Saturday, July 16, 2016

Guest Review: The Origin of Dr. Strange - Strange Tales 115

Doug: Thomas F. is back. Having been inspired by Redartz's recent Who's the Best query on Dr. Strange artists, Thomas is going to take us back to the very beginning, replete with all the weirdness of Steve Ditko's Sorcerer Supreme!

Strange Tales #115 (December 1963)
“The Origin of Dr. Strange”
Stan Lee-Steve Ditko
Thomas F.: While not a Bronze Age tale, with an upcoming Dr. Strange film scheduled for release on November 4 of this year, I thought it would be apt to review the origin of Dr. Strange presented in the now-classic Strange Tales #115. For those seeking an inexpensive copy to own, this story is reprinted as the second feature in Marvel Tales #137. (Nearly five years later, in July 1968, a further, updated origin story appeared in Dr. Strange #169, written by Roy Thomas and penciled by Dan Adkins). 

Dr. Strange was first introduced five issues earlier, in Strange Tales #110, and according to Stan Lee, the Marvel bullpen was immediately flooded with fan letters asking for background information on the mysterious Dr. Strange. And so, Stan the Man hastily sat down at his well-worn typewriter to give Marvelites the inside scoop on the Master of Mystic Arts.

I find Steve Ditko’s phantasmagorical artwork very appealing. It’s so distinctive, so identifiable, that it would be impossible to mistake him for any other artist. Ditko’s surreal expressionism makes him ideally suited to pencil Stan Lee’s tales of the metaphysical. Few artists can convey optical illusions on paper as convincingly as Ditko.
Although for me personally, John Romita, Sr. and Jack Kirby will always be the definitive Silver Age artists, Ditko nonetheless remains a quaint favorite.

The relatively short Dr. Strange tales began as “backpage filler,” and steadily increased in popularity until he became the principal character of the Strange Tales comic. At first, Dr. Strange, despite his mastery of black magic, is to some extent still dependent on the powers and assistance of the venerable Ancient One. But over time he evolves, becoming more self-reliant. Generally, the stories involve Dr. Strange, who is ultimately just a talented mortal, using his mystical prowess to temporarily fend off interdimensional entities and thereby save the Earth from otherworldly perils unknown to most people. Yet for Dr. Strange, there are not many resounding triumphs. Most of his clashes with cosmic villains end in stalemates—with his relentless foes always scheming to return and defeat him on a future occasion. Just a few of Dr. Strange’s evil enemies who challenge him on a recurring basis include Baron Mardo, Dormammu, Nightmare, Eternity, and the Mindless Ones.
The tale opens in India, “land of mystic enchantment,” where we see a ragged traveler rushing into a fantastic chamber decorated with all kinds of esoteric artifacts. The man is Dr. Stephen Strange, and he is on a mission—to locate the legendary “Ancient One,” a wise being who is rumored to possess all manner of healing powers.

For those readers who are unaware, the Ancient One is a thousand-year-old sorcerer, the “Sorcerer Supreme,” who defends the Earth dimension from evil mystic forces. (I’ve noticed that future issues describe the Ancient One’s sanctuary as being in Tibet, not India).

The Ancient One confirms his identity to Dr. Strange, who then exhorts the elderly magician to help him. But the Ancient One rebuffs him, informing Dr. Strange that only those who are worthy of his care shall receive his aid. Distraught, Dr. Strange rushes forward toward the Ancient One, his hand raised, apparently with the intent to strike out. But with a wave of his hand, the Ancient One immobilizes Dr. Strange by causing him to levitate several feet above the ground, helpless. The Ancient One then uses his telepathic powers to penetrate deep into Dr. Strange’s mind, thereby learning the truth about him.

The Ancient One—and we, the readers—learn that Dr. Stephen Strange was an arrogant and materialistic neurosurgeon who cared little or nothing for others. Although brilliant and talented, all that interested him was wealth, and as a highly sought-after specialist, he charged his patients exorbitant fees. He refused all requests for charity work, and refused to treat those who were unable to pay for his expert yet costly services.

Then, through the Ancient One’s vision, we learn that Dr. Strange’s life took an unexpectedly tragic turn in 1963, when the neurosurgeon was involved in a devastating automobile accident that, ironically enough, spared his life but damaged the nerves in his hands so thoroughly that he was unable to operate ever again.

Embittered by the abrupt end of his surgical career, yet too egotistical to accept a lesser post and work as either a consultant or assistant, Dr. Strange traveled the world seeking a cure. In doing so, it wasn’t long before he exhausted his vast wealth and became a disheveled transient.

One day, idly standing by, Dr. Strange overheard a casual conversation between two sailors that peaked his interest: there was apparently a so-called “Ancient One” with magical powers who could cure any ailment. Frantic and grasping at straws, Dr. Strange sold his final possessions for airfare to the Orient and managed to locate the Ancient One’s sanctuary.

Having discerned the truth, the Ancient One ends his mental probe into Dr. Strange’s past and declines to cure Dr. Strange, since the former neurosurgeon’s reasons remain selfish. And yet, in spite of all this, the Ancient One perceives that there still remains a trace of decency in the wayward Dr. Strange. The Ancient One offers to allow Dr. Strange to stay with him and study, thereby giving him a purpose. But Dr. Strange is disgruntled by the Ancient One’s refusal to heal him, and rejects the offer out of hand. He tries to leave, only to discover that the entrance/exit to the Ancient One’s chamber is now blocked by thick snow.
Dr. Strange concedes that he has no choice but to remain until the presently impenetrable layer of snow thaws out. Next, the Ancient One introduces Dr. Strange to his apprentice-sorcerer Baron Mordo, and directs the spooky Mordo to take Dr. Strange to his quarters. (Interestingly, this origin story reveals that Baron Mordo’s first name is Karl).
Restless, Dr. Strange notes that Mordo spends all his time studying scrolls and spells, and scoffs at the seemingly pointless activity. Regretting his foolhardy decision to travel to the East, Dr. Strange decides to inquire of the Ancient One how long it will be before the snow melts. But when Dr. Strange enters the Ancient One’s private chamber, where the elderly wizard is meditating, he sees a swirling greenish vapor—“the vapors of Valtorr”—materialize out of thin air and attack the Ancient One. Agitated, the Ancient One reasons to himself that the vapors were brought about by “black magic,” and that only the same supernatural force will effectively counter it.

The Ancient One chants: “I summon the powers of the Vishanti! By the spell of the dread Dormammu, in the name of the all-seeing Agamotto—all thy powers I summon… Begone, forces of darkness!” No doubt Stan Lee got a kick out of writing this type of dialogue, and he did it so often that it became second nature to him. It strikes me that Stan Lee had to familiarize himself with “olde English” to pen some of that Shakespearean dialogue in the pages of Journey into Mystery and The Mighty Thor as well.

Dr. Strange is astonished by what he has just seen. He asks the Ancient One about the eerie phenomenon he has just witnessed. Reluctant to explain what has transpired to a Western skeptic, the Ancient One merely states that he must constantly be vigilant, since he is always beset by dark forces. Dr. Strange gazes at the Ancient One with a professional eye. He concedes to the Ancient One that he is no longer a surgeon, but as a medical man, he advises the hoary sorcerer that he is frail, weak, and needs to recuperate.
The Ancient One retorts that he cannot let his guard down now—not until he has found a suitable successor who can carry on his work and keep the forces of evil at bay.

Striding off, Dr. Strange leaves the Ancient One to his own devices and, musing to himself, observes that the heavy snows have nearly dissipated. But suddenly Dr. Strange comes across Mordo, who is deeply focused on some intense mystic activity. Mordo does not notice Dr. Strange, and Dr. Strange lingers, curious. He sees that Mordo is in communication with the evil Dormammu, ruler of the Dark Dimension, and that he is conjuring the same green vapors that had earlier attacked the Ancient One. Astounded, Dr. Strange realizes that it is Mordo himself, the Ancient One’s pupil, who was responsible for the prior attack on the Ancient One.

Dr. Strange confronts Mordo, accuses him of betrayal, and threatens to reveal Mordo’s dastardly schemes to the Ancient One. Mordo sneers at him, and with an incantation, conjures an iron clamp that covers Dr. Strange’s mouth, effectively silencing him. A restraint is also placed around Dr. Strange’s wrists, inhibiting his movement and preventing him from taking any aggressive action against Mordo. Both the iron clamp and restraints are invisible to all save Dr. Strange. 

Dr. Strange tries to convince himself that it must all be hypnotism, but when he tries to warn the Ancient One of Mordo’s duplicity, powerful bolts of mystic force prevent him from doing so.
He realizes sorcery is a real art and that that the Mordo’s magic powers are genuine, and most of all that he cannot stand by and let Mordo slay his wise mentor, or else the consequences to the world would be disastrous. 

Then and there, Dr. Strange decides that he will take it upon himself to learn sorcery, so that he can defeat the treacherous Mordo. Dr. Strange muses to himself: “If I, too, can learn the secrets of black magic, then I can battle Mordo with his own weapons!”

Dr. Strange seeks an audience with the Ancient One, and accepts the offer of apprenticeship that the Ancient One had made several days ago. He asks to become the Ancient One’s disciple, to study and learn the ways of black magic.

Pleased, the Ancient One grants Dr. Strange’s selfless request, and releases Dr. Strange from Mordo’s incantations. Dr. Strange is surprised that the Ancient One was aware of Mordo’s perfidy, and the Ancient One explains that as Mordo’s master, there is nothing Mordo can conceal from him. But instead of casting Mordo out, the Ancient One prefers to keep him nearby, where his rogue pupil’s evil can be kept in check. The Ancient One warns Dr. Strange that one day, as his successor, it will be his duty to defeat Mordo once and for all.

After many years of arduous study, Dr. Strange becomes an expert in the practice of sorcery and black magic, learns countless spells, and eventually takes on the mantle of “Sorcerer Supreme,” carrying on the Ancient One’s work.

Although it’s not revealed in this origin story, I might add that Dr. Strange’s costume is also a source of extra mystic power—namely, his Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agamotto. And later, Dr. Strange returns to New York City and establishes a sanctuary of his own—a mansion in Greenwich Village known as the Sanctum Sanctorum. He also employs a confidant and valet named Wong to assist him (not unlike Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth).

By the way, if you’ve got the cash, pick up the Dr. Strange Marvel Masterworks Edition, Volume 1. You won’t be disappointed. It contains the Dr. Strange material—in color—from Strange Tales #110 & #111, #114 - #141, and The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (in which Spidey and Doc Strange combine forces to defeat the evil wizard Xandu). It’s also chock-full of extras, including: original Ditko art from Strange Tales #125, page 8; and the covers of Strange Tales #182-188 which were illustrated by artists other than Steve Ditko. Strange Tales #182—cover by Gil Kane; Strange Tales #183—cover by Jack Kirby; Strange Tales #184, #185, #186, & #187—covers by Ed Hannigan; Strange Tales #188—cover by Gene Colan.


Anonymous said...

I missed the first two years of Marvel UK including Dr. Strange's origin but I finally got to read his origin in a novel-sized color collection of the early Ditko stories which I bought in 1978. Doctor Strange has always been one of my favorite Marvel characters and his origin is one of the best Marvel origins so it's ironic that he is not mentioned at all on the cover of Strange Tales #115 while the Torch/Spidey/Sandman story is totally forgotten nowadays.

Redartz said...

Nice review and overview of the good Doctor, Thomas! Like Colin, Dr. Strange has long been a favorite of mine (since being grabbed by Frank Brunner's cover to Dr. Strange #1 back in'74; the first 'Strange' story I ever read).

Yes, Ditko's art was perfect for these stories. The Spider-Man/Dr. Strange story you mentioned from Spidey Annual 2 really was a showcase for Ditko's talents. It graphically showed how a normal (?) person would be disoriented by the forces and environments that a sorcerer supreme would find him (or her) self in. And Ditko had a great knack for portraying the various spells and their wispy, mysterious appearance.

Greatly anticipating the movie this November. The latest stills look terrific...

Unknown said...

As for me, I was never a huge fan of Dr. Strange growing up, having always considered him to be a secondary character, and too bizarre for my tastes. But lately I've been reading the early Lee-Ditko tales in chronological order and I've been enjoying them immensely. I also look forward to the movie this autumn. By the way, if you're interested, check out the 1978 Dr. Strange movie---I watched the full feature film recently on YouTube, of all places.

Anonymous said...

It's been a long time since I read these old Strange Tales, but I agree Ditko was great at that psychedelic stuff. Nobody ever quite captured those alternate dimensions like he did. Cool review, TF!

Mike Wilson

Anonymous said...

Ahh nothing gets the blood flowing like a classic Doctor Strange tale!

Yeah great review here Thomas F! I've read this one already and Ditko was definitely the master of drawing those funky mystical effects, whether it was green smoke, or an alternate dimension. Not forgetting Stan's unique dialogue!

- Mike 'by the bolts of Bishru!' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Martinex1 said...

It's been a long time since I've read this. Thanks for the refresher Thomas. Having Strange be an arrogant self-centered and selfish character in the start is a very interesting approach to creating a hero. I like that his path was essentially that of a villain (injured but brilliant like Dr. Doom and so many others) yet he becomes a hero through his quest. I hope the film captures that aspect; it will set him apart from all the rest of the cinematic heroes. I also hope there is some of those whacky Ditko landscapes on display.

Doug said...

I've always enjoyed the Silver Age origin stories, wonky as some of them are. As Martinex said, the "feet of clay" aspect of most of Marvel's heroes so set them apart from what DC was doing at the same time. Hats off to Thomas for this overview.

That being said, I've never been a huge Dr. Strange fan outside of the Defenders. I should probably put forth a renewed effort, particularly with some of the Epic Collections coming available.


JJ said...

I've never seen even one panel from Dr. Strange's origin. Great work, Thomas. Top-flight imagineering from the architects of the Marvel universe.

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