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.
Tiboro's claim he'll come back stronger only makes sense if this was a sort of test and he wasn't going all out, otherwise it's just a bluff, and not a very impressive one, since if he possesses greater powers, why doesn't he use them now? I know he turned up again when Doc had that blue face, but he didn't seem that impressive then either. It seems like after showing Doc having trouble fighting Dormammu, Stan decided to boost him back to all powerful again.
I did enjoy the idea that Strange is known by the public, although they tend to think he's a phony. Surprised nobody ever showed up at his house asking him to read their fortune.
The Tiboro story was the last issue in the 70s paperback collection of Dr. Strange stories. There was a volume two that stopped just four issues from "The End At Last!"
Strange Tales #131 - "The Hunter and the Hunted!"
Cover Date: March 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Strange is running through the streets of Hong Kong, trying to keep Mordo's aides from attacking the Ancient One. He's also wondering how Mordo got stronger. He's attacked, but the brightness of his amulet drives his attackers away. He then uses his fists as well as his powers to render them all unconscious.
Back at the Ancient One's castle, Mordo is talking with Dormammu. They're arguing a bit because they're villains, and neither is willing to take a back seat to the other. After their conversation, Mordo summons one of his disciples. He mystically sends him to Hong Kong to find Dr. Strange, casting a spell that will allow Mordo to see through his disciple's eyes.
He sends the disciple to seek out a den of smugglers. Locating the smugglers, he orders them to search for Dr. Strange. They refuse, then Mordo speaks up, showing them that he's inside his disciple's mind. The smugglers tell him they are not afraid of Mordo or his mystic powers. Mordo entraps the one who spoke to him thusly within a sphere composed of the Vapors of Valtorr. The other smugglers accept him as their master and go search for Strange.
The city is blanketed by those searching for Strange, including the wraith-like spirits Mordo sent out last issue. However, they cannot find him.
Strange is at the airport and has secured a ticket. He's hiding in plain sight. He goes to the waterfront to wait until his plane is ready to leave, as he hopes that will make any enemies think he's attempting to leave via boat. He notices a couple of suspicious men and realizes he's been caught. He fights but the numbers are too many. He casts a spell forcing his attackers to disperse. Meanwhile, Mordo is on his way. Strange uses the multiple image illusion again, and it seems to work. However, Mordo arrives and takes over the fight.
Strange has run away, but realizes now that he's being chased by Mordo himself, and Mordo is sending out his wraiths. Strange once again casts the multiple image spell, but this time with a twist--each copy has the power of hypnotism. This draws the wraiths to the images, and Strange is able to escape again.
Dr. Strange returns to the airport but finds it swarming with Mordo's agents. He spies a cargo handler and takes him under his control by using the Roving Rigns of Raggador. He hides inside a crate and allows the cargo handler to take him to the plane. He manages to make it on to the plane just before take off. A wraith pursues him onto the plane, so Strange takes his astral form to do battle. Calling upon the powers of the Omnipotent Oshtur, the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth and the Eternal Vishanti, he makes the wraith disappear.
Mordo realizes that something has happened and sends out his wraiths in force. Dr. Strange disguises his astral form as one of the wraiths and manages to elude capture. Mordo is convinced that Strange outwitted him and did not escape by plane, leaving Strange free to plan.
To be continued...
My rating: 8/10
This was fun. A nice pace, nonstop action, and the story continues to build upon itself. The reader can tell that Dr. Strange will ultimately win, but his danger seems real right now. It's a well-crafted script and a well-executed comic.
Years later Oshtur and Hoggoth would be named as two of the Vishanti, so he's calling on them twice.
Always wondered just what these spirits were. Actual spirits of the dead? Mystic constructs? I don't think they were ever explained.
It's interesting that despite all of his power (and the flight he has a cloak of levitation) that he needs a plane or boat to get to where he's trying to go. In later years he'd do a lot of teleporting, until somewhere in the 80s, where it was decided it was damaging the walls between Earth and other dimensions (yet nobody ever stopped Nightcrawler or Magik.)
I think the difference is that neither Nightcrawler nor Magik used mystical means to teleport. Both of them used native mutant abilities.
Strange Tales #132 - "Face To Face At Last With Baron Mordo"
Cover Date: April 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Dr. Strange has returned to New York. He needs to return to his Sanctum Sanctorum to consult his mystical devices and determine where Mordo's extra power is coming from, but he knows that Mordo has likely set a trap for him there. He sends his astral form forward to check it out.
Inside, he finds one of Mordo's demons standing guard. The demon senses his presence and tries to trap him using the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak. However, Strange manages to elude capture. No longer sensing his presence, the demon dispels the Crimson Bands. Strange returns to his body.
In Tibet, the Ancient One is on his sickbed. He keeps raving about Eternity, and that Strange should know it.
Strange locates a costume shop. Back at the Sanctum, a magician is knocking on the door, wanting to challenge Strange. The demon seeks to get rid of him, so he answers the door and tells the challenger that Dr. Strange has departed forever. The challenger threatens to go to the newspapers and tell them that Dr. Strange is a fraud and a coward. The demon seeks to stop him, but is suddenly knocked out by a right cross from the challenger, who turns out to be Dr. Strange. He then rushes in to the Sanctum in order to stare into the Eye or Agamotto and learn who's aiding Mordo. However, the eye has been booby-trapped by Mordo. The spell instantly alerts Mordo as to Strange's whereabouts. He tells Dormammu that now that they know where he is, they can attack again. Dormammu is not impressed, and tells Mordo that this time he must not fail. He gives Mordo another power boost, then goes after Strange. Dormammu sits on his throne and hopes that Strange is destroyed so that he no longer has to uphold his oath.
The white-haired woman that Strange met before when he was in Dormammu's dimension asks her father what Dormammu's plans are, but he won't tell her as it's too risky. She wonders if Dr. Strange is in danger again.
Back at the Sanctum, Dr. Strange has discarded his costume and stands in his own identity, waiting for Mordo. Mordo arrives, and Strange tells him he's through running. They fight, and Mordo has the upper hand. Strange attempts to buy time by accusing Mordo of having a power source beyond his own powers, but Mordo fends off all of his attacks. Mordo strikes, and Strange seems to be on his last legs, but he refuses to give up. Slowly, Mordo's power begins to ebb.
Strange gathers himself to attack. At this point, Dormammu decides to strike directly through Mordo and tells Mordo to let his mind go blank. Mordo attacks, and Strange recognizes the voice of Dormammu. The attack sends Strange into a void.
To be continued...
My rating: 7/10
This is a good continuation of the prior stories. I like how Strange used his head to defeat Mordo's demon, and during the showdown between Strange and Mordo, there was actually some tension. I'm looking forward to the next issue.
Even with a power boost Mordo can't win. Maybe Dormammu should have offered his power to the Demon or that Aggamon guy.
This is the third time Strange has disguised himself to trick Mordo, a gimmick that makes him seem more interesting than just having him outpower Mordo every time they fight.
I believe the amulet was later named the Eye of Agamotto and the object he stared into became the Orb of Agamotto. At least that's how I remember it in his second series when he fought Silver Dagger.
The demon seeks to stop him, but is suddenly knocked out by a right cross from the challenger, who turns out to be Dr. Strange.
Not a very impressive demon.
Except for a few like Mephisto and Satannish, demons tended to get knocked around a lot by superheroes.
Strange Tales #133 - "A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time!"
Cover Date: May 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Mordo is gloating over his victory over Dr. Strange to Dormammu. Dormammu tells him that Strange is still alive. He tells Hordo that Strange gathered the rest of his strength and traveled to another dimension. Mordo asks for more power to follow him, but Dormammu tells him there are too many dimensions where he may have gone, so wait for him to return.
Meanwhile, in Dormammu's dimension, the white-haired girl is also monitoring the situation. She overhears Dormammu talking to Mordo and realizes that Dormammu intends to destroy Dr. Strange. She laments that she cannot find strange and help him.
We catch up with Dr. Strange as he travels through several dimensions, as the spell he cast breaks through all obstacles in his way. Once the power of the spell runs out, Strange lands in another dimension. He senses a presence and turns to see a woman. The woman warns him to leave as he is in great danger here. She tells Strange that her power-mad half-sister has stolen her throne and has decreed death for all strangers. Strange asks why as his visit is completely peaceful, but the woman tells him that her sister Shazana rules through fear and knows that her subjects hate her, and therefore she fears all strangers as spies sent to dethrone her. She tells Strange that if Shazana finds him, it will mean the end of his life.
Speak of the devil, one of Shazana's knights attacks, trapping Strange and the woman in a circle of mystical light. He takes the two of them to see Shazana. Strange tells Shazana that he comes in peace from another dimension and that there is much knowledge they could share, but Shazana tells him he's full of it, that he's here to help dethrone Shazana.
Shazana tries to kill them both with a spell, but Strange has just enough strength to dispel it. Shazana gets extremely annoyed. Her half-sister tells Strange they need to flee, but he tells her that Shazana's spells travel much faster than the two of them can run, and they must face her. Shazana has sensed Strange's weakened condition--apparently this is something that all sorcerors can do--and begins toying with him while Strange rests. He hopes that she thinks that this is his normal weakness. Shazana forces Strange to his knees. Thinking she has him beaten, she decides to spare his life so that she can use him as an example to others who might try to dethrone her. She also sends her sister to her quarters, as she will allow her to live as well so she can show her subjects how merciful she is.
Turning her attention back to Strange, she casts another spell to reduce him to complete helplessness. Meanwhile, Strange's strength is return. He needs a few more minutes, so he calls upon the Vishanti for a delay. In ansswer to his spell, Shazana is told that her subjects have arrived with tribute and treasure. She goes to take their gifts while Strange waits for her to return. Strange sits and gathers his strength. He worries about the Ancient One.
Back on Earth, the Ancient One is being tended to. He raves about helping Strange and lapses back into a coma.
Strange has decided it's time to act. He paralyzes one of Shazana's pets then uses his amulet to probe the beast's mind. He's attempting to locate the source of Shazana's power. He finds out that she received training from another magician until she was stronger than he and then destroyed him, then concealed her mystical symbol under her throne.
He then sends the mystic eye of his amulet forth to the heretofore unnamed half-sister. He bids her to visit him, and tells her to gather trusted allies so he can defeat Shazana. She agrees and quickly gathers some allies. Strange tells them that their job is to prevent anyone from warning Shazana until he attacks. They agree, and he heads to the throne room.
In the throne room, Shazana is telling her subjects that the tribute they brought isn't good enough, and to bring back better treasures or their lives shall be forfeit. She goes to check on Strange, not realizing that he's in the throne room, disguised by a spell. She finds Strange missing, and returns to the throne room to be near her source of power.
Back in the throne room, Strange uses his amulet to ferret out the power source. The throne disappears revealing a globe. Shazana enters and threatens Strange. Strange destroys the globe, and Shazana's power disappears. The half-sister becomes Queen as Shazana descends into madness. Strange continues on his journey.
To be continued...
My rating: 6/10
I think myself and a lot of others would have preferred a resolution to the Strange/Mordo battle, but this wasn't a bad substitute. It's a pretty straightforward story but it's reasonably fun. I do wonder why the half-sister never got a name. The art is unsurprisingly good.
If she received training from a magician like Strange did, and it could still be taken away by destroying her power source, then does Doc also have a power source? I vote for the amulet.
Strange Tales #134 - "Earth Be My Battleground!"
Cover Date: June 1965
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
Strange has returned to Earth. While he can't return home, he does know that Mordo has no way of knowing he's returned. He retrieves some street clothes, rents a room in a seedy hotel and then sends his astral form to visit the Ancient One.
Willing his astral form visible to all those in the room, the Ancient One's servant greets him. He tells Strange that the Ancient One has been in a coma since he left. The servant mentions the Ancient One's ravings about eternity, but Strange ignores that for now and uses his amulet to attempt to strengthen the Ancient One. He then goes off to try to find the meaning of eternity.
Strange scours the Ancient One's papers, but can find no mention of Eternity. He knows the Ancient One would not have said anything if it weren't important, so he vows to figure out what eternity means. However, in his earlier haste, he neglected to dispel the spell that allows others to see his astral form, and one of Mordo's spirits sees him, alerting Mordo. Mordo sends his astral form after Strange, with Dormammu vowing to feed him with power as needed to destroy Strange. Mordo locates Strange quickly.
Back in Dormammu's dimension Dormammu is watching the scene unfold. He's being watched by the white-haired girl. She has a plan to help Strange.
Strange is taking the battle to the surface so he can move around more easily (they are essentially ghosts who can pass through matter, correct? Why would the space make a difference?). Once there he attempts to outrun Mordo and his spirits, but he's not fast enough.
Back in Dormammu's direction, the white-haired girl has gone to the Mindless Ones, trapped behind a barrier of Dormammu's making. She uses a device to weaken that barrier. She runs away while the device makes the barrier weaker and weaker until the Mindless Ones can break through. They attack, but Dormammu is alerted before they reach his city. Because of the attack, Dormammu can no longer aid Mordo until he drives off the Mindless Ones. He deals with the Mindless Ones while the white-haired girl worries that Dormammu will find out she was the one who weakened the barrier.
Back on Earth, Strange does not know that Dormammu has withdrawn his power so Mordo presses his attack. Strange has a desperate plan and sends his astral form skywards. He's headed for the center of the Solar System. Mordo wonders why Strange is headed towards the Sun as the atomic energy at the sun's core could effect a chemical change that could prove fatal to astral forms. Strange challenges him to keep following him. Mordo's spirits hesitate, but Strange continues.
As Mordo's spirits flee, Mordo continues on. He boasts to Strange that he cannot lose him, but Strange counters that he shall fly directly into the core fo the sun and take him along. Mordo knows that means certain death and thinks perhaps Strange has a spell that will protect him that Mordo doesn't know about. Mordo tells Strange that he won't follow, but wait for him on Earth. Strange knows his bluff has worked, and that by returning to Earth himself via a different route, he can keep Mordo guessing where he is for days.
Strange goes to visit the Ancient One again. He finds that the Ancient One is doing better after his amulet treatment, although he is still in a coma. Strange plans to give him another amulet boost when the Ancient One once again tells him he must find eternity. Strange uses his amulet to probe his mind, but fails as the Ancient One's mind is locked in a mystic defense. He decides to visit others on Earth who may know what the meaning of eternity might be.
Back in Dormammu's dimension he's succeeded in pushing the Mindless Ones behind a new barrier then forces them to the outskirts of his domain. He contacts Mordo to find out the results of the battle, and calls Mordo a coward when he finds out what happened. He tells Mordo that he himself is weakened, but to keep searching for Strange and that he'll help when Mordo finds him. As he rests Dormammu tries to figure out how his barrier was weakened. The white-haired girl worries that Dormammu will figure out it was her.
Back on Earth, Strange returns to his body. He decides to try to lose himself in the night while he searches for eternity.
To be continued...
My rating: 7/10
This story is beginning to drag in some ways. At times it really feels like it's being padded out for reasons unknown. That being said, there's still a good aura of tension within. There's definitely a feeling of dread for the white-haired girl, and Strange has only bought himself time at this point.
Additionally, Ditko is really hitting his stride now. The splash page is lovely, and the things that need to be odd are suitably odd.
I find Ditko's work from this point a pleasure to look at, and his work from the 70s/80s only sometimes impressive and sometimes outright ugly. There seems a world of difference to me. It's not just that he brought so much imagination to "Dr Strange"'s magical special effects, because the cityscape and weather on the above splash are good too. Partly it's that he oversimplified his work and became uninterested in depicting modern fashions. But it's the later Ditko that the two pages here remind me of, although they're not as simplified, so the difference may partly have been in his level of engagement. (Sal Trapani used Ditko as one of his ghost pencillers. Ditko also pencilled for Wally Wood.)