Saturday, 12 November 2016

Marvel's First Mystical Hero - Dr Droom

THIS TIME, I've asked my old friend and former 2000AD colleague Kid Robson to contribute a guest entry for this blog. We both share a love of early Marvels, especially those written by Stan Lee, and as The Kid had mentioned Droom in one of his earlier comments on this blog, it seemed natural to ask him to offer a few words about Dr Droom and his spiritual successor Dr Strange. Thank you, Kid ...

"Twas Steve's idea..." said Stan Lee about Dr. Strange in a letter to Jerry Bails in 1963. However, it's interesting to ponder just what gave Steve the idea to do a strip about a 'Master of Black Magic' (later changed to 'Mystic Arts') in the first place.

The origin of Dr Strange wasn't revealed until the character's fourth appearance, in Strange Tales 115 (Jul 1963) - he hadn't appeared in Strange Tales 112 and 113. It has been speculated that this episode was drawn much later in the series run - perhaps the ninth story, as it's markedly different in style from the Dr Strange adventures on either side.
Ditko had been the inker on the origin of Lee and Jack Kirby's strip, Dr Droom, and it's legitimate to wonder whether the artist may have been inspired (consciously or not) by this earlier character, whose genesis is remarkably similar to that of Stephen Strange. That would explain the subject matter, but not Ditko's seeming lack of interest in revealing the origins of the good Dr S, who, in his very first adventure, is plunged straight into an encounter with Nightmare, his "ancient foe". Stan merely adapted Droom's beginnings to fit the origins of the protagonist he was initially going to call Mr Strange, not Dr, but his input into Strange's backstory, as well as his characterisation via dialogue, plus his mood-setting expository captions, fully justifies his description as co-creator of the strip in my view.

After all, without Lee, all you have is a magician who gets involved in some quirky adventures (Ditko's wonderful art notwithstanding); with Lee, you have character motivation, mystical sounding incantations, and a sense of drama, dynamism, and danger as only he could deliver.

On the other hand, Dr Droom's origin was told in the very first appearance of the character. Like Strange, Droom was the student of a Tibetan lama, unlike Strange, Droom was summoned to his role as a mystic mage, and was selected because his compassionate nature.
That's not to downplay Steve Ditko's plotting and art, though - it's just that he wasn't much of a scripter, as his later self-penned stories for other companies starkly demonstrates. His plot ideas, however, were often brilliant. Case in point: Who can forget the 12-part saga of Dr Strange on the run from a Dormammu-enhanced Baron Mordo, surely one of the most spectacular sagas of the Silver Age? However, while Strange's origins are lifted from Dr Droom's, the strips are not really that similar when more fully compared. In fact, Droom (who debuted in Amazing Adventures 1 in June 1961) soon gets sidetracked from the world of the occult, as his subsequent adventures (2, 3, 4 and 6) have him encountering aliens from under the sea, different dimensions, and other planets.

In his origin, the Tibetan Lama who gives him his powers declares "You are now the nemesis of all occult powers that are sinister and corrupt!" However, in his third outing, after defeating an alien from Saturn called Zemu, he declares, in answer to what made him suspicious of his disguised (as a human) foe, "It was his boast of having real magic powers!" He goes on, "I, of all men, know that real magic does not exist! All is illusion! All is fantasy!"

In Amazing Adventures 2 (Jul 1961) Dr Droom investigates the disappearance of an ocean liner and discovers it has been abducted by the sub-marine inhabitants of Atlantis, who bear no resemblance to Prince Namor or his people.
Any way you look at it, that seems like a complete turnaround. There's a certain 'sameness' to Droom's tales, and his chief mystic power seem to be nothing more than hypnotism. It's therefore hardly surprising that he was quietly retired into comic book limbo for over ten years after only five stories.

So, despite similar beginnings, the two series have only a superficial resemblance to one another. Interestingly, when Dr Droom passes the Lama's tests of endurance, his eyes become 'slanted' (to use the terminology of the times), as an Oriental appearance is supposedly more suited to his new role in life. 

No political correctness in sight here - Dr Droom's skin colour and features are altered to better match his new role as a master of the mystic arts.
Dr Strange on the other hand, is first drawn as an Oriental, but in the flashback origin segment of his fourth appearance, is clearly Caucasian. Had Ditko intended for Strange's facial features to have been changed by the Ancient One, as Droom's had been altered by the Lama? If so, Lee never refers to it in his scripting, and by Strange's tenth appearance, any hint of him being Oriental has disappeared. 

The Droom adventure in AA3 (Aug 1961) pits Droom against another magician, who turns out to be an alien from the planet Saturn, using advanced science to simulate mystic feats.
Droom himself disappeared with AA 6 (he was absent from 5), as the mag changed its name to Amazing Adult Fantasy for the next eight issues, with 'Adult' missing from 15, the mag's final ish. (In which The Amazing Spider-Man made his debut - as if you frantic ones didn't already know!) 

In case you were worried about him, Dr. Droom reappeared in the '70s (first in reprints, then as a guest star in other titles), but was rechristened Dr Druid to avoid confusion with a Latverian Doctor with a similar name. He even became a member of The Avengers for a while in the late '80s.

However, let's not skirt around the controversy that you 're all wondering about. Didn't Stan Lee claim to have created Dr Strange in his 1974 book Origins Of Marvel Comics? How does that gel with Steve Ditko's assertion that he plotted and drew the first Dr S tale without any input from Stan? 

Amazing Adventures 4 (Sep 1961) had Droom combat alien invaders once again, this time convincing the extra-terrestrials that a construction site wrecking machine was a sentient lifeform. For a magician, Droom wasn't doing a whole lot of magicking ...
I don't think Stan was deliberately lying in his '74 account, and besides, he doesn't explicitly state that he created the Master of The Mystic Arts, although he does sort of suggest it by neglecting to mention that Steve brought the first episode in to him off his own bat. (Although it's always possible that Stan had first suggested a new strip to Steve about a magician. He says as much in later interviews, claiming it was because he remembered Dr Droom and wanted to do a similar strip.) 

In 'Origins' he reminisces about listening as a kid to a radio show called Chandu, The Magician, which had a gong with a resounding 'Bonnnggg' in the intro, then says "Anyway, Steve Ditko once again took up the art chores while I penned the words, and before you could say 'Who needs it?' Dr Strange was born. He was a magician, and if ever we do his stories on the radio, you'd better believe he's gonna have a gong!" (No radio show alas, but we now have a big-budget movie instead.) 

I think Stan's vagueness on the matter is probably down to his poor memory, rather than him trying to deliberately misdirect credit away from Steve, as, had he been a liar as some of his detractors prefer to believe, he'd surely never have admitted to Jerry Bails in 1963 that he hadn't come up with the idea himself.

Amazing Adventures 6 (Nov 1961) has Droom's fifth and final appearance (he wasn't in AA5) ... and in this story he is - yet again - battling an alien menace that is stealing houses. It was probably this lack of focus that led to the character not clicking with readers and after this, Stan quietly abandoned the character.
Anyway, regardless of who did precisely what, Dr Strange as he first appeared to the comics-reading public was the joint result of Stan, Steve, and Dr Droom, so all three deserve our undying thanks. And I'm sure Benedict Cumberbatch feels the same as he looks again at the cheque he received for bringing Marvel's Mystic Master to life on the big screen. When last seen, Dr Droom/Druid was heard mumbling, "It's not fair! It should have been me up there! It's an injustice it is!"

Now how do I wrap this up? Ah, what the hell, I can't stop myself - "May your amulet never tickle!"



  1. I freely admit that my humble effort isn't as detailed or as analytical as your own thoroughly researched posts, Al, but it fills a space and reveals a few tidbits of information along the way, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to contribute to your great blog. Besides, I know you'd never publish anything you thought was total rubbish, so that's an endorsement I very much appreciate.

    Interestingly, I noticed after writing the piece that Ditko is credited (in Dr. Strange Mystic Apprentice #1) as having plotted the origin tale in ST #115. I'd say it's more likely he co-plotted it with Stan Lee, otherwise we'd have to conclude that Ditko himself used Dr. Droom's origin as a template for Strange's. That would mean he was definitely influenced by Stan's earlier character, drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Steve himself.

    1. Thank you, Kid, for taking the time to contribute the above post. It couldn't be better timed with the DR STRANGE movie being on release.

      GCD splits the plotting credit between Lee and Ditko. I'd suggest that the core plot came from Stan and the details and scene structure came from Steve, supported by your observation on how close the origins of Droom and Strange are.

    2. My pleasure, Al. And your suggestion is exactly how I would've divided Stan & Steve's contributions to the origin tale.

  2. Interesting piece, Kid. When I first read those early Dr. Strange stories I didn't even notice he was oriental !

    1. Thank you. I'm sure you're as grateful to Al as I am for allowing me the opportunity of presenting this post on his great blog. Take some time to read the previous entries, CJ - every one a belter!

  3. Just found your blog, through Kid's, Al and added it to my list.
    It's interesting looking through the early sixties covers, just how many pre-super hero names you spot in these Atlas/Marvel titles!
    I wonder how many people know that the first "Hulk" was actually brown?
    Anyway, I shall enjoy going through your archives, Al!

    1. Thank you, and welcome aboard, John ... hope you find time to comment on some of the other posts, too.

  4. An interesting account as to the origins of both the doctors Kid. Entertaining and both educational both in part and in equal measure.