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.

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Strange Tales #116 - "Return to the Nightmare World!"
Cover Date: January 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Nightmare is scheming. He's gotten a potion that will allow him to bring Mortals to his world through their dreams. He recognizes the Ancient One and Dr. Strange as the only mortals who can stand in his way.

Back on Earth, Dr. Strange is visited by a police officer, as apparently numerous people have fallen asleep and aren't waking up. The police have no evidence of wrongdoing, but have suspicions of an evil plot. The officer is accompanied by a medical doctor, Dr. Warren, who explains they can't find any medical way to awaken these patients, and they're hoping Strange's mystical powers might succeed where they've failed. Strange agrees, and asks them to take him to the latest victim. After analyzing the man with his amulet, he determines that the man is neither asleep nor awake, but under the influence of a mystical spell. He returns home to contemplate the issue.

Back at his Sanctum, he looks through the books of the Vishanti and locates a counter spell. However, the pages are faded and difficult to read, and he wonders if he dares cast the spell without being 100% certain. He decides that he must do so. He casts a spell to locate the origin of the mystical energy, then follows it to its source using his astral form.

Unsurprisingly, he ends up in the Nightmare realm, realizing that he must stay on the path the spell provided, else he will be vulnerable. He's spotted by one of Nightmare's minions who warns Nightmare of his approach. Nightmare creates a gate, letting Strange know that he knows that Strange is there. Strange knows that as long as he stays on his path, he'll be safe, but Nightmare presents him with three different paths. Strange uses the amulet to show him which one is the correct path.

Enraged, Nightmare attacks. Strange tells him that there's nothing he can do so long as he stays on the path. Nightmare shows him the ethereal selves of the humans he's affected thus far, and that if Strange can reach them, he can take them. Then Nightmare destroys the path between Strange and the humans, leaving Strange to figure out how to get to them without leaving his path. Strange confounds him by utilizing his sash much like the Indian rope trick, creating an extension of the path to reach the humans. He does so, but Nightmare boasts that he'll bide his time to get his revenge.

Strange begins to lead the humans back to their own dimension when Nightmare attacks again, explaining that once Strange stepped on the platform where the ethereal humans were, he stepped off of the path that had been created. A desperate lunge by Strange for his sash comes up empty when Nightmare places a barrier between them.

Nightmare sends a spinybeast--which has the power to kill anything it touches--after Strange. Strange retreats until he's cornered. He then turns the full power of his amulet on Nightmare, blinding him temporarily and more importantly causing him to strike the spinybeast with the prod he's been using to control it, killing the spinybeast. Strange escapes, taking the men back with him, as Nightmare hurls empty imprecations at him.

My rating: 5/10

One of the interesting things about this story is the idea of people from the police and medical profession approaching Strange for help, as latter additions to the mythos establish that very few people have any awareness of Strange being Dr. Strange. Also amusing was the officer stating that they think it's all hooey, but Strange has helped out in the past with good results.

What I really think drags this story down, however, is that there's little to no suspense. We get the gist of the story quickly, Nightmare backs Strange into a corner, and then the Deus Ex Machina amulet shows up, and it's all over. It's not one of the better efforts of either Lee or Ditko, as the art just seems to be lacking the artist's usual imagination.

When he beat Dormammu the Ancient One said he was giving him a more powerful amulet. Wasn't this one powerful enough? And why didn't he give it to him before the battle? This story cared me when I first read it in Marvel Collectors Item Classics, but yeah, Doc should be winning by his wits or using some weakness of Nightmare's, not just because his amulet can blind the villain. I like how people know about him but most think he's a charlatan. We're getting into New Age hippy stuff and "The Establishment" probably sees him as some guru using his hocus pocus to rip people off and get himself a harem, like the one in Dragnet a few years later. One thing we didn't see, which was odd considering the Torch and Giant-Man and Wasp fan clubs, were groupies trying to hang out with him asking him to give them "the word, man!"

Strange Tales #117 - "Doctor Strange Face the Many Traps of Baron Mordo!"
Cover Date: February 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Mordo has completed an exact miniature replica of Dr. Strange's home. He casts a spell that integrates it with Dr. Strange's  house. he boasts that Dr. Strange's home is now under his mystical power.

Out on the street, we see Strange wandering around lost in thought as Mordo watches. As he enters his home, Mordo boasts  that he has doomed himself. As the door closes, the building disappears.

The house reappears in an unknown dimension where Strange is weightless, but not helpless. Remembering his amulet, he sends  his astral form towards the source of the sorcery he's encountering. He finds out that it's Baron Mordo. He attempts to  snoop further, but ends up having his astral form imprisoned inside an ethereal cylinder.

Mordo appears, boasting that his trap is inescapable. Strange asks him what he's after. Mordo tells him that now that he is  helpless, he can attack the Ancient One without Strange interfering. Mordo leaves to do his dastardly dirty work while  Strange attempts to figure a way out of this predicament. Not even his amulet seems to have the power to break Mordo's  spell, but he's determined to win this one.

Mordo has arrived at the Ancient One's abode. At the doors to his sanctum, Mordo pleads that he's repented and wants to beg  the Ancient One's forgiveness. His ploy works, and the Ancient One allows him to enter. As he enters the presence of the  Ancient One, Mordo continues his act, getting closer and closer the whole time. He pleads to the Ancient One to take him as  a pupil again.

As he gets as close as possible, he attacks. However, his spell has no effect. As he looks up the Ancient One is revealed to  be--Dr. Strange! Mordo is shocked to see him, but Strange explains that escaping the trap was easy once he figured it out,  as the cylinder could not prevent him escaping through the floor. Traveling through the center of the Earth, Strange reaches  the Ancient One first and is given a ring that will allow him to use his full powers as if he weren't separated from his  human half.

Mordo attacks, but Strange easily deflects his efforts and fights back. Mordo is unable to withstand the attack and is  hurled from the Ancient One's castle. At the same time, the spell on Strange's house is dispelled, returning it to normal,  and the day is saved!

My rating: 5/10

This is another one of those stories where the villain has to act dumb in order for the plot to work. I don't know any other  way that Mordo wouldn't understand that the bottom of his cylinder was a weak point. And of course there's a convenient  magic ring that allows Strange to battle in his astral form.

You still get lovely Steve Ditko art, but much of this is lazy storytelling to me.

Randy Jackson said:

.....but Strange explains that escaping the trap was easy once he figured it out, as the cylinder could not prevent him escaping through the floor.

So now that Strange has explained his mistake to Mordo (not just to the reader), all Mordo has to do is repeat his steps, closing off the bottom of the cylinder, in order to succeed next time.

One wonders why almost perfect plans are never repeated by the villain. It's a rarity.

Richard Willis said:


So now that Strange has explained his mistake to Mordo (not just to the reader), all Mordo has to do is repeat his steps, closing off the bottom of the cylinder, in order to succeed next time.

Doc had to tell someone how he escaped so that we'd know. He really needs a supporting cast. Still wondering why Victoria Bentley never came back and asked for training.

This is very much the Popeye school of adventuring. The hero is too powerful so let's have him at a disadvantage for much of the story. Why doesn't he get that ring every time he has to fight in astral form? Even better, why doesn't he try doing things physically instead of automatically leaving his body every time he wants to do something? How many times is he going to find himself in trouble because he's a ghost before he realizes he should stay in his body?

First saw this in Marvel Collectors Item Classics when I was about four, so the plot problems didn't occur to me at the time. All I noticed was the magic spells they were both casting looked really cool. Nobody can do magic and weird dimensions like Steve Ditko, and it's a pity he's obsessed with preaching right and wrong instead of making fantasy epics.

Ron M. said:

Doc had to tell someone how he escaped so that we'd know.

That's what thought balloons are/were for.

Bad sign when a guy starts talking to himself.

That's why they made Tonto. People were wondering who the Lone Ranger was talking to.

I've read this story several times, and it never makes sense.  The trap was inescapable, but Strange just slips through the floor?  Oookay.  And then the deus ex machina magic ring which is not seen again?  Hoo boy.

Randy is right: great art, lousy story.

Didn't Grant Morrison reference this in his Doom Patrol, when he had one of the Brotherhood of Dada trap the Negative Man energy in "an escape-proof spirit jar"?

If I remember correctly, it looked remarkably like the one on the Ditko splash page above.

Other than that I agree with everyone else - those first Doctor Strange stories were extremely hit-and-miss.

m

John Dunbar (the mod of maple) said:

The trap was inescapable, but Strange just slips through the floor?

They're also getting into a rut: Mordo, Nightmare, Mordo, Nightmare... He needs a large rogues' gallery.

The Slime People came out in 1963 and was about a town being trapped by a fog they couldn't pass through. While they didn't escape by going through the ground, it might have given Lee or Ditko the idea for the story.

Strange Tales #118 - "The Possessed!"
Cover Date: March 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Strange is scanning the Earth when he notices a problem in the mountains of Bavaria. He goes to check it out.

In a small town in Bavaria, we see that ordinary citizens are acting in an unusual way. The change appears to happen when  they walk through a specific shadowy area of the town. The villagers that have not been affected yet realize their friends  and neighbors have been possessed, and they run for the hills--or the valleys, I guess, since it's the mountains.

Strange shows up seemingly out of nowhere and sticks out like an 18th century man in a 16th century village would. They all  run away from him, save for one blnd old man who tells him what's been going on. He approaches one of the possessed  villagers who reacts with fear and anger, but before he can throw a log at Strange, Stephen immobilizes him with a spell. We  see that there is an invisible presence behind the possession. However, Strange can't find him, although he did see him  momentarily. In the meanwhile, the presence flees to warn the others, realizing that Strange is an enemy that must be  destroyed.

In a seemingly empty field, the presence says a few words and a cloaked edifice appears. He enters and it disappears again.  Inside, the figure--revealed to be an alien from another dimension--reports to his boss. However, the boss is unimpressed by  his report and sends him back to possess more humans.

Back in town, Strange has found a room at a hotel, and is preparing himself for battle. The alien attempts to sneak up on  him. He manages to enter Strange's body, but is unable to possess him. He is then hurled away from Strange's body only to be  entrapped by Strange's astral form. Strange is able to immobilize him and enter his mind. He discovers that the alien is  from another dimension and that this attack on the village is a test to see if they can take it over. If they can, then  they'll go after the entire Earth. Strange releases it to go and confront the leader. However, the alien goes to see the  alien that has possessed the Mayor. He instructs the alien to use the Mayor to arouse the townspeople. He does so, blaming  Strange for the town's current predicament, and the villagers gather pitchforks and torches and go after Strange.

Strange has finally located the entrance to the alien's dimension when the villagers catch up to him. However, he easily  dispels them with a bit of magic. He then goes after the aliens, appealing to the Mighty Mormammu to help him breach the  dimensions. He enters the alien dimension, and the alien minions are scared, but the leader challenges Strange. Forming a  shield around his body, he enters into a mental battle of wills with Strange, attempting to possess him. It's a stalemate  initially, but then Strange gains the upper hand, eroding the alien's shield and then making him say uncle. STrange tells  him to recall all of his forces and stay away or he'll give them what for. They beg for the opportunity to return to their  own dimension and promise not to return again. Strange doesn't trust them, so he casts a spell to seal the current entrance.  He then slinks out of town, leaving the villagers to deal with all that has happened.

My rating: 6/10

This isn't bad, and I suppose seeing Strange fight the occasional alien invasion is a welcome respite from another story  featuring either Nightmare or Baron Mordo as the antagonist.

However, this story illustrates one of the issues with making these stories visually exciting. During the battle between  Strange and the leader, we're told this:

This is a sight the like of which few mortals have ever witnessed...The titanic struggle for supremacy between two champions  from the completely different dimensions!

However, the illustration is this:



This is pretty darned static, not to mention pretty small as well. There's little excitement here. I'm not blaming Steve  Ditko here, but rather stating that showing two people having a mental battle of wits is difficult to make exciting in the  first place. Two people having a staring contest just isn't that awe-inspiring.

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