We all have gaps in our pop culture knowledge, those omissions that elicit gasps from our fellow funnybook connoisseurs. For me, those gaps are vast and constitute anything outside of DC Comics proper. I’m on a mission to rectify my comics knowledge shortcomings and to provide a fresh take on classic stories that others have known for years. The comics may be old but my mind is still pure, wrapped in plastic and sitting on the shelf, waiting to be opened. Welcome to Mint Condition!
This time: The resident occult doctor of the Marvel Universe is calling to me. Time to learn of the mystic arts from Steve Englehart’s Doctor Strange!
The skinny: Doctor Stephen Strange was yet another creation of Marvel (Stan Lee & Steve Ditko) in the 1960’s. Did these guys ever sleep? Known as the Master of the Mystic Arts, Doctor Strange uses his knowledge of advanced meditation techniques and ancient artifacts to stand guard against all of the supernatural horrors that you’re glad you don’t know about.
Issues read: Steve Englehart’s Doctor Strange run was from 1973-1976 and included Marvel Premiere #9-14 and then rolled into Doctor Strange #1-18.
Published by: Marvel Comics
Publication dates: Watergate era, July 1973 to October 1976.
Creators: The first half of the run was by Englehart and artist Frank Brunner. Brunner did the pencils and often inked and/or colored the issues as well, with occasional inking by Dick Giordano and a rotating stable of fill-in colorists. At issue #6 Gene Colan took over the pencilling duties, inked and colored mostly by Tom Palmer. John Costanza and Tom Orzechowski handled the lettering in nearly all of the issues mentioned above.
My previous experience: Benedict Cumberbatch.
Significance: Stephen Strange is a very different type of comic book hero. He doesn’t go looking for adventure or patrol the streets or anything like that. He mostly wants to stay in his Greenwich Village townhouse (affectionately known as the “Sanctum Sanctorum”) and burn incense while he reads ancient tomes of knowledge. His exploits tend to take place on other planes of reality: either the dream world, or the psychic planes, or maybe down in the depths of hell. Strange rarely even has to leave his apartment to engage with these supernatural threats — he just folds his legs in a meditation pose and travels inward. By its nature, this character stands apart from the other web-slinging, rage-punching, claw-slashing fare on the shelves. Steve Englehart’s Doctor Strange is an intellectual endeavor which comes across as a unique hallucinatory, surreal experience.
Story: The tone of the book is a centerpiece of its appeal, occupying a space somewhere near dark horror or mystical dread. The reader is invited to peer into Stephen’s thoughts and inner struggles of willpower and clarity as he stands against phantasmic threats. There’s lots of kingly, high court language and alliteration to set the mood. The good Doctor patrols the bound’ries atwixt the heavens’ heights and mortals’ ruinous realm, and such. He sometimes decides to rhyme when casting an arcane spell, and often muses about the workings of Einsteinian physics and hypercubes and souls. You’re either into the occult fantasy vibe or not, but this comic is fully committed to its act.
Right off the bat, it was difficult to grow accustomed to Stephen’s language. My understanding is that the character was once a regular joe, a New York City surgeon, before he fell into the study of the mystical arts. I’m not sure how long he’s been into the spiritual stuff, but he certainly doesn’t talk like any New Yorker I’ve ever met. Instead of cursing, he uses exclamations like “Vipers of Valtorr!” or “By the twelve moons of Munnopor!” I seriously can’t read Doctor Strange’s dialogue without hearing the dramatic screaming voice of Dr. Orpheus from Venture Bros. How did Stephen start talking like this? Or did he always used to exclaim during surgery “BY THE HOARY HOSTS OF HOGGOTH!!” (That one’s his favorite)? Anyway, it was jarring at first, but it turned out to be kind of endearing.
The series has a pretty strong thesis. Protect yourself against unreality. Do not get lost in thoughts of “if only” wishing, for these desires are not real. Be present here, now. Doctor Strange has dedicated his life to protecting humanity against the unseen perils of the spiritual realm and stands as a metaphysical example of clear-mindedness. When he starts to get rattled, Stephen will inevitably conclude “I must meditate!” and take the time to gather himself before proceeding.
It gets pretty deep: At one point, the sorcerer supreme finds himself lost inside a crystal orb that he keeps in his study. Everything inside the orb is an illusion, including people he thinks he knows out in the real world. Trying to find the way out, he enters the City of the Dying where citizens live out their death throes for eternity, wishing in vain for it all to end. The longer Stephen remains in the orb (i.e. lost in the illusion of life), the more unreal he himself becomes. The call of resignation is strong. Will he choose to live or will he be lost in the “orb” forever?
There’s a bit of Lovecraftian influence as well. Steve Englehart’s Doctor Strange travels far and wide, to other realms and also through the veil of space-time to fight extra-dimensional horrors. One of his villains leads him on a chase backwards through time to the point of the Big Bang, uncreating reality completely. Stephen watches (twice, actually) as everything he knows and loves is wiped out and then replaced by identical, but different, versions of them. He has to live with the horror of knowing that his friends are not really the same friends he knew yesterday. And he dare not tell them this terrible secret.
Art: A tale this, uhh…strange…couldn’t be told through typical storytelling methods. To support the occult horror themes of the book, panel borders are slanted or not fully connected. Stephen’s astral body is translucent and flows through walls while trailing ghostly tendrils of mist. Every few issues, there’s a great pose scene with large words like GOD or DEATH or some other deep phrase splattered across the page. There are swirls of bright colors and rainbow vortexes spilling out of the higher realms. The use of black & white negative space is prevalent in some arcs and used to great effect.
The costumes are completely over the top. Again I wonder about the stark difference between Stephen’s previous life and the one he lives now. The cape alone is a fashion statement. Is it also a requirement that the Sorcerer Supreme wears leggings and orange gloves and a bright sash around his waist? His girlfriend has the most ludicrous collar I’ve seen in comics, but she’s at least from another dimension so she gets a pass. No such leniency will be extended to the ex-priest who runs around in a crop-top belly shirt.
New reader accessibility: The stories are mostly episodic and don’t rely too heavily upon the history of the character. Even if you’ve never met the Ancient One (for instance), you can pretty quickly grasp that he’s the old master who Stephen turns to for guidance. Every issue seems to be inviting new readers to be able to join in the fun.
Desire to read more: There were points in this series that had me more excited than others. The first half of this series was especially my jam. Not that it wasn’t still entertaining towards the end, but time travel adventures with Benjamin Franklin don’t interest me as much as dread exploration of the secrets of the universe. That said, I would love to see what other creators have done with such a weird and esoteric concept.
Final Thoughts: As a proponent of meditation and spiritual exploration, I heartily endorse Doctor Stephen Strange. BY THE HOARY HOSTS OF HOGGOTH!!
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