Review by Graham Johnstone
The creative contributions of Marvel frontman Stan Lee and his artist/co-creator partners have been much debated. However, it seems accepted that artist Steve Ditko came up with Doctor Strange to fill a slot in a mystery/horror anthology. The initial stories are short one-offs about haunted houses and dangerous idols – fitting easily into the existing format. It wasn’t until months later, sure of the demand, that there was an origin story. Tibetan mystic the Ancient One has two disciples. Baron Mordo is secretly power-hungry, and Stephen Strange is initially vain and selfish, but ultimately good. These two become arch rivals fighting for our world, providing the mythic quality that’s much of the reason these early Marvel creations have endured.
Lee acknowledges the debt to radio show Chandhu the Magician, who had similar powers and learnt his skills from an eastern yogi, for whom he acted as a physical agent in the world. Doctor Strange transcended its origins through Steve Ditko’s depictions of the magical worlds and phenomena.
Ditko draws on a range of visual inspirations. Look at Strange’s ‘sanctum’ – the furniture and bric-a-brac; the reptilian statues; the curved shapes and inlays of the furniture. They’re gothic, but as if filtered through the Aesthetic and Art Nouveau art movements of the turn into the 20th Century. You can also see the latter in the elongated figures and hands. There’s the ‘orientalist’ look of Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome – the tapering, intersecting curves of the magic spells. The depiction of magical dimensions draws on Surrealism – the melted and floating elements of Dali, and Yves Tanguy. It’s hard to think of other silver age comics artists, tailoring such a range of inspirations, and for a single series.
Ditko makes innovative use of ink lines to create magical effects. In one early short, Strange communicates with the distant Ancient One through a ‘window’ of swirling, rippling rings; next he contains a dangerous idol within a single heavy, slightly rippled line; finally, when he decides to follow missing people into the idol, we see him inside a ringed cone being funnelled into the tiny figurine. These effects are central to Ditko’s visual appeal, and influenced all subsequent depictions.
The content really takes off with an extended story arc where Dr Strange battles Baron Mordo, and the powerful ruler of an alternative dimension, the Dread Dormammu. Mordo pursues Strange, as he searches for the secret of ‘Eternity’. It’s a gripping story, and packed with memorable scenes: Mordo’s wraiths chasing Dr Strange’s ‘ectoplasmic form’ through a busy airliner; Strange flying through giant atoms (pictured, left) into the sun to shake off the cowardly Mordo; and, best of all, the episode where Strange seeks to retrieve the secret of Eternity within the mind of the physically comatose yet mentally powerful Ancient One. Running over eighteen monthly episodes, this was was a highpoint of 1960s Marvel, and arguably their first graphic novel. It’s still gripping, inventive, and visually dazzling. Ditko, however was unhappy at Marvel, and his departure was abrupt – reflected in the conclusion to this story.
The same material is also gathered over Volume 1 and 2, of the earlier Masterworks editions (shown below) and the first Essential collection ‘phonebook’, their lower scores reflecting the balance between prime Ditko and weaker inclusions.