Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Master Of Black Magic!

In an effort to beef up my familiarity with Doctor Strange lore before the advent of the new movie I spent some time with the original Doc Strange stories from the back pages of Strange Tales. At the time Strange Tales was yet one more converted monster-ghost book which was trying to make a mark by offering up the flavor of the day -- superheroes. To that end the Human Torch was showcased in the book in an attempt (failed ultimately) to make him a break out star of the popular Fantastic Four comic.

In Strange Tales #110  with neither fanfare nor cover indication a new feature debuted, a small five-page offering from Stan Lee and the great Steve Ditko. Ditko was adept at these five-page stories, little gems which he and Lee cranked out gleefully. Ditko had produced them for Charlton and Atlas/Marvel since the beginning of his career. But this one was something a bit different as it offered a continuing character, a magician and what we'd call today a paranormal investigator.

Dressed in a blue-black outfit with a somber blue-black cape this mysterious man who seemed to somewhat of Asian extraction solved mysteries of the dream world and elsewhere. After a two-issue try out the feature disappeared. Then it was back and blurbs suggested fan reaction had done the deed. Now Doc Strange was a regular in the back pages of Strange Tales though it would be a very long time before he got a proper cover appearance.

Fighting other magicians (Mordo) and demons from other dimensions (Tiboro) and even aliens, he proved a sturdy champion of good despite being labeled a "Master of Black Magic". We see his origin eventually and learn that Stephen Strange was a surgeon with a severe lack of empathy for his fellow man. This callow fellow was brought short when an accident cost him the use of his talented hands and his fall from grace eventually led him to seek out the legendary Ancient One in the wilds of the Himalayas. He finds him and events conspire to make it obvious that Stephen Strange, a man seeking redemption of a kind, is just the kind of heroic figure a dark and dangerous world of magic requires.

The title tumbles along nicely with Doc doing what he does, and eventually he battles Loki, the chief villain from the pages of Thor. He crosses over into the Fantastic Four to help them with a problem with the Sub-Mariner and he even guests in Thor itself when Donald Blake, another surgeon of renown must help save Strange's life.

Jack Kirby draws Doc in these excursions and makes of him a more traditionally handsome fellow than I think Ditko intended. Ditko for his part even gets to partner up his two great creations for Marvel in the second Amazing Spider-Man Annual.

But for my money the series really takes off when soon after winning his signature red and yellow cloak of levitation Doctor Strange is driven into a wild excursion across the globe to escape the clutches of his arch enemy Baron Mordo who has partnered with an other-dimensional godling named Dormammu who bears a grudge against Strange. Helped by a beautiful girl he eventually learns is named Clea, Doc Strange travels the world hiding and dodging the creepy agents of Mordo. It's a potent battle of wits as chapter after chapter Doctor Strange has to find new ways to stay free, help his mentor the Ancient One, and eventually find the secret of something called "Eternity".

He does and our hero wins the day in stories credited to Diko as not only the artist but also the plotter. After the finale of his quest, the energy in the series seems to slip a bit as Ditko wraps up his run on the character and his Silver Age career at Mighty Marvel. Doctor Strange finally rates a cover for Ditko's final issue before other hands take the reins. During the heyday of this tenure, Ditko gave Doctor Strange both a wild creative visual splendor alongside a successfully rendered noirish real world. The latter is crucial to make the former work to best effect.

While Spider-Man is the most successful creation of Ditko's tenure at Marvel, Doc Strange is in many ways much more distinctively Ditko. The other dimensions that Doc visits during the run are designed by Ditko and have become as recognizable in the hands of other artists as are many of Kirby's more technological set pieces. Kirby dots are important, but no less important than the spindly roadways disappearing into a fanged maw which Ditko so delightfully rendered. 

Happy Birthday Mr. Ditko. Thanks for those fantastic creations.

More Doctor Strange to come tomorrow.

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  1. One of the things I remember about these issues is that Dormammu is a great villain and brings the stories to the next level. Ditko's art is amazing and all the dr Strange artists since have reinterpreted his weird landscapes (if they're smart).

    1. As influential as his Spidey stuff was, it's always been his Doc Strange stuff which I thought was the really amazing contribution to Marvel. He opened it up and created a weird offshoot of the "normal" MU.

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