It seems hard not to believe that Strange was deliberately making himself and his mission known to the world in a somewhat indirect and yet undeniably insistent way. In doing so, he walked a careful and trying line between making his presence ubiquitous and exposing the secrets of black magic in any detail to the public. It was as if he were drip-feeding an awareness of magic into the culture, while striving to avoid either terrifying the masses or encouraging them to dabble in sorcery. The knowledge of “the strange forces lurking beyond the border of man’s imagination” was something that Strange was always set on preventing, while it seems that simply developing a “dormant talent for sorcery” could bring the curious to the attention of nefarious powers. (Any polishing of Victoria Bentley’s mystic potential, for example, would have only attracted the never-benevolent gaze of Baron Mordo.) Only those whose off-Earth visits took them to Nightmare’s domain could hope to retain anything of their memories. Presumably those visits would be remembered as terrible dreams rather than objective experiences. Everyone else would have their minds wiped of what they’d encountered.
Strange was even content to allow himself to be publicly labelled as a fraud if it helped maintain the right balance between the public’s ignorance and its curiosity. And so, he allowed the respected and influential panelists of the “Twelfth Hour T.V. Show” to define him on air as a charlatan even though he’d rescued them all from imprisonment in Tiboro’s realm. In their gratitude and intellectual inquisitiveness, they’d initially wanted to “put on a show depicting what happened … and prove the existence of black magic”, but Strange’s priorities didn’t involve inspiring the unconditional respect of the media and the absolute faith of the world it informed. “It is not meant for mortals to know so much of what transpires in the mystic dimensions”, as Strange reminded himself, and so his constant, ambiguous flirting with the public’s imagination continued as before.
It’s impossible to tell how much Strange ever intended the world to know. Yet given his often-displayed ability to remove whatever he wanted of people’s memories, it’s certain that he choose to allow an awareness of aspects of the magical world to remain, bubbling up now and then in the public discourse. Not only did he permit his own identity to stay commonly known, but the knowledge of the likes of the disappearance of The House Of Shadows in front of dozens of witnesses remained public knowledge. Something of this may well have been connected to his determination to ensure that it was well know he could be approached for help. How could those in need seek him out if there was no knowledge at all of who he was and what he might possibly be capable of? And perhaps his efforts to ensure that the possibility that magic existed remained in the population’s minds was in some way related to his own discovery of the Ancient One. For he’d been saved and born again through listening to “low whispers” which suggested that the mysterious Ancient One could “cure anything … by some magic power”, even as the same whispers also murmured that the very idea was nothing but a “legend”. Strange knew all too well how desperately important it was that the myth of Earth’s magical defender circulated at some level.
And having “sworn to help mankind in any way” he could, Strange seemed to draw no distinctions between the needs of “tortured” individuals too scared to sleep for nightmares, Bavarian villagers facing an alien infestation, fearful disciples of rival sorcerers, or thieving hoodlums lost in extra-dimensional space after having broken into his own Sanctum Sanctorum. There was never any suggestion of fees, prior arrangements or a waiting list. Whoever turned up at Strange’s Greenwich Village home, mentioned a magical problem and asked for help was immediately granted assistance. Whatever else Strange was undertaking at that moment, the well-being of those who sought out his help – as we’ve previously discussed – came first.
But hand in hand with this commitment to public service – of a sorts – came an utter absence of any kind of intimate personal relationship with anyone beyond the ranks of the Ancient One’s devoted supporters. Even there, as we’ll see, meetings occurred solely on the basis of duty and need. Never once was Strange shown exchanging a single word with anyone he’d known prior to his initial meeting with the Ancient One. It was the lot of the Marvel superhero to long to participate in the conventional world while being exiled into an extraordinary and burdensome existence. Even those from their ranks who could easily pass for human often bemoaned the fact that were anything but, with few if any showing the degree of self-acceptance and assurance which the telepathic Jean Grey showed during her brief time at Metro College in the pages of the X-Men.
Yet Strange moved as calmly through the commonplace world as he floated across one of Ditko’s disturbingly hypnagogic alien landscapes. Always at ease and yet never just another member of the crowd, Strange constantly presented the air of an admirably self-contained individual whose sole purpose was to fulfil his duty. The streets of Greenwich Village and Hong Kong were just as capable of serving as mystical battlegrounds as were the Realm Of Tiboro or the Dread Purple Dimension, and Strange’s role was always to be his homeplanet’s protector rather than just another citizen. In that, he wasn’t defending the Earth so that he might continue to enjoy time with his family and his friends, let alone weekends at the Opera and the ball-game. His life only overlapped with that of the folks beyond his New York doorstep when his professional responsibilities called and compelled him to walk among them. Even then, the end of whatever crisis had loomed would see Strange returning to his privacy while leaving any newly-made acquaintances behind. Indeed, Strange was only once shown doing nothing but relaxing, and even that leisurely ectoplasmic flight above New York City in “The Lady From Nowhere” lead him straight to the mystery of the time-lost Cleopatra. Beyond that, his most quiet and private moments are still shown to have been invested in the study of occult texts. The mundane pleasures of the everyday world seem to have become, at best, largely meaningless or, at worst, a distraction that he simply couldn’t afford to indulge in. It may well have been that there simply wasn’t anything of normality for him to return to that could matter to the man he’d been transformed into. Perhaps he’d simply learned and experienced too much to go home again.
Whether this complete lack of friends, let alone the slightest hint of a social life, was a personal choice or an expression of Strange’s duty is impossible to say for sure. There’s certainly nothing to indicate that he ever longed to leave behind his obligations and live as everyone else did. Tony Stark longed for Pepper Pots, Thor for Jane Foster, Spider-Man for Betty Brant, and so on; their private aspirations and their public responsibilities were continually clashing one with the other. But Strange appears to have had only one not-so-simple task; to ensure that the masses who lived uninformed, conventional, comparatively fear-free lives were able to continue to do so. Sharing those lives wasn’t, it seems, any part of the deal.
So tightly focused does he appear to be on the 24-hour-a-day business of being Doctor Strange that his untypical fury at the intrusion of two burglars into his home during the events of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 makes perfect sense. It’s one of the few times he’s shown expressing anything other than calm, determination, wariness or weariness. “Intruders! Invading my privacy!” he growls in an unexpected eruption of ill-temper, “They shall pay dearly for this affront!” Such vengeance seems to be a disproportionate response to an ugly if apparently relatively unthreatening disruption, and it’s certainly out of character for Strange. After all, the Ancient One had reminded him in “Mordo Must Not Catch Me” that it’s “only the weak who can allow themselves the luxury of retribution”. But for all that he was perpetually steeled to deal with the demons and despots of the endless beyond, Strange may have been emotionally vulnerable to the unexpected intrusion of brutish, uncaring human beings. In fact, that vulnerability might very well have been caused by Strange’s overwhelming responsibilities.
It’s one of the moments when there’s more than a hint that Strange is always working at close to his maximum capacity, and though usually more than able to cope with his colossal duties, there’s a suggestion that unexpected, everyday threats can threaten to transform his studied equanimity into irritation, and worse. As such, it may be that Strange placed such strict limits upon his dealings with human beings because he knew the complexities of ordinary relationships would add an extra and debilitating degree of distraction to his already almost-overwhelming workload.
To be continued.
Colin Smith is Q Magazine’s comics columnist, and blogs at both TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics and the TBTAMCII Tumblr.
Let’s face it, Stephen seems to have been a bit of a dullard in those pre-Clea years; perhaps he was too new to the Master of the Mystic Arts game to realise that active relaxation is a good thing. But such an attitude is easier said than done when you know that a hostile incursion could occur anywhere on the planet, day and night – it’s not just a matter of keeping an eye on those double doors. Poor fella.