Who’s the Superhero, Who’s the Supporting Player? On Doctor Strange & the Ancient One (Part 9)

In the years since Ditko and Lee stepped away from writing Doctor Strange, the Ancient One tended to be characterized in terms of, at best, his moral authority and, at worst, his physical decrepitude. Yet it’s remarkable how often his creators accentuated both his magical and political power. In fact, the Ancient One actually became a more and not less formidable player over the period of their tenure on the strip, which indicates that they saw a value to his presence which few others since have. Prior to Strange’s first victory over Dormammu in Strange Tales #127, he’d been presented as a frail, fading and yet still absolutely vital authority figure. Even then, his intervention had often been needed to turn the day. He acted to provide the magical ring which enabled Strange to survive “The Many Traps Of Baron Mordo”, and sent his student back through time to Ancient Egypt in “The Lady From Nowhere”. He even succeeded in activating – from “halfway across the world” – his disciple’s amulet in order to paralyzing the gun threatening Strange’s life in “Master Of Black Magic”. Without the Ancient One’s sadly diminished and yet still substantial intercessions, Strange’s nascent career as the Earth’s magical defender would have been a tragically short lived one.

Since Ditko’s departure after Strange Tales #146, the Ancient One has been ignored, killed off, recast as a distant spiritual presence, and even farcically reduced to the status of a comic relief sinner damned to Hell. The assumption appears to have been that an influential and aged mentor diminishes both a super-hero’s status, freedom-of-action and audience appeal. Yet what if that elderly and frail character has been shown to be a considerable superhero in his light? Mid-way through their run, Ditko and Lee had actually chosen to increase the Ancient One’s sturdiness, might and importance. With Strange’s out-maneuvering of Dormammu during their opening confrontation had come the breaking of a previously-unmentioned enchantment which had greatly intensified the Ancient One’s physical frailness. Though never restored to full health, let alone youthfulness, and despite still being cursed with plot-furthering fragilities, the Ancient One was gradually shifted closer and closer to the center of events. With that spell removed, he became even more formidable and influential.

And so, it was the Ancient One who succeeded in hauling Strange back from the otherworld in which the reality-threatening confrontation between Eternity and Dormammu was occurring, and the Ancient One who mystically deflected the full murderous force of Mordo’s treacherous attack in “The Pincers Of Power”. At times, the Ancient One’s actions even suggested that Strange would need to serve for a good few more centuries before matching his predecessor’s achievements. In Strange Tales #130, it was the ill and weary Ancient One who’d detected Mordo’s attack and cast a defense before Strange even knew that a danger existed. At moments like this, Strange very much seems like a supporting if substantial player in his own strip. This can be particularly obvious when faced with those relatively few stories in which Strange was pitted against characterless super-magicians such as Rasputin and The Demon. Far preferable would have been the tale of the Ancient One’s off-panel search alone through the Dark Dimensions for the missing Clea.

It’s axiomatic that the well-intentioned, noble-hearted, super-heroic apprentice will eventually surpass the achievements of his or her master. Yet there are suggestions that the Ancient One’s career may have been so extraordinary one that no-one could ever match it. Strange’s remarkable feat of twice defeating Dormammu was certainly a success that the Ancient One had never once matched. Yet for all his undoubted skill, ingenuity and courage, those victories relied in considerable part on luck. In his first battle with Dormammu, it was the unexpected invasion of the Mindless Ones which distracted the tyrant. In the second, it was Dormammu’s prideful choice to opt for physical rather than magical conflict which led to his defeat. By contrast, the Ancient One appears to have continually faced down Dormammu without any such good fortune. (When warning Strange of the dangers posed by the demon lord, he never once mentioned the possibility of a ritual wrestling bout, which strongly suggests that he was never given such an opportunity himself.) “Even I, at the height of my powers, was unable to defeat him!” the Ancient One declared, and yet even the despotic Lords Of The Otherworld respected the Ancient One for being the only power that had ever kept Dormammu in check. Where Strange’s magics never seriously threatened Dormammu, the Ancient One appears to have been able to match him over a considerable degree of time. In that, even some of the dictators who have served under Dormammu respect the Ancient One as the “only one who saved us from .. tyranny!”. (By which they mean, of course, that they can hang onto their own tyrannies because the Ancient One has somehow set limits to Dormammu’s reach.) By contrast, Strange is, for all his achievements, a complete unknown to these “Overseers of the Dimensions”.

These indications of a political dimension to the Ancient One’s role, and therefore to Strange’s too, are almost entirely absent from the great majority of later Doctor Strange strips. In those, Strange’s mission is more or less a solo one, in which he tends to be supported only by his manservant Wong and a small cast of lovers and disciplines. Beyond his occasional membership of super-teams such as The Avengers and The Defenders, Strange typically fights alone to protect humanity and its home without any reference to the politics of either the “mystic dimensions” or Earth’s community of sorcerers. Yet the Ancient One had created – or at the very least maintained – both an active network of supporters on Earth while pursuing humankind’s interests in the realms beyond too. He owned substantial property in both India and Tibet, and his wealth was so considerable that Sen-Yu had dedicated his life in Hong Kong to guarding it. Beyond him, there was a network of “many others” serving the Master, and beyond them, a series of other magical groups which seemed to respect the Ancient One’s authority. All of that has typically been ignored, leaving just the shell of the first take of Strange behind.

By the same token, there’s rarely been any attempt made to develop the likes of extra-terrestrial organisations such as the aforementioned Lords of The Otherworld or “the Highest Councils Of The Known Dimensions”. Yet it does seem that neither the Ancient One or Strange sat in their Earthly safehouses while striving to do nothing more than keep threatening magical creatures away from the Earth. Rather than mystical isolationists, the suggestion is that the Ancient One at least was engaged in an unimaginably wider network of dictators, god-like predators, shifting alliances, formal institutions and rebel powers. That the last we see of the Ancient One is of his attempting to encourage a democracy among those returning from having been exiled by Dormammu is entirely fitting. That Dormammu has been defeated isn’t enough for the Ancient One, for he knows that the dictator’s “evil” survives him, and that it needs attending to. For Strange’s mentor, it seems, the longterm benefits offered by the involvement in extra-dimensional politics outweighed the option of ignoring the inevitably destabilising consequences of Dormammu’s fall.

Ditko and Lee show us nothing but dictatorships in the other dimensions which Strange visits, and only the queendom ruled over by Shazana’s nameless sister seems to carry any hope of benevolent rule. There appears to be no tradition of the likes of individual and civil rights beyond Earth, which does suggest that a sudden power vacuum would indeed have terrible consequences. In its turn, that also suggests why regime change is never something which Strange plots unless he’s faced with the simple business of replacing one vile despot with a more virtuous one. His job, it seems, is to maintain the magical status quo in order to best defend the Earth, and it has to be assumed that that was the Ancient One’s approach too. As such, Strange’s decision to leave the likes of the despicable Tazza and Tiboro in power despite thoroughly defeating them makes perfect sense; realpolitik argues that order tends to be better than chaos, and how could Strange control an entire dimension or two that had suddenly been freed from tyranny? Equally, Earth might become far more of a target if it were known that its magical defenders were taking it upon themselves to unseat the powerful and rewrite the political landscape.

“When he gives voice – all must be silent!” declared Strange as his Master organised an alien election to install a “leader” in the name of eveyone’s best interests. That Strange should be shown respectfully deferring to the Ancient One’s wisdom and experience during such politicking illustrates perfectly what’s been lost to the property as the years have progressed.

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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