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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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."
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.
|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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.|
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.
|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.
|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.
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 ...