As with friendship, so with romance. Love, or at least lovelornness, tended to ground Marvel’s superheroes in a version of mundane reality that reflected the world-view of young boys just learning to recognise both longing and frustration. To the cocktail of melodrama created by physical difference and social alienation was added the inability to secure a stable and rewarding love life. No matter how attractive or not the secret identities of Marvel’s heroes might be, the focus of their amorous yearnings tended to paradoxically stay well within reach while somehow remaining persistently unattainable. A father’s disapproval, the looming dangers incited by the possession of super-powers, a fear of rejection because of untypical bodily transformations, an unacceptable age difference; Marvel’s lead characters suffered from a variety of reasons why they couldn’t ever express, let alone consummate, their infatuations. (*1) And yet, the sense was nearly always that the objects of adoration would have enthusiastically accepted their silent suitors if only the courage to speak could have been found. What could ring more true with pre-pubescent boys than a view of romance which suggested that everything would be ecstatic if only the object of their affection could know them for their secret selves? And what could seem more familiar than the presence of a thousand different reasons for delaying such a declaration of ardent fondness?
Strange had no such excuses for keeping silent, for Strange had, it seemed, no such desires. His obligations kept him away from anything other than a tiny number of opportunities to meet with any potential lovers. We’ve already noted that he had no apparent social life of his own, and that his only relationships of quality were with the Ancient One and his exclusively male followers. For all that the bonds between the Master and his various devotees were respectful, fond, and often openly loving, there’s no evidence at all to suggest that romantic and physical intimacy ever came into play. And so, regardless of whether he was to be found in the commonplace or the supernatural aspects of his existence, Strange’s life seems to have been lacking in even the slightest suggestion of amour. Indeed, the little we know of his past prior to his magical studies suggests a man for whom the warmer span of emotional and sensual needs may have been far less important than the quest for profit and professional esteem. Whether he’d repressed that entire area of his personal life, or whether he’d somehow never felt those needs in the first place, is quite impossible to say. Yet in showing no apparent interest in matters of the heart, Strange stood alone in comparison to the soap-sudded existence of every single other Marvel hero of the period.
Even when he encountered Cleopatra – who was represented according to the literary rather than the historical tradition of her beauty - he mentioned nothing of her allure at all. Whether straight or gay, or at some point of preference between the two, we might at least expect Strange to reflect on the attractiveness of such a cultural icon. Instead, as Lee tells us, his mind is “pondering … lost in thought …waiting for the next challenge to his mystic power”.
It’s easy to assume that Strange had always been heterosexual, given both his latter-day preferences and the absence of anything but the most conventional expressions of sexuality in the first wave Marvel books. After all, the very act of showing its superheroes expressing anything more volatile and intense than a taken-for-granted fondness for the opposite sex was radical enough in the day. (The very peak of daring in the context of boy’s comics of the first half of the Sixties was to show the apparently chaste and yet obviously obsessional ménage a trois between Reed Richards, Sue Storm and Prince Namor, in which Storm actually owned to the shocking fact that she couldn’t throw off her shameful attraction to the villainous, perpetually almost-naked undersea prince.) In such a profoundly repressed culture, the fact that Strange showed no inclination at all towards any form of intimacy beyond that expressed with his fellow brothers in magic could pass without note or speculation. Even though every single other costumed Marvel lead of the period was enmeshed in lovesick befuddlements, Strange’s apparent lack of interest in affairs either romantic or carnal could pass as nothing other than the behaviour of a confirmed bachelor awaiting the arrival of the right woman to inspire an irresistible grand passion. Yet in retrospect, Strange appears to have been far more asexual than preoccupied with his responsibilities.
For those who assumed that he was calmly trusting to fate to deliver up a potential beloved, Strange’s adventures brought only four likely candidates for the role. Firstly, there was a brief, three-page meeting with the imperilled Lady Victoria Bentley, who certainly possessed the sidekick-creating potential to become a Black Magician herself. A member of the British aristocracy who handily possessed youth, beauty and an unused castle all of her own, Bentley would appear to have been an ideal candidate. Yet Strange showed no interest at all in her beyond the professional, and though he suggested that he’d return to train her once Baron Mordo was finally defeated, he never did so. Secondly, there were two panels spent in the company of a bespectacled sorceress who’d once been saved by Strange – in an untold tale – and who now attended “gatherings of the ancients” where esoteric knowledge was sometimes referred to. Yet, once again, Strange’s demeanour was that of an unquestionable patriarch rather than a possible friend, let alone lover. Instead of offering any comforting pleasantries, Strange concentrated on issuing orders to each women which left neither in any doubt about his own power and importance. Thirdly, there was the tellingly unnamed sister of the “evil” dictator Shazana, who somewhat disqualified herself as a potential suitor for through an excess of subservience matched to a painful lack of initiative. A man as unconventional in so may ways as Strange was unlikely to be attracted to such an insubstantial individual.
Finally, there was Clea, an alien subject of Dormammu who did at least succeed in engaging Strange in conversation while showing him some of the secrets of her master’s realm. Though Strange was quick to assume once more the role of unquestioned authority in their initial discussions, Clea was both aware of information that he lacked and possessed of the determination to protect her own people from the unintended consequences of his meddling. This mixture of knowledge and will immediately marked her out as a different kind of character. Her very presence illuminated how Strange’s self-possession could stray well into arrogance. So focused was he on defeating Dormammu at their first meeting, and, it seems, so aware of how unlikely his chances of success were, that he twice refused to pay attention to Clea’s warnings. He had his mission, and nothing was to be permitted to challenge his focus.
It’s an example of a dysfunctional degree of hard-headedness on Strange’s part, and it may reflect a degree of sexism as well as anxiety. There’s undoubtedly a suspicion that he could be more dismissive of women than men, although he was shown so rarely in the company of females that it’s hard to be sure. Certainly the fact that he never thought to discover what Clea’s name was over twenty-one months worth of episodes suggests that at the very least he lacked a degree of courtesy. Speaking of her only as “the female” or the “brave girl” does little to challenge the idea that Strange wasn’t particularly concerned with showing Clea the respect that he might have. It wasn’t, we might imagine, the typical behaviour of a man who’s consciously aware of any particular attraction that’s above and beyond a casual acquaintanceship. Though he clearly respected Clea, and felt an ever-growing sense of responsibility for the ill-fate that her attempts to communicate with him had inspired, never once does Strange show a slither of anything other than professional concern for her prior to Ditko’s final tale.
But then, much of what’s so beguiling about Strange and Clea’s improbably slow-burning affair is the fact that it takes so long for either of them to discuss the fact that any such attraction may exist. Both have their minds understandably focused on the survival of their people and even their worlds when they first meet. Neither seems to regard the prospect of an affair with a stranger from another dimension with any sympathy, although Clea does consider Strange to be “young – and fair to behold”. Though the imagination marinated in melodrama tends to assume that the appearance of a feisty and beautiful female character suggests the initiation of a romance with a male lead, Strange himself continued to appear remarkably unaware that there was an opening for a lover in his life. Indeed, it took almost two years worth of tales for him to become conscious of the very attraction that the reader is likely to have been assuming all the time. During that time, Strange was advised by Clea, saved by her, blamed for her exile, and finally consumed by a search for her exiled self. Yet 14 consecutive issues passed by during the period in which Strange failed to allocate a single thought balloon to her existence. Even while Clea was risking her life to undermine Dormammu’s pursuit of him, Strange remained focused on entirely worldly concerns. In a line of comics in which every month’s releases tended to bring with them a range of exhaustingly histrionic relationships, the exceptionally ambling course of what would be revealed to be Strange and Clea’s love affair carried a unique character and charm all of its own.
To be continued.
*1: Even in those rare cases where the hero succeeded in embarking on a relationship, such as with Peter Parker and Betty Brant, or Reed Richards and Sue Storm, complications way beyond the male suitor’s control always ensured that frustration and rejection was the typical order of the day.