It was the unprecedented degree of conflict, of course, which marked out the earliest Marvel superhero comics from their characteristically more polite, repressed competitors. No-one had ever produced the likes of Fantastic Four #1 before, in which the stereotypically beautiful Invisible Girl was suddenly seen to haughtily turn on the all-American Ben Grimm and accuse him of both cowardice and complicity with the Republic’s Communist foes. It was one thing to be faced with a book that bleak and tense and unrelenting, and to see male characters snarling, bickering and swiping out at each other. To see this “Invisible Girl” goading a colleague in such a cutting fashion must have underlined how disconcertingly confrontational these Marvel comic books could be.
For a short few years, a great deal of what appeared in Marvel’s super-books carried something of that sense of transgression. From Peter Parker’s wonderfully neurotic excesses to the line’s first few cautious stabs at social criticism, Marvel Comics was essentially peddling a fusion of untypically dynamic storytelling and soap-operatic melodrama. Not “realism” then, as the shorthand of fannish analysis has often had it, but an unprecedented degree of emotional conflict all the same.
Yet once again, Ditko and Lee’s work on Doctor Strange was entirely out of step with the rest of what Marvel was producing. Strange himself, as we’ve discussed, was almost entirely lacking in anything but the most everyday measure of self-doubt. Lacking the angst that drove his fellow super-people towards misery and mutual head-butting, Strange was typically gracious if at times somewhat superior in his dealings with others. Exactly the same was true for the Ancient One. His life of seclusion raised few opportunities for him to fall out with anyone but magically powered menaces, while he appeared to possess a saint’s forbearance where it came to the trials imposed by his extreme old age and ramshackle health. It was left to less beatific individuals to buckle under the stress of suffering and loss. As such, both men’s concerns were typically limited to the jeopardy of the moment, the fulfilment of their general responsibilities, and the welfare of each other. Bound by a shared and absolute adherence to the same principles and practices, and with Strange’s unquestioning deference to his Master’s stance on every single issue, theirs’ was a relationship that was entirely devoid of strife. The closest the Ancient One ever came to disagreeing with his student was a gentle reminder that “only the weak can allow themselves the luxury of retribution”. That encouragement not to respond to Baron Mordo’s aggression in kind aside, the two never even shared a single carelessly informal word. They always focused, courteous, and compassionate.
The closest equivalents to this were to be found in the pages of the X-Men, where Professor X and his teenage charges often treated one another with a somewhat similar degree of formality and respect. Yet Xavier was understandably far slower to express intimacy with his youthful students, while their lack of life-experience meant that it was difficult for him to share decision-making with them. (*1) Beyond the classroom, and the X-Men’s mutant-hunting field work, the lives of Xavier and his pupils rarely overlapped. That the best-behaved and devoted of pupils would find themselves on occasion disagreeing with their teacher was inevitable. From Iceman’s failure to attend to his homework to the Beast’s resignation after having been the target of a lynching, even the comparatively harmonious world of the X-Mansion was still a useful motor of conflict.
But Strange and the Ancient One had no private lives that were distinct from their responsibilities, while the younger man had devoted himself to entirely replicating his inspiration’s world-view. And as an already mature and experienced adult who’d mastered a great deal of what magic had to offer, Strange was also an excellent sounding board and trustworthy advisor for the Ancient One’s concerns. In short, the chances of either man significantly disagreeing with the other were impossibly slim, while the circumstances which might carry the two in opposing directions were unlikely to develop. Instead of finding themselves caught in the typical Marvel cycle of inter-personal crisis, confrontation and reconciliation, Strange and the Ancient One became ever more respectful and affectionate towards each other. The result was a degree of intimacy and fondness which no other comicbook characters of the period could come close to rivalling. Indeed, the two were absolutely devoted to each other, as can be seen in the overwhelming grief which the Ancient One experienced upon believing that Strange had become irrecoverably lost in the far-distant past;
“Have I taught him so much … Have I loved him so deeply … Only to lose him now? … So suddenly? .. So senselessly? … My limbs are old .. my powers are fading! I needed him.”
It’s a monologue which expressed the unique mix of practical concerns and personal emotions which bonded the two so closely together. On the one hand, the Ancient One was lamenting the loss of “the knowledge” that Strange would “one day” replace him and “keep the flame of enchantment alive”. (*2) Yet the statement also contained a surprisingly explicit declaration of paternal love, and it’s hard to believe that Strange meant less to the Ancient One as a surrogate son than he did as a magical champion. (When Strange succeeded in returning to the present, the Ancient One greeted him with an enthusiastic “My son!!”, with Lee adding two exclamation marks to emphasise just how relieved he was.) In his turn, Strange constantly expressed a degree of filial affection which was similarly unguarded and unconditional. Faced later with the sight of the Ancient One lapsed into a “deadly coma”, for example, Strange mournfully declared to Hamir The Hermit that;
“He has been my teacher, my protector – - and more than a father.”
And as is the way with two people who are so closely bonded, Strange and the Ancient One often expressed their mutual fondness physically. Again, that’s hardly typical of the period. For example, the very first sign in Strange’s origin story that he might possibly become a decent human being was the sight of him reaching out tentatively to comfort the Master, who he’d just observed being attacked by Mordo’s magics. Eleven months later,“Mordo Must Not Catch Me” presented a relieved Strange gently grasping the recently-liberated older man by his shoulders. A respectful half-way house between a comforting touch and a wholehearted hug, it suggested a Strange who was touchingly learning how to recognise and express his long-dormant feelings.
It’s the uncommon closeness which Ditko and Lee had established between the two men which helps to make the mental confrontation between Strange and the Ancient One in “When Meet The Mystic Minds” so enthralling. There, Strange’s magical probing of his comatose teacher’s mind was set in the latter’s appropriately Spartan private chamber. Ditko’s art presents the elderly man propped up on a wooden bed while a respectful Strange attempts to break through into the secrets of his unconscious mind. The bed, the private room, the slightly looming presence of Strange, the suggested violation of the Ancient One’s privacy both inside and outside of his body; without the devoted and tender relationship between the two characters, the scene might have seemed awkward and ill-judged. Yet because of the affection and concern which the scene projects, the sequence accentuates rather than undercuts the trust and compassion which binds them. Never once does Strange appear to be threatening or uncaring, and suddenly he’s revealed to possess exactly the kind of bedside manner that he’d have disdained when working as a surgeon. Sitting carefully and respectfully to the side of the Ancient One’s frail, prone legs, Strange’s body language seems as purposefully relaxed as his expression is undeniably concerned. It’s a series of choices on Ditko’s part which result in the admirable strength of the Ancient One’s resistance, rather than the disturbing fact of Strange’s invasiveness, serving as the focus of events.
All of which leaves just one conspicuous mystery where the two men’s relationship was concerned. Why was it that the Ancient One rewarded Strange with the “new powers” of “a new cape .. and a more wonderous amulet” following the first defeat of Dormammu? After all, just two episodes before, he’d seen his student off to his showdown in the “Realm Of Darkness” with the warning that the tyrant possessed powers that were “too great … ways that were too alien”. Whyever would the Ancient One have held back the very tools that Strange’s survival may have depended upon?
To be continued.
*1:- Even when he found himself besotted with Jean Grey, Xavier seems to have been able to maintain an appropriate, professional distance, although a cynic might suspect that his restraint was reinforced by a scan of Grey’s mind which uncovered her total lack of romantic regard for him.
*2:- The Lee / Ditko Strange was very much not the finished article when it came to magically defending the Earth can be seen in his teacher’s thoughts here. Though he was obviously doing a fine job, he was still far closer to being a sidekick than a senior partner, and the Ancient One was anything but an elderly encumbrance fit for being pensioned out of the strip.