One recurrent criticism of Doctor Strange as a character is that he’s simply too powerful. A great many writers and fans alike have contended that comic book magic provides him with the tension-destroying ability to overcome any jeopardy. It’s an argument which stems from a lack of attention to the strategies which Ditko and Lee used to generate uncertainty and tension in their stories. For only once did they show Strange overwhelming a significant opponent through the application of what we might call raw mystical power. There, Strange shattered Mordo’s “protective cloak of darkness” with “the light of righteousness” which his first amulet could project. Similarly, there’s just one example in the Ditko/Lee stories of a plot being solely resolved through the depiction of a magical short-cut pulled out of the air without any kind of productive foreshadowing. Beyond that all-too-convenient arrival of a magical ring, which allowed Strange’s astral body to function as his physical one could, he was typically placed into life-threatening crises where only quick, canny thinking could save him. (*1) In that, it was his capacity for smart-minded decision-making which constantly won the day, while his mystic abilities functioned as a way of making his adventures more visually distinct and fascinating. In short, Strange’s “super-power” wasn’t magic, but intelligence matched to resourcefulness.
A distinguished sorcerer, scholar, disciple, street-fighter and diplomat, Strange offered his creators a variety of scenarios in which he might be threatened. To their considerable credit, Ditko and Lee embraced these options and largely avoided showing Strange simply trading mystic blows with an opponent or three. The sub-genre’s tradition of closing conflict through an odds-defying, heroism-confirming eruption of might was generally pushed aside. (*2) Even on those rare occasions where Strange was shown exchanging bolts of magic with an adversary, the fracas would actually be won through cunning and bravery. When Strange and the “all-powerful” Agammon were presented hammering away at each other, the day was carried by the Earthman’s willingness to die if it would end his enemy’s menace. Agammon was, as Strange had calculated, hesitant to place pride before survival. Where other creators might have opted for the knock-out fireworks which one enchantment or another might have brought, Ditko and Lee choose instead to emphasise the mage’s character and his intelligence. It was a strategy which they had Strange repeat when he was faced with the Dormammu-augmented Mordo and his Wraiths, who hesitated to follow him into the “atomic energy at the Sun’s core” in case they were destroyed. No previously unmentioned magic was used to grant him invulnerability in these situations. Instead, Strange’s victories were won through his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Any creator looking for clues as to how to introduce an anxious uncertainty into Strange’s adventures need only re-read these issues. For Ditko and Lee constantly placed Strange into roles and situations which demanded that he rely on both personal qualities and a limited array of abilities rather than any distracting, out-of-the-blue burst of abracadabra. In places, they had Strange functioning as an ambassador for Earth’s interests, working against impossible odds to find mutually beneficial compromises, such as he achieved with the alien pretending to be “The House Of Shadows”. Elsewhere, he was a brutal mind-controller who thought nothing of wiping his opponent’s memories and directing their actions wherever it best suited his ends. He filled the Demon’s mind with the intimidating conviction that he could never defeat Strange and removed huge areas of Zota’s personality. He was a trickster who constantly deceived his enemies with illusions and misdirections. He terrified Nightmare with the impression that The Gulgol had invaded his realm, distracted Tazza with the prospect of a defeated hero’s return to life, and baffled Mordo’s pursuing Wraiths with hallucinations in which crowds of Stephen Stranges appeared. He fooled Tiboro into exhausting his powers and Dormammu into the arrogance of believing that Strange had been entirely overwhelmed. He even swore to Mordo that he’d allow himself to be captured, secure in the hair-splitting fact that he never promised to stay so. Adopting the disguise of an overweight, bearded, pompous sorcerer allowed him to get within punching range of a mystic demon, while his pretence of being a wraith conned Lord Baskerville into giving away his treacherous scheme. In so many ways, Strange was as much a fusion of sinister psychic torturer, resourceful politician and Holmes-like deceiver as he was a pure-of-heart, superheroic magician, and it’s hardly surprising that he should be so. After all, his first encounter with the Ancient One saw his soon-to-be-mentor pretending to be in danger in order to awaken Strange’s long-dormant empathy. The Sorcerer’s Code placed a great many constraints upon those who abided by it, but it neither respected individual freedoms or encouraged honesty towards any beyond a narrow range of mystic colleagues.
Some of the behavior which Strange’s values legitimized might well have seen him coming into conflict with those super-heroes who regarded the law and the rights it expressed as worth defending. But then, the super-hero comic has often been careless with the values it promotes, and the thought that Strange regularly acted in ways that were profoundly undemocratic rarely if ever seems to have occurred. In that, there’s no little irony in the fact that the Ditko/Lee Doctor Strange should have become such an iconic figure to members of America’s nascent counter-culture during the period. For no matter how psychedelically-charged Ditko’s other-worlds might appear to be, neither Strange nor his creators had very much at all in common with the dominant strands in the thinking of the Republic’s developing underground. It’s a point that’s neatly accentuated in Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs’ “The Comic Book Heroes” (*3);
“Cartoonist Trina Robbins remembers the day she and some of her East Coast freak friends – many of them cartoonists for the underground newspaper The East Village Other -made a pilgrimage to Marvel Comics to meet the acid-dropping, long-haired creators of Dr. Strange, who had obviously somehow infiltrated the establishment world of superhero publishing. They were stunned to find the crew-cut conservative Sturdy Steve and the lovable but politically vague Stan The Man.”
Though elements of Strange’s adventures expressed clearly unorthodox ideas, the character himself was a fundamentally conservative if not reactionary one, and that’s to say the very least. The surreally alien dimensions that he travelled to represented not hallucinogenic experiences, but ways of thinking and classes of individuals who posed a deadly danger to humankind. Rather than presenting scenarios which seemed acid-drenched in a sympathetic way, Ditko and Lee were using them to represent terrible evils. Those fractured, horizonless worlds carried with them the lack of sense and absence of security which the magician was attempting to hold away from the Earth. Such alien dimensions didn’t offer experiences to long for so much as perilous threats to avoid, and Strange wasn’t so much attempting to break on through to the other side as he was struggling to ensure that the other side didn’t break through into ours.
In suppressing the knowledge of how reality really functioned, and in his habit of securing a monopoly of control where certain powerful magics were concerned, Strange seems to have been party to a peculiar form of tyranny. In fighting despots such as Agamon and Dormannu, Strange was protecting the Earth from the intrusion of the threateningly alien into the comfortingly familiar, but what he wasn’t doing was attempting to challenge, or even modify, the status quo on or beyond our world (As we’ve seen, Strange and the Ancient One appeared set on preserving rather than modifying the extra-dimensional balance of power.) In fact, Strange appeared to be disinterested in whatever it was that humanity believed in so long as it didn’t challenge his own mission. The idea that he ought to have at least taken the people’s representatives into his confidence and sought some kind of mandate from them was never mentioned in the strip. In this light, Strange was nothing other than a warrior prince who kept the Ancient One’s oppressive regime in place. The two of them constructed alliances, waged war, suppressed individual freedoms, and generally did as they saw fit, and in terms of Ditko and Lee’s own stories, they were absolutely right to do so too. To those who loathed the secret state of America during the Cold War, and who rebelled against the idea of life as an endless conflict between two atomic, Manichean camps, Doctor Strange was an entirely inappropriate object of affection.
At moments, Strange was occasionally shown presenting a face which would have been highly unlikely to sit well with the utopianism of America’s then-new and predominantly youthful left. He referred to a congregation of rubber-neckers gathering round a reputedly haunted house as an “insolent crowd”. He argued that the “secrets of black magic are far beyond (the) comprehension” of the mass media and the consumers it spoke to. He described the lynch mob stirred up by an alien agitator in “The Possessed” as a “brainless rabble”. Though always compassionate – if often a little haughty – to individuals in need, Strange appears to have had little tolerance for what Swift called “nations, professions and communities”. As such, there was never the slightest suggestion that he was a radical avatar of the age of Aquarius, unless by “radical” we mean his entirely unquestioning submission to the Ancient One’s authority. In short, Strange wasn’t out-there in order to expand either his mind or ours. The very idea that an individual could discover hidden truths within themselves through any form of consciousness-altering experience would have probably struck him as at best naïve and at worst profoundly dangerous. For Strange knew that there were no subjective truths about reality to be discovered. Instead, reality took a fearsomely objective form, and humanity simply wasn’t up to dealing with that. Instead, it needed to be protected as an incredibly young and often worryingly dangerous child might be. Under such conditions, the Marvel Universe was one which was actively hostile to the very idea of individual rights on anything other than the most local of levels. It was the few human mystics who could grasp the ultimate truth of things who were by necessity responsible for maintaining order, and the only limits on their actions were to be found in the Sorcerer’s Code.
Yet Strange could hardly be accused of assuming the power that he had for selfish reasons. If he was party to a tyranny of sorts, it was a remarkably enlightened one. Existence was inevitably composed of an endless sequence of terrifying realms ruled almost exclusively by the most appalling of monsters, and there was only Strange and the Ancient One to stand between them and the subjugation, if not obliteration, of humanity. It was a war of all against all which offered no hope at all of resolution, and it’s hard not to wonder how many other disciples the Ancient One had trained only to see fall prior to Strange’s arrival.
And if the present was a constantly challenging and perpetually dangerous one, then tomorrow threatened to be far, far worse. As the Ancient One reflected after his pupil had first out-manoeuvred Dormammu, Strange’s future would inevitably be one composed of “the awesome weight of responsibility, and … unimaginable loneliness”. It might even, the old man considered, be more than Strange would be able to “bear”. Taken at face value, the Ditko/Lee Doctor Strange was indeed the most admirable of all the era’s costumed protagonists. Yet is the message that humanity is a childish, untrustworthy species which requires a ruling elite to manipulate and bully it into acquiescence something which ought to be politely ignored? For there was no suggestion that humanity beyond a few super-people would ever be capable of coping with either magic or the truth it revealed, and that recasts the strip in a somewhat more disturbing light. Again, it’s that tension between apparently opposing principles which still works to make the character’s first run of adventures so compelling.
As fodder for adolescent wish-fulfilment, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s “Doctor Strange” was never likely to attract the mass audience which the likes of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four appealed to. But as a unique, fascinating and often disturbingly contradictory creation, it was quite possibly the most remarkable of all of Marvel’s first-wave features.
*1:- The ring was never seen again after “The Many Traps Of Baron Mordo”. Unlike many of his costumed peers, Strange’s powers tended not to be increased issue after issue. To the contrary, Ditko and Lee seemed keen to keep him from becoming unproductively powerful.
*2:- The strip’s plots became even more intriguing after Ditko assumed responsibility for them, with the focus falling more and more on Strange’s ability to think on his feet rather than his talent for throwing around a special effect or three.
*3:- The Comic Book Heroes, Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, Prima Publishing, 1997, pg 73
Colin Smith is Q Magazine’s comics columnist, and blogs at both TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics and the TBTAMCII Tumbler