Career Arc: Doctor Strange, Marvel’s Uncastable Sorcerer Supreme

Illustration by John Ueland

Marvel’s Doctor Strange has a release date, a director, and a writer. What it still doesn’t have, at least not officially, is a star. Ever since this guy bowed out, the field of potential Stranges has widened to include seemingly every name actor not already committed to a franchise, and a few who actually are. (You know a studio hasn’t quite decided which direction to take a film when the short list for the lead includes both Rust Cohle and Hannibal.) So far, there’s been no serious talk of just tossing this guy the keys to the Sanctum Sanctorum, which proves that Hollywood is insane. I can’t be the only one who felt like Clive Owen’s performance as the haunted, arrogant, rakishly mustachioed Dr. John Thackery on The Knick was a competition-crushing 10-hour audition to play Strange, whether Owen knew it or not.

Aside from Ethan Hawke — who said he’d do it if onetime collaborator Scott Derrickson, who’s been tapped to direct, asked — it’s unclear if anyone whose name has been floated in connection with this part actually wants it. You can see why Joaquin Phoenix — whose last brush with mainstream ubiquity involved convincing the world that he’d quit acting — got nervous about committing to whatever nine-picture deal was on the table. But the problem might have more to do with Doctor Strange himself, and his place in the Marvel Universe. He’s never been one of the company’s most popular characters. But like Nick Fury or Reed Richards, he’s been endlessly useful as a plot device. Over the years, he’s been an Avenger, a Defender, and a secret influencer of world events as part of the superhero cabal known as the Illuminati, as well as humanity’s first line of defense against extradimensional menaces — a kind of benign Colonel Jessup on the wall between this world and the next. But he’s also been a workhorse guest star, dropping in for a house call whenever a writer needs someone to identify a mysterious artifact or explain the nature and seriousness of a supernatural threat. Presumably, he’d serve a similarly expository purpose in Marvel’s so-called Movieverse, in which everyone is forever chasing some mystical MacGuffin. Whoever takes this part may be signing up to spend eight years delivering pipe-laying speeches about Infinity Gems and playing straight man to the raccoon.

This doesn’t mean Doctor Strange isn’t important, or that he isn’t cool. Because he’s actually the coolest, albeit in a detached and solemn and deeply uncool way. He’s elusive and perpetually at odds with his moment, which is why he’s been a tough character to adapt for the screen. Repo Man’s Alex Cox wrote a never-realized Strange script with Stan Lee in the late ’80s, featuring a Stephen Strange who drinks martinis and digs Link Wray. It could very well have been great; it could also have turned out just as badly as the 1978 TV movie Doctor Strange, which features Mike Brady look-alike Peter Hooten as the Sorcerer Supreme and Lucille Bluth as Morgan le Fay and looks like a backdoor pilot for a Manimal spinoff. You can’t predict these things. What we can say for sure is that Strange’s vast and varied history includes enough material for 10 movies, and at least half of those movies would be great. Let’s train the Eye of Agamotto on one of the most unusual superheroes in the history of the form.

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1. The Doctor Is In: The Ditko Years

The first time anyone saw Doctor Strange, he was already Doctor Strange.

This wasn’t particularly unusual in 1963. The conventions of the modern superhero comic, including the now-unspoken requirement that new heroes enter the world origin-first, were still taking shape back then. But today, in this age of perpetual reboot, the lack of backstory in the first Doctor Strange adventure — which ran in the last five pages of Strange Tales no. 110, cover-dated December ’63 — is pretty striking. Artist Steve Ditko drew countless horror comics for Marvel and other publishers in the ’50s and early ’60s; this story begins where one of those might have, with a man tormented by recurring dreams who decides he can’t take it anymore. “I can’t fight it alone!” he cries, steadying one shaky hand with the other so he can light a cigarette. “I need help! I’ve heard a name — spoken in whispers — Doctor Strange! He dabbles in black magic! Perhaps HE can help me!” This was not how people in the Marvel Universe talked about Captain America or Reed Richards; Strange is established right away as something more like an urban myth than a superhero.

They meet. The sleepless man is drawn in classic tormented-soul shorthand — lit from below, brow furrowed, eyes bulging from deep sockets, hat literally in hand — whereas Strange himself is composed and inscrutable, even haughty. He listens as the man describes the image that haunts him — a hooded figure bound in chains, who does nothing but stare — and then promises to solve the man’s problem that very night, “by ENTERING YOUR DREAM!!!” First, though, Strange enters a trance, during which his white-outlined astral form floats free of his meditating body, traverses oceans and continents, and arrives at “a hidden temple somewhere in the remote vastness of Asia” to confer with his mentor, a wizened mystic he calls “the Ancient One.” The superhero mythos is all about the body — physically perfected, impervious to pain, weaponized, stretchable, encased in ice or engulfed in flames, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But here was a hero whose adventures would often begin with him discarding his corporeal form the way Superman shucked Clark Kent’s business suit, leaving behind the physical world to go where the real action is.

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We don’t learn how Strange came to be until five issues later. It’s one of the great origin stories of the Silver Age. Stephen Strange was once an actual doctor — a surgeon, as heartless and arrogant as he was brilliant. We see him smugly refusing aid to charity projects and turning away patients who can’t pay. Ditko draws him with an amazing Male Resting Bitchface; he’s so disdainful of the world outside himself that he can barely even be bothered to open his eyes. He’s a laughably unlikable version of Tony Stark, another rich, smirky Marvel hero whose story begins with a catastrophic injury. In Strange’s case, it’s a one-car accident on a lonely road (a plot point some writers would later recast as a suicide attempt). He survives, but suffers severe nerve damage to his hands. He’ll never wield a scalpel again. From there, his downfall takes three panels. First he’s refusing to stay on at the hospital as a consultant — “Stephen Strange assists NOBODY!” — and soon he’s an unshaven bum hanging out by the docks. Chasing a rumor about a being who can cure any affliction, he makes his way to India, where the Ancient One refuses to help him because Strange’s motives are selfish. Only after foiling an attempt on the old man’s life — the would-be killer is one of the Ancient One’s students, a goateed creep named Mordo — is Strange allowed to stay on as a disciple. His life takes on “a new deeper meaning” as he studies magic and prepares himself “for the epic battles ahead.”

The story of the Western heel redeemed by contact with the mysterious East is archetypal, but it also grounds Strange in pulp tradition. Lamont Cranston learned to “cloud men’s minds” in the Orient before becoming the Shadow. The Green Lama was really Jethro Dumont, an Oxford-educated millionaire’s son who’d spent 10 years studying Buddhism in Tibet and spoke the mantra “Om mani padme hum” to activate his superpowers. Even Bruce Wayne turned out to have spent some time in the Himalayas, a continuity-graft that became a big story point in Batman Begins. But the most important thing about Strange’s origin is that it’s a flashback. He’s already finished with his hero’s journey by the time we make his acquaintance in the present. He’s an adult, gray-templed, distinguished, a man in full, whose apprenticeship with the Ancient One is a kind of midlife spiritual conversion. As Colin Smith points out in his landmark 2012 study of Strange, in the Lee/Ditko years, the character’s maturity helped set him apart from early Marvel’s other “supposedly adult authority figures.”1

It’s not until Strange Tales no. 123, cover-dated August ’64, that Strange is officially established as a citizen of the same world the rest of the company’s heroes lived in. Loki tricks him into stealing Thor’s hammer; they fight. (Compare this with the other book Lee and Ditko were collaborating on at the time, The Amazing Spider-Man, whose protagonist met the Fantastic Four in issue no. 1.) But most of those early Strange Tales stories are about Strange policing the border between his world and the sinister realms beyond it. He battles Mordo and Nightmare repeatedly; he unseats one parallel dimension’s tyrannical ruler and stops another extradimensional being from conquering Earth; he investigates a haunted house that turns out to be a time-traveling entity sent to observe humanity. Until the epic 17-issue “Eternity Saga” begins in issue no. 130, the plots are really just excuses to let Ditko be Ditko. You’re watching one of the singular artists of the Silver Age invent a visual iconography for the unimaginable, all mist-shrouded chambers, staircases to nowhere, and portals within portals. Mise en abyme was the rule; every panel was a window you could tumble through. Strange, under attack by a malevolent magic carpet in the realm of the flame-headed Dread Dormammu: “I’m being drawn down into this two-dimensional object — as though some sort of life exists below it!” To look at these comics is to understand that feeling.

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Although Lee supplied the dialogue for the Strange stories and Amazing Spider-Man, Ditko was plotting both books as well as drawing them. He’d also become enamored of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and his attempt to live and work by Objectivist tenets would hasten the end of his Marvel career. In the decades to come, he’d morph into a kind of outsider artist, producing boldly designed and fascinatingly unreadable comics about a Randite hero named “Mr. A.” Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko suggests that Lee and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman objected to Ditko’s attempt to turn the sad-sack Peter Parker into a more dynamic, John Galt–ish hero who’d march into J. Jonah Jameson’s office at the Daily Bugle demanding “equal value trade” for his news photos of Spidey in action; there were also disputes over the royalties and merchandising revenue from the Spider-Man cartoon show. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange’s adventures grew increasingly abstract. Conventional fight scenes fell away, replaced by mystical third-eye staring contests, and eventually even Strange’s status as protagonist was called into question. In Ditko’s last story, Dormammu clashes with a being called Eternity, whom Ditko draws as a galaxy contained within the outline of a man; Strange is effectively a bystander. Summoned into the cosmos from a street corner in Manhattan, he witnesses mind-shattering conflict on a higher plane of existence, then returns to the Village “bare minutes after he left.”

Dude. Not surprisingly, Strange quickly became the emerging counterculture’s favorite Marvel hero. “I was a child of beatniks,” the writer and occultist Catherine Yronwode2 once said, “and it was an urban legend among us that Ditko smoked grass.” The truth was less far out: “Cartoonist Trina Robbins,” wrote Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs in The Comic Book Heroes, “remembers the day she and some of her East Coast freak friends — many of them cartoonists for the underground newspaper the East Village Other — made a pilgrimage to Marvel Comics to meet the acid-dropping, long-haired creators of Doctor Strange, who had obviously somehow infiltrated the establishment world of superhero publishing. They were stunned to find the crew-cut conservative Sturdy Steve and the lovable but politically vague Stan the Man.”3

Strange wasn’t an acid-in-the-reservoirs kind of guy either. Although he moved fearlessly between realities like a prototype psychonaut, his mission as Sorcerer Supreme was ultimately about keeping the doors of perception closed. Strange could experience all those trippy Ditko dimensions and return to Bleecker Street with his well-trained mind intact; the implication was that ordinary people couldn’t. In one Strange Tales story, two burglars are accidentally transported to another dimension while attempting to rob the Sanctum. After Strange rescues them from an eternity of suffering, they turn themselves in to the nearest beat cop. “Mumbled incoherently — something about you saving them behind a purple veil,” the cop tells Strange. “Pay them no mind, officer!” Strange replies. “Who can fathom the senseless ramblings of the criminal mind?” Who indeed.

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But the fact that the early Doctor Strange stories resist close reading as countercultural propaganda didn’t stop them from being received that way by heads eager to anoint their own heroes. If mysticism had permeated the funny books, didn’t that prove that a new age of consciousness was dawning everywhere? Weren’t the signs all there, wasn’t it all connected? One month before Strange Tales no. 110 hit newsstands, a Harvard divinity-school grad student named Walter Pahnke published the results of the so-called “Good Friday Experiment,” a study of the entheogenic properties of psilocybin. Pahnke had conducted his experiments — in which volunteers were dosed inside Boston University’s Marsh Chapel — under the supervision of Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert’s Harvard Psylocybin Project. Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard in ’63 after undergrad and future alternative-health kingpin Andrew Weil snitched to the Crimson about the nature of their research; four years later, in India, Alpert would find his own Ancient One, the Hindu holy man Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaj-ji, who’d give him the name Ram Dass. “There’s a great series of comic books called the Doctor Strange comics,” Ram Dass would tell an audience of health professionals in 1970, before recounting the plot of “When Meet the Mystic Minds,” from Strange Tales no. 137, in which Doctor Strange strains against the veil of maya while dueling psychically with the Ancient One: “Unless I can shatter this web of wonderment, all is lost! My mission will be forgotten — I will be doomed to a life of aimless IMAGERY!”

The Lee-Ditko period on Strange Tales coincided with the publication of G.I. Gurdjieff’s spiritual travelogue Meetings With Remarkable Men, Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen, and Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in which alternate realities become accessible through the use of alien hallucinogens. Meanwhile, on the converted school bus carrying the Merry Pranksters across the country in 1964, Tom Wolfe — reporting 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test — found a serene Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Doctor Strange attired in capes and chiaroscuro, saying: ‘How could they have known that this gem was merely a device to bridge dimensions! It was a means to enter the dread purple dimension — from our own world!’ Sandy may wander … off the bus, but it remains all Kesey. Doctor Strange!” One year later, more than a thousand San Francisco flower children packed the Longshoremen’s Hall in North Beach for a concert put on by a group of hippies turned promoters who called themselves the Family Dog; the show, which featured the Charlatans, the Great Society, and Jefferson Airplane, was advertised as “A Tribute to Dr. Strange.” In 1968, the Sorcerer Supreme showed up in subliminal form on the cover of Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets “On a mountain range, I’m Doctor Strange,” Marc Bolan sang on T. Rex’s “Mambo Sun” in 1971. By then Marvel had at least come close to acknowledging Strange’s status as an unwitting godfather to the Children of the Revolution, by licensing his image to a manufacturer of blacklight posters.

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2. The Doctor Buys Some Aspirin: The Post-Ditko Years

Ditko left the book after issue no. 146; he was replaced by Bill Everett, best known as cocreator of the Sub-Mariner. Lee began to step back as well, relinquishing whatever his duties as “writer” had been to scripters like Denny O’Neil and Roy Thomas. Issue no. 147 brings a striking shift in tone, in response to a memo from up top demanding that Strange be grounded in Marvel’s version of the real world. “How GOOD it is to mingle once more with my fellow men … to share the prosaic daily routine of the city dweller,” thinks Doctor Strange, strolling the Village in cloak and tights as hipsters in porkpies and berets gawk and goggle. Later, a building inspector hassles him about bringing the Sanctum up to code; when he goes to buy cold medicine and aspirin at the drugstore, he discovers that his bank account is overdrawn. “Though I am loathe to do it,” Strange says, “I must seek a means of earning money.” His campy, overly formal diction and near-total lack of basic life skills in this story bring to mind Dr. Orpheus, the nincompoop Strange analogue from Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick’s Cartoon Network series The Venture Bros., about a grown-up, embittered Jonny Quest raised by blowhard Silver Age authority figures.

If nothing else, the various Doctor Strange comics Marvel published in the years and decades to come would give a host of great artists — including Everett, Marie Severin, Gene Colan, Barry Windsor-Smith, Paul Smith, and Richard Case — a chance to play around in the alternate universes Ditko had mapped. But the post-Ditko Strange books also suffered from an ongoing identity crisis; the question of whether Strange should continue dealing exclusively with esoteric mystical threats or become more like a regular superhero remained perpetually unresolved. Letter writers in this period bemoaned an overabundance of stories about Strange “entering a foreign dimension and battling its lord.” Marvel gave Doc a new, more classically superhero-ish costume in the late ’60s; the results were not inspiring. Strange Tales finally became Doctor Strange with issue no. 169. Issue no. 180 was a New Year’s Eve story in which Strange runs into his old pal Tom Wolfe on the street; after issue no. 183, the book was canceled.

3. The Doctor Fights a Cat (Interlude)

Just wanted to put this here. It was 1971; Doctor Strange fought a cat.

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4. The Doctor Is Way Out: The Englehart Years

In the early ’70s, Marvel managed to split the difference. Strange appeared in The Defenders as a member of an offbeat team of superheroes, although the heaviness of his trip was enough to bug out even the cosmically aware Silver Surfer.

Meanwhile in the pages of Marvel Premiere and then a new bimonthly Doctor Strange title, he embarked on his most openly psychedelic adventures to date, courtesy of writer, conscientious objector, and acid aficionado Steve Englehart. Here’s Englehart, describing his collaboration with artist Frank Brunner in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

“We would get together every two months, have dinner, get loaded about 10 o’clock, and stay there until 3 or 4 … [Brunner] would be thinking about what would look really cool, and I would talk about where I could go with Doctor Strange’s consciousness, and we would come up with a summation that was greater than the parts.”

The presumed subtext became the text. Strange’s amulet, the Eye of Agamotto, was referred to as his “third eye”; at the end of an adventure, when Strange reenters his body after witnessing the destruction and re-creation of the Earth, a conspicuous caption box refers to the process as “coming down.” Two issues into Englehart’s Marvel Premiere run, Strange takes on the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme by killing the Ancient One’s ego, so that the older mystic can become one with the universe; the next few issues are about a two-bit magician from the future who accumulates massive power by traveling back in time, until he becomes God and causes the Big Bang.4 Representative Englehart narration: “The trip is beyond anyone’s control now! Doctor Strange and Baron Mordo can only RIDE with it — and all around them, the UNIVERSE is singing.”

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In a letter to readers published in Doctor Strange no. 13, Englehart suggested that the late-’60s Strange book had been canceled because at the time, “despite all the hue and cry over mind expansion, there just weren’t enough spacy people reading comics to support a mystic — while today they [sic] are. In fact, as I say, there are so many spacers around that this book is not just supported. This book is a certified hit.” Doctor Strange lasted only six more issues after that, which gave Englehart time to write a time-travel story in which Strange’s protégée Clea — who’d quietly become his live-in girlfriend during Englehart’s run — has a one-nighter with Benjamin Franklin.

5. The Doctor Has an Eyepatch or Whatever: The In-Between Years and Beyond

Always a fan favorite, never a commercial force, Strange has lived many lives since Englehart’s run. Roger Stern’s late-’70s tenure on the book has its adherents; so does Peter B. Gillis’s short, dark late-’80s run. The character may have been best served by the two Strange-focused graphic novels Marvel published during the latter half of that decade. In 1986’s Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa, Strange searches his soul after beings purportedly affiliated with the Ancient One command him to bring about the apocalypse; the dreamy painted art is by Dan Green, and the script is by the great J.M. DeMatteis, who once dedicated a Doctor Fate story to Meher Baba. 1989’s Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment, beautifully illustrated by Mike Mignola, is also one of the greatest Doctor Doom stories ever told.

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But the more the Marvel Universe evolved, the more Strange seemed like an outlier. The problem may have been baked into the character from the beginning. Strange’s powers depend on mystical knowledge, so his existence is by necessity an academic, professorial, cloistered one. Wolverine has adamantium claws and a streak of violent rage; Doctor Strange has many leather-bound books. In a sense, he’s supposed to exist outside the mainstream; it’s where he belongs.5 In the issue of Uncanny X-Men where Jean Grey first becomes Dark Phoenix, there’s a quick montage of various Marvel heroes sensing her transformation and reacting to it, great-disturbance-in-the-Force-ishly. Doctor Strange is in his library, shelving some musty volume. “I sense images of great mystic power, great passion — great … EVIL,” he thinks. “But what meaning do they have for Doctor STRANGE?” It may have been a rhetorical question.

Still, like a lot of ’60s-vintage comics characters, Strange has had his image overhauled and contemporized more than once, to disturbing effect — particularly during the 1990s, a decade that robbed nearly every superhero of his or her fashion sense. ’90s Doctor Strange was all …

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… and then he was all …

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… and for a while he was even like …

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The Witches miniseries — Strange as the Charlie to a team of hot supernatural Angels, released in 2004 to capitalize on, I guess, the runaway cultural juggernaut that was Season 6 of Charmed — may have represented rock bottom, but none of the Google Images are that great, so here, instead, is this, from 1995:

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It takes decades for a character to get to a place this profoundly muddled; it often takes just one writer, usually from Britain, to restore that character to glory. In 1995, the iconoclastic Englishman Warren Ellis, still a few years away from creating Transmetropolitan for Vertigo and The Authority for Wildstorm, took over Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme — for one issue, then left the book, citing creative differences with the ever-shifting Marvel editorial staff of the late ’90s. The book was canceled in 1996; Marvel hasn’t published an ongoing Doctor Strange series since, although that’s likely to change as the movie draws closer.

The most acclaimed Doctor Strange story of the last decade is Marcos Martín and Saga writer Brian K. Vaughan’s five-issue Doctor Strange: The Oath, from 2006-07, in which Strange reflects on his pre-accident years while attempting to track down an old acquaintance who’s tried to have him killed. One joke in Vaughan’s book is arguably the most penetrating analysis of Doctor Strange as a character ever committed to the page: “You call yourself the Sorcerer Supreme?” someone asks him. “And you say you USED to be arrogant?” This Strange is a little tougher and a little more overtly Sherlock Holmesian, but the book isn’t a reimagining. It works (and helped reposition Strange for his subsequent appearances in The New Avengers) precisely because it doesn’t try too hard to sell us an all-new, all-different Doctor Strange; Martín’s version of the good Doctor even looks more than a little bit like Bill Everett’s, in that they both resemble the young Vincent Price. Fanboy consensus seems to be that the Strange movie should build on The Oath. Personally, I’d miss the trippiness, which Brendan McCarthy’s phantasmagorically Ditkovian Strange/Spider-Man miniseries Spider-Man: Fever delivered by the megadose back in 2010. Then again, my favorite recent Strange story is from Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson’s short-lived Defenders revival; the fourth issue of that book is a straight-up character study that explores Strange’s weird, paternalistic relationship with younger women and the melancholy history behind it. He comes off, improbably enough, like Iggy Pop on 1999’s uncharacteristically pensive Avenue B: “So now I’ve fucked her on the floor / Among my books of ancient lore.”

The Master of the Mystic Arts as an aging Lothario. Now that’s an idea for a movie — one we’ll probably never see, given the vast commercial pressure on a film like this one. That Doctor Strange supposedly won’t be an origin story is encouraging, as is Kevin Feige’s use of the phrase “Ditko/Kubrick/Miyazaki/The Matrix mind-trip” to describe what he wants from the movie. And while Scott Derrickson isn’t Stanley Kubrick, I’m curious to see what a card-carrying Person of Faith who’s made three decent horror movies about bodily possession does with one of Marvel’s most pagan heroes. Are the world’s multiplexes ready for a Master of the Gnostic Arts?

Filed Under: Movies, Comic Books, doctor strange, Marvel, The Avengers, career arc

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

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