Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Marvel, Magic and Strange Tales: Part 3

BACK IN THE MAGICAL DAYS OF MY YOUTH, Steve Ditko was my favourite artist and Spider-Man was my favourite comic. While I can certainly remember the earliest Doctor Strange strips in the back of Strange Tales, the later ones remain a little hazy in my recollections. This may be because the first few Strange stories were self-contained and and had punchy - if a little familiar - plots by Stan Lee. The later Doctor Strange tales were darker and labyrinthine affairs created mostly by Steve Ditko and merely dialogued by Stan.

Though Doctor Strange began his run in Strange Tales 110 (Jul 1963), he wasn't cover-mentioned until Strange Tales 117 (Feb 1964), and wasn't shown on a cover until Strange Tales 118 (Mar 1964), making him one of the most obscure back-up features in Marvel Comics.

I say "merely", but anyone who has read earlier editions of this blog will know that, as a writer and former editor myself, I am one of the last to minimise Stan Lee's contributions to the Marvel machine. Few critics understand the sea-change that Stan brought to the industry when he decided to switch from plot-driven storytelling to character-driven. But in the back half of 1964, it was plain that Stan had struggled to come up with the right plotting approach for Doctor Strange, and would take a step back and leave that task to Ditko. What Stan does deserve credit for is the unique and engaging catch-phrases and mythos of the Doctor Strange strip. As the series progressed from the earliest five-pagers to the more substantial ten-pagers that started with Strange Tales 125 (Oct 1964), you could see more and more of the now-familiar tropes emerging. We see "The Master" renamed "The Ancient One" (ST115), "Vishanti", "Hoggoth" and "Dormammu" mentioned, and Mordo established as the main threat.

What is striking is the thematic similarities between Dr Strange and Steve Ditko's other project, Spider-Man. Both are outsiders, largely separate from society, and from the other Lee-Kirby heroes (there are cross-overs, but they seem forced and artificial). And both have ageing, frail relatives that they need to take care of. And, perhaps because the style and themes of Doctor Strange don't sit comfortably alongside the more mainstream Lee-Kirby comics, Stan stands a little further back from the character and let's Ditko steer the magician's career, and "merely" adds polish and some degree of characterisation in the dialogue, but not much.

Strange Tales 125 montage
Though the inking is still supplied by Roussos (I'm guessing to give Ditko space to finish up on the Spider-Man Annual), the storyline in Strange Tales 125 seems to have more Ditko input than Lee, despite the co-plot credit awarded by Grand Comicbook Database.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales 125 (Oct 1964), which acts as a kind of prologue to the mega-epic to come. When Strange is attacked by "three followers of Mordo" in his sanctum, he renders them insubstantial with a gesture and wonders why Mordo would order such an obvious feint. As if by magic, Mordo himself appears to tell Strange that The Ancient One is Mordo's captive, and that without his mentor's aid, Strange is now vulnerable to Mordo's magic. Thus begins a globe-spanning chase with Doctor Strange fleeing before Mordo, and taking in the landmarks on the way.

For much of the story, Doctor Strange appears to flee in fear of Mordo, but he's merely fooling his foe and searching for a way to free The Ancient One from Mordo's power.

But it turns out that Strange's running was only a surreptitious way of searching the globe for a trace of his Master. Once he's located the Ancient One, Strange feels free to defeat Mordo using the power of his amulet and to liberate The Ancient One from the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak. The story ends with Master and Pupil safe, though unsuspecting to the terrible ordeal that awaits them in the very next issue.

Unusually, Doctor Strange gets almost a third of the cover artwork space this time, his biggest cover appearance to date. It does suggest that Stan's soft-selling of the strip had little to do with it being Steve Ditko's baby, as this seems to around the time that Ditko was asserting his ownership of the feature.

With Strange Tales 126 (Nov 1964), Steve Ditko was back and firmly in the driving seat. He was again inking his own pencils and it really showed. There was a massive uptick in the quality of the art, and you really had the feeling that there was something Important about to happen. And, of course, there was. 

With Steve Ditko back on inking, you can see the huge improvement in the quality of the art. Here, the texture of The Ancient One's skin looks authentically aged, the shadows and the two-source lighting finely rendered.

Though, mentioned only the dialogue previously, this is the first time we actually get to see Dormammu. Though known mainly for having a head that resembles the FF's Human Torch, in this first appearance, Dormammu is coloured blue.

Dormammu was, for this ten-year old, a genuinely terrifying figure. Devoid of humanity and shockingly powerful, I really did fear for Doctor Strange's safety.

But there are other interesting aspects to this Doctor Strange instalment. It marks the first appearance of another Strange regular, Clea ... here portrayed as a naive if decent citizen of Dormammu's realm. She will try and fail, to warn Doctor Strange away from his confrontation with Dormammu.

I think Steve Ditko drew beautiful women, and Clea was one of my favourites. And it's a testament to Ditko's talent that he makes Clea seem somehow more than human, but less than alien.

Clea will feature large in the legend of Doctor Strange, but for the moment, she has no more than a cameo appearance. And the episode ends on something of a cliffhanger, with Strange and Dormammu posturing, but not actually fighting ... for that we would have to wait a month for Strange Tales 127 (Dec 1964).

Dr Strange and Dormammu featured on the cover. Clea a captive. And the Mindless Ones set to invade and destroy all who live under Dormammu's rule. I'd buy that for 12c.

The second part of Doctor Strange's first meeting with the Dread Dormammu sees the two foes-to-be join in battle. But even before the confrontation begins, Clea reveals that even in the unlikely event that Doctor Strange should prevail against Dormammu, then all the inhabitants of his realm are doomed ... for it is only the sheer willpower of Dormammu that holds the Mindless Ones at bay, behind an invisible barrier. Should Dormammu fall, then all his subjects will perish.

And that's pretty much what happens ... all except for the perishing bit. For Dormammu's battle is no easy one. Doctor Strange is stronger than he anticipated and as he gives more and more attention to the fight, his control over the Mindless Ones begins to erode, until finally, they are free to invade Dormammu's realm. 

I really like Ditko's plotting here, very typical of his style. Dr Strange must battle and defeat Dormammu. But if he prevails, the people of Dormammu's realm will die. His perfect opportunity to win is when Dormammu give his attention to the invading monsters, but instead he helps his foe.

Almost contemptuously, Dormammu turns his back on Strange to halt the advance of The Mindless Ones. It's Doctor Strange's chance to strike. Yet he holds back. For the Mindless Ones threaten Clea and her people too. So, like the hero he is, Strange joins with Dormammu to stop The Mindless invaders. Thus, he defeats Dormammu without defeating him. Now the Evil One is in Strange's debt, even worse than defeat for one such as Dormammu.

Typically, the triumphant Doctor Strange doesn't get the girl ... but he does get a Cloak of Levitation and a new and improved amulet.

When Doctor Strange returns to his own world, The Ancient One rewards him with a Cloak of Levitation and a new, upgraded mystic amulet (though it's not made clear how this is better than his old one).

"The Dilemma of the Demon's Disciple" is a bit of a non-story. The central idea is weak, there is no sense of danger and nothing terribly interesting happens. There's not even a Dilemma to solve. This appears to be a Ditko plot, but Stan the Editor ought to take some of the blame.

The next couple of Doctor Strange adventures are a bit of an anti-climax after the Dormammu battle. Strange Tales 128 (Jan 1965). As a foe, The Demon is a bit of a non-starter. An upstart magician with a solitary disciple, The Demon never really poses a threat to Doctor Strange, and because of that, the story lacks menace. The only neat bit of plotting here is that the Cloak of Levitation, bestowed upon Doctor Strange last issue by The Ancient One, is his means of escaping The Demon's final trap. So there's that ... but otherwise an unmemorable tale.

"Beware Tiboro" is awfully reminiscent of those old Lee-Ditko fantasy tales in the back of every Marvel fantasy anthology ever. And what's with the strange felt-marker inking on the story's splash page?

The Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales 129 (Feb 1965) is a bit of an odd fish. It's another Ditko solo plot, with a script by Timely and Atlas veteran Don Rico ... and it's pretty bad. Stan had trailed it cheerily enough in the previous month's "Strange Mails" letters page: "... one of the old-time greats of comicdom, Don Rico, who used to work with Stan a zillion years ago in the Golden Age of Comics, has come back to the fold. And, for his very first new appearance in this, The Marvel Age, Don will do the script for Dr Strange. We're very anxious to get your reaction to it - and we predict you'll flip over his fast-paced style! And Stan couldn't be prouder of his old buddy."

There's a lot of striking again going on in this Iron Man two-parter, which introduced the Black Widow (as a coutured Russian spy, rather than a super-heroine). Plotted by Stan and scripted by Don Rico under the name "N. Kokok", this material was published at a time when Stan was experimenting with other writers on the Marvel line.

I have to take issue with Stan's claim that this is Don Rico's first Marvel work. It isn't. Rico had scripted another Marvel story a few months earlier, a two-parter in Tales of Suspense 52 & 53 (Apr & May 1964), which featured the first appearance of Soviet agent The Black Widow. And as proud as Stan may have been of his old buddy, Rico was quick to pour scorn on Stan a few years later in a 1974 joint interview with Jack Kirby for the comic fanzine Mysticogryfil, "Stan Lee to my knowledge was not even a writer when he began. He was a kind of editor and then discovered if you put some words together, you got a story out of it, you found a formula. It's still working for him. It worked for him in the old days, and it's working for him now." Thanks, old buddy.

At the end of the "Strange Mails" letter column in this issue, Stan again trails the next issue: "Dr. Strange begins a new, different type of series next month! Just for a change, Stan asked Steve to dream up a real far-out plot, and if you hadn't guessed it before, you're about to learn that sterling Stevey Ditko has one of the most inventive, off-beat imaginations anywhere! Don't say we didn't warn you! The next one's gonna be DIFFERENT!" So confirmation, if any were needed, that Ditko is plotting the Doctor Strange series by himself by this point. 

Can all five letter writers be wrong? Should Doctor Strange be the lead strip in Strange Tales? Or is Stan just cherry-picking comments from readers to boost Doctor Strange and contradict his earlier notion that Doctor Strange was "nothing special"?

It's also interesting that every single letter in this column is praising Doctor Strange and insisting it becomes the lead strip. So if Stan had any doubts about the character, surely they've been dispelled by now ... whatever conclusions we draw, Stan was right about one thing. The next run of Doctor Strange stories - in reality one 17-part epic - would be a fitting capstone to Steve Ditko's time at Marvel.

The next five Doctor Strange stories would form a kind of first act to the overall drama of what would come to be known as The Eternity Saga. The first three episodes would form an initial battle against Mordo and his silent partner Dormammu, as they force Doctor Strange onto the back foot and chase him across this world and others. The fourth episode would be a break from the main plot where Doctor Strange would overthrow the despotic ruler of another dimension, then return to face Mordo again and ensure the safety of The Ancient One.

While Stan does acknowledge the importance of the new Doctor Strange storyline, he still gets Jack Kirby to do the cover ... and it's not a scene that appears in the story. It's an odd choice because, at the time, I think Torch and Thing in Beatles wigs may have been a better-selling cover.

In the telling of these Ditko-plotted stories, we'd see Stan take a slightly less active part, and begin crediting Ditko as solo-plotter. Ditko's art - perhaps energised by his new freedom - also goes up a few notches in quality. But I did find myself wondering whether Ditko might also be scripting - with Stan adding a few editorial flourishes - as the dialogue doesn't scan like Stan's work at all.

Strange Tales 130 has Doctor Strange harassed by Mordo (backed secretly by Dormammu, here coloured green) and his lesser followers, fleeing from country to country across the globe while trying to figure out why Mordo is suddenly so powerful.

"The Defeat of Dr. Strange" begins in Strange Tales 130 (Mar 1965), and it's established immediately who the main players are. Bound by a vow never to attack Doctor Strange or Earth, Dormammu is using gullible Mordo as a tool through which to remove Strange as an obstacle to his conquest of our world. Arrogantly, Mordo believes it's an equal partnership, though I don't think anyone told Dormammu that.

Having parked The Ancient One safely somewhere in the Himalayas, Strange is now free to formulate a plan to put a stop to Mordo's nonsense. His first stop is Hong Kong, where he contacts The Ancient One's accountant and obtains papers and a passport so he can travel conventionally and incognito. But that goes awry, when Mordo's followers spot him and give battle. Doctor Strange barely manages to escape and is once again on the run.

Once more, Steve Ditko's splash page is a more dramatic and effective piece of art than the actual cover of Strange Tales 131.

In Strange Tales 131 (Apr 1965), Doctor Strange tries to wrong-foot his pursuers by escaping from Hong Kong by conventional means. He boards an aircraft bound for New York. But one of Dormammu's wraiths finds him and a battle ensues aboard the plane unnoticed by Strange's fellow passengers.

One of my favourite Doctor Strange scenes. Airline passengers sit oblivious in a physical plane as a mystical battle rages around them on the astral plane.

Vanquishing the wraith, Strange takes the creature's place just long enough to signal to other pursuing wraiths that Strange is not on the plane ... and thus he escapes successfully to fight another day.

This episode doesn't really extend the story very much. It's more of an incident, details some inconclusive mystical skirmishes and a fortunate escape for Doctor Strange. At some point he's going to have to stop running and stand his ground. But there's more to come.

After several initial appearances coloured green, The Dread Dormammu finally appears as a redhead. It always amused me that he looked like an evil cousin of the Human Torch ...

Strange Tales 132 (May 1965) sees Doctor Strange back in New York, seeking to use the Eye of Agamotto to discover who is helping his foe, but Mordo has left one of his minions encamped within the Sanctum at Bleeker Street. Strange must deal with the guardian without Mordo's knowledge, a seemingly impossible task.

This is some of Steve Ditko's finest art on the series. The rainy gloom of nighttime New York is perfectly captured here, and Ditko packs in a lot of story with his nine-panel grids. But just who is the obnoxious midget challenging Doctor Strange?

How Dr Strange gets past Mordo's watchdog is silly but amusing ... and it's counterbalanced by a feverish Ancient One repeatedly mentioning "Eternity", as though that is the answer to Doctor Strange's challenges.

Say his name ... the penny drops for Doctor Strange.

The big face-to-face showdown with Mordo comes at the end of the episode ... and though Doctor Strange finally recognises who is the Power behind Mordo, he doesn't voice the name. Which is odd, because we, the readers, already know that Dormammu is the real baddy here ... but for Strange, the realisation comes too late. Staggering under Mordo's onslaught, Doctor Strange begins to literally fade away.

An interlude for Doctor Strange, facing another foe in another dimension. The cover to Strange Tales 133 is credited to Jack Kirby, but it sure doesn't look like it to me. Kirby layout perhaps, and Mike Esposito finishes?

Strange Tales 133 (Jun 1965) is a bit of a pause in the main storyline. For Doctor Strange didn't simply disappear moments before his destruction at the hands of Mordo, but actually escaped into another dimension ... a dimension ruled by a despotic sorceress know as Shazana. It's not a bad story, by any means, but I should imagine that most readers were eager to get back to the war with Mordo and Dormammu. But even in his weakened state, Doctor Strange is able to defeat Shazana and free the people of her dimension from her tyranny. In the process Strange appropriates Shazana's power and, recharged, prepares to return to our world for his showdown with Mordo.

I'm a little surprised that Stan let this cover go through. To me it looks like "Strange Enter Tales" featuring The Watcher. Very hard to see Johnny and Ben among all the visual noise. If ever there was a case for Doctor Strange making a better cover, surely this is it.

When Doctor Strange returns in Strange Tales 134 (Jul 1965), he's only marginally better off. Though fortified with Shazana mystical energies, he's still no match for Mordo wielding Dormammu's power. Learning of The Ancient One's warning about "Eternity" Doctor Strange thinks he may find the answer among his master's arcane scrolls. But a moment's carelessness means Strange is spotted by one of Mordo's wraiths and within seconds Mordo is alerted and arrives to finish Strange off.

I really like the little "atomic" swirls dancing around Mordo and Doctor Strange, a very effective way of portraying solar energy. Notice how Stan is bigging up Steve Ditko in the final caption box.

Yet, as the battle rages, back in Dormammu's realm, Clea determines to help Strange by once again releasing the Mindless Ones. Distracted, Dormammu leaves Mordo to battle Doctor Strange alone and the tide turns. Strange lures Mordo towards the sun, knowing that its broad spectrum of radiation can harm even ectoplasmic forms. Mordo lacks the courage to follow and once again, Doctor Strange escapes defeat, bringing the first act of the saga to a close.

This is the first time that Steve Ditko is officially acknowledged by Stan as plotter in the credits, though it's pretty certain that he's been creating the plots by himself as far back as Strange Tales 130, perhaps even earlier.

The next episode, in Strange Tales 135 (Aug 1965), has Doctor Strange travel to England to consult with an old friend and fellow disciple of The Ancient One who may have some information about "Eternity". This kicks off the middle section of the extended storyline where Stephen Strange begins to come closer to learning the secret of "Eternity". 

The mystical battle with Mordo and his minions is fun, and I love the clever way Ditko has Doctor Strange animate the suit of armour, so they think he's hiding inside it.

Of course, it turns out that Sir Baskerville is no longer a disciple of The Ancient One, but one of Mordo's allies. But before Mordo can be summoned again and another battle kicks off, we see Dormammu discover that it was Clea who summoned forth The Mindless Ones, thereby saving Doctor Strange just a few episodes earlier. The episode closes out with Doctor Strange making another hairsbreadth escape from Mordo, but leaving him no closer to the secret of "Eternity" than he was before.

Doctor Strange's next appearance, chronologically, would be in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2 (on sale 1st June 1965), where he teams up with Guess Who. However, that story makes no mention of the bigger quest Doctor Strange is on, so I don't see much point in covering that story here. In fact, I think the Marvel Annuals deserve their own posts, something I'll get round to some time later. 

That's a great splash page to the story, bound to suck in even the most casual of readers. And Ditko's design for the "transposed" Doctor Strange is eerie and striking.

Strange Tales 136 (Sep 1965) shows Doctor Strange stepping up his desperate quest for the secret of Eternity. He roams the globe, contact one mystic after another, asking each the same question. None have an answer, except for one crazy old galoot who hands Strange an ancient scroll. Following the spell in the scroll, Strange is transported to another dimension where he encounters another loopy, unnamed ruler who steals his form and his magic. But the dopey dictator reckons without the Cloak of Levitation and is speedily despatched, and Doctor Strange is once again, back in our realm with still no clue about the secret of "Eternity". Now, his only course is to probe the mind of the comatose, Ancient One, as task that could be fatal.

It's a bit of a shame that Ditko gave us another filler episode, but I have to admit, the artwork is rather brilliant. And I like the tantalising glimpses we get of other mystics dotted around the world. How much fun would it have been if they'd all had larger roles to play in the story?

This instalment is not a million miles away from the Shazana tale back in Strange Tales 133, and I'm sure it's intended to fulfil exactly the same purpose - to give readers a meaningful pause before the next intense battle in Mordo and Dormammu's war against Doctor Strange. And I don't think that's a bad thing in itself, but I would have liked to have seen a different idea for the between-battles-breather, rather than having a previous one re-hashed.

However, the sub-plots add interest, with Clea's efforts to aid Doctor Strange uncovered by Dormammu and device of having the secret of "Eternity" locked inside the dormant mind of The Ancient One ... and of course, Ditko incredible sense of design and pacing. So any complaints I might have a minor niggles.

Desperation can something precipitate reckless acts. Here, Doctor Strange attempts the dangerous process of joining his mind with that of The Ancient One ... which results in dire consequences.

Strange Tales 137 (Oct 1965) marks the halfway point of the epic. And is no more than Doctor Strange trying to pry the secret he's so long sought from the mind of his master. But this is a Steve Ditko tale, and we already know how he can take a simple event and spin it into pages of dramatic conflict. And it's the same with this ten-page sequence. Doctor Strange overcomes one mystic barrier after another as the comatose Ancient One's subconscious mind strives to protect itself from Doctor Strange's probing. But the deadlock is broken through Strange's insight and thus the secret of "Eternity" is revealed. It only remains for the Master of the Mystic Arts to step through the portal generated by his amulet and Strange's goal is at last won.

Or so it would seem ...

Finally, Doctor Strange finds himself in the realm of Eternity. And it turns out to be one of Ditko's best dimensional landscapes.

"If Eternity Should Fail" seems a bit of a pessimistic title for the Doctor Strange story in the November 1965 issue of Strange Tales. You'd think that after everything he's been through, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee could give him a bit more hope. Yet Doctor Strange finds himself in one of the strangest realms so far ...

Hard to believe, isn't it, that any human mind could conceive of such weirdness? But Ditko pulls out all the stops and gives us a mystic vista that simply astonishes ...

And in that realm, Doctor Strange finally comes face-to-face with "Eternity", a being of unimaginable power, whose very form embodies the Universe. And Ditko's portrayal of it doesn't disappoint. If you've made it this far into the story, you are rewarded by Steve Ditko's single page portrayal of Eternity. And such is Eternity's power that Doctor Strange doesn't even need to ask the question ... Eternity gives the answer. "You already possess the means to defeat your foes. Power is not the only answer. Events have occurred which require a key. And wisdom is that key."

When Doctor Strange finally comes face to face with Eternity, the effect is pretty spectacular, amply meriting the full-page that Ditko devotes to it. It's a shame, then, that the plot doesn't match up to the visuals.

It's a bit of a Wizard of Oz moment. Seems that Doctor Strange always had the power to Go Home ... he just wouldn't have believed if we'd told him.

Resigned to the idea that that's all he's going to get out of Eternity, Doctor Strange heads back to Earth, only to discover that Mordo has abducted The Ancient One ... and so confident is Mordo, that he has his wraiths direct Strange to where The Ancient One is held captive. The only saving grace is that Dormammu prevents Mordo murdering the ancient One as "Only by threatening the life of his aged master can we make" Doctor Strange reveal what he learned from Eternity.

When I bought this issue of Strange Tales, way back in 1966, I didn't even notice the figure of Doctor Strange squeezed into the left side of the cover. So I never wondered why The Master of the Mystic Arts was watching Nick Fury on television.

But in an odd misstep of continuity, that's not how it plays out in Strange Tales 139 (Dec 1965). In fact, when Dormammu asks Doctor Strange for the secret of Eternity, Doctor Strange cheerfully admits that he learned nothing from the dimension-spanning entity.

All he has to fight the might of Mordo and Dormammu is a pep-talk from The Ancient One. "The final chapter is not yet written. There are forces at work which even you cannot yet fathom. You must fight on."  Good chat, thanks for that.

However, The Ancient One does add one useful nugget. "Where they employ Power, you must apply Wisdom," he says. "The Wisdom of the just, the righteous, the fearless." Isn't that also what Eternity said?

Great mystical battling between Doctor Strange and Mordo. Note the larger panels that Ditko's using here, a long way from his customary nine-panel grid.

As spectacular as the battle with Mordo is, Strange substitutes strategy for power and is able to out-manoeuvre Mordo at almost every turn. This enrages Dormammu so much that the evil one decides it's time for him to take a personal hand in the war.

No ... not The Pincers of Power! Okay, it's a bit of a daft title, but it's the only way Doctor Strange can confront Dormammu directly without being squashed like a bug.

And, as promised, Strange Tales 140 (Jan 1966) features the long-awaited showdown between Doctor Strange and Dormammu. And it doesn't disappoint. With Doctor Strange hopelessly outmatched by Dormammu's power, the evil one hatches a plan to ensure that his defeat of The Master of the Mystic Arts will be a fair one. 

For all Dormammu's talk of a fair fight, it's something of a disappointment when Doctor Strange is struck down from behind by the treacherous Baron Mordo.

The two will battle hand-to-hand, armed only with the Pincers of Power. And battle they do with - incredibly - Doctor Strange just beginning to gain the upper hand, when Mordo treacherously strikes him down from behind and Strange lies helpless at the feet of Dormammu.

It does seem awfully contrived that an evil baddie like Dormammu would be annoyed because his greatest enemy has been knocked to the ground by Mordo's sneaky bolt in the back. A lesser villain would just shrug and own the win.

Of course, that kind of underhanded cheating doesn't sit well with Dormammu. Evil though he might be, he's not without some sense of honour. So as Strange Tales 141 (Feb 1966) opens, Dormammu is not best pleased with his erstwhile ally, Mordo.

So, with only a short pause to banish Mordo to some unnamed netherworld, Dormammu once again takes up his battle with Doctor Strange, via the slightly silly Pincers of Power, probably not his smartest strategic decision.

And because this is Marvel Comics and we readers expect our heroes to win, Doctor Strange prevails and defeats Dormammu with his own choice of weapon. In front of witnesses.

With Dormammu defeated with his own weapon, Doctor Strange extracts an oath that Dormammu will never again threaten the realm of men. Yet, Dormammu had previous vowed never to attack Doctor Strange, and we all saw how that turned out.

At last, it seems as though Dormammu is done-for and Doctor Strange and The Ancient One can finally relax. But Dormammu has one last treacherous move left in his arsenal. The (still) unnamed girl - who we'd later know as Clea - is banished by Dormammu to some uncharted Hades, so that Strange will never find her. This is the last vengeance of Dormammu.

And now it's the aftermath. Dormammu defeated and Mordo banished to an unknown nether-dimension, Doctor Strange still has to mop up the minions of Mordo, a task that proves slightly more difficult than we might imagine.

But what of Mordo? Does he have some revenge lined up as well? As it goes, we find out in Strange Tales 142 (Mar 1966). Unknown to Doctor Strange, Mordo's remaining acolytes have planted a rather mundane bomb in the Sanctum of Doctor Strange, and someone is about to press the detonator. Almost too late, Doctor Strange realises the danger and tries to fling the explosive device far enough away. But the explosion dazes him for a moment and the nearby followers of Mordo and able to capture and imprison Strange with a peculiar blinding mask and cuffs that render his hands useless.

Once again, using his ingenuity, Doctor Strange, still blinded, manages to elude his captors. but without his sight and his weapons, the next battle will be dangerous indeed.

I don't really think this epilogue is necessary to the overall saga, and while it does tie up a few loose ends, it feels a little like Steve Ditko is treading water here.

I love the trap Ditko places Doctor Strange in. And the look of the bizarre mask on Strange is eerie and effective.

The epilogue continues in Strange Tales 143 (Apr 1966), in which Doctor Strange's physical form is re-captured by Mordo's disciples and Strange is forced to fight them in his weaker Astral form.

That Doctor Strange would prevail is never in doubt and I'm inclined to think that this tying up of loose ends could have been dispatched in a single episode.

More importantly, this seems to be the point where Stan distances himself from Steve Ditko. Never a huge fan of dialoging Doctor Strange, Stan hands off the scripting duties to his new deputy Roy Thomas, so that he is only now working with Steve on Amazing Spider-Man.

Roy Thomas had just started working at Marvel, initially dialoguing Millie the Model and the western comics with the January 1966 issues. He took over Sgt Fury and Doctor Strange in the April 1966 issues, and X-Men with issue 20 (May 1966).

Another oddly composed cover. The floating head of Doctor Strange makes it seem as if Strange is battle The Druid and his magical Porche. And Ditko's splash page here is just a "Story so far" recap.

Roy Thomas would continue dialoguing Doctor Strange in Strange Tales 144 (May 1966). Unfortunately, Ditko didn't give him very much to work with. The storyline is almost identical to tales in issues 133 and 136. Doctor Strange journeys to a mystical dimension and finds a despotic mystic rule in charge. There's a battle and Doctor Strange defeats them. It's helped a little by the fact that Doctor Strange is there looking for Clea, and it would have read a great deal better if you'd never seen a Doctor Strange story before.

Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen. Steve Ditko marks some further time here while he psychs himself up for the landmark conclusion to the grandiose Dormammu-Doctor Strange war that had been running for a year and a half.

With Strange Tales 145 (Jun 1966), Roy Thomas was re-assigned by Stan and new Marvel recruit Denny O'Neill came in to write the dialogue for Doctor Strange. The story has a lesser magician, Mr Rasputin (a descendent of the legendary "adviser" to the Russian Czarina) using his meagre mystical talents to steal state secrets and build a power base to, well, rule the world. It seems such an unrealistic expectation that Stan (or perhaps Denny) even comments on it in his splash page intro. When tracked down by Doctor Strange, it's evident that his power is no match for the Master of the Mystic Arts, so he pulls out a gun and shoots Strange. It only remains for our hero to figure out how to defeat the baddie from his hospital bed.

I quite like the story. It feels a bit different from what's gone before, though maybe it was a bit of a waste to try to tie it to the Rasputin of history, who used very different methods to attain his goals. There probably is a good story to be told, pitting Doctor Strange against Rasputin or one of his heirs, but I don't think this was it.

The final chapter of Steve Ditko's epic 17-part, when it finally appeared, was slightly underwhelming. It's apparent that this really should have been at least a two-parter, but Steve Ditko just couldn't wait to get out of Dodge.

The Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales 146 (July 1966), however was a big shock on so many levels. Denny O'neil was still providing dialogue over a Steve Ditko plot, but where in the past Ditko had been taking his time, adding little flourishes and sidebar exposition scenes, and generally creating an epic feel to the whole 17-part tale of the war against Dormammu, here the whole sage gets tied up in a very hasty-feeling ten pages. And two of those pages are full page splashes ... terrific, but still indicating a Ditko who is trying to be done with the whole Doctor Strange project and, by extension, Marvel.

This is one way to fill some space and expand and eight-page intsalment to ten pages. These are magnificent splash pages, but did we really need two?

I also have the feeling that Ditko's decision to quit was sudden. Like it happened while Ditko was drawing this story. He'd had ample opportunity to create a grander finale for the saga. For example, he could have jettisoned the filler episodes like the Taza and the "Son of Rasputin" tales. Those didn't add anything to the epic. But I think it indicates that at the time he created those stories, Ditko wasn't expecting to be leaving.

But, by the time he came to work on "The End at Last" I believe the decision was made. Not only did Ditko choose to wrap up the Dormammu war in one episode, he telescoped it down to eight pages or so by adding two splashes and lots of big panels, a direct contrast to his past work on the strip where he'd routinely used nine-panel pages to cram in as much story as possible.

Sadly, Steve Ditko is just phoning in the inking here. What a shame that he felt so hard done-by by Marty Goodman and Stan Lee that he allowed his farewell to Doctor Strange be less than his best work.

The last couple of pages of the story really show us how disengaged Ditko was, the inking is barely there. Ditko has added outlines to the faces and figures on the page, but almost no hatching. He clearly wanted out, and as quickly as possible.

There's plenty more to be said about the reasons why Steve Ditko felt aggrieved with Marvel and in particular Stan. But, as with the case of Jack Kirby, I really don't think Stan can bear all - or even most - of the blame for Steve Ditko's feeling he'd been treated unfairly. Surely, the lion's share of that must lie at the feet of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. For it was Goodman who promised a share of the merchandising and reprint money to both Ditko and Kirby and then reneged. Yes, Ditko probably created Doctor Strange pretty much by himself, and Stan's input - beyond a few catchy catchphrases - was minimal. And I don't think even my own argument about Stan bringing much needed characterisation to Marvel heroes holds much water in this case. The dialogue in Doctor Strange singularly lacks character. Because I think Ditko was writing the dialogue as well as plotting and I think Stan was just doing a little editorial polish ... fixing grammar and smoothing out the bumps.

Think about if for a moment ... we know who Spider-Man is. We recognise his personality and we can hear that his dialogue sets him apart from Iron Man or Captain America. It's the same with The Hulk, Mr Fantastic and Nick Fury. Each has a distinct personality and we can easily tell one from the other.

Doctor Strange, on the other hand, talks more like a DC character. We know that he was a surgeon, and we know that surgeons are often portrayed as the epitome of arrogance. And we know that people don't really fundamentally change in personality, no matter how life-changing the events in their lives. So, for even a fictional character to undergo a "Christmas Carol"-style transformation is just not believable. How much more credible would it have been for Doctor Strange to show us glimpses of his old arrogance?

And Stan's Marvel characters are, for the most part, similarly consistent. Peter Parker changes temporarily to a selfish twat when he first gets his super-powers, but is snapped back to his old, decent self when Uncle Ben is killed.

So while there a great argument to be had about who created Spider-Man, there isn't really much wriggle-room when it comes to Doctor Strange.

Yet for all this, Ditko's run of Doctor Strange stories remains one of my all-time favourites. It goes beyond "original" and traverses into the realm of "odd", a bit like H. P. Lovecraft's body of work.

Do I wish Steve Ditko had continued with Doctor Strange? Sure, but not at the cost of his own artistic satisfaction. Could Stan have handled it better? Probably, but there's nothing he could do about the heartless and cavalier way Goodman treated the creative talents that made his millions for him. In that Stan's hands were tied.

It was never going to end well ...

Important note

It's been seven years, now. More or less monthly I've been posting exhaustively-researched blog entries, often ratcheting up 3000 words plus per instalment (this one's over 6,700!). And I'm tired. So that's going to be it for a while. I'm going to take a break, maybe posting occasionally, but simpler entries with more pictures than words. I need to recharge my batteries and put some work into other, much-neglected projects.

I don't know when I'll be back in full-on Marvel historian mode ... so be sure to check in now and again, and if you need to contact me, leave a comment ... that'll get my attention.


Next: Wait and see ...




Monday, 31 August 2020

Marvel, Magic and Strange Tales: Part 2

I DON'T THINK STAN LEE LIKED DOCTOR STRANGE, at least not at first. In a letter to Jerry Bails dated 9th January 1963, Stan mentioned a new strip for Strange Tales, Dr Strange, with hardly a hint of his usual enthusiasm.

"We have a new character in the works for Strange Tales. Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. Sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him — 'twas Steve's idea, and I figgered we'd give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much. Little sidelight: Originally decided to call him MR. STRANGE, but thought the MR. a bit too similar to MR. FANTASTIC — now, however, I just remember we had a villain called DR. STRANGE just recently in one of our mags — hope it won't be too confusing! Oh well ..."

Dr Strange showed up - unheralded - in the 110th issue of Strange Tales, in what seemed to be a substitute for one of Steve Ditko's regular whimsical five-page fantasy stories.

Stan's not too clear about what it was he didn't like about the first instalment. Some have speculated that Steve Ditko brought Stan the first story all drawn up, and possibly even scripted. What Ditko probably didn't know was that Stan was just beginning an experiment where he would try to rebuild the working process he had in the earlier Atlas days of the company. Back then, Stan had been primarily an editor overseeing a bullpen of staff writers and artists, and writing a few stories himself.

So as the early Marvel started to take off towards the end of 1962, Stan didn't really appear to want to be a writer of superhero tales. Yes, he was writing Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and The Hulk. But the other superhero strips - Thor, Ant-Man and the solo Human Torch stories - he just plotted, and handed over to brother Larry Leiber to script. Larry was also scripting many (if not most) of the fantasy stories in Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense. What is interesting is that Stan kept the "reliable money makers" for himself. Of the Marvel Comics cover-dated August and September 1962, Stan scripted:

  • Life with Millie 18
  • Patsy and Hedy 83
  • Patsy Walker 102
  • Rawhide Kid 29
  • Kathy 18
  • Gunsmoke Western 72
  • Kid Colt - Outlaw 106
  • Love Romances 101
  • Millie the Model 110
  • Linda Carter, Student Nurse 7

... and the Steve Ditko five-pagers running in the back of most of the fantasy anthologies.

It's as though Stan thought the super-hero stuff was just a fad, and would be done with a few months down the line. And perhaps that's why he sounded less than enthusiastic about Dr Strange in his letter to Jerry Bails.

As 1963 rolled round, Stan looked towards adding some new superhero stories here and there. Spider-Man got his own title, cover-dated March, which Stan would write. Sgt Fury also joined the line-up, and as a non-super-hero title, Stan would keep the scripting of that for himself, too. Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, he would parcel out to Larry.

Of the May 1963 b-team Marvels, only the Ant-Man story was scripted by Larry Leiber. The rest - including the Iron Man story featuring villain Dr Strange - were scripted by Robert Bernstein. Ernie Hart would take over Ant-Man the following month.

Then, in a surprising about-face, Stan took the scripting work away from Larry and hired DC, Archie and ACG hack Robert Bernstein, former Atlas editor Ernie Hart and even Superman writer Jerry Siegel to take over Thor, The Human Torch, Ant-Man and Iron Man. Even more surprisingly, Stan's decision stood for just six months before he let his new freelance scripters go and took over writing everything himself. 

"Larry, you know something," Leiber recalls Stan telling him. "You're no good, but you're better than these other guys." And with the November 1963 cover-dated Marvels, Stan was scripting the entire line himself.

I think this is because Stan realised two things. One was, that no one was going to write Marvel comics the way he wanted them done. The writers he'd been trying came from old-school, plot-driven comic writing, and Stan was pushing for character-driven stories. And the other realisation was that the Marvel Comics written by Stan himself were selling better than those he'd packaged out to other writers.

So even with new titles The Avengers, X-Men and Daredevil looming on the schedule, Stan knew he had to sharpen his typewriter and get down to work. And Doctor Strange was just one more straw for the camel's back.

As with Strange Tales 110, there is no mention of a great new magic adventure with Dr Strange on the cover of Strange Tales 111 (Aug 1963). This is not typical of Stan's approach to hyping new features at this point in Marvel history.

The first three Dr Strange stories were each five-pagers. As this was the same length as the short fantasy tales Steve Ditko had been turning in for Stan on the anthology titles, I did wonder if all three weren't drawn up on spec for Stan's consideration.

If that's the case, then it's likely that Stan had to write (or re-write) the dialogue from Steve's finished artwork, and maybe that's what Stan found tricky ... that and the fact that he hadn't gotten a handle on the character yet. And that might explain why Stan wrote in the letters page of Fantastic Four 19 (Oct 1963) ... "A number of you have asked for more of Dr Strange, in Strange Tales. So we have another of his off-beat tales in Strange Tales 114 ... we almost hope you DON'T like him, because BOY - are those stories hard to write."

Then in the letters column for Amazing Spider-Man 6 (Nov 1963), Stan was damning with faint praise again. "We almost hoped not too many readers would notice Dr Strange so that we could turn out stories without too much effort. But the reaction has been far more favorable than we expected, so it looks like the old master of black magic will be a regular feature, which means another headache for us. If you haven't seen him yet, treat yourself to a copy of the latest Strange Tales - but only after you've bought a copy of Spider-Man, of course."

The again on the Fantastic Four 21 (Dec 1963) letters page: "So far, our readers' opinions on Dr Strange are almost unanimously in favor of the bewhiskered bewitcher! So it looks like we're going to be stuck with him for a while."

So, is this just typical, self-deprecating humour from Stan, or is there a hint of underlying irritation with the character? Does Stan resent that Steve Ditko came up with the idea? That doesn't seem likely. If Stan hadn't liked it, he would have straight-out rejected it, because we know Stan never shied away from rejecting work he didn't think was up to scratch.

And what of the stories themselves? The first adventure, which pits Dr Strange against the machinations of the dark entity Nightmare, is a slight affair, casting Strange in the role of occult detective.

In the first episode, many of the foundational elements of Dr Strange are introduced. Wong the faithful retainer is glimpsed. Dr Strange travels in his astral form. And we meet the (as yet) unnamed Ancient One.

Yet many of the trappings that would become familiar to readers were already in place. The Ancient One appears as Dr Strange's mentor and adviser, and the "amulet" is cited as Dr Strange's final defence against danger. While there's not a great deal of space in five pages for exposition and adventure, Ditko crams in a lot using nine panels to the page. And Stan must have been fairly okay with the concept as the final panel promises ...

This closing blurb doesn't support my theory that Steve Ditko
turned in three Dr Strange five-pagers in one go or Stan would
have known who the next villain was going to be.

But we had yet to see any of the mystical schtick that would differentiate Dr Strange from every other comicbook magician. And the fact that Stan doesn't mention Baron Mordo in the next issue blurb indicates that he didn't have the artwork of the second Dr Strange story in hand after all. Yet, I still wonder why the first three stories are five pagers then the page count goes up to eight with the origin story in Strange Tales 115 (Dec 1963).

Above, the plot of Strange Tales 111's Dr Strange story in a nutshell. The strangest part of the tale is the ghostly fisticuffs. Surely you can't punch a spirit in the face, even with a phantom fist ...

The second Dr Strange tale, which appeared in Strange Tales 111 (Aug 1963), sported the unlikely title of "Face-to-Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo". The editor in me wants to strike out "the Magic of", since magic doesn't actually have a face, but we editors are picky like that. This story introduces us to the arch-villain who would go on to be a thorn in Dr Strange's side for most of the Ditko run. If you're paying attention, you can quickly figure out that Mordo is a disciple of the Ancient One gone bad. Okay, AO is still referred to as "The Master" in Stan's script, but we know who he is. The plot is still a little thin - Mordo forces a servant to add a powerful potion to The Master's food  - though Ditko's art shows the potion going into The Master's drink - which prevents him from helping Dr Strange. Mordo then has a spiritual fistfight with Dr Strange - no hurling of hex-bolts yet - and then falls for the oldest trick in the book, a kind of mystical "what's that behind you?"

The Dr Strange feature was still brief - at five pages - still tucked away at the back of Strange Tales and still unheralded on the cover. At this point, Stan really wasn't looking to promote the strip in any determined way.

The character then takes a two issue break, then returns in Strange Tales 114 (Nov 1963). Because Stan has increased the Human Torch story to 18 pages - probably to give the Captain America tryout room to breathe - we lose the five page fantasy tale, and have to make do with another Dr Strange five-pager, again featuring Mordo as the bad guy. We learn that The Master's true title is "The Ancient One" in this story and the reason for the slightly different look to this episode is because it's inked - uncredited - by George Roussos.

In Strange Tales 114, we get a bit more fireworks in the battle between Dr Strange and Baron Mordo ... but they're still not firing their mystical power-bolts from oddly distended fingers.This was still a few issues away.

There's still an element of astral plane punching in the battle between Mordo and Dr Strange, but we get a hint that there's more to the mystical abilities wielded in this series that we've seen so far. In this story we see Strange project his mental abilities to communicate with both the Ancient One and with early co-star and possible love interest Victoria Bentley. Dr Strange is also surprised that he failed to detect Mordo's imposture as Sir Clive. And the final twist is that for most of the story, we were seeing an astral projection of Dr Strange, rather than the real thing. Though if that was the case, then I'm puzzled as to how he could have been affected by the vapours from Mordo's poisonous candles at the start of the story. But both Stan and Steve were still finding their feet with the feature, so some glitches are forgiveable.

I've always wondered why Stan and Steve didn't give us the origin of Dr Strange until the character's fourth appearance. On the surface, it appears as though Stan didn't have much faith in the new mystical hero. But maybe there was another reason ...

Strange Tales 115 (Dec 1963) heralds a discernible change in Stan's attitude to the Dr Strange character. Well, a bit of a change ... Let's start with the cover. That's right, still no mention of Dr Strange, even though in this issue - responding to "an avalanche of requests" - the origin of Dr Strange is finally revealed.

Now, Stan was pretty big on origins. Looking back we can see that, with every single Marvel character to date, the first appearance was also the origin ... so it does seem peculiar that we didn't get the back-story of Dr Strange until readers demanded it. So here's a thought. Perhaps Stan - or more likely, Steve - never intended to give Dr Strange an origin story. Perhaps, like pulp character The Shadow, Dr Strange was supposed to be a mysterious mage that was more of a cypher than an actual human being. You know ... "is he real or is he a spirit?"

The reason that I think that idea would more likely have come from Steve is that it fits with other views Steve had on storytelling. He famously wanted The Green Goblin to be a nobody, "someone the readers hadn't seen before", but was over-ruled by Stan. So, if Dr Strange was somehow intended to be "unreal", then it would have made sense not to give him an origin.

Then, we should also look at what was happening in the other Marvel superhero series at the same time. As mentioned earlier, I believe that in the formative year of Marvel's development, 1963, Stan wasn't convinced that superheroes were a long-term prospect. Sure, Fantastic Four was selling well ... and during the second half of the year, the early indications would have been that the Spider-Man title was gaining sales, as well. But The Hulk had stuttered and had been cancelled by Marty Goodman, so I don't think Stan was yet convinced that he could Do No Wrong.

Earlier in the year, he'd assigned other writers to script from his plots, and hadn't been satisfied with the results, so right at the point where readers finally get Dr Strange's origin, Stan was also getting rid of the freelance scripters and taking on the dialoging of the strips himself. And then there's the intro box on the first page of the origin story ...

Stan says here that he and Steve "forgot" to give us the origin of Dr Strange. But I'm thinking that's unlikely ... it's not the sort of thing you "forget". Also, Stan characterises the origin as a "extra-long 8 pager". But as we'll see, the page count would actually go up from here, rather than back to five pages.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Stan plugs companion comic Spider-Man in the Dr Strange intro, but more tellingly he owns up that it's reader pressure that spurred this origin tale, probably using that point to insist on an origin story, possibly over Steve's objections. Just guessing here, but it does seem to fit with how both creators operated. Also, Dr Strange is still "Master of Black Magic" at this point. This would change later - correctly, I think. Black magic is by definition the evil side of magic. The good side is "white magic", but that would sound a little odd in the context. Later, with Strange Tales 120 (May 1964), Dr Strange would become "Master of the Mystic Arts" ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The origin of Dr Strange is familiar on many levels - selfish man undergoes a life-changing event, is first bitter and sorry for himself, then learns that through helping others he can find new purpose in life. It's simple but satisfying.

The actual story of how Dr Strange became a magician is pretty familiar by now. Even the recent Doctor Strange (2017) movie pretty much adhered to the classic origin. Successful but arrogant surgeon Stephen Strange is injured in a car accident and is unable to operate again. He becomes a self-pitying bum, then chances to hear about a mysterious healer in the East, The Ancient One, who may be able to help him. Strange eventually tracks down the healer in India and, though at first sceptical of the authenticity of The Ancient One's powers, is finally convinced when rogue student Mordo casts a spell that prevents Strange's speaking of Modo's evil intentions. To outwit Mordo, Strange pleads to be accepted as The Ancient One's pupil ... and the rest is comic book legend.

This story seems quite a bit more fully-formed than the preceding three tales. Ditko's realisation of the magic "special effects" is closer to the familiar surrealism that would characterise the later stories and here and there. This would really kick off in the next story, which featured the return of Nightmare.

He's still a Master of Black Magic, and he's still not mentioned on the cover, but Stan is bringing in more and more of the familiar features and catchphrases of the Doctor Strange we all know and love. On page 4 (above right) we get mentions of Dormammu, Agamotto and Hoggoth, and the return of Nightmare, as well as the typical Dali-esque mystical realm we would see more and more.

Strange Tales 116 (Feb 19164) gave us another eight-page adventure, featuring the sinister villain from Strange Tales 110. And as with the earlier appearance of Nightmare, Doctor (not "Dr" any more) Strange is once again cast in the role of occult detective. I'm really glad Stan didn't stick with this concept, though it would take him another few issues to realise that the whole "mystical sleuth" thing had already been a bit done to death. DC's Dr 13 stories that ran in Star-Spangled Comics during the 1950s spring to mind as one rather tiresome example.

Not really what we would expect from Dr Strange. Here, Stephen Strange is acknowledged by the police and the medical profession as a world-famous authority on, well, strange phenomena. Later in the run, Dr Strange would avoid publicity like the plague and would even remove bystanders' memories of him on occasion.

In this story, Doctor Strange is called in by the authorities who are at a loss to understand why some prominent citizens have fallen asleep with their eyes open, and cannot be wakened. Again, the characterisation of the Doctor is far from fully-formed. In the above panels the police officer refers to Strange's "amazing record with other off-beat cases", and Dr Warren mentions the "deep respect" that "even our leading scientists" have for Doctor Strange's reputation. That strikes me as odd, because, if he has such a great reputation, then "leading scientists" would know that Stephen Strange is also a medical doctor, a man of science, just like them. So I'm thinking that Stan is still struggling to get a handle on the character.

Unlike his visit to Nightmare's realm in Strange Tales 110, this time Doctor Strange has to make more of an effort, consulting ancient texts then conjuring the Mist of Hoggoth to enter Nightmare's domain. Once there he battles illusion and the dreaded Spinybeast before guiding the spirits of the comatose patients back to the real world. The extra three pages helps the strip feel like less of a filler, but there's still some work to do.

Finally, Doctor Strange merits a mention on the cover, probably because he's now "one of Marvel Comic Group's favourite features". It's still be a while before he appears in the top left corner box on the cover - ironically, a feature that Steve Ditko himself designed.

The Doctor Strange story in Strange Tales 117 (Feb 1964) feels a good deal more substantial. It brings back Baron Mordo, who has another plan to destroy The Ancient One and establish himself as the world's most powerful sorcerer. Luckily, Doctor Strange is on hand to thwart his ambitions. Though the title is "The Many Traps of Baron Mordo" there's really only one trap ... and Doctor Strange escapes it in an ingenious way. Strange then reverses the trap on Mordo and outwits the villain with an equally ingenious trap of his own.

Even with eight pages to work with instead of the five he originally had, Steve Ditko is still packing in nine or more panels a page to deliver as much story as possible to the readers. And even at this pace, it doesn't feel cramped or crowded.

There are, however a couple of glitches that are at odds with later Strange Tales. The first is that in later stories, it's established that Doctor Strange is less powerful in his astral form than he is as his physical self. Here, it's the opposite. And where Doctor Strange's amulet is not strong enough to defeat Mordo's magic, a ring given to him by The Ancient One is ... but for all that, it's closer to the archetypal Doctor Strange story that what had come before.

At last ... Doctor Strange makes an appearance on the cover of Strange Tales. Still not featured in the corner box, though. And just when you think Stan's billing him as "Doctor Strange", oh here we are back at "Dr Strange" again.

How odd then, that the next adventure, in Strange Tales 118 (Mar 1964), would be completely at odds with the supernatural nature of the strip. Because, for all the magical trappings of the previous stories, this one, "The Possessed", is essentially a science fiction tale ... and has the plotting fingerprints of Stan all over it.

In a remote Bavarian town, the normally friendly villagers are becoming cold and withdrawn, almost as though they're possessed. When Doctor Strange shows up to investigate, he finds that green aliens from another dimension are controlling the townspeople as part of their quest to take control of Earth. It's uncannily similar to the fantasy tales Stan was filling the anthology titles with just a couple of years prior. Not an especially interesting story concept and not really in keeping with the parameters already established for Marvel's Mystic Mage.

C'mon, Doc ... that's just mean. It's not the townsfolks' fault
that they've been possessed by green aliens from
another dimension and forced to attack you against their will.

But strangest of all, in one scene Strange acts more like Dr Doom than his normal good guy self. I can only imagine Stan was trying to cultivate an aloof, slightly more-than-human persona for Doctor Strange and sort of momentarily overstepped the mark.

"Beyond the Purple Veil" is a good stab at depicting one of those great surrealistic dimensions that Steve Ditko would pepper the entire Doctor Strange series with. They would get even better as the series went along ...

Things seemed to get back on the mystical track in Strange Tales 119 (Apr 1964). Two burglars invade Doctor Strange's sanctum and steal a magical gem. However, the stone is really the gateway to the dreaded Purple Dimension and the criminals are sucked in to the realm of Aggamon and forced to toil as slaves. Doctor Strange follows them, defeats Aggamon in a mystical battle of the minds and frees the two burglars, along with the rest of Aggamon's captives, because he has taken a vow to protect all humanity. The punchline is that the burglars give themselves up to "pay their debt to society". 

Who, exactly is "Mormammu"? Dormammu's younger brother?
An Artie Simek lettering mistake? I guess we'll never know.

It's a fun, if slight, tale ... and though credited by Grand Comicbook Database as a Steve Ditko co-plot, it just feels like another of Stan's off-the-shelf story ideas that we'd seen many times before in the old fantasy anthologies. And though the next story also had that cookie-cutter feel, it was at least a creepily effective story ...

Although Doctor Strange barely rates a mention on the cover of Strange Tales 120, the page count on the story inside rises to nine. This does appear to stretch Steve Ditko's time a little thin, as the artwork seems rushed for the most part.

"The House of Shadows", in Strange Tales 120 (May 1964), is one of the earliest Dr Strange tales I can remember reading at the time. Back at the beginning of this series of blog entries, I'd mentioned that, in my mind, I had believed this Doctor Strange story was one of the first stories, when it was actually the ninth in the series. The plot has a tv crew investigating a haunted house. When the tv signal from inside the house stops, Doctor Strange investigates, only to find that the house is actually a living creature.

There are a couple of remarkable aspects to this story. The first is that beginning with this instalment, the page-count on Doctor Strange goes up to nine pages. I think it shows a little in Ditko's art which, for the first time on the series, looks rushed here. I had to check carefully to see whether the art for this tale was actually inked by Ditko, as the finished art seems so blocky and rushed.

In the Outer Limits episode, "The Guests", elderly couple Randall (Vaughn Taylor) and Ethel Latimer (Nellie Burt), along with silent movie actress Florinda Patten (Gloria Grahame), are held captive in a living house, controlled by an amoeba-like alien (above right). Amazingly similar to the premise of the "House of Shadows" Doctor Strange tale.

Secondly, this story was on the newsstands in February 1964. Then, just a month later, the popular science fiction tv show, The Outer Limits, featured a very similar tale, "The Guests", in which a living house holds several people captive for reasons unknown. There's no way either Stan Lee or screen writer Donald Sanford could have swiped the idea from the other, as the stories were released within a month of each other. It can only be the same kind of coincidence that led to the superficially similar Doom Patrol and The X-Men being released within a few weeks of each other.

Stan would often give guest-star slots to heroes he wanted to promote, usually in the better-selling Fantastic Four or Amazing Spider-Man. In Fantastic Four 27, the role of Doctor Strange is merely incidental, and his presence on the cover in muted by Stan Goldberg's colouring him green in the background.

The same month, in a sure sign that Stan had warmed to the character of Doctor Strange and was now taking him seriously as a key Marvel character, Stan arranged for Strange to make a guest appearance in May's Fantastic Four 27. It's not a substantial appearance, little more than a cameo really, but it does establish that other Marvel heroes not only know of Doctor Strange, but feel they can call on him for help when only his unique abilities will do. In this case, he helps The Torch and the Thing track down The Sub-Mariner - who's kidnapped Sue Storm - but takes no active part in the battle.

In keeping with his recent guest-star slot in Fantastic Four 27, Doctor Strange merited a much more prominent cover appear in Strange Tales 121, getting at least a third of the cover space in artwork pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by Steve Ditko.

The following month, Doctor Strange got a return match with his most enduring foe Baron Mordo in another nine-page epic entitled, "Witchcraft in the Wax Museum". The plot had Mordo decoy Strange away from his sanctum with a mundane telephone summons. Mordo then sneaks in and steals the Doctor's body when his astral self responds to the imaginary emergency. All that remains is to keep Doctor Strange from merging his astral self with his physical body for 24 hours and Strange will perish. Sound simple, right? Well, not really quite so easy ... since Doctor Strange is smarter than Baron Mordo, and decoys Mordo into leaving his physical body and falling into exactly the same trap.

Steve Ditko's art holds up a lot better this time, as though he's been allowed sufficient time to complete the inking to his usual meticulous standards. Not so much in the following month's story ...

That's a pretty insipid cover, there ... no sense of menace in the Torch section, just Johnny Storm enjoying an acrobatic show, and the pose-y Doctor Strange image is just bogarted from the previous month's interior artwork. This one has all the hallmarks of a rush-job. Meanwhile, inside ... Doctor Strange is now Master of the Mystic Arts, much better than "Master of Black Magic", don't you think? Oh, and there he is in the corner box for the first time.

"The World Beyond" in Strange Tales 122 (Jul 1964) features the return of the rather tiresome Nightmare. I find it quite hard to get enthusiastic about this story because it seems so similar to the other Nightmare tales we've seen already. Strange enters the Dream Realm, battles Nightmare and wins by a cunning ruse. The artwork I was even less enthusiastic about as it's inked, uncredited, by George Roussos. Roussos was often Stan Lee's go-to guy in a deadline pinch, and it looks like that's what happened here. Roussos would also ink the next three issues, presumably to free up some of Steve Ditko's time to draw the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual, which would have been needed around the same time. Thank goodness he did, as Ditko turned an astonishing 72 pages of all-new material for that book, without even one panel looking rushed ... which is why I rate it as my all-time favourite Marvel annual ...

Although Loki isn't the normal kind of villain that Doctor Strange would face, I thought the story worked out pretty well. Again, it feels like a Stan idea, as we know that Steve Ditko wasn't especially keen on cross-overs.

With Strange Tales 123 (Aug 1964), Stan tries to widen the appeal of Doctor Strange a little by pitting him again long-time Thor foe Loki. Often billed as "God of Mischief", Loki is an immortal sorcerer and a seemingly good fit as a Doctor Strange foe. Creating a crossover with Thor can hardly be a bad thing, either. Of course, once Doctor Strange tumbles to the depth of Loki's trickery and attempts to take on the godling in mystical combat, he's hopelessly outmatched. With defeat staring him in the face, Strange is a barely able to lead Thor to the scene ... forcing Loki to flee from the threat of battling both Doctor Strange and Thor.

Though some might consider Ditko's portrayal of Thor - to say the least - quirky ... I really like it and would have welcomed seeing an actual adventure or two of Thor's rendered in Ditko's distinctive style.


Further cementing the notion that the Doctor Strange / Loki crossover was a Stan Lee edict, here's Doctor Strange guest-starring in the Thor strip in Journey into Mystery 108 (Sep 1964) ...

However, the following month there was a kind of follow-up to this story ... in the pages of Journey into Mystery 108 (Sep 1964). I say "kind of" because in reading this story, you'd have no idea that Strange had battled Thor's mortal enemy Loki just one month earlier. No mention is made in the Thor tale of the encounter and it seems odd that Stan wouldn't make some attempt to tie the two incidents together. 

After an (untold) battle with Baron Mordo, Doctor Strange is seriously injured. With only enough energy to send out a psychic distress call Doctor Strange is rescued by Thor and later, Thor's alter ego Dr Don Blake. In return, Strange offers his services to the Thunder God, should they ever be needed ... and of course, they are. Just like in the recent Fantastic Four guest appearance, Doctor Strange is once again called upon to locate something precious. This time it's Dr Blake's gnarled walking stick, the one that holds the power to transform him into Thor. The stick is recovered and Thor is able to defeat his adopted brother Loki one more time.

This stand-alone Doctor Strange adventure is the penultimate tale to be inked by George "Inky" Roussos, as Steve Ditko begins to get out from under the huge job of drawing The Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 (1964).

Meanwhile, back in the pages of Strange Tales 124 (Sep 1964), Doctor Strange was once again mining a vein of one-off mystical shenanigans. This time a mysterious girl leads the Doctor to ancient Egypt and battle with a rather odd-looking sorcerer called Zota ("A to Z" backwards). Doctor Strange rather quickly dispatches Zota and returns to his own time, armed with the knowledge of the girl's identity. It's Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile.

Does this guy Zota remind you of anyone? How about
old Fantastic Four enemy The Puppet Master? Oh, and look ...
here's Cleopatra again, not long after her royal flirtiness had met Iron Man.

This was not the first time Cleopatra had met a Marvel super-hero. Back in Tales of Suspense 44 (Aug 1963), Iron Man had also travelled back to ancient Egypt and met the legendary beauty. Yet Stan makes no mention of that here.

Yes, it's true. Iron Man really did travel back to ancient Egypt and meet Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, a line of Greek usurpers who displaced the Macedonian rule of Egypt in 305BC.

It's almost as though Stan doesn't really count the Marvel tales that he didn't script as canon. If that were the case, then maybe there's a case for saying that Marvel continuity didn't actually start until Stan began scripting all the Marvel books, with the November 1963 issues ... just a thought.

This issue of Strange Tales featured what I would consider the last of the "filler" stories on Doctor Strange. Starting with the very next issue, Strange Tales 125 (Dec 1964), the series would shift up a gear and we would begin to see the concepts that would solidify Doctor Strange into a truly spectacular feature, with an expanding supporting cast and the introduction of one of the great Marvel villains. But all of that is a story for next time.

Next: Of Epic Magic and Magic Epics