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.
Strange Tales #126 - "The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!"
Cover Date: November 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Dr. Strange is resting, having defeated Baron Mordo again. Suddenly a spell grabs him and takes him to the presence of the Ancient One. When he arrives, the Ancient One reveals a spirit form that happens to be a messenger from the Dread Dormammu. Dormammu intends to leave his own dimension and enter ours. The Ancient One says that must never happen, because he's just too powerful. However, he no longer has the strength to stop him. Strange says he'll take Dormammu on.
The Ancient One warns him that Dormammu is the most powerful foe he's ever fought, and that if he fails, there will be no help for Strange. Strange tells him that he shall not fail, so the Ancient One casts a spell sending him to Dormammu's dimension.
Arriving in Dormammu's dark dimension, Strange is immediately confronted with a menace to battle, a giant red demon. They battle, and as Strange is able to withstand the attack, a door opens leading him further into the dark dimension.
Meanwhile, Dormammu is watching. He's disappointed that it's not the Ancient One, but merely his disciple. He thinks he'll beat Strange easily. Dormammu has advisors, and one of them asks if the interloper Strange might be stronger than Dormammu expects. Dormammu doesn't like back talk, so he seals his advisor in a box surrounded by the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak until such time as it pleases him to release him. Tough boss.
Strange continues moving through the dark dimension. He is confronted by a small humanoid that seems to have no powers. Strange attempts to hold him off with a spell, but the effects make the humanoid grow larger. Further spells only make him bigger. Finally Strange casts his most powerful spell, and causes the humanoid to overload with magic, causing it to explode.
Strange is being observed by a white-haired woman. She realizes he's there to battle Dormammu. She's then disappointed as Strane is sucked into what looks like a magic carpet. On the other side are a group of beings pleased to have captured him. Strange realizes he has actually entered another dimension. He fights against the beings there and finds to his chagrin that magic doesn't work against them. Strange then remembers his amulet, and uses it's light to blind the dimensional dwellers until he can escape. The white-haired woman is impressed, but doesn't think he can beat Dormammu. She tries to tell him to go back, but Strange doesn't hear her.
Strange is attacked again by a being that sort of looks like a genie. He dispels him wiht the help of the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, but then another appears. This new menace attacks Strange with bubbles, which turn into a cage for Strange. As the bubbles harden, there's no air for Strange to cast his spells, but once again he uses his amulet to carve a hole, then uses the light of the Vishanti to immobilize his attacker. Then he dispels the bubbles with the Vapors of Valtorr. He's got confidence now, and easily deals with the additional attackers that have appeared. Once again, the white-haired girl is impressed.
Dormammu meets with his lieutenants who failed to stop Strange. They plead for mercy, but he banishes them to limbo until the intruder is slain. He then decides to deal with Strange himself, and creates a path.
The white-haired girl is thinking she'll never see Strange again as she knows he's going to face Dormammu directly. Strange begins walking the path to Dormammu. THe white-haired girl stops him and tells him to go no further as the Dread Dormammu will kill him. Strange tells her that he knows that. She tries to warn him again, but Strange is a stubborn man, and goes off to meet his doom.
Entering Dormammu's presence, Strange tells him that he's forbidden from entering our dimension. Dormammu thinks he's just a messenger and doesn't wish to be bothered with him, demanding the Ancient One instead. Strange tells him that he's the man Dormammu has to defeat. Dormammu invites him to battle, but tells him that he's unbeatable.
To be continued...
My rating: 8/10
Now this is more like it; we have a credible threat of immense power, we begin to see just what the Ancient One has been grooming Strange for, we have a budding romance (assuming Strange survives), and Ditko gets to go bonkers drawing another dimension.
If there is anything I have to quibble about with this story, it's that the amulet is still being used more like a Swiss Army Knife than the extremely powerful mystical artifact that it is. It seems as if they get Strange into a pickle and then use the amulet as a Deus Ex Machina to get him out rather than thinking of something different. Still, that being said, it's a good start to a good run of stories.
When they reprinted this in the 70s they cut out the panels where he's pulled into the dimension where magic doesn't work. Seems like if magic doesn't work the amulet shouldn't work either. Unless it has a really bright flash light mode.
We seem to be finally getting a supporting cast, but this girl won't even get a name until Ditko's last issue.
He could always call on the power of Dormammu to beat Dormammu --- no, wait!
Dormammu (as he's about to blow Strange away): "Hang on a second. I'm getting a call for help from somebody. Here you go, whoever you are." Blasts himself in the face. "Doh! I'm gonna get you for that!"
It wasn't that magic wouldn't work in that dimension, but that it wouldn't work on the beings attacking Strange.
They looked like robots. They must have been sensitive to strong lights since the amulet should have just been a flashlight to them if magic didn't affect them.
Wait! He could call on the power of the once mentioned then forgotten Mormammu, who probably hates that he's always being confused with the fire guy.
Hmm...was Mormammu his distant rural cousin?
Something big must have happened since he's never mentioned again.
Maybe he got caught cheating on his taxes? That's how they caught Al Capone.
Strange Tales #127 - "Duel With the Dread Dormammu!"
Cover Date: December 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Dormammu is still trying to talk Dr. Strange out of fighting him, but Strange is undaunted. Dormammu decides to give him a little time to reconsider. He claims he doesn't want to fight Strange because Strange is too weak.
A few moments later, Strange is by himself and pondering the upcoming battle. At this point the white-haired woman reveals herself again and tells him not to fight Dormammu. Strange tells her that he must fight Dormammu, even if it costs him his life. She tells him that he must not because if he wins, it may doom the denizens of Dormammu's dimension. Strange doesn't understand, so she casts a spell conjuring up the entrance to the beyond, then leads Strange in.
The door leads to the outskirts of Dormammu's domain, and we're introduced to the Mindless Ones, who attack them. Strange asks why they've never attacked before, and the girl explains that a mystical shield created by Dormammu keeps them safe. She tells him that only Dormammu can protect them from the Mindless Ones. Strange ponders this information. He doesn't want to threaten Dormammu's people, yet he's sworn to protect Earth. He chooses to follow his oath.
Dormammu summons Strange. He's taken the girl prisoner, as she broke his law by speaking with an outsider. She's to remain shackled and chained until Strange is dead, then she dies next. Strange understands that he's made the correct decision.
The battle begins. Dormammu attacks, testing his opponent. Undaunted, Strange fights back, testing Dormammu as well. Dormammu tries to make Strange disappear, but Strange calls upon the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth to aid him. Strange attacks, but Dormammu shrugs it off.
The Ancient One is watching. He says that this battle shall be final.
The battle continues. Strange can parry Dormammu's attacks, but he can't counter. Dormammu knows he's stronger, but Strange's valor is making him more of a match than he expected. The white-haired woman thinks that no matter who wins, she's doomed.
Strange is growing weaker but refuses to yield. Suddenly the Mindless Ones attack, as the barrier has been weakened with Dormammu requiring more and more power to defeat Strange. Dormammu breaks off the fight to deal with them, turning his back on Strange, but Strange doesn't attack.
Dormammu attempts to create a temporary barrier to hold off the Mindless Ones, but it's not strong enough. Strange increases Dormammu's power with his amulet. Together, they are able to drive off the Mindless Ones.
Dormammu curses Strange for needing his assistance, as he says he cannot fight anyone who has saved him. Strange requests two promises from Dormammu: that the girl not be harmed, and that he vow to never invade the Earth. Dormammu agrees.
Strange asks the girl what she will do now. He offers to take her with him, but she tells him that this is her home and this is where she belongs.
Strange returns to Earth and the Ancient One's castle to find him gone. However, he's just in the next room. Strange notices that he seems stronger and more robust, and the Ancient One tells him it's because of his victory over Dormammu, breaking a spell that Dormammu had cast on him years ago. He bestows a reward on Strange: a new cape and a more powerful amulet. Strange thanks him and hopes he'll be worthy of his new gear. The Ancient One explains that he's already worthy, and that he's the one that shall replace the Ancient One when it's time for him to move on.
My rating: 8/10
This is a nice conclusion to our first clash with Dormammu, as the plot is simple but there's no wasted space within. There's some really nice work from Ditko with his depiction of this otherworldly dimension. It's nice, solid and tight, and the conclusion works nicely too.
Dr. Strange again seems too powerful. While Dormammu would have won, he pushed him enough to weaken his spell keeping out the Mindless Ones, and because of the battle he's now too weak to block them and has to be strengthened by Strange's amulet. And then he gets an even stronger one, as if this one wasn't already being overused.
Dormammu's capture of the so far unnamed girl suggests embarrassment that she asked a mortal not to fight him because she's afraid Doc will win and the Mindless Ones will get her.
Anyone else notice Clea's hair looks like devil horns? Ditko wanted to make it clear this was not a human woman. A later writer (Steve Englehart?) would make this even clearer by establishing she was Dormammu's niece. He brings her back in his last issue, leaving one wondering what he might have had planned for her if he'd stayed.
This isn't the first time the Ancient One has mentioned being replaced. I wonder if Ditko had a plan to remove him from the series if he hadn't quit? Perhaps he wouldn't have come back from Zom's attack? Since one of his vigilantes resembles the Living Tribunal, I suspect that was a character he made up before leaving that sat around until Stan decided to use him (in his own last issue) so Zom might have also been his idea. In the Charlton Bullseye he made doodles of a lot of characters that he would later make stories about, so he might have left some sketches of future baddies behind.
Randy Jackson said:
Strange Tales #122 - "The World Beyond!"
My rating: 7/10
Much like the previous story featuring Baron Mordo, Strange is once again put in a situation where he can't use his magic to solve his problems, so he has to use his brain instead. This is cool, and it's nice to see Ditko get to go crazy with the visuals. The pacing is good as well, although perhaps the scene where Nightmare is torturing Dr. Strange could have lasted a couple of panels fewer.
At the same time, for the second issue in a row, one of Strange's primary adversaries is reduced to the role of nuisance. Nightmare comes off as being quite ineffectual in this story and by story's end it's obvious he poses no real threat to Dr. Strange.
One more thing that's clearly obvious: Strange needs someone to talk with. He sounds just a little odd talking to himself most of the time.
Good points, Randy. We're told Nightmare is a powerful creature, one to be feared, and I'm just not seeing it.
Strange not having anyone to talk to reminds me of the early Iron Man stories. Before Pepper and Happy came along, Tony had a lot of monologues too.