Dr. Strange: The Lee-Ditko Years


Donny gives us his unique take on some mighty strange tales…

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Strange Tales #110-111, 114-146
(Reprinted in the Essential Dr. Strange Vol. 1)
1963-1966
(plot and art) Steve Ditko
(words) Stan Lee (with Roy Thomas and Denny O’Neil)

The very first thing I noticed when I began to re-read my Essential Dr. Strange collection is that in the first few of issues Strange is drawn (it seems to me rather clearly) as Asian. His origin doesn’t get told until the fourth issue, and only once it establishes him as a heartless American surgeon who turned to the occult when an accident damaged his hands does he take on a more Vincent Price-ish appearance. I’d suggest that it would be cool if Marvel went outside the box and cast someone Asian like Daniel Dai Kim as Strange in the upcoming movie, but as of this writing Benedict Cumberbatch has been all but confirmed for the part – and I really can’t complain about that. Cumberbatch certainly has the requisite ability to play arrogance and to deliver some heightened, almost-Shakespearian dialogue.

Stan Lee’s typically overwrote dialogue actually suits Strange perfectly. In one issue, Strange asks for a bit of privacy by demanding: “Quickly! I require a chamber for solitary contemplation!” It’s such an odd way of speaking, one thinks that there is no way Strange is a native New Yorker and surely English isn’t his first language… but I can imagine Cumberbatch pulling that line off.

Lee’s bizarre dialogue helps the early Dr. Strange come off as a suitably arrogant prick. He refers to an old man in the park as “aged peasant.” (Who talks like that!?) When a group of townsfolk attacks him he refers to the “insolent mob.” When the demon Nightmare gets the better of him and taunts him, Strange shouts back, “You will pay for this indignity!” When a couple of burglars break into his mansion he mocks them as being “unworthy” of his attention. I love that! For one, it shows that the arrogant surgeon hasn’t changed entirely. He’s more altruistic now, but he still sees himself as better then the rabble beneath him. He protects them almost like a man would protect his pets. He’s very much like Sherlock Holmes or the TV doctor inspired by Holmes: House. (And, by the way, my first choice to play Dr. Strange on the big screen would be Hugh Lorie.) One of my favorite, more bizarre, Holmes moments is when in The Sign of Four Holmes, in an aside, asks Watson, “Do you think poor people have souls?” That’s crazy even in Victorian times! The Lee-Ditko Dr. Strange strikes me as being just that arrogant and entitled. Sure, he’ll save you, but he’ll also treat you like you were his downstairs maid. This hero is not a people person.

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Lee’s dialogue helps, but what carries these books is Steve Ditko’s art. Ditko had a (no pun) strange, baroque style that lacked the slick clarity of Silver Age DC but was perfect for the edgy, counter-culture Marvel of the 1960’s. Ditko’s heroes are sweaty, nervous, and (often in Strange Tales) gaping wide-eyed with awe. The common factor among most of Marvel’s classic characters of the early ‘60’s was that they were cut-off or shut-out from society. Dr. Strange was (somewhat like the arrogant and reclusive Steve Ditko himself) estranged, placed above and beyond society because of his arcane knowledge and weird psycho-spiritual experiences.

The real power of these comics comes from (to quote Grant Morrison) “the genuine menace and schitzoid originality of Ditko’s visions.” (Supergods, 2011) Ditko’s art bleeds anxiety; there is a quivering nervousness to his brush that is very reminiscent of Edvard Munch. Strange’s mansion is as fascinating a setting as the psychedelic dimensions he visited, with it’s weird décor being a mash-up of Victorian, Gothic, Baroque, and Asian bric-a-brac from the moons of Jupiter. However, without a doubt, Steve Ditko’s fantasy landscapes steal the show. He created visions that were eerie and hallucinatory and genuinely disturbing in a way comics had never been before. They were, to quote Andrew Hultkrans, like a “Miro-Escher-Eero Saarinen collaboration on a virtual reality game for the Jetson family” (“Steve Ditko’s Hands” in Give Our Regards to the Atom Smashers, 2004). The realms Strange visits are the worlds of Escher, Dali, and DeChirico, and I have little doubt that if Ditko was creating these as paintings instead of comic book panels then he would be widely recognized today as a late-come surrealist master. In the early ‘60’s, it was the perfect crossroads of beatnik, drug culture, and Eastern mysticism. Readers would write-in asking what drugs they were taking at Marvel. (In fact, Ditko and Lee were completely clean and sober – however, Bronze Age Dr. Strange writer Steve Englehart was known to drop acid for inspiration.) Ken Kesey organized a concert in Haight-Ashbury, headlined by Jefferson Airplane, called “A Tribute to Dr. Strange” and proclaimed Marvel’s superheroes as the gods of a new mythology.

The series opens with a sequence of self-contained 8-page short stories in which Strange fights against Baron Mordo, Nightmare, a haunted house, and various sorcerers from other dimensions. The first thing that will strike the modern comics reader is the compression level of these Silver Age tales: they will cover in just three or four panels what a modern comic will take an entire book to do. Silver Age superhero comics tended to be very plot heavy without a lot of “quiet” moments of subtle character interaction. There are almost no subplots and characters are written very broad (and thus instantly recognizable). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take the modern reader a little time to adjust to feeling like you are watching the story on fast-forward.

Sometimes Strange tricks his foes by using illusions and hypnotic suggestions… but other times he just quickly overpowers them with raw magical and mental might. He makes extensive use of mind control and frequently erases memories of both his foes and bystanders (like a mystical Men in Black). These early adventures are, understandably, a bit rough, as Lee and Ditko are still working-out the character. Then, in issue 126, they introduce Strange to the Dread Dormammu, the demi-god tyrant of the Dark Dimension with a flame for a head. Strange ends up helping aid Dormammu against the Mindless Ones, and in return Dormammu must swear not to invade Earth. Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, rewards Strange on his victory by giving him the Eye of Agamotto (a magic amulet) and his cloak of levitation, which become two of the best weapons in his arsenal.

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That confrontation with Dormammu sets-up the big story arc that will occupy the later half of the Lee-Ditko run: issues 130-146. A suddenly super-charged Baron Mordo defeats Dr. Strange and puts the Ancient One in a coma. The next several issues are a globe (and multiverse) spanning game of cat-and-mouse as Strange tries to run and hide from Mordo while figuring out what the secret to Mordo’s new power is. Eventually he learns that Mordo has formed an alliance with Dormammu who is using the mortal sorcerer as a cat’s paw to take revenge on Strange. Meanwhile, the comatose Ancient One sends Strange on a parallel quest to discover Eternity – who turns out to be the godlike conscious manifestation of the whole universe. Strange, at last, defeats Dormammu… but in retribution, the Dread One banishes the mysterious girl who aided Strange (Clea) to a far-off dimension. The story then shifts to a search by Strange to find and rescue the mystery girl (while also cleaning-up some of the underlings Mordo left behind when Dormammu banished him as well) while Dormammu, meanwhile, plans a final attack against Eternity himself.

The story has a mad brilliance about it but is not without its flaws. Eternity’s first appearance is visually awesome but doesn’t contribute much of anything to the plot. Strange’s second defeat over Dormammu is a little anti-climatic (he challenges him to a wrestling match!?). The final battle between Dormammu and Eternity is (again) visually amazing but Strange is just a bystander watching the two cosmic giants battle it out without actually participating. Strange’s long awaited reunion with Clea is painfully cursory (just a few panels). It’s all good stuff, but not completely satisfying, and this isn’t Dr. Strange at his best. Dr. Strange would unquestionably peak between 1973-1976 under writer Steve Englehart and artists Gene Colan and (especially) Frank Brunner, but it’s worth looking at where the character originated and appreciating just how far outside the box Ditko’s art was.

In 1964, Ditko achieved something Jack Kirby never did with Marvel: he got credit as a co-plotter, extra money, and the return of his original artwork (we’ll come back to those). (Original artwork could be sold to collectors as a way for artists to make a little extra money after the pages had been photographed for publication.) Ditko also required in his negotiations with Marvel publisher Martin Goodman that he would never again have to even talk to Stan Lee, whom he could no longer stand personally and who he felt (just as Kirby did) was stealing credit for his creations. Thus, Ditko was largely left to his own devices on Strange Tales from ’64 to ’66 (for about ¾ of the 17-month story arc involving Mordo, Dormammu, and Eternity) – originating most of the ideas and plots as well as doing the artwork all on his own. Lee would then come in and lay down some dialogue near the end of the production process (although, as noted above, Lee’s pompously overwrote dialogue was a huge part of what made the character so wonderful). Lee eventually backed off completely, and the last four issues of Ditko’s run were scripted by Roy Thomas and Denny O’Neil.

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Part of the developing issues Ditko was having with Lee and Marvel involved Ditko’s growing enthrallment with Objectivism, the school of the sophomoric, greed-is-good “philosopher” Ayn Rand, whom Chris Hitchens once described as one of the “battiest females ever to have infested the American scene.” Rand was a sociopathic Baba Yaga, a cartoon Nietzsche knock-off, who, in her early twenties, expressed her deep admiration for serial killer William Edward Hickman – a guy who was convicted of hacking-up a twelve-year-old girl – because “other people did not exist for him,” and he thus “has the true innate psychology of the Superman.” Part of the Objectivist outlook was their absolutist views, denial of grey areas, and intolerance of moral or personal weakness. Those who were weak in character (lazy, unintelligent, bad at planning ahead…) deserve, in the Objectivist view, to suffer and lie in the bed of their own making. Lee’s more liberal, flawed heroes all had a bad side to their personality as well as good. Ditko, the right-wing Objectivist, hated this approach and grew to particularly despise the weak, geeky, lonely Peter Parker, the most famous character he helped create.

Ditko left Marvel and went on to create an Objectivist hero called Mr. A… and then re-create the same character again in another comic as The Question. Mr. A/The Question was basically “Superman as a right-wing extremist or Dirty Harry with superpowers” (Andrew Hultkrans, “Steve Ditko’s Hands”). They became the basis for Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. (One little thing to look for: Strange Tales # 141 and 142 feature a character who looks distinctly like a precursor of The Question/Mr. A/Rorschach.)

Steve Ditko is still alive, but he never comes to conventions and refuses to give interviews. Recently, when a reporter was granted an extremely rare, off-the-record visitation with Ditko he found out that Ditko was using his original artwork from the earliest issues of Spider-man and Dr. Strange (drawings worth tens of thousands of dollars) as scrap cutting boards. However idiotic Ayn Rand was and however asinine her Objectivist “philosophy” is, we can say this about Steve Ditko: the man was no sell-out or hypocrite; he defined his principles, took a stand, and was unwavering.

After Ditko left, Dr. Strange fell into a villain-of-the-week slump for a number years until Steve Englehart droped some acid, came onboard, and gave us the early Bronze Age Dr. Strange as the character’s best incarnation.

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