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
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.