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.
The entire story revolves around him forgetting to do something he knows he's supposed to do every day. And once he's got his powers the bad guy (who's supposed to be some sort of cosmic being) is no match for him. Strange has become so powerful, it's really a surprise that Loki can beat him so easily (or at all) when he shows up.
I'm rereading Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and I'm amazed at the number of times he references Dr. Strange. He seems to have been well-known among the Merry Pranksters.
Strange Tales #123 - "The Challenge Of Loki!"
Cover Date: August 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Dr. Strange is practicing his magic in his home. As he practices his levitation spell, he's being spied upon from Asgard by none other than Loki, the Mighty Thor's brother and God of Evil/Lies/Mischief/Stories(take your pick)? Loki thinks that Strange is the one man that can help him defeat his brother. He declares that even though he's trapped in Asgard he can still find a way to make his evil scheme work. He'll simply deceive Strange into stealing Thor's hammer, and Odin shall be none the wiser (which, come to think of it, Odin isn't terribly wise to begin with, but that's for another story).
Loki sends a message to Strange via a spirit form. In his spirit form, it looks like Loki is bound and chained. He beseeches Strange to help him, saying that Thor has trapped him. Strange isn't quite convinced, as he's heard that Thor fights for justice, but Loki continues his story. Strange scans his form with his amulet, which reveals indeed that the chains binding Loki are in fact evil. Loki tells him that only Thor's hammer can set him free, and asks Strange if he can get the hammer. Strange tells him that the hammer is too alien an object, and that he would need something made of the same material. Loki gives him a sliver of the thong from the hammer.
Loki gloats, but Strange thinks that there's more going on than appears to the eye. He does cast the spell, however, calling on the power of Dormammu and the Vishanti, as well as the hosts of Hoggoth. An ethereal hand appears from another dimension and then turns diamond-hard. It locates Thor flying with the hammer and takes it away from a startled Thor, who begins falling as he can't fly without the hammer.
We see Loki scheming about ruling the world with the aid of Mjolnir (I guess he hadn't figured out yet that he couldn't use the hammer himself), and potentially Asgard as well.
Meanwhile, Strange has scanned the thong given him by Loki, revealing no trace of evil. He realizes that the evil he detected earlier came from Loki himself. Loki attacks now, but Strange is ready to fight back. As Loki changes his appearance to an unbound evil God, Strange attempts to bind him mystically. Loki breaks those bounds easily, but Strange is undaunted. Loki thinks that even though he's there in his spirit form, his magic is still stronger than Strange's.
Loki casts a mystical cage around Strange, but Strange defeats it with the power of his amulet. He then uses a spell to create multiple forms of himself, hoping Loki will waste his energy defeating his duplicates, but Loki easily beats them all. However, Strange has actually stepped on the other side of the wall, and releases his astral form. He sneaks up behind Loki and casts a spell dispelling his earlier spell and returning Mjolnir to Thor, saving him from falling to hs death. Thor uses his hammer to trace the mystic energy that caused the problem in the first place.
Loki sees Thor coming his way. Meanwhile, Strange has regained his physical form and has grabbed the gem that leads to the purple dimension, threatening Loki with it, as even immortals cannot escape from there. He demands that Loki surrender. Loki has other ideas, reminding Strange that he's an immortal while Strange is just a mortal human being. He attacks with fury, and only Strange's amulet protects him from the attacks, and even that is failing. However, just as he's about to finish off Strange, Thor's imminent arrival causes Loki to flee, vowing to make Strange pay some day. Thor stops short as his hammer no longer registers the energy he was tracking, and he flies away. Meanwhile Strange is licking his wounds, realizing how close he was to losing this battle.
My rating: 8/10
For the first time in a while, Strange gets an adversary that's not only more powerful than he, but one who also had him beaten. He does manage to out think Loki, but it doesn't save him, and it makes him much more vulnerable, which is good.
Something I've also noticed over the last few stories is that Strange isn't calling on the Ancient One for help anymore, which is good. I think it weakened him as a character, and the more he's able to stand on his own two feet the better.
One other observation: Marvel had a ton of high quality, legendary artists working for them during this time period. That being said, not all of them were great drawing every character. I think Kirby drew possibly the worst Spider-Man I've ever seen, and I can't say much better about Ditko's Thor. He's just lacking the majesty of Kirby's Thor, as Kirby's Spider-Man looked too bulky and lacked the fluidity of Ditko's.
I think only Al Hartley drew Thor worse. Today they don't seem to notice or care if this artist can draw that character.
I believe in the 80s it was established Nightmare was a vastly more powerful being than we've been seeing here, at least Loki level, so it's odd Doc can beat Nightmare pretty easy but has no chance against Loki. This is like Stan showing the Silver Surfer beat the Hulk, Thor beat the Surfer, yet saying neither Thor nor Hulk could beat the other.
He's starting to get partial covers. Interestingly he won't get the full cover until Steve Ditko leaves. As soon as he's gone Doc starts alternating with Nick Fury.
Strange Tales #124 - "The Mystery of the Lady From Nowhere!"
Cover Date: September 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Dr. Strange is gallivanting around the city in his astral form. However, his fun is cut short by an aura of evil in his path. He traces it to its source, and it happens to be a woman in purplish robes and a cowl, her face hidden by a veil. Strange realizes that the force is as powerful as he is, but that it's not coming from the woman, as she's stuck in an unbreakable spell (no, Mordo isn't involved, so this one may actually be unbreakable). Strange attempts to use his amulet to break the spell, but that doesn't work(unbreakable, I tell you!). Failing that, he uses his amulet to guide the girl to his house, hoping to find a way to help the woman once he's back in his physical body.
Back at his house, he's still unable to break the spell, so he calls upon the inner eye of his enchanted amulet to find out who she is and why she's so ensorcelled. What he finds is so shocking that the only possible course of action is to go visit the Ancient One for a consultation.
At the Ancient One's castle, the Ancient One tells Strange that he needs to travel backwards in time in order to solve this riddle. Strange asks the Ancient One for permission to travel in time, which the Ancient One grants. He does warn Strange that if he gets into any trouble in the past, he'll be on his own.
The Ancient One casts a spell to send Strange back in time, but with another warning--he can only stay there so long as a specific candle burns. If it stops burning before he returns, he'll be stuck. Strange agrees, and the Ancient One calls on the power of the Dread Dormammu and the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth to help send strange on his way.
Back in time, Strange happens upon a character named Zota, who has taken someone prisoner and who also has a special mirror that can sense impulses. Seeing a warning from the mirror, Zota leaves his prisoner to investigate. Strange arrives, and Zota manages to trap him inside a cage of light. Zota gloats over his captive, but also realizes that he isn't an ordinary human.
The Ancient One reminds us that Strange has to return before the candle burns out.
Strange uses the power of his amulet to cause a brazier to smoke. It covers the source of the light trap, and Strange is able to escape. Zota attacks, and Strange, realizing that he's not powerful enough to withstand him in his astral form goes and hides in the smoke. However, Zota's attack uses up too much of his power, and now he's vulnerable to attack from Strange's amulet. Holding Zota motionless, Strange probes his brain to find out what he knows. After the probe is finished, Strange makes Zota release all of his prisoners, telling him that no longer shall fellow humans serve him as his power is gone.
Strange then starts to return to the present, just as the candle is burning out. The Ancient One has created a path of light for Strange to follow, but the candle burns out. Strange is able to use his own power to keep the path illuminated for a little while, but then it fades away before he can return. So the series is over as Dr. Strange is trapped in the past and...
Oh, wait. It's comics after all. Dr. Strange suddenly remembers that he wears this trinket, some sort of amulet, and it's able to light up the path for him. He makes it back to his time.
Strange returns to his house and reunites with his physical body. He's discovered that Zota was the one who sent her here in the first place as he loved her but she wasn't interested. Utilizing the crimson bands of Cyttorak, he's able to lift the spell over none other than Cleopatra who isn't looking terribly Egyptian here, but who knows what sort of reference materials were available at the time. Anyway, Strange sends her back to her own time.
My rating: 6/10
I should have liked this more I think, but it just never felt like the stakes were that high. It's one of the limitations of having a story where magic is readily available and more or less easily used. The sequence with Strange attempting to return to the present is meant to be fraught with tension, but since the amulet can do pretty much anything, the tension fizzles flat.
One other thing I found problematic, and which I think there was time to explain, was where was Zota getting this technology? Did he create it? Was it supposed to be something that was available in ancient Egypt? If anyone has been reading my reviews for a while, you know I hate these unexplained aspects of a story.
Randy Jackson said:
Utilizing the crimson bands of Cyttorak, he's able to lift the spell over none other than Cleopatra who isn't looking terribly Egyptian here, but who knows what sort of reference materials were available at the time.
The Cleopatra of Antony and Cleopatra fame was actually Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt before it was absorbed by the Roman Empire. Marvel probably made her look Caucasian because they didn't think about it. Surprisingly they were accidentally correct. Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt. When he died a Greek dynasty began reigning as pharaohs. This Greek dynasty lasted almost 300 years, refusing to speak Egyptian, and was the only Egyptian dynasty to have female pharaohs. Cleopatra VII was apparently the only Greek pharaoh to learn and speak Egyptian. I have a Wikipedia link below, but I learned this independently at Cleopatra: The Exhibition when it visited Los Angeles.
There was some show that said despite all the talk about her being beautiful, Cleopatra wasn't really much that to look at and everyone wanted her because of her political power and keen strategic mind, not her beauty as we've been told over the centuries.
Strange Tales #125 - "Mordo Must Not Catch Me!"
Cover Date: October 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Strange is relaxing at home, studying the spells of the Omnipotent Oshtur, when three figures burst into the room. Strange instinctively knows they are followers of Mordo and easily dispels them with a spell. Realizing that Mordo knew those attackers would have zero chance against him, Strange realizes it was a ploy of some sort that he needs to figure out. He enters his special chamber of shadows where stands the all-seeing eye of Agamotto! Actually, it looks more like a globe under glass, but it's comics. Consulting the eye, Strange pinpoints the trouble spot as being over Tibet, where the Ancient One lives.
Strange tries to contact him immediately using mental telepathy, but there's no answer. So in order to boost his powers, he allows the power of his amulet to enter his brain, giving him a third eye. Using this power, he's able to check out the Ancient One's castle. however, he finds it empty.
Strange is taken aback, as the Ancient One never leaves his castle. A voice tells him that he has changed things, and there stands Mordo (isn't Strange's house supposed to be impervious to forced entries?). Anyway, Mordo tells Strange that he has captured the Ancient One and placed him where he cannot help Strange, as he believes that without the Ancient One's help he should be able to overpower Strange. Strange asks where the Ancient One is, and Mordo shows him an image of the Ancient One...sitting somewhere.
Mordo attacks. Strange blocks. Strange changes to his astral form so that he can battle Mordo without hurting innocents. They continue fighting. I stifle a yawn. Strange leads Mordo on a chase around the world. It seems to be aimless, but Strange is searching for something, and finds it in Tibet. Strange goes inside, and finds the Ancient One imprisoned within the Crimson Circle of Cyttorak. He tells the Ancient One not to worry, as Mordo shall not prevail.
To back up his claim, Strange uses the power of his amulet to create a great light that shall defeat Mordo. Mordo calls upon the Vapers of Valtorr to put out Strange's light, guided by the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth. However, it doesn't work. Strange explains that Mordo's power is evil whereas his own is the power of right. Mordo made a mistake calling upon the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth because Hoggoth is on the side of good. Strange's shield causes the Vapers of Valtorr to vanish.
Mordo tries a different attack with the Vapors of Valtorr (hey, someone get this writer an editor!), wrapping Strange, shield and all, into a cocoon of Vapors. However, Strange dispels the cocoon with the light of the Vishanti.
Mordo wraps himself in a cloak of darkness so he can think. However, Strange is now pressing his advantage and he's able to dispel the darkness. Once the darkness is gone, the light from the amulet is too much for Mordo, and he yields, freeing the Ancient One. Strange asks the Ancient One what to do with Mordo, and the Ancient One tells him that only the weak can allow themselves the luxury of retribution. He thinks Mordo is going to slink away with his tail between his legs and won't attack again for a long, long time.
My rating: 3/10
Wow, another Baron Mordo story. Who'da thunk it?
This is just...I dunno, I guess I just expect much more. This has the feeling of something written for small children in an attempt to explain how the magic works.
Once again, Mordo is barely a mosquito attempting to chew on Strange's shoulder. He really shouldn't be used again unless and until they can figure out a way to actually make him a threat.
Ron M. said:
Stan seemed to have a thing for Cleopatra. She'd just turned up in Iron Man a year before this.
I've seen it pointed out that the Iron Man story, from May 1963, was probably inspired by Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, which came out in June. The Rama-Tut story is from July, the Dr Strange one came out in June 1964.
I think that the early Dr. Strange stories are really only enjoyable for Ditko's art.
The early stories are great fun (and a bit scary like with Mordo chasing him) if you're a kid and not thinking about how easily he keeps winning.