Friday, 15 February 2013

Essential Doctor Strange volume 1

We come now to the other great creation of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Doctor Strange. (Unfortunately there's never been a great deal of consistency over whether it's "Doctor" or "Dr." so I'm taking my cue from the volume's cover.)

Essential Doctor Strange volume 1 contains the Doctor Strange strips from Strange Tales #110, #111 & #114-168 - i.e. the full run before he received his own title for the first time. As previously discussed, Strange Tales was one of Marvel's anthology series and the good doctor shared the title first with the Human Torch’s solo tales and then with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. The artwork on this volume is by Ditko all the way until issue #146 then Bill Everett, Marie Severin, Dan Adkins and George Tuska. The writing is initially by Lee with Ditko co-plotting, officially credited as such from issue #135 onwards, then the remaining strips are scripted or fully written by the likes of Roy Thomas, Denny O’Neil, Raymond Marais and Jim Lawrence. It's worth noting that Ditko's last four issues are not scripted by Lee.

In so far as there is a paper trail, the written evidence suggests that the idea for Doctor Strange was first thought up by Steve Ditko and only then fleshed out in collaboration with Stan Lee. There hasn't been as much debate over the character's creation as there has been with other characters, and I suspect Marvel hasn't given the issue as much time as Spider-Man's. (For example in the introduction to one collection they reproduced a contemporary letter from Lee to a fan in which Lee stated the magician was Ditko's idea. This reproduction probably did not go through endless corporate discussion.) It's interesting to note that Lee's (or Marvel corporate's?) stated definition of who the "creator" is excludes him on this occasion. Perhaps this is a sign of how it's the visuals rather than the script which gives the strip its greatest lure. A far cry from the hard edged urban grittiness of Spider-Man, Ditko's work on Doctor Strange is truly a voyage into the fantastic.

Unfortunately black and white can have its disadvantages and they are prominent here. Doctor Strange was one of the most psychedelic of strips put out by Marvel in the 1960s but some of that effect came from the colours and when viewed in black and white it seems more subdued. Never the less the exotic is still there, seen most graphically with the design of Eternity, whose body almost entirely consists of a starscape, perhaps the ultimate in psychedelia. On its original run the strip acquired a cult following amongst university students who wondered just what Steve Ditko was on. I doubt they ever guessed it was the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Nor do I think they spotted Ditko's attitude to hippies and student protesters, as expressed in his final issue of Amazing Spider-Man.

In all the speculation and discussion about Ditko's departure from Marvel, his work on Doctor Strange often gets overlooked. Perhaps it's because the magician has never achieved the levels of popularity that the wallcrawler has (although he's quite popular amongst creators). Perhaps it's because the departure came immediately after grand developments instead of just before them, and thus there's no creative decision to speculate on. Perhaps it's because Stan Lee was already off the strip, and it's harder to focus on his replacements. (Roy Thomas and Denny O'Neill may have both gone on to do great things, but in 1966 they were each starting out and not yet in great positions of authority. And when Ditko went, Lee immediately returned for the initial issues.) But whatever the reason, the result is that a key part of the puzzle is ignored. The strip climaxes with issue #146, entitled "The End -- At Last!", concluding the seventeen issue "Eternity saga" (although the "Dormammu saga" would be a more accurate description) and wrapping up many threads. It's a suitable ending for a long journey.

But every journey has a beginning, even if it's full of slips and omissions. Unfortunately the earliest Doctor Strange tales leave two matters out, both of which can affect subsequent stories. No origin is given for the good doctor until his fourth appearance in issue #115, in spite of several earlier stories involving the Ancient One and/or Baron Mordo. This omission is all the more surprising given that nearly every other Silver Age Marvel hero began with their origin being retold - was Doctor Strange originally intended to be a one-off feature? However whilst the origin omission is soon rectified, the other is left dangling and we never get a very clear sense of the full extent of Doctor Strange's powers, with the result that at times his escape from or triumph over his foes can seem all too easy. Without knowing his full limits, we are limited to statements that foes such as Dormammu and Umar are far more powerful than him, but it's not always clear why he can easily triumph over some foes yet others take far more skill.

As is often the case, this volume introduces quite a number of foes who would plague Doctor Strange again over the years. Given the importance of the artist, I'm going to split the list of débuts in two. In the Ditko issues we get the first appearances of, variously, Nightmare, Baron Mordo, Aggamon, the House of Shadows, Zota, Dormammu, Demonicus, Tiboro, Kaecilius and Shazana. There are also the Possessors, the strip's version of the alien race invading Earth that just about all Silver Age Marvel heroes faced. There is at least an attempt to make them relevant to Doctor Strange's series by having them come from another dimension and giving them the power to possess people. Visitors form other series are rare, but Loki from Thor's strip in Journey Into Mystery does show up. Just as standard are the various allies and other supporting cast members who début, and Ditko's issues introduce us to the Ancient One, Wong, Victoria Bentley, Clea (although she's not named for twenty issues), Hamir (the Ancient One's servant), Orini and the Aged Genghis. And standing above everything is the mysterious Eternity. The post-Ditko issues introduce yet more villains who would appear again, including Kaluu, Umar and Yandroth. There's also the one-off foe Nebulos, who I'm surprised nobody has yet brought back. Not that he's a particularly memorable foe but so many others have returned. Otherwise the only other significant débuts are two more powerful beings that defy easy description, Zom and the Living Tribunal.

These are reasonably impressive lists but they disguise the over-use of Baron Mordo in these issues, with Nightmare also popping up quite a bit before Dormammu becomes established as the other great foe. After Dormammu is seemingly destroyed, it's not long before a replacement is found in the form of his sister Umar. What lists also hide is the relatively weak use of the supporting cast. The Ancient One turns up a number of times to provide guidance and extra power, but otherwise most of the characters appear only occasionally and are weakly developed. Clea is initially presented as a potential romantic interest, but she and Doctor Strange are repeatedly kept apart, until the point where the Ancient One effectively banishes her for her own protection. Towards the end of the volume Victoria Bentley is dusted off to play the role of damsel in distress, but despite having some magic powers she's given little to do beyond being captured and rescued. There are also few attempts to give Doctor Strange many day to day problems, even though on more than one occasion we hear of problems with both money and the stability of his house, but in a later issue the money problems are literally magicked away when Doctor Strange produces the money necessary. Nor do we ever meet anyone from Strange's former life as an arrogant surgeon, or even get much exploration of how his character has changed beyond the origin story. This strip is a far cry from the soap operas being developed elsewhere at Marvel at the time, and is much more a fantasy piece with the art front and centre.

That's not to say the writing is inherently bad, and indeed the dialogue is often good, particularly the many spells Doctor Strange comes up with. But it really is the art that stands out. On the basis of these stories alone there is only one definitive Doctor Strange artist - Steve Ditko. None of his replacements succeeds in offering a boldly different style to get successive generations of fans debating, the way that Spider-Man fans do over Ditko and John Romita. And also in contrast to Spider-Man, there is a real sense of conclusion with Ditko's final issue. Many of the plotlines are resolved in the space of ten pages, the villain meets his comeuppance, the girl is freed and the hero walks away to rest. This is a very clear conclusion to the story and strongly suggests Ditko had reached the end of all he wished to do with the character. Whether this was indeed the case or not, I'm not sure, as there are reports that he had prepared two further issues when he left Marvel. But nevertheless it does provide a strong sense of closure.

(Yet from a modern perspective it's surprising to see the way Eternity is treated, with many believing him destroyed in battle with Dormammu, and for that matter the same surprise comes later with the Living Tribunal when each is here treated merely as a very powerful, mysterious being and not as one of the most powerful entities of all in the multiverse. It would take many years before Marvel took steps to arrange its many powerful cosmic beings into a coherent hierarchy, with the Living Tribunal invariably the single most powerful being shown, and Eternity the embodiment of the universe. Here they're just very powerful entities but without a hint as to their place in the greater scheme of things.)

After Ditko's departure the strip meanders somewhat, trying to maintain the sense of grandeur and excitement but a succession of writers and repetitive ideas mean that it doesn't quite succeed. What we get is a succession of mini-epics that are generally good in their own right (bar the last one with Yandroth that tries to combine science and the realm of dreams, not to very great success) but just don't compare at all well to the earlier majesty. Still they keep some pace going and do add a bit to Doctor Strange's world.

As can be seen, this is very much a volume of two halves and it seems clear from comparisons with the issues they didn't collaborate on that Steve Ditko rather than Stan Lee was the key driving force in the first few years. As a result the strip is driven more by the visuals over the writing than is usually the case. The writing may have its occasional repetition and omission, but combined with the art there's a great deal of imagination that produces a truly spectacular experience. Black and white may remove some of the psychedelic nature of the strip but the various spells and realms remain extraordinary, and a far cry from the rest of the comics world of its generation. Ditko's successors may not be as good, but they all try to follow the same path. The only possible additional strip I would have included is Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (otherwise available in Essential Spider-Man volume 2), which teamed up the wallcrawler with Doctor Strange with the latter really dominating proceedings in another tale drawn by Ditko. But when this volume was first released it was already the single longest Essential at the time (and only about a dozen since have been any longer), and back then it wasn't standard to include guest appearances as well. Otherwise this volume is a near perfect collection with the complete Ditko run the true jewel and the remaining issues a bonus.

2 comments:

  1. Interestingly, I dug out this book last night (having bought it a good number of years ago) because I wanted to compare it to the two softcover Masterworks volumes containing the same tales. (I only purchased the 2nd volume yesterday.) I have the 2001 printing of the Essentials volume and some tales have been printed directly from the original comics so the book obviously pales by comparison with the colour Masterworks.

    I always thought that Dr Strange was merely a reworking of Dr Droom (by Lee & Kirby), which Ditko inked (the first story anyway), and the origins are startlingly similar. As for Stan's note about it being Steve's idea, perhaps he only meant that it was Steve's idea to do a series about a magician, but that Stan was also involved in the creation. I think it's safe to say that Stan was responsible for Strange's back story (either directly by writing it, or indirectly by Ditko imitating Droom's origin), so I think Stan still has a valid claim to the title of co-creator.

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  2. My copy is the third edition from 2008 (the exact cover in the second image) and the tales are much cleaned up. I assume the crucial remastering was done on the Masterworks.

    I'd forgotten about the Doom/Druid connection, probably because in his latter appearances the differences in his powers have been played up (although it was revealed that his mentor was the Ancient One in disguise, doing a test run for Doctor Strange) and I've never read his 1960s tales. I guess maybe there's no such thing as an original idea.

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