On the Ancient One, Earth’s Greatest Super-Hero (Part 8)

Steve Ditko was often displeased with Stan Lee’s interpretation of his plots during the last few years in particular of their collaboration. Sadly, there seems to be no way of telling how the artist felt about the details of Denny O’Neil’s scripts for Ditko’s last two episodes of Doctor Strange. Yet his art’s poignant depiction of Clea and Strange’s brief, bittersweet reunion does seem to suggest that both creators were singing from the same hymn sheet when it came to having the characters fall in love.

The choices which Ditko made there when describing the relationship between Strange and Clea were certainly markedly different from those he’d opted for when depicting their first encounter some 20 issues before. There he’d often chosen to emphasise the understandable lack of ease and intimacy between the two then-strangers by showing one or other of them dominating the panels which they shared. More often than not, theirs wasn’t a meeting of prospective partners, so much as that of two individuals each pulling in a different direction, with now one and then the other claiming the limelight at the other’s expense. But by the denouement to Ditko’s final issue, he was granting them equal status in size and placement in nearly every frame. Where once Strange had gazed off into the middle distance whenever Clea spoke, now the two of them were presented either staring straight into each other’s eyes or modestly attempting not to do so. Surrounded by a crowd of Clea’s fellow exiles, human magician and alien rebel were shown clustered together in a distinct and separate community of two. (Even the Ancient One’s attempts to establish an extraterrestrial alliance escaped his student’s notice when the prospect of talking to “the silver-haired one I have sought for so many months” beckoned.) In making such subtle, telling decisions, Ditko tenderly and economically accentuated the mixture of shyness, relief and affection which the two were experiencing. Though O’Neil maintained the tension in the sequence by having neither character speak openly of romance, there was a palpable sense of a nascent longing constrained by chivalrous restraint and bashfulness. As a result, the decision to show the sorcerer speaking Clea’s name for the first time as he reluctantly said farewell to her carried a charge which far more explicit and obvious storytelling could never hope to match.

But none of this is to say that Strange’s adventures prior to that point had lacked anything of emotional warmth bar the background static of deeply repressed emotions. Anything but is the truth. For Ditko and Lee’s stories were constantly informed by the intense respect and unguarded affection which marked Strange’s relationship with the Ancient One. From the off, theirs was a unique and extraordinary association. On the very second page of Strange’s debut appearance, he referred to “The Master, from whom all my powers stem …”. As such, Strange was only expressing the significant degree of deference which cliché would lead us to expect from a Western mystic in service to an Eastern authority. Yet that absolute regard of Strange’s would soon reveal itself to be part unquestioning obedience, part unadulterated respect, and part overwhelming and intimate fondness. To have the Ancient One serve over several years as both revered mystical teacher and Strange’s father-figure was a unique and gently challenging business. For it was an entirely uncommon business to show a strip-headlining superhero expressing such extremes of love and respect towards a person of colour, and that helps to temper if hardly eradicate concerns about the Oriental stereotypes that the figure of the Ancient One clearly drew from. From the respect that Lee and Ditko showed him came the sense that something progressive and respectful in the context of the day was being created from glib and often insulting traditions of the magical East and its all-seeing, all-knowing occult practitioners.

Yet few of the qualities which Marvel’s first wave super-books associated with heroic potential could be associated with the Ancient One. Put simply, he shared very little with any of the other long-lasting and significant Marvel protagonists of the period. He was neither white, American, in robust health, typical in the context of the Republic’s early-60’s class system, or an inhabitant of a modern technological society. Instead, the Ancient One was an Asian stereotype, a non-Caucasian, elderly to the excess of five hundred years, alienated from Western society, an inhabitant of a pre-industrial society, and perpetually ill to the point of dying. This was clearly not a typical inhabitant of the universe that Lee, Kirby and Ditko were building, let alone a candidate for one of Marvel’s most impressive supporting characters.

The few members of Marvel’s various supporting casts who were in late middle age, or even very much older, were rarely presented as being both heroic and influential in the world beyond the home. Though Odin was often associated with humanity’s interests and portrayed as being inconceivably powerful, his aged, immortal mind became more and more marked by ill-temper, poor judgement and fractured memories. (There’s more than a suspicion that the self-proclaimed All-Father actually showed worrying signs of dementia during the period.) Earthside, J Jonah Jameson and Thunderbolt Ross may have been active and influential in the America’s affairs, but they were at best well-meaning, blustering and challenging complications sent to try more ultimately deserving characters. Similarly, no matter how laudable Aunt May’s efforts to care for Peter Parker while alone and poverty-stricken were, her role was all-too-often to that of a victim to pity or an impediment to Peter Parker’s freedom. There was certainly never a suggestion that she might play a vital role in events beyond her own doorstep. By comparison, the Ancient One was still a clear-thinking force to be reckoned with in the wider world and far beyond, while his endeavours were always ambiguously in service of the greater good. If he shared with Aunt May the jeopardy-intensifying habit of weakening and becoming ill just when other disasters loomed, he also developed the tendency of decisively saving the day even as all other hope had been extinguished.

To be continued.

Colin Smith is Q Magazine’s comics columnist, and blogs at both TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics and the TBTAMCII Tumbl.

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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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1 Comment

  1. I’m very much enjoying this great set of essays on Dr. Strange. I certainly understand the chronological and Lee/Ditko focus. However, there are some amazing things that happened to Dr. Strange later that I would love to hear your thoughts as an extension of what you’ve already written. Strange and Clea’s maturing romance, Strange’s loss of confidence and despair when she left him for the Dark Dimension, her ascendance as a co-equal Sorceress Supreme and queen, and then his amazingly awesome dalliance with black magic in the Strange Tales II run.

    I just found that whole arc fascinating, especially given the more mature and grounded early Strange that you present. I certainly don’t view that arc as a “fall” but as raising up and humanizing him and would love to know what you think.

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