On the Profoundly Rational Doctor Stephen Strange

Who’d pitch a character such as Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s Doctor Strange to one of the Big Two today? Sorcerers and magic simply don’t sell where the audience for the super-hero comic’s concerned. Decades worth of sales figures, we’re assured, don’t lie. Worse yet, Strange’s original character was that of a middle-aged man who’d long since faced up to his demons, and, through humility, dedication and self-sacrifice, overcome them. His hero’s journey, as the storytelling dogma of the present day would have it, was over by the time of his first appearance in Strange Tales #110. Those Who Know insist on the need for a protagonist’s personality to be at the very least intriguing flawed, and yet Strange was never troubled in himself or significantly challenged by his place in the greater scheme of things. Calm, knowledgeable, wonderfully skilled, supremely competent; Doctor Strange was the finished article in terms of his character, his ability and his role. Yes, there were always new spells to learn, new mysteries to unravel, new otherworldly realms to explore, new fiendishly powerful antagonists to outwit. But he was in essence a master surrounded by the ever-increasing number of super-powered journeymen and apprentices springing up in the Marvel Universe of the early-to-mid Sixties. In terms of the givens of today’s market, 1963′s “Master Of Black Magic” would seem to be anything but a project worth commissioning. Fascinating, perhaps, and impressively inventive, but hardly the kind of glittering prospect that corporate careers can safely be gambled on.

Yet, Strange was similarly out of step when he first appeared. Marvel’s early years had seen a host of supposedly adult authority figures introduced, but Strange was the only one who could legitimately be considered a grown-up. Reed Richards, with his lunatic scheme to reach orbit using a stolen, untested spaceship and a motley crew of friends, acquaintances and lovers, was disturbingly impulsive, careless and obsessional. The narcissitically callous Charles Xavier should have been locked away forever on multiple counts of reckless child endangerment. Tony Stark was a Red-loathing warmonger so irresponsible that he could party in Egyptian night-clubs and burn around American race-tracks without even bothering to ensure that his life-prolonging chest-plate was charged. Thor effectively nuked China when he deliberately hurled the exploding Radioactive Man homewards without the slightest expression of concern or sorrow. Hank Pym experimented upon the vulnerable, traumatised Janet Van Dyne before pressing her into service as his sidekick. Bruce Banner kept turning up for work at a nuclear weapons testing facility despite knowing that he was capable of transforming into the Hulk. These were not well-balanced, socially responsible individuals. But Doctor Strange, alone amongst his strip-headlining fellows, undeniably was.

It’s true that there’d been nothing endearing about the man that Strange had been before the Ancient One accepted him as a student. Unlike his fellow super-people of the period, Strange’s life prior to his study of magic was an entirely despicable one. Whatever their flaws, both intended and implied, Marvel’s other post-adolescent supermen were characterised by good intentions, endearing personalities, and, with a few exceptions, sympathy-inducing disadvantages. By contrast, the “famous surgeon named Stephen Strange” was portrayed by Lee and Ditko as the most irredeemably heartless of privileged men. A vision of Western medical capitalism at its very worst, Strange was motivated by nothing but profit and status. Callous to the point of cruelty, he dead-batted all pleas for help from desperate would-be patients and charitable research projects. Grand projects for the betterment of society which arrived without substantial donations to his private fortune were beneath him.

It’s an excess of callousness which Ditko’s art in Strange’s origin tale succinctly emphasises. With his back always turned to his more benevolent fellow professionals, Strange was shown lighting a cigarette immediately after surgery while refusing to meet a grateful patient, focusing on the placement of his fedora rather than requests for help, and cruelly refusing to help a less affluent petitioner over the phone while nonchalantly examining an x-ray. Even when his ability to perform surgery was destroyed following a car crash, Strange displayed no evidence of humility or self-awareness. “I must be the best .. The greatest!!! Or else … nothing!”, Lee had him declare to himself after haughtily refusing to work as a consultant to a well-meaning fellow surgeon. In time, Strange sank into dereliction, a supremely precipitous fall which Lee and Ditko perhaps cleverly avoided explaining in any detail. Given how despicable the unenlightened Strange was, the reader’s pleasure at his suffering obscures any jumps in the logic of the storytelling where his fall from wealthy medical practitioner to homeless, harbour-haunting bum was concerned.

Marvel’s super-heroes tended to be born in tragedy. In contradiction of the Camelot Era’s public cult of conformity, fate cruelly and unexpectedly reached out and marked them out as abnormal, as outsiders. Power typically brought a weight of responsibility rather than advantage, humility rather than pride. With their freedom generally curtailed rather than enhanced, the sudden arrival of entirely-impossible powers tended to foster an empathetic awareness of how capricious and fragile good fortune could be. Physically different even when not obviously disadvantaged, Marvel’s supermen and women discovered that they now inhabited a quite different reality to that they’d always taken for granted. Theirs was now the world of the outsider, and the everyday reality of white-picket-fenced America had become a foreign world that they could only visit in disguise if they themselves wanted to be taken as everyday citizens. With great power didn’t just come great responsibility, but a fundamental alienation too, and that, of course, helped give the often profoundly conservative Marvel books their sense of representing the powerless and even the disposed.

Of course, some of Marvel’s earliest protagonists had had far more than an inkling that difference brought with it the narrowing of opportunity, of freedom. Peter Parker well knew that the labels of “wallflower” and “bookworm” marked him out as socially unacceptable to Midtown High’s student elite, while the lame Donald Blake holidayed alone and believed his disadvantage meant that his beloved Jane Foster could never accept him as a husband. Only Hank Pym’s super-abilities had arrived without anything of a shadow at all, and within a year, a murdered wife and a tragic sense of mission had been inserted into his backstory to put that right. Even the most privileged members of Marvel’s new and ever-growing class of super-people soon learned what it was like to fall out of synch with the comforting, taken-for-granted assumptions and routines of everyday life. There’d been no more exalted figure in American society than Tony Stark prior to the traumas of his South Vietnamese adventuring, and yet even he gradually found himself becoming more and more isolated from the world he’d been so central to before. If tragedy didn’t kick off the circumstances which lead to an individual acquiring super-powers, then it soon followed closely on from their becoming so radically different to the norm

Yet, the inciting incident which brought Strange’s medical career to an end, and ultimately resulted in his assuming the role of Earth’s sorcerer supreme, initially brought him neither incredible abilities or increased self-awareness. Ditko and Lee instead showed Strange rotting in his own arrogance, and the implication was that he’d rotted for a considerable time. Strange may have catastrophically encountered the proof of how arbitrary and merciless fate could be, but this inspired no sympathy in him for the similarly disadvantaged. Right up until the moment that he stumbled upon the evidence that “Black Magic” was as empirically verifiable as anything in modern science, he was continuing to function as an irredeemable egoist. As such, what’s most remarkable about Strange’s ultimate redemption is that it seems to have been inspired far more by logic and self-interest rather than any moral or sentimental transformation. His fellow super-people were inspired to adopt their costumed duties by the fact that unfortunate — if empowering — circumstances had reinforced their pre-existing decent-hearted values. But Strange didn’t have any fundamentally compassionate ethics or feelings to be bolstered, while suffering hadn’t stimulated his powers of empathy at all.

To be continued.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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