You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby:

On What Made Doctor Strange Unique (The Penultimate Part)

Why would the Ancient One wait until after Strange had confronted Dormammu before rewarding his triumphant student with “new powers”? Perhaps the physical and magical enfeeblement caused by the Dreaded One’s spell had left the Ancient One’s capabilities so diminished that he couldn’t create, or perhaps even recall or locate, the artifacts that Strange had so obviously needed. Yet one of the themes of the Ditko/Lee run on the series was the ill-starred consequences of wielding magic irresponsibly. As we’ve seen, Strange’s freedom of action was dramatically constrained by The Sorceror’s Code, which appeared to be founded in the belief that magic used outside of a narrow series of constraints would inevitably result in disastrous consequences. Strange even seemed to accept that the destruction of humankind itself was preferable to his using his magics in a deceitful manner. Given that, it may well be that Strange simply hadn’t yet proven that he deserved access to a greater degree of power prior to his first journey to the Dark Dimension. It could even have been Strange’s decision not to strike down the distracted Dormammu which ultimately earned him the upgrade to his magical armory.  Where the likes of Mordo and Xandu were utterly unable to resist using magic to satisfy their egoistic desires, Strange was willing to abandon the Earth to its destruction rather than abuse the trust he’d accepted.

In the decades since Strange’s creators stepped away from depicting his adventures, the super-hero comic has become more and more an advocate of the principle that the ends justify the means. In today’s climate, little could be less typical in the sub-genre than a costumed hero who’d rather humanity was extinguished than his oath be broken. But Ditko and Lee consistently portrayed Strange as a champion-in-training, and never once suggested that the character had the right to sacrifice principle in the name of exigency. In that, Strange’s function was, above all else, to do the right thing, and his life was dedicated to developing the knowledge, skills and experience that would help him to do so.

Unlike the various super-intellects of the MU, who were already masters of a range of super-sciences, Strange was regularly pictured attempting to grasp the likes of the “supernatural spells of Oshtur” or the mysterious contents of the “Book Of Vishanti”. Whether he was supremely dedicated or obsessed is at moments difficult to ascertain. In Strange Tales #122, he collapsed over an open, massive tome, exhausted after days of battling “the supernatural forces which threaten mankind” and yet still attempting to study further. In “Beyond The Purple Veil,” he was similarly debilitated while using “every ounce of will power at his command” to stay awake so that he might understand a “sinister gem.”

It could be argued that Strange’s defining characteristic as a super-hero wasn’t his spell-casting, but his determination to embrace the hard miles of a life of learning. Ditko and Lee returned to the same issue of education and empowerment time and time again. Faced with Mordo at his most improbably powerful in “The Hunter and The Hunted”, Strange’s frustrations were focused not on his relative lack of might so much as the shortfall in his understanding, declaring that he couldn’t “fight” what he didn’t “understand!”. Having read the mind of Shazana’s alien pet, he declared that he had “truly gained the greatest power of all … that which is the fountainhead of all other power …  have gained the gift of knowledge.” Even when he finally tracked down the sentient universe that was Eternity, his reward wasn’t “additional power”, but the insight that his foes could be overcome with the “wisdom” that he already possessed.

Of all Marvel’s headlining protagonists, it was Doctor Strange who was consistently shown improving his abilities through academic study. Iron Man was often shown upgrading his armor, while Giant Man would eventually adopt a hysterical regime of physical improvement, but only Strange was perpetually lost to a life of exhausting study which constantly served to increase his powers. (Peter Parker was also regularly shown bent over his homework, but that was little to do with fighting evil.) The Marvel Universe was always home by a class of technological genii, forever developing more and more improbable examples of super-science. Yet, the likes of Reed Richards and Tony Stark were rarely if ever shown wearily bent over a textbook. (The Thing would joke about Richards’ love of pouring over theory, but the evidence of that was rarely to be seen.) The super-brains arrived fully trained, and their various amazing inventions – from Cerebro to Jump Jets – seem to be generated more through physical improvisation than intellectual application. Charles Xavier and Henry Pym were far more likely to be shown as makers rather than thinkers, operators than scholars, and they seemed far closer to miracle-working mechanics than masters of scientific theory.

In the early Marvel Universe, hard work was nearly always associated with physical rather than intellectual activity. Despite living in what was effectively a boarding school, for example, the X-Men were far more likely to be portrayed grappling with the visually exciting challenges of the Danger Room than struggling to conjugate Latin verbs. But as we’ve discussed, Strange had no life away from his magical missions. To him, there seems to have been little but duty and study, and that very dedication to learning whenever learning was at all possible is often used to draw a clear distinction between Strange and his opponents. In “Earth Be My Battleground”, for example, Strange noted that Mordo “cares naught for knowledge – - only for power!”, and used that fact to his advantage. Even when an adversary appeared to possess magical information that Strange lacked, his strategy was to strive to make up the shortfall in his understanding rather than bluster his way to a possible victory. In “The Demon’s Disciple”, Strange distracted his foe with an illusion so that he could read through his “papers … notes and formulae”, announcing that;

“Once I know which spells he has mastered , which mystic books he has studied, I shall know how to combat him.”

At moments, Strange’s obsession with learning became wonderfully absurd, and established him, against considerable competition, as the Marvel Universe’s leading over-achiever. He was even shown having mastered the “Ancient Indian Rope Trip”, which gave him an unexpected edge in his battle against the ruler of the “Nightmare World”. Elsewhere, Strange displayed, in addition to his mystical abilities, a knowledge of hypnotism, a mastery of slight of hand, the ability to levitate without the help of his cloak, and an effective command of techniques associated with boxing and judo.

A Renaissance Man, then. None of his costumed fellows could come anywhere close to matching his accomplishments.

To be concluded.

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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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