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 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.
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.
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|Typically, the triumphant Doctor Strange doesn't get the girl ... but he does get a Cloak of Levitation and a new and improved amulet.|
|"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?|
|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"?|
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.
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.|
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.|
|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.|
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 ...|
|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?|
|Say his name ... the penny drops for Doctor Strange.|
|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?|
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.|
|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 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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|Finally, Doctor Strange finds himself in the realm of Eternity. And it turns out to be one of Ditko's best dimensional landscapes.|
|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 ...|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|I love the trap Ditko places Doctor Strange in. And the look of the bizarre mask on Strange is eerie and effective.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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?|
|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.|
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 ...