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



  1. The Doctor Strange panel on the cover of ST #121 looks like a Ditko-inked Kirby drawing to me, Al. (Look at the back of the hooded figure and the character in the seat - typical Kirby.) As for "'Twas Steve's idea", which Stan haters see as proof that Stan had nothing to do with the creation of the character, it doesn't necessarily mean any such thing. Stan, as commissioning editor, may have suggested that Steve do a strip about a magician, but left the actual plot up to him. "'Twas Steve's idea" may have referred to the plot, rather than the character. (Otherwise wouldn't he have said "He was Steve's idea"?)

    However, even if it was Steve who originated Strange, it was Stan who named him, came up with his origin (a reworked Dr. Droom tale), and dreamed up the incantations (maybe that's what he was referring to when he said the strip was difficult - as in time-consuming - to write), so the readers' perception of Strange is due at least as much to the work of Stan as it is to Steve.

    1. Wouldn't argue with anything you say here, Kid. My take on the birth of the strip was that Ditko came up with the idea to do a magic character called "Mr Strange". Stan changed that to "Dr/Doctor Strange" and plotted the earliest stories. I may be wrong but I think the first ten or so plots feel like the work of Lee. It isn't until later that Ditko took a bigger part in the plotting.

      My crediting the art on Strange Tales 121's cover to Ditko was simply me misreading the credits on the GCD site. It is indeed Kirby pencils and Ditko inks. I'll change the above text to reflect that ... thanks for catching that one.

    2. Steve said (in one of his essays, I think) that he took the first Strange story into Stan already completed, with no prior input from Stan. However, stories were usually inked AFTER they'd been lettered, so I assume Stan scripted the first tale and that it was just in pencil form when Steve took it in. Also, did Steve mean that Stan had no prior input into the plot AND character, or just the plot? There's room for manoeuvre when it comes to interpreting exactly what he meant. But let's imagine that Stan didn't say "Hey, Steve, do a tale about a sorcerer" - Strange was merely a reworked Dr. Droom (which Steve had inked) so Steve was, to a certain extent, following in Stan's wake. It's fair to say though, that Strange was a far more visually interesting character than Droom was. As you know, I'm not trying to do Ditko down here, but some people keep trying to minimise Stan's input to practically zero, which was hardly the case in my opinion.

      Incidentally, Steve did say that Stan had difficulty in knowing what to do with Strange, which is why he (Steve) eventually took over full plotting in most cases, though, as you say, team-ups (like with Spidey or Thor) are more likely to have been suggested by Stan.

  2. I think Steve Ditko would have brought in pencil only art on the first story. Word balloons would have to be added before the inking.

  3. I wrote a two-part post on the early days of Lee-Ditko's Dr. Strange a few years back:

    In his essay in The Avenging Mind (2007) Ditko made a few statements about he and Stan's role in Dr. Strange. "On my own, I brought in to Lee a five-page, penciled (as Chuck Fiala correctly noted) pencilled story with a page/panel script of my idea of a new , different kind of character for variety in Marvel Comics. My character wound up being named Dr. Strange because he would appear in Strange Tales. (as Ditko noted in earlier essays, his "panel/page script" was a guide for Lee which was supplied on separate pieces of paper, not on the page borders. "And what were some of Lee's ideas of 'doing something with it'? WE get Lee's aliens, Haunted House and guest star Loki from the Thor series, etc." So, many of those early plots are by Lee. He goes on: "And did Lee ever say why he suddenly gave Dr. Strange to George Roussos to ink? And that he had a hard time coming up with Dr. Strange ideas? And that he earlier tried to get other writers (Don Rico) to do Dr. Strange? And that he was ready to drop Dr. Strange because of his difficulties and I told him that I should be inking and could do Dr. Strange because I was the only one who understood Dr. Strange's potentials..." Lee (thankfully) made the right decision and from # 125 on Ditko was fully plotting the strip. As you can see if you read my posts I'm aware of Lee's contributions, particularly in writing the dialogue for DS. I believe some of Ditko's recollections fall in line with your theories and hope this adds another layer to the background of this most compelling strip.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to add the extra detail, Nick. I must've read your posts a while back, but I guess I should have read them again before add this entry to my blog, as it would have sharpened the focus of what I was driving at. I'm still pretty sure Lee assigned the strip to Roussos to ink to give Steve Ditko time to do the Spider-Man Annual - rather than due to a whim of Lee's - as the timing fits perfectly. But, yes ... pan-dimensional aliens and living house definitely sounded like Lee plot devices to me ...

  4. There were a number of instances were Ditko was called on by Lee to rush ink other strips, and while he was a professional and did the job, I suspect this took him away from Strange more than the Annual, which might have been prepared and spaced out with enough time for him to complete the job. I'd have to check dates to see if that corresponds with the Roussos jobs, though.

    1. I checked ... The Amazing Spider-Man Annual was on sale 6 June 1964 ... The George Roussos-inked Doctor Stranges were 122 - 125, on sale from April to July 1964. I'd say that's a pretty good match :-)

  5. As far as DC occult detectives go, I think Mark Merlin in House of Secrets may have been a resource, especially in the geometric depiction of magic spells. Merlin was drawn by Mort Meskin, who was an influence on Ditko's style. Meskin had worked with Ditko teacher Jerry Robinson and even with "Inky" Roussos om comics Ditko would've seen in the 40's and 50's. I wonder if Ditko had any influence on Roussos being given the inking on his stuff; he also inked a lot of the early Hulk strips in Tales to Astonish.

  6. Minor nitpick -- the Ptolomies didn't displace the Macedonians -- they WERE Macedonians, the first Ptolomy being one of the generals under the Macedonian king Alexander the Great who had expanded the Macedonian empire from a region of northern Greece to taking all of Greece, as well as Egypt and a big chunk of southwest Asia as far east as the outer edges of India. After Alexander's death, as he had no legitimate heirs, his top generals divided up his massive empire, Ptolomy taking Egypt and his line ruling until usurped by Augustus Caesar, who incorporated Egypt into the Roman Empire and also murdered his own cousin who happened to be the child of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, who although born and raised in Egypt, was of Macedonian, and, hence, Greek ethnicity & heritage.