same time, you can also feel that there's much more on the horizon.
This discussion will be a lot of fun. Ditko was the perfect artist for this series. I like your observation of this story having a Golden Age feel; magicians in comics go back right to Action #1 with Zatara, after all. Looking forward to further installments of this.
Henry Kujawa argues that Dr Strange was original designed to look like Vincent Price and later Ronald Colman. I'm sure he's right about that.
Initially he was drawn with an "inscrutable Asian" appearance. This is a parallel with Doctor Droom, who was transformed to look Asian at the completion of his origin. It's my guess "Doctor Strange" was another go at the "Doctor Droom" concept - a magician hero investigates strange mysteries - this time with Steve Ditko instead of Jack Kirby.
Marvel had previously used the Dr Strange name for the villain in the Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense #41. Doc Strange was the name of a long-running (by Golden Age standards) Golden Age hero from Standard. I think it's likely Lee's reuse of the name was conscious. Other examples of him reusing names from other companies are Daredevil and Black Bolt (after Blue Bolt).
The Golden Age magician strips were sometimes more wildly imaginative than the superhero ones. The innovations in "Doctor Strange" might be Ditko's visuals, its heavy use of other dimensional worlds, the creators' ability to convey a sense that the magic in the stories is governed by rules, and their construction of the stories so that Strange usually triumphs by ingenuity rather than magic alone.
I've seen the use of a spirit form in a "Mr Mystic" story, but he may not have used it routinely, like Strange. In the early stories Strange's magic mostly centres around his spirit form and his amulet.
DC magician strip in the period was "Mark Merlin" in House of Secrets.
Basing the look of Dr Strange on Vincent Price makes a lot of sense considering Price may have been at the peak of his popularity in the early 1960's with his run of starring roles in the Roger Corman film adaptions of Edgar Allen Poe stories.
I've been re-reading these stories as well. In a way, this first story and the later one about the haunted house are some of my favorites, in that they are short and quickly resolved without a lot of back story. Later, as the page count got longer and we got an origin (one of the best of the Silver Age, I think), Strange lost a lot of his mystery.
Strange Tales #111 - "Face Tp Face With the Magic of Baron Mordo!"
Cover Date: August 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
We meet Baron Mordo, a visually well-designed(IMO) character. We quickly discover that he was once a student of the Master, that Dr. Strange is his arch-enemy, that only the Master has more knowledge of the occult, and that he's determined to get that knowledge from the Master by hook or by crook. He sends out his astral form to the Master's home and manages to control the Master's servant. Putting a special potion in the Master's food, he manages to overcome the Master. He demands to know the Master's secrets or the potion will kill him, but the Master refuses.
Meanwhile, Dr. Strange has just completed an experiment and wants to tell the Master the results. However, since he doesn't hear from him, he realizes the Master is in danger. He sends out his astral form to find Mordo attacking the Master. He confronts Mordo, and their astral forms do battle. As they fight, the Master manages to tell Strange "amulet". Using his magic amulet, Strange manages to revitalize the Master--however this weakens Strange, making him vulnerable to Mordo. The Master tells Strange to hold on.
Strange manages a last ditch effort and transports the astral forms of himself and Mordo far away. He then threatens Mordo's physical form via his amulet, forcing Mordo to abandon the battle and return to his body. He manages to recover his body before Strange can do harm, but Strange tells him that's exactly what he wanted--his amulet didn't have the power to hurt him, but the Master is safe, he knows where Mordo is now, and Mordo's control over the Master's servant is broken. He uses the My amulet to paralyze Mordo until his astral form can escape.
My rating: 6/10
Despite this being the introduction to one of Strange's classic foes, this story falls short on one of the many problems inherent in magical/mystical stories--namely, relying on "magic" to explain everything that happens rather than framing explanations as to how all is happening. For instance, Mordo and Strange fight all over the place, but it's not really well explained how they can hurt one another in their "spirit" forms, or for that matter how Mordo can threaten the Master.
Another nitpick is that it's way too easy to rely on Strange's "amulet" as a Deus Ex Machina, and that weakens the story as well. True, Strange used it as misdirection, but it just feels a tad worrisome that the amulet has been th
My eyes glaze over when two immaterial astral forms battle. How could one hurt the other? I did like that Strange outsmarted Mordo at the end though.
I agree Mordo is well designed.
Strange Tales #114 - "The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo!"
Cover Date: November 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
One Sir Clive Bentley calls Dr. Strange from London. He asks Strange for help, and Strange agrees to help him, but wonders why he's calling after several years. However, we find that Mr. Bentley is not who he seems, as it's revealed that he's actually Baron Mordo in disguise. He's setting a trap for Dr. Strange.
Soon Strange departs a taxi in London, outside of Sir Bentley's castle. He tries the door and finds it unlocked. Feeling that the castle is deserted, he wonders if he's arrived too late. He does sense the presence of a sinister power. He realizes that a particular candle is giving off an unnatural scent, and then realizes he's been paralyzed.
Mordo enters the room, and tells Strange that he's his prisoner now. As the candle burns, his strength grows weaker, and when it's burnt out, so will his life be. He then monologues a bit about how there can only be one master of the mystic arts, that the Ancient One will soon be dead, and that with Strange's death, Mordo will become the only one left, so he can RULE THE WORLD!!!!
Mordo leaves, and the Ancient One contacts Strange offering help. Strange refuses, stating that he needs to resolve this himself if he's ever to be the Ancient One's replacement. The Ancient One agrees.
Strange uses his amulet to project his thoughts across the city, hoping to find a sympathetic ear. He finds a young woman who is receptive. Strange puts her under a trance, she goes to the castle to help Strange. Once there, she puts out the fateful candle (apparently it it's put out by someone rather than burning out on it's own volition, the effects are nullified).
At this point the woman comes out of the trance that Strange had put her in. Strange tells her to leave, as she is in mortal danger. She tells him that she feels as if she knows him, and Strange tells her she must not say that, and that he will mindwipe...er, drive the memory of him from her brain. He thinks that since she responded, she must have a dormant talent for sorcery, but the good Dr. Strange doesn't want any other magic users running about...er, he wants to save her from the life he leads.
We then discover that the girl is named Victoria Bentley, daughter of Sir Clive Bentley who died in the castle ten years prior, and wonders why she's back at the castle now. Strange realizes that when he was talking to Bentley before, he was actually talking to Mordo.
Victoria feels a presence in the room, and Strange tells her not to move, as he is the only one who can save her now. Mordo appears. He says that he came back to gloat over Strange's dead body, but finds him alive. He says it's no matter, as he'll kill Strange shortly. He tells Strange that their wills are equal, but that he has the advantage of attacking first. He puts Strange under a spell, and orders him to kill Victoria, as he senses her latent talents and thinks she could be a threat to him.
At this point, Strange reveals that he is most definitely not under Mordo's spell, as he had projected a mental image of himself that Mordo attacked, and that he himself just arrived in England (ummm...what?). Strange then merges with his spirit form, telling Mordo that not even he has the power to defeat him when he's whole.
Mordo attempts to fight back, boasting that he's older and stronger and that he can take whatever his amulet can dish out. They fight on the astral plane (we're told it's a titanic battle, but little of it is shown), and Strange wins, as Mordo disappears.
Victoria asks if Mordo is dead, and Strange tells her no. She then asks if what Mordo said about her latent talents is true and if so will he teach her. He tells her no, using the excuse that the more she learns, the more Mordo will seek her death.
Finally, Strange meets up with the Ancient One, The Ancient One tells him that Mordo is still stronger than Strange, and asks what he will do if he doesn't have the advantage of surprise the next time they meet. Strange tells him that he doesn't know, but that he'll be ready.
My rating: 5/10
This story is one of the reasons I don't always enjoy stories with magic-based characters--it seems as if the rules can be changed in such a cavalier fashion as to render any sense of suspense moot. I was thinking as I read the story, "why doesn't Strange send his astral form there first to check things out?" only to find out that he had--but if that's the case, how could the candle hurt him, how could Victoria see him (yes, I know, she has the Force with her, but it's not terribly clear) and how is it that Mordo doesn't realize he's dealing with Strange's astral form?
We are seeing some more familiar parts of the mythos show up, such as changing from the Master to the Ancient One. Of course, the art is lovely too, but it's a shame that we couldn't see the actual battle between Mordo and Strange.
It looks to me like Ditko intended Strange to have created an image of himself, and Lee changed it in his dialogue. But you could argue I must be wrong, since they seem to merge. I like the way the story depicts their fight; for me it reinforces the idea that it's taking place on another plane. I think the castle is actually drawn as a rural manor. (Marvel Genesis mocks the caption that describes its location.)
In the previous story, the bit about Strange's amulet holding Mordo might be a Lee addition. It's not there in the art.
Strange Tales #115 - "The Origin of Dr. Strange"
Cover Date: December 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
After a quick splash page, we get into the meat of the story. Somewhere in India, a haggard man enters a chamber. He's on a quest. He finds an old man there, and asks him if he's the one he seeks. The old man introduces himself as the Ancient One. The man beseeches the Ancient One to help him as he has the magic healing powers. The Ancient One says "Slow down Chachi. Grown Ups are talking here!" (okay, he doesn't quite say that, but you get the gist). The Ancient One tells the stranger that he only heals those who are deserving, and that he has to prove himself worthy. At this, the man prepares to attack the Ancient One, but he levitates the stranger into the air while using his powers to discover his story.
We find out that the stranger was once a famous surgeon named Stephen Strange. While he was quite talented, he was also an arrogant buffoon who only cared about money, to the point of turning down patients who couldn't afford his fees. He would also turn down research work unless he got paid.
One day, there was an automobile accident involving Strange. He's alive, but injured. The doctors tell him that the nerves in his hands have been damaged, and that he'll never be able to perform another operation. Strange refuses to believe the prognosis, and is too proud to take a position as a consultant or assistant to other surgeons. Wallowing in self-pity, he became an aimless dreamer, until one day he overheard two sailors talking about the Ancient One and his ability to heal anything via magic.
The Ancient One has finished telling Strange's story, but refuses to help him because his motives are still selfish. However, he sees a spark of goodness within himself. He suggests that Strange stay and study that he might find his own cure within himself. Strange doesn't want anything to do with that. He wants to leave, but a blizzard has made the mountain pass impassable. The Ancient One tells him that he shall have to stay until the snow thaws. Strange wonders if the Ancient One created the storm, then reprimands himself for possibly thinking that magic is real. The Ancient One snarks that it would be "unseemly" for a Westerner like Strange to believe in magic.
At this point, the Ancient One summons Mordo to lead Strange to his chamber. Strange watches Mordo during his time, noting that all he seems to do is study and recite durges, something that seems uninteresting to Strange. He goes to see the Ancient One to ask how long it takes the snow to melt when he sees him attacked by the Vapors of Valtorr. The Ancient One defends himself by calling upon the powers of the Vishanti, the Dread Dormammu and the all-seeing Agamotto, dispelling the attack. Strange goes to help afterwards, asking what just happened, but the Ancient One tells him he cannot explain to a non-believer. Strange tells him that he needs rest because he's weak and ill, but the Ancient One tells him that he cannot rest until he finds a successor.
Strange notices that the snow has mostly thawed and plans to leave, but he notices Mordo doing something. Mordo is making offerings to the Dread Dormammu, and Strange realizes that he's the one attacking the Ancient One. Mordo has noticed Strange, and he tells Strange that he has learned more than the Ancient One suspects, and that he plans to kill him so he can be the master of black magic. Strange tells him that he'll tell the Ancient One, and Mordo casts a spell on him that takes away his ability to talk. At the point, Strange has become a believer. He attempts to attack Mordo, but Mordo casts another spell that binds him.
After Mordo has left, Strange attempts to see the Ancient One, but the spells put in place keep him from doing so. He's now desperate to warn the Ancient One.
The Ancient One is having an audience with Mordo when Strange enters. Mordo tells him that if he has words to utter, he should speak, which Strange cannot do. Mordo then tells the Ancient One to send him away. Strange seethes with resentment and hatred for Mordo. He realizes that he must never allow Mordo to defeat the Ancient One, as that could mean the end of the world.
Strange realizes that the spell Mordo has cast only prevents him from warning the Ancient One, but that he can speak of other matters. He asks the Ancient One to become his mentor and teacher, and the Ancient One accepts. He then dispels Mordo's spell, allowing Strange to speak and act normally. Strange then asks the Ancient One if he knew about Mordo's spells and attacks all along, and the Ancient One tells him yes. He prefers to keep Mordo close so that he can control him, but that at some point Strange will have to take his place and battle Mordo to the finish. Strange accepts and receives his training.
My rating: 8/10
Realistically, the vast majority of origin stories are pretty ...not good. Most are at best forgettable. However, some stand the test of time and I would say this one passes with flying colors. The idea of the arrogant man brought low and then raised up through his own volition is a good one. Additionally, it's nice to see the idea that the mystical powers do actually come from somewhere (although I think it's odd that both the Ancient One and Mordo were imploring Dormammu for help knowing what's coming in the future). Creating a few rules helps make the stories better, in my opinion. However, there are a couple of instances where there is a "because it's magic" vibe, which knocks it down a couple of points. Still, one of the better origin stories.
The stories are interesting and atmospheric, but Strange's reliance on his amulet, and the early battles with Mordo all taking place in ectoplasmic form get annoying after the first couple of times. It's like they're not willing yet to have this guy do "real" magic in the material world and are using "he's a ghost" as an excuse for why he can do the impossible.
Were they originally going to do something with Victoria Bentley? Make her Doc's "Wasp" or something? After establishing she has magic potential she's dropped and it's over a year before Clea turns up. Except for the bald guy (when is he first referred to as Wong?) and the Ancient One, Doc has no supporting cast. This adds to the mystery, but I've always thought it strange (ba-bump-bump) that he has no contact with other mystics. Were he and Mordo really supposed to be the only wizards in the world at the time besides the old man.
Not only is Doc Vincent Price from the movie The Raven, but I suspect Mordo is supposed to be Boris Karloff, who was the evil wizard in the firm. Karloff by that point had a very craggy looking face, which Mordo is famous for.
Dr. Strange was a backup feature in Strange Tales, much like Tales of Asgard in Journey Into Mystery, The Wasp Tells a Tale in Tales to Astonish and The Watcher in Tales of Suspense. At only five or so pages there wasn't much room for complex stories and characterization. And Stan didn't seem to have much confidence in it at the beginning either, noting in one letters page "'Twas Steve's idea." It was several issues before the page count started to expand and there was a gap between some of his earlier appearances. It was many months until he was mentioned or featured on the cover, usually getting a third or less of the space, and he never achieved co-feature status until after the Human Torch was kicked out and well into the S.H.I.E.L.D. days.
He doesn't get a cover until Ditko's last issue. No doubt we missed out on some great weird Ditko covers because of that.
Interesting that all three of the split books were taken over by the backup features.