Monday, June 13, 2016

Character Study: Dr. Strange

It’s been three years to the day since this blog began. So let’s keep the annual tradition going by taking a look at another Steve Ditko character.

This time, surprisingly enough, the character isn't a mouthpiece for Objectivism. In fact, the character in question doesn’t seem like anything Mr. Ditko would ever create, knowing him. Serial drug-avoider Steve Ditko is responsible for the most mind-bending Marvel character until Grant Morrison came along.
NewtCave readers, it’s time to look at the Master of the Mystic Arts, the Sorcerer Supreme himself…

Doctor Strange.

Character Conception
It’s a question every creator gets asked.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Well, I’m here to give you a definitive answer once and for all.

Sorry for the anti-climax.
Ideas just happen. Sometimes, there’s a story behind the idea. Sometimes not.

Everybody loves the anecdotes about how Stan Lee watched a fly crawl up the wall, or how Martin Nodell took note of a green railway lantern. But the truth is that some character ideas are lost to the mists of time. Especially when these characters were basically churned out more than half-a-century ago in order to make a buck by writing kids’ adventure stories.

Stan Lee himself has actually told two different stories on where Doctor Strange came from.  The first story involves Steve Ditko coming into the Marvel offices one day with a vague idea for some kind of wizard character who looked like Vincent Price.

You could cut glass with that widow's peak.
Stan Lee thought the idea had potential, even if it was a little lackluster. So during the scripting process, Lee took inspiration from a classic radio character called Chandu the Magician, who fought evil using magical abilities he learned in India.

When searching for a name, they came up with “Mr. Strange,” since he would debut within the pages of the anthology series Strange Tales (specifically, issue 110 in July of 1963). But the decided that the name was a bit too derivative of Mr. Fantastic. So they gave him a degree, and Dr. Strange was ready to go!

Funnily enough, Marvel had already created a one-shot Iron Man villain by the name of Dr. Strange; a guy named Carl who got mental powers after getting struck by lightning. Which is odd, because I’m pretty sure that lightning usually gives out superspeed. But this Dr. Strange wasn’t a magic user.

But then again… Marvel already had a magic user with a doctorate: Doctor Droom, later renamed “Doctor Druid” to avoid confusion with the other magic-using Marvel doctor, Doctor Doom.

Doctor Droom, a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creation, debuted in Amazing Adventures #1 in 1961, predating even the Fantastic Four. And Amazing Adventures was retitled twice into Amazing Adult Fantasy, then just Amazing Fantasy for its fifteenth and final issue, giving us the debut of another Ditko creation, Spider-Man.

Anyway, Dr. Droom is involved in the second version of Stan Lee’s story. Basically, he claims that when searching for character ideas, he blatantly recycled Dr. Droom, changed his name, and tweaked his origin.

If I had to give my two cents, I’d hazard a guess that Steve Ditko came up with a vague idea for a character which Stan Lee fleshed out by ripping off his own earlier collaboration with Jack Kirby. Certainly, Dr. Droom’s similarities to Dr. Strange can't be just a similarity.

Secret Origin (Dr. Droom)
Dr. Anthony Droom is a hypnotist, magician, psychiatrist, and occult expert. His career took him to a mountain retreat in the Himalayas, where a wise old lama resided. Dr. Droom had been contacted to cure the lama’s vague illness.  He made his way through tests of courage and skill, past a floor of firey coals and the half-lion, half-gorilla Gor-Lion, and eventually came face to face with the lama, who revealed that he was really dying. The reason the lama called for Doctor Droom was so he could pass on his powers and wisdom to a worthy successor.

And so, Dr. Droom reached out to the dying mystic and gained knowledge, wisdom, magical abilities… and Asian features.

Magic makes you turn into an Asian man, apparently.
Yeah… there’s a reason they retconned that aspect of the story in reprints.

Dr. Droom! Now with less racism.
Anyway, Dr. Droom had an adventure or two, used his magic, and the day was saved. Now let’s compare that with Dr. Strange’s origin.

Secret Origin (Dr. Strange)
Dr. Stephen Strange is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, neurosurgeons in the world. Unfortunately, he’s also a massively greedy tool who demands huge fees for his amazing skills.

"Maybe you should have thought twice before getting that growth, skinflint."
One day, he ends up crashing his car, shattering both of his hands in the process. Despite the best efforts of a crack medical staff, they don’t quite heal correctly, leaving the good doctor unable to perform surgery.

I bet Dr. Strange could perform the necessary surgery on that kind of injury. Oh, the irony.
Since Strange’s massive ego wouldn’t allow him to accept not being able to put his awesome skills to practical use, he used his fortune to travel the world in search of some kind of cure. After a long journey, he was left with no cure and no money. But he did have one last hope. There were rumors of a mysterious “Ancient One” in Tibet, who was supposedly a mystic with great powers.

Strange made his way to the Himalayas and basically begged for a cure. But the Ancient One, seeing Strange’s selfishness, refused to cure his hands. Dr. Strange was understandably upset, but he didn’t take the Peter Parker route.  Where Peter Parker decided that catching a burglar wasn’t his problem (leading to the death of Uncle Ben), Stephen Strange decided to try and stop the Ancient One’s apprentice, Baron Mordo, from killing the Ancient One.

The Ancient One knew that Mordo was planning this betrayal for a while, and easily stopped Mordo when Strange’s efforts proved useless. But the flicker of selflessness within the good doctor had been ignited. And so, the Ancient One kicked Baron Mordo out and took Dr. Strange under his wing to become Earth’s next Sorcerer Supreme!

Now… this origin opens up a can of worms regarding racism that probably should be addressed.

Though it’s not as racist as this, thankfully.
Basically, many people see Doctor Strange’s story as being yet another example of a white guy learning the ways of foreigners and becoming better than his teachers in every way. If another example would help, think about Avatar. Human Jake Sully gets a Na’Vi body and proceeds to learn their ways and tame the nigh-untamable sky beast and lead the tribe to victory over the invaders. Or for a more classical example, Natty Bummpo, a white guy raised by Native Americans who becomes a great warrior/hunter.

The Phantom, Iron Fist, B’Wana Beast, Tarzan, John Carter, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Samurai, Allan Quatermain…. It’s kind of a thing, unfortunately. And, yes, Doctor Strange is definitely an example of this unfortunate trope.


Doctor Strange is definitely relatively unique from many of those other examples in that the story isn’t about him going to a new place and mastering the ways of another people. It’s primarily about the character’s redemption, which is what writers tend to focus on, downplaying the unfortunate racial implications.

His story is a classic Greek tragedy. He starts off in a position of power, but has the fatal flaw of hubris, which leads to his downfall. But he goes through the wringer and with the help of a force greater than he is, manages to come out the other end a better human being.

Stephen Strange’s story isn’t about going to live with Asians and becoming master of their ways. It’s about his journey and rebirth as a human being by giving up his selfish life and devoting it to the protection of the world. And also, it’s a total ripoff of Dr. Droom’s origin with details changed and character depth added.

As for this... no comment for now.
Short version: Yes.  I mean, the guy is the most powerful sorcerer on his entire dimension. And from a more real-life point of view, he’s had a buttload of writers behind him giving him whatever magical power is needed to further their own stories.

Doctor Strange has pulled nearly every ability you could possibly imagine out of his rear end. Time travel, intangibility, telekinesis, telepathy, energy bolts, illusions, and his signature trick, astral projection, where his soul leaves his body and can travel around like a ghost for up to 24 hours, after which his defenseless body will die.

On a more mundane level, the man is a medical doctor, with all the skills and knowledge that implies. On the opposite side of the spectrum, he’s also really good at hurting people with his martial arts skills that he picked up in Tibet.

But Doctor Strange also has a buttload of magical items that he uses to help him in his duties. And I mean a buttload, some of which only appears once. But I’ll go over the two big ones that he uses pretty much all the time.

The Cloak of Levitation
Basically, Dr. Strange has a magic cape that lets him fly. But he can also manipulate it with his mind, turning it into sort of a third set of hands, or an improvised weapon.

The Eye of Agamotto
That thing that keeps the cape around his neck is also his greatest magical artifact. It lets him detect lies, amplify psychic abilities (including his own), open portals to other dimensions, weaken demons, and anything else a writer needs it to do.


Wong is Dr. Strange’s servant/student… which really isn’t helping that little racist bent to Dr. Strange's origin.

Though the character is made of awesome.
Wong comes from a long line of monks who devote their lives to assisting the Sorcerer Supreme. But he’s also Dr. Strange’s closest friend through thick and thin. He can do a bit of magic, but his real skills are of the butt-kicking variety, which helps him guard the good doctor’s body during astral projection.

The daughter of a demonic creature named Umar. She met up with Dr. Strange to help him fight a demon named Dormammu in the Dark Dimension, though she ended up imprisoned. Luckily, she was eventually freed by the Ancient One and ended up becoming Strange’s student in the mystic arts, and eventually his wife. After a series of coups regarding the leadership of the Dark Dimension, she left to lead the fight against Dormammu and was never seen again.

Except for all the times they brought her back, but never mind....
Night Nurse (Linda Carter)
Dr. Strange had a brief fling with the number one secret care-provider to superheroes after helping save the Sorcerer Supreme’s life.

"Sherlock," indeed. And before Cumberbatch was cast, even.
Baron Karl Amadeus Mordo

The original, evil student of the Ancient One. He likes to use mind control and team up with more powerful bad guys in his attempts to destroy Dr. Strange and usurp his title.

Too much p... never mind.

The Dread Dormammu 

Not Ghost Rider. Not even close.
Demonic usurper of the throne of the Dark Dimension, he wants to conquer every other dimension as well. Including Earth, which Dr. Strange takes a bit of offense to. In the early days, Dr. Strange would invoke Dormammu’s name to utilize his power. Then he realized that he was using some pretty evil magic and stopped.

Basically the Devil in all but name. Likes to make bargains for souls, lives in a dimension of fire.  

Lord of the Dream Dimension, where he feasts upon the psychic energy of his victims’ fear.

Nothing is scarier than green spandex.
He can’t exist in the real world, but as long as dreams exist, so does he.



This Many-Angled reference to H.P. Lovecraft is one of the oldest and most terrible evils that has ever existed.

Not to mention an awesome character in the Marvel vs. Capcom series.
Oddly enough, he actually comes from Robert E. Howard’s pulp novels. You know, the Conan the Barbarian writer. Shuma-Gorath made the transition over when Marvel published Conan comics. Originally, he was just mentioned in dialogue as a shout-out to Howard’s work, but the character eventually become a classic addition Dr. Strange’s demonic rogues gallery.

Dr. Strange lovs to invoke the names of the beings he gets powers from. Agamotto. Cyttorak. Watoomb. The Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth. And he’s even stopped by to have chats with them on occasion, or ask for greater help. Or fight them, in some cases. And I’m not even mentioning half the evil beings he’s fought, like Umar, Zom, Set, and others. But If I went through them all, this Character Study would probably be twice as long.

Notable Character History
The best thing about Dr. Strange is how perfect of a team-up character he is. Being one the Sorcerer Supreme means that he’s a perfect addition to any horror or magical tale you want to tell.

“Oh no, evil magic! I can’t deal with this! I need Dr. Strange’s help!” is a classic recipe for a Marvel Team-Up, and Doctor Strange has spent most of his time showing up in ensemble pieces or team books as the token magic guy.

He’s had stories of his own, like his crusade against the Dark Dimension, which saw him meeting and eventually losing Clea, or foiling other dimensions’ numerous attempts to conquer Earth. But there’s no reason to discuss many of his adventures here. Sure, I could give you an encyclopedic account of every enemy he faced and why… but that would miss the larger point of Dr. Strange’s solo adventures.

With a character like, say, Spider-Man, talking about his adventures is a way to track his character growth as he goes from being a meek teenager to a confident, moderately successful adult. And you can chalk that up to the writing style.

The big three creators at Marvel in the 60s were Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. Stan Lee liked to tell… well, super-powered soap operas. Secret love, shocking villain resurrections, interpersonal drama, the works. Jack Kirby was all about worldbuilding and creating his own mythology. Steve Ditko was all about the philosophy, even when he wasn’t using a character as a mouthpiece for Objectivism. When he took over as Dr. Strange’s writer, the stories ended up getting really weird. Dr. Strange wasn’t so much a superhero as he was a wanderer between dimensions, who would defend Earth from threats as existential as they were evil.

Euclidean geometry was optional.
Dr. Strange’s stories weren’t so much about personal growth and soap opera interactions as much as they were about Ditko coming up with creative ideas and exploring alternative ways of thinking. I mean, as much as a comic book in the 60s could.

So Dr. Strange was never really a standard Marvel superhero with personal drama, masks, and a secret identity.

Barring certain retcons.
But he does have some moments worth noting, like the time he met Death, accepted it as an inevitability… and became immortal for it. Or the time he had to continually invoke ancient and dark forces to try and stop the ancient and dark forces he had previously unleashed to stop a different ancient and dark force. Took him a while, but he eventually fixed everything.

But Dr. Strange has been involved with many large crises involving other heroes, even aside from being a member of the on-again-off-again team known as the Defenders, alongside Silver Surfer and the Hulk.

He was once the keeper of the powerful Soul Gem, and ended up getting involved in the Infinity War, when the mad Titan Thanos took control of the Soul Gem and the other five Infinity Gems. Shortly after, Strange stayed neutral in a gigantic interdimensional war between various deities, after which he lost much of the power they granted him. Eventually, he was collected by a being known as the Goddess in an attempt to eradicate evil from the universe, but ended up breaking free of her control to teach his new apprentice, Kyllian Kell.

But Dr. Strange’s long stretch of involvement in the superhero community began when he was called in to help with the Scarlet Witch, who was going insane. After denying the existence of chaos magic (despite having used it himself), he used the Scarlet Witch’s most traumatic memories to stop her rampage. In the end, though, she couldn’t be helped, and she ended up transforming the world into one controlled by mutants.  Scarlet’s Witch’s rewriting of reality was undone, but Dr. Strange blamed himself, since that’s the sort of thing the Sorcerer Supreme is supposed to stop.

During the Civil War brought on by the Superhero Registratiojn Act, he stayed neutral and meditated in the hope of helping to bring about the best outcome for everybody. Then he said “Screw that noise” and gave the New Avengers a place to stay/hide when they went underground as renegades following the Civil War.

After giving some vague and plot-convenient explanation to Spider-Man as to why he couldn’t heal Aunt May’s gunshot wound, the Hulk came back from space.

Secretly, Dr. Strange had been a member of the superhero think tank known as the Illuminati (which is where he got the Soul Gem), and was there when they decided to shoot the Hulk into space to live out his life on another planet. When the Hulk came back, he went on a rampage and ended up crushing Dr. Strange’s hand, limiting his ability to perform the gestures needed to cast spells. Desperate, Dr. Strange called upon the powers of an old foe, Zom…. And got his butt kicked. Then he was forced to fight the other Illuminati in an arena, before the Sentry saved them.

Having invoked dark powers and lost control, the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme was passed on to Jericho Drumm, aka Brother Voodoo, while Dr. Strange resumed fighting evil, albeit with less in the way of magical abilities. But once he proved able to command dark powers without losing himself to them, the Ancient One appeared to restore Dr. Strange’s title. And since then, Dr. Strange has been working overtime, protecting his dimension from extradimensional “incursions,” selling his soul for the power of a god, and teaming up with Doctor Doom to preserve the universe in the wake of multiversal collapse.

Basically, the more involved Dr. Strange is, usually the more serious things are.

Alternate Versions
Name an alternate universe, there’s a version of him, whether it be as the queen’s advisor in Marvel 1602, or Stephen Strange Jr., the child of Dr. Strange and Clea in the Ultimate universe. And later this year, the character is making his second film appearance after the 1978 made-for-TV movie starring Peter Hooten.

I never noticed before now how much he actually looks like Benedict Cumberbatch.
Not to mention all the various animated series appearances. What can I say? The guy’s a great addition to any ensemble.

Final Thoughts
Doctor Strange is definitely Marvel’s greatest magical character, which can account for his active presence in Marvel Comics for over fifty years even when he doesn't have his own ongoing series. When the good doctor’s around, you can count on things getting a little weird and a little wild.

He's not from 'round here. He's from another dimension.


  1. I'm reasonably certain Clea's been shown a few times since the storyline you mentioned. I definately remember her in Fearless Defenders, at least.

    1. Oh, yeah1 I was struggling to remember what I was going to write in that caption. It's been fixed. Thanks!

  2. Thanks to that Star vs. the Forces of Evil reference, I am now picturing Dormammu voiced by Alan Tudyk. This is not a complaint.

    - That One Anon