It took almost two years of monthly adventures before Strange finally realized how tremendously fond he was of Clea. As if the relief of finally rescuing her from Dormammu’s banishment had cut through the magician’s denial, the final episode of Steve Ditko’s tenure on the strip ended with the sight of a fundamentally different Doctor Strange. For in the last seven panels of Ditko’s closing page, a clearly exhausted Strange is finally shown expressing something more than a courteous if distant regard for Clea. To see Strange not simply realizing that he and Clea’s lives “had been intertwined”, but expressing the thought to her, shows a man coming to terms with the fact that life could involve something other than duty. The idea is clearly new to him, although the emotion appears to have been developing unsuspected for a long time. Just three tales previously, in a story scripted by Roy Thomas, Strange had framed his determination to rescue Clea in terms of nothing but obligation, declaring “..I owe my very life to Dormammu’s prisoner. It is a debt I must pay – no matter what the price!” Yet even there, hindsight suggests that something other than honor was also pushing him forward. In going on to suggest that “she has suffered so much for my sake”, Strange was displaying a empathetic concern for another’s distress than he never elsewhere came close to matching.
Strange’s sudden recognition of affection appears to come as something of a surprise to him, and that, along with his apparent inexperience in matters of the heart, may explain why he only hints to Clea about his newly-discovered feelings. Unless bound by his oath to do otherwise, the post-conversion Strange had never displayed any taste for emotional spontaneity, and whenever he’d been provoked into one response or another, he’d always been quick to recover his self-control. Yet compared with all that had gone before, Strange’s modest and tentative declaration of fondness to Clea still marked a considerable development in his character. At last, he’d thought to ask for her name, and to speculate about why she’d taken such terrible risks to assist him. Even more tellingly, he gave every impression of not wanting to leave her side, and when he did, he expressed a prayer that the two of them would meet again. “I shall go to the quiet of my retreat to rest”, he told himself upon his return to New York City, “and savor the sweet rapture of the name, Clea …” True to his character, even the most overwhelming of emotions is something that Strange still seems to prefer to study and evaluate and appreciate in private, and yet his surprise and joy is as obvious as it’s touching.
Compared to the histrionics which tended to characterise the romances in Marvel’s earliest superhero books, this was gentle and even courtly stuff. Both Clea and Strange could only bring themselves to suggest how desperately they cared for one other, and yet, in their almost formal restraint, there’s a unique air of chivalry, stiff-upper lips and longing. Here, at last, is a Stephen Strange who is capable of being simultaneously disconcerted and inspired by something other than either his mystical obligations or his affection for those closest to him in the Black Magic community. Indeed, it’s Clea who has to encourage him to return to Earth, where “important tasks” inevitably await. It’s the first time that anyone beyond his mentor had ever had to remind Strange of his duties, and even then, the Ancient One had merely been emphasizing how revenge was never to be indulged in. Yet not only does Strange recognize Clea’s authority, but he follows her suggestion too. In that, we don’t just see how she too places duty before self-interest, for it’s obvious that she’d prefer him to stay. We’re also faced for the very first time with a Stephen Strange who’s being profoundly distracted from his obligations by his own emotional needs.
Without that conclusion to his run, Ditko would have left Strange as the same largely solitary and oddly unemotional character that he and Stan Lee had created back in 1963. Yet reading backwards from Ditko’s closing side, Strange’s adventures are transformed into even more than the brilliant sequence of serial genre fictions that they undeniably are. For all 35 of the stories which Ditko told of Strange can also be read as the tale of how one man developed from a heartless exploiter of the sick to an almost fully engaged human being, able not just to sacrifice for the greater good, but to finally accept his own feelings and desires. In that, Denny O’Neil’s script for “And Now … The End” assumes a far greater importance than his short three-month tilt at scripting the feature might seem at first to warrant. As with Lee’s contributions to Strange’s 8-page origin story, the presence of personal details in a strip which was usually remarkably free of them inevitably cast a defining light on the character in general. And since the defeat of Strange’s greatest enemy Dormammu had preceded Ditko’s admirably tender last frames, the sense was that the world – and many of those beyond it – had been restored to a more beneficent order. “All is as it should be!”, concluded Strange in the penultimate panel, and with that comes the implication that he as much as everything else had been healed and renewed.