Yes, strange as it may seem—and hard as it may be to believe today, with two cinematic blockbusters now under his sash and key roles in several other super-hit films as well—back in the 1960s and for decades afterward, Doctor Stephen Strange was one of Marvel’s less important, and least popular, marquee-level heroes. (In fact, Marvel editor Stan Lee later revealed the hero was nearly christened ‘Mr Strange’, but instead he got promoted to being an actual doctor, because Marvel already had a ‘Mr Fantastic.’)
He started off his four-color life in a mere five-page throw-away story by scripter Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko in Strange Tales #110 (July 1963), basically just filling space behind a cover feature wherein the Human Torch battled the Wizard and Paste Pot Pete. . . and with another five-page science-fiction vignette taking up half of the mag’s remaining oxygen. ‘Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic!’ was therefore the inevitable choice to lead off this volume of some of the greatest sagas starring the man who would eventu- ally become the Marvel Universe’s Sorcerer Supreme. It wasn’t a bad little adventure, introducing both Doc and the otherworldly villain Nightmare, who’s been bedeviling him ever since.
Two additional Dr. Strange five-pagers were spread out over the following four issues, and by the fourth Doc story—‘The Ori- gin of Dr. Strange’ in Strange Tales #115 (December 1963)—it’s clear that the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko team are running on all cylinders. And, as usual, the result whenever Lee and Ditko were, even briefly, on the same page creatively is nothing less than spectacular: a backstory that gives the mustachioed wizard a very human, even tragic background (as a greedy, self-indulgent surgeon who loses the use of his hands—and thus his livelihood, even his reason for existing—in an auto accident) that contrasts starkly with the Lost Horizon-influenced renewal of life he finds in what some then referred to as ‘the Mystic East.’ This was far from the first pop-cultural artifact to be influenced by James Hilton’s 1933 novel that introduced the hidden land called Shangri-La (and even more so by the 1937 movie version), but it was definitely the best and most enduring of those offshoots. For this story, the page count was increased from five to a whole eight.
‘The Origin of Dr. Strange’ was such an outstanding offering that it, too, was the inevitable choice for the one to be re-presented in this package, via a stand-alone reprinting of Strange Tales #115. . . even though more than half the story pages in that comic are devoted to the Human Torch. There simply was no other possibility worth considering. Honest! As in the previous volumes of this Folio Society series, I enlisted several knowledgeable and longtime Marvel fans (see their names on the copyright page) for their advice and consent as to which tales to include in this volume—and they were in unanimous agreement that it was the only sensible choice!Did anyone before Ditko—or after him, for that matter—ever create a more alien yet beautiful vision of sidereal worlds?
The Lee/Ditko pairing on Strange was a sequence of ever- spiraling triumphs, topped by Doc’s astral-energy battles with the dreaded being known as Dormammu—and by the mind-blowing visual pyrotechnics of the entity called Eternity and of the other- dimensional ‘landscapes’ through which our hero journeyed to reach him. Doing the anthologist’s equivalent of tossing a coin, I chose ‘If Eternity Should Fail!’ from Strange Tales #138 (November 1965) to represent the team of Stan and Steve at their height. Did anyone before Ditko—or after him, for that matter—ever create a more alien yet beautiful vision of sidereal worlds?
I blush to admit that I myself was for some time immune to the series’ charms, despite my admiration for Stan’s writing abilities and Steve’s artistic talent. From childhood I’d never cared much for magic-based heroes, since I could never figure out exactly what such a character could actually do . . . besides cast a spell, which seemed to me a convenient deus ex machina even before I understood what that term meant. Sure, I purchased each issue of Strange Tales, but usually I fully read only the Torch (or later S.H.I.E.L.D.) lead feature and merely perused the art in the Dr. Strange backup. I was, of course, dead wrong, and clearly in my youth a reader of no great discernment where the Mystic Master was concerned.
So wouldn’t you just know that, when I came to work for Stan in mid-1965, one of my very first assignments was to write dialogue for two of Ditko’s final quartet of Dr. Strange epics—with the result that I became an instant if belated convert. Turns out that I just loved writing magical spells for the Mystic Master to recite!
Following my brief stint, the last two Ditko-plotted-and-drawn Doc yarns were scripted by fellow newcomer Dennis O’Neil. In ‘The End—at Last!,’ Steve’s final outing on Strange, Denny not only got to provide dialogue and captions for an epic duel with Dormammu and a reappearance of Eternity, but he also became the guy who finally named Clea, the silver-haired extra-dimensional lass who’d befriended Doc in several previous adventures, with Stan continually neglecting to provide her with a moniker. (Just for the record, Denny appropriated her name from the title of one of the novels in Lawrence Durrell’s literary Alexandria Quartet.)
When Doctor Strange became a solo comic book in 1968, Stan ‘asked’ me to write it, and that became one of my most pleasant tasks of that decade . . . mainly because, soon afterward, Gene Colan was assigned as penciler. Gene was the first post-Ditko art- ist who handled the sorcerer’s adventures in a manner that was not essentially Ditko-derived. Gene’s misty ‘alien dimensions’ were his own vision. Yet it was in the human realm—his handling of the Earthly cast—that Gene truly excelled, giving me the chance, and the responsibility, to increase depth of character and human inter- action. Gene’s panel layouts were inventive and, by my lights, per- fectly dovetailed with the weirdness of the stories. And the icing on the cake was the inspired inking (and coloring) of a young Tom Palmer, who made his embellishing debut on the magazine the same month Gene did.
In a sense, there may be no one particular issue that stands out head and shoulders above all others among those on which Gene and I collaborated, but ‘The Power and the Pendulum’ in Doctor Strange #174 (actually just the sixth issue of the solo title, not the 174th!) shows off the Colan/Palmer team at its best. And it’s a complete-in-one story, which added to its appeal for inclu- sion here.
Alas, however, amid a temporary but industry-wide downturn in comics sales soon afterward, Doctor Strange was one of several Marvel titles that went temporarily onto the shelf.
A revival of the feature, beginning in Marvel Premiere #3 in 1972, wasn’t really going anywhere, either, until as editor I got lucky when I turned the series over to an enthusiastic new team: writer Steve Englehart and artist Frank Brunner. It was apparent from the outset that this twosome was just what the Doctor had ordered. The strip’s Ditko origins were more discernible than in the Colan run, yet Steve and Frank, working virtually in symbiosis, took the feature off in bold new directions, culminating in 1974’s Marvel Premiere #14 (‘Sise-Neg Genesis’), which chronicled what amounted to a battle with the Supreme Deity Himself. Get set to have your mind blown in a whole new way! The Englehart/Brunner duo made the Mystic Master a sales success for Marvel for the first time ever, resulting in the launching of a second Doc- tor Strange comic book which endured for years.
Sometime later, a skillful new scribe—Roger Stern—became the Doctor Strange writer of record, and his efforts in conjunction with several young illustrators left an indelible mark on the man who was now Sorcerer Supreme. One of those was Michael Golden, who, in concert with Roger and inker Terry Austin, delivered ‘To Have Loved . . . and Lost!’ in issue #55 (October 1982). The com- bination of script and art made this tale, in which Stephen is sorely tempted to give in to despair (in more ways than one) and take his own life, a stand-out classic.
A few months later, in DS #62, Roger and artist Steve Leialoha reassembled key members of the supporting cast of the recently retired Tomb of Dracula comic: Blade the Vampire Slayer, the vampire detective Hannibal King, and Frank Drake, last living descendant of Vlad Dracul. Watching those three, in concert with Strange and his ‘faithful assistant’ Wong, battle to end the scourge of vampires on Earth forever and to ‘Deliver Us from Evil’ makes for a dramatic and satisfying one-issue epic.
One of Roger Stern’s most rewarding sequences of issues, actually, had been with artist Marshall Rogers—and the latter’s work definitely deserves inclusion in any ‘best of Dr. Strange’ collection. However, as it happens, it’s X-Men scribe extraordinaire Chris Claremont who authored the magical misadventure drawn by Marshall Rogers seen in these pages. ‘To Steal the Sorcerer’s Soul!’ is slightly shorter than the preceding and following ones having appeared in the slick-paper Marvel Fanfare, an anthology of rotating one-and-done features. Chris has always been celebrated for his handling of female heroes, and he definitely had his mojo working when he guided the beauteous and brainy Clea through this one!
In Doctor Strange #80 (December 1986), writer Peter Gillis and penciler Chris Warner gave Stephen a chance to do what he’d never been able to do since his origin tale more than two decades earlier—namely, perform an operation, by using his astral form to possess the body of a living surgeon. And the patient in dire need of saving that night? Why, Doc himself, who else? A marvelous concept, marvelously executed.
To my surprise, in the late 1980s, when I returned to Marvel after several years at what we often called the Distinguished Com- petition, I was soon offered the chance to script a recently restarted Doctor Strange series, this one bearing two extra words in its sub- title. I’d always wanted another shot at the title, following the 1969 cancellation of my run with Colan, and—best of all!—I found that the realism-based artwork of Jackson Guice inspired me to write the good Doctor in a slightly different way. I reasoned that since Stephen Strange, as an accomplished surgeon, had lived at least three pre-magician decades as a normal person, he might have more of a sense of humor buried deep inside him than I and others had generally brought out. The resulting approach began to be realized with the first Thomas/Guice outing, Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #5 (July 1989), ‘The Faust Gambit, Part I.’ I figured that the devious mind of Doc’s old nemesis Baron Mordo had led him to sell his soul to two different demons—and now they were both screaming for said soul!
One of the most outstanding Doc stories ever, though, has to be the one that was published in two quite different versions. In 1976, writer Marv Wolfman and artist/co-plotter P. Craig Russell had produced an extraordinary thirty-five-page Dr. Strange Annual tale entitled ‘. . . And There Will Be Worlds Anew!’ An outstanding effort—but that turned out to be only a starting point. In 1999, Russell and another co-writer, Marc Andreyko, turned that same general storyline into a forty-eight-page graphic novel with the deceptively lulling title What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen? Both renditions are so outstanding that they could’ve warranted inclusion in this volume . . . but in the end it was the lengthier, later account that got the nod. If you like the graphic novel (and we kind of suspect you will), you might want to look up the 1976 edition on your own. It’s different enough that you’ll enjoy it all over again.
Each generation—indeed, each team of writer and artists— finds a new way to approach Doc, both as magician and as man . . . as lord of legerdemain and as lover . . . as mighty wizard and as all-too-mortal warrior. In the 2006 limited series Doctor Strange: The Oath, writer Brian K. Vaughan and penciler Marcos Martín showed us a Stephen Strange in crisis, torn between the dueling demands of his role as Sorcerer Supreme and the Hippocratic oath he’d sworn years before. The waiting-room chitchat between two Marvel heroes, Iron Fist and young Araña, as they await their appointments to see a physician for their relative injuries, all by itself, is worth the price of admission—but the story really starts only when Wong, on the third story page, drags a gunshot Doc Strange in off the street. Though we could present only the first of the series’ five issues, we suspect you’ll see why we folded it in.
Perhaps there’s no more fitting way to wind up this volume than with the 2016 Doctor Strange #11 (the numbering had been started all over again), titled ‘The New Face of Magic.’ Jason Aaron wrote and Leonardo Romero drew this yarn in which virtually all magic on the face of the Earth is obliterated—seemingly forever. Such a situation would seem to be the ultimate dilemma for a hero who has long been a Mystic Master, and for most of his colorful life a Sorcerer Supreme. But if it turns out they spoke a bit too soon, and Doc’s magical prowess would eventually be restored and intact . . . well, Aaron and Romero probably knew it even before you did. Still, just for a little while, it’s something to consider.
A world without magic. Now, that might or might not be something worth writing and drawing about. But a world without Doctor Strange in it—now that might just be more than mortal mind was meant to bear!