Thursday, 6 January 2011
That Other Dr Strange: Some Thoughts Concerning Stan Lee & Steve Ditko's Original Master Of The Mystic Arts
Just For The Sake Of Not Making A Particular Argument ...
We've talked before about how beguilingly daft it is to presume that a character's true nature, whatever that is, can be deduced from his, her or its first run of appearances. (*1) Yet it's such an attractive fallacy that I fear that I'll seem to be arguing here for a return to some archetypally pure form of Dr Strange if I don't make it plain that I'm suggesting nothing of the sort. This is not, I assure you, a manifesto for the restitution of Stephen Strange to his irreducible and essential "true" self, whatever that is. There is, I very strongly suspect, no such thing.
What it is is a brief discussion of how very different the Stephen Strange of the early Stan Lee and Steve Ditko tales can seem when compared to pretty much any headlining character of the modern era, including, tellingly enough, the Stephen Strange of today himself. Similarly, and for all that Dr Strange had much in common with the other sorcerers whose adventures preceded him, there was a great deal about the character and his world which stood out as unique against the backdrop of the comic-books of the time. And yet, by making the observations that I will, I really do mean to do nothing more than talk about how the Dr Strange of 1963 to 1966 can seem to be a familiar character while often thinking and behaving in ways which have, to a greater or lesser degree, ceased to be typical of him. For I find it an endlessly fascinating process to note how a character's possession of a codename and a costume over a period of time can seduce the reader into believing that the superhero we read about today is the same one we read about yesterday, when in many ways, that simply might not be so.
*1:- As in, for example, "Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko & The Incredible Hulk Who Failed" in the September 2010 archive.
The Stephen Strange of the Lee/Ditko years would be a wholly untypical heroic figure in the context of many of today's books, because his own hero's journey is over. He has long since faced up to his demons, overcome them through humility and dedication and self-sacrifice, and then subsequently embarked upon his mission of service to others. His years of arrogance and waste, callousness and self-doubt, are long behind him. He may have to constantly strive to increase his knowledge of how to deal with specific challenges, but he's essentially the finished article, the hero we can always trust to save us when the going gets thoroughly weird and weirdly dangerous.
He's not a young man attempting to become a competent sorcerer, or a flawed and deeply human individual trying to bear up under the weight of his fearsome mission. He is the Master Of The Mystic Arts, the one superhero you'd trust to rescue you from the depths of your own nightmares.
There's no doubt, no qualification; this Stephen Strange is the man you'd want by your side if you were unfortunate enough to have to travel sideways into worlds inhabited by the likes of the Mindless Ones and marked by landscapes of endless open-jawed doorways through which are strung ribbon-band astral highways.
Of course, though it's a fact that's rarely mentioned in a medium which seems to strive after artistic credibility while often indulging in the most pruriently adolescent of content, the business of fulfilling the "heroes journey" is in fact no more, and no less, than the mastering of the process of simply growing up. And the Stephen Strange of the Lee/Ditko years is, heretically enough, an adult, and a vastly experienced adult at that. He's entirely grown up. He's worked through his inadequacies and arrived at a point of overwhelming maturity. In doing so, he appears to be far, far older and far more able than any of his contemporaries from those first few years of the Marvel Revolution, and, in fact, he still seems far more stable, knowledgeable and mature than any of Marvel's line-leading superheroes of today.
It's quite impossible to imagine the Lee/Ditko Dr Strange comfortably hanging out with the overwhelming majority of today's super-heroes, trapped as they are in an endless repetition of learning experiences while forever re-living the trials of their twenties and even their thirties over and over again. The Stephen Strange who appears in "Strange Tales" # 110 to 146 has clearly already lived two quite distinct and demanding adult lives, and through the challenges of both of them he's experienced more and learned more than most superheroes ever will. He's been an avaricious world-class surgeon, and he's been the most able and powerful of all known mortal mystics. He's transformed himself from shameless social parasite to Earth's sole mystic protector who is both mentally and physically strong enough to engage the worst of those who'd prey on our plain of existence. He is, in short, the very definition of a hero, and he's been burned free of angst, despair and ignorance, those typical and highly-functional motors of character development which are to be found so often in today's superhero tales.
And so it's hard to think of the early Stephen Strange seeking out, let alone requiring, the fellowship and friendship of other "superheroes" beyond an occasional and untypical need to temporarily press them into his service. It's certainly impossible to imagine him as a member of The Avengers sharing a breakfast table with the likes of Victoria Hand and Spider-Man, no matter how laudable those individuals might be. For it's not that the original Dr Strange was a snob. Quite the contrary, of course. But he came quite literally from a different world, and indeed an infinity of different worlds, and he'd already lived several lives before, it seems, the Avengers were ever formed. He had his own distinct and vitally important mission to fulfil far away from the arc lights of the superhero mainstream, and the character was all the more individual and interesting because of that. (*2)
*2:- None of this, of course, means that I believe that the Stephen Strange of today shouldn't be an Avenger. The Stephen Strange of 2011 is a quite different character to that of Lee and Ditko's run, and his place in the MU is a quite different one to that to be found in the period 1963-66.
This Stephen Strange is also, amongst his many distinguishing features, that rarest of super-heroic figures, the highly diligent academic. When faced with new menaces, he's constantly referring to his mystical knowledge, and is often shown studying magic texts which require a great deal of knowledge, skill and effort to decipher and put to use. Comic-books are full to the panel-borders and beyond of genii, who constantly create more and more amazing examples of super-science, but they're usually shown to be possessed of already-prodigious natural abilities, such as with Reed Richards and Tony Stark, and their scientific
creations are often shown being bolted together through a process of white-hot innovation rather than study. That the likes of Richards and Stark are incredibly intelligent is undeniable, and yet they're often doers rather than thinkers. In fact, they often seem to be in many ways closer to miracle-working engineers than masters of scientific theory. But Stephen Strange is a student of learning as much as a master of his craft and its effects. Indeed, his faith in study and the knowledge it yields is constantly referred to in the Lee/Ditko years, and it's even used to differentiate Strange from his most threatening opponents;
"Here, within the Master's now-deserted retreat, among his books and papers, I may find what I seek. Mordo has touched nothing. He cares naught for knowledge -- only for power!" (ST:134:3:5)
There is no character that I can think of who has to work as hard intellectually as Lee and Ditko's Dr Strange has to in order to maintain his ability to fulfil his heroic role. As a teacher of some twenty years experience at what was once so unamusingly known as the chalkface, I find that dedication to the process of learning to be an admirable trait, and a jolly good example too.
The Stephen Strange of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko is a man who gives no time to self-doubt and pessimism, as we would expect from a superhero who's already achieved a spiritual rebirth and consistently protected the Earth from a host of fearsome and mystical threats. When faced with the worst, this Strange doesn't hesitate to fight onwards without pausing to regret or question his previous choices, or nor does he feel the need to reassure himself with reference to past achievements. He has accepted his duty and his life counts quite literally for nothing when considered in regard to that. Even when trapped into accepting the utterly intimidating prospect of single combat with Dormammu, Strange's immediate response is a stoic as it is practical;
"There is no turning back. I must accept. I have no other choice. No matter what the odds --- regardless of the cost -- I must accept! If he is not vanquished now, there may never be another opportunity!" (ST 140:3/4)
It's an unquestioning acceptance of the fate that Strange has chosen for himself which stands in such opposition to the doubt and lack of self-confidence which characterises so many of today's heroes. And mixed with such a willingness to sacrifice himself is a marked and most unfashionable optimism;
"And yet, some omnipotent power has so arranged the universe that good mist always prevail!" (ST 123: 9: 5)
Stephen Strange perceives the world as the adept who has passed through the initiation of a Mystery Cult was historically reputed to. He has faced up to the inevitability of loss and death and, perceiving each for the impostor that it is, has earned himself the blessing of an existence where everything that occurs has a purpose in an essentially benevolent scheme of things;
"I was born to battle the forces of evil -- and though death be my reward, I would have it no other way." (ST 142:10:7)
It might be thought that this is the cod-heroic posturing of the unreconstructed early Silver-Age super-hero, but in many ways, it's no such thing. Because the terror of the alien and the other is powerfully real in Lee and Ditko's "Dr Strange", and the sorcerer's acceptance of death, if not defeat, in these tales is so very explicit. This Strange is no one-dimensional superhero from the Fifties, facing up to overwhelming odds in such a way as to wink to the audience that everything will eventually be alright, but a character with the bravery and fatalism of a warrior combined with the good judgement and optimism of the very best of pragmatic philosophers.
And the worlds that he travels to, and the battles he fights, are disconcertingly unfamiliar and threatening. It really is possible to believe that Strange might not escape from the traps he finds himself caught in, that he might not defeat the alien tyrants and earthbound magicians he challenges.
The Stephen Strange of this period stands in marked and often quietly shocking opposition to the culture of the modern West in the mid-Sixties. That much of this opposition to the-way-things-are is framed in terms of decades-old cliches about Tibetan wisdom and Eastern mysticism is, it must be admitted, rather embarrassing in places, but overall, it's a joy to find a character who has no truck with the anti-social, self-serving delusions of the modern world at all. Though he's no Luddite, being perfectly happy to fly across oceans in gleaming jets and to express a contempt for the narrow-mindedness of the contemporary world to TV cameras and their audiences, he serves as a complete rejection of everything that a privileged member of the American upper middle class was expected to be in the mid-Sixties. Career, marriage, status, wealth, caste; Strange has rejected it all, defined it as corrupting and unworthy and replaced all that came with Mad-Men-era capitalism with self-discipline and ethics lifted wholesale from an entirely unAmerican, and essentially medieval and Asian, source.
Strange's ability to exist in the modern world without being of it, just as he is home in a huge number of quite alien dimensions too, is a fascinating element of the Lee/Ditko character. Just by existing, he stood as both a complete contrast to and a challenge to Marvel's other's heroes. Only Thor of the first wave of Marvel's book-headlining characters could understand anything of the world-view and personal experience which defined Strange's existence. It's a position of being separate and different which has been gradually, and regrettably, diminished ever since.
But the existence of such a man of a radical counter-culture in the Marvel Universe today would add greatly to the appeal of Dr Strange from where I'm sitting. Not to lecture others on the way they should be, but to just stand outside their everyday assumptions, and, of course, ours too.
One of the oddest aspects of superhero comics over the past 50 years has been the disappearance of the mentor figure as a valued source of support, wisdom and guidance. Characters such as The Chief from the Doom Patrol and Professor X from the X-Men have, as the years have passed, become more and more periphalised, often to be replaced by takes on the same characters which emphasise at best poor judgement where a fine example was once a given. And so the Chief has become a monster, and Professor X a moral imbecile. It's as if a modern audience, or modern creators, simply can't countenance the idea of an older authority figure who carries more authority than the superhero at hand. As a result of this, the superhero comics has become more and more home to that most awkward of narratives, namely that concerned with the hero's journey which often lacks the presence for the hero of any significant and seasoned source of ethical and practical guidance at all.
But Stephen Strange owes everything in these stories to the Ancient One, who has saved him from dissolution and guided him to enlightenment. And there's never a moment when Strange's faith in his mentor wavers, which grounds the character in a constant display of respect for an elderly man which it is hard to find a parallel for today. In Strange's very first appearance, he declares to the Ancient One that "I shall heed your words, respected master! I shall try to prove worthy of your trust in me!". (ST 110:3:3) Even given that such service exists in the context of a literary tradition of Western adventurers giving service to wise Oriental masters, I still find it both amazing and pleasing that Lee and Ditko should have been so content to present an apparently-WASP superhero giving such unconditional allegiance to an elderly non-White foreigner.
And the stories constantly show the Ancient One repeatedly revealing himself to be a tough, brave, wise and able fighter, despite the physical frailty that his long life has inevitably created in him. It's such a relief to see old age represented as a positive thing in these tales, and to read of an elderly man being portrayed as perceptive, learned and strong. In their own modest fashion, and for all that the Ancient One is a familiar figure made culturally unchallenging from decades of adventure stories, the first few years of Dr Strange are progressive tales dealing with taboos which even today aren't always as engaged with as we might wish.
But then, the good Doctor himself is surely not even a thirty-something hero. A handsome, well-preserved man in his mid-forties, perhaps, with his hair turning white and his forehead often creased with his years and his never-ending concerns, but, refreshingly, there's nothing that's youthful about him, and nothing of the be-muscled superhero either.
It's also touching to note how Stephen Strange begins at the close of the Lee/Ditko era to develop as a rather sweetly and courtly romantic figure as he makes the acquaintance of the other-dimensional and noble Clea. Unlike Marvel's other superhero romances of the time, where even the supposedly adult Reed Richards and Sue Storm could often appear to be no more mature than first year under-graduates, Strange and Clea's barely-developed relationship seemed both far more mature and far more formal, no doubt because they'd never enjoyed the mass of panel-time that would allow them to settle in to a standard issue Marvel mid-Sixties love affair. But then, barely begun romances can often seem to be the sweetest of all.
In retrospect, it certainly does seem a matter of regret that Clea should have ended up in a subservient relationship to Strange, serving in the ethically dubious dual role of disciple and lover. Yet in the Lee/Ditko tales, the two of them express themselves in terms of tradition and duty, and there's a sense of a common chivalry as they display a mutual willingness to sacrifice for each other. It would have been fascinating to see how a love affair between two such highly-able and powerful individuals would
have progressed, especially as it might be presumed that a relationship being developed across not just cultures, but quite seperate realities, would tend to progress along highly formal lines. Here was a chance for Marvel to present a woman as being as independent and admirable as the Ancient One had been represented as, but it wasn't, despite what were obviously the best of intentions, to be.
Yet there's a trace of lost possibilities present in the words Denny O'Neil lends Strange to reflect upon his feelings for this other-wordly woman. For he has Strange express himself in such delicate and restrained tones that this reader at least might wish for one superhero who might conduct his affairs of the heart in a more poetic and traditionally dignified fashion. After all, when Strange is shown telling himself that he needs to recover from his recent experiences through rest and the savouring of "..... the sweet rapture of the name, Clea", there's a sense that the reader's are about to enjoy a romance which unfolds far closer to the ideals of the Nineteenth century rather than those of the more-enlightened Twentieth.
So much of Strange's use of magic over the tales of these three years is marked by his own endearing calmness, if not even, at times, insouciance. Magic to Strange, we're led to believe, is no big deal at all. It's simply a tool that allows him to ensure that he can live up to his responsibilities, and it seems that Strange would no more be proud of what he can achieve with magic for itself than he might expect compliments for his fashionably avant-garde cloak and amulet. And that sense of magic as a means to an end rather than a weapon or a standard-issue super-power is regularly furthered by the fact that Mr Ditko and Mr Lee often show Strange in action in the context of the everyday life of the citizens of the Marvel Universe. Evil spirits are battled on commercial airliners, teleportation occurs as Strange strides down a crowded New York street, and Mordo is fought over a tableau of world-famous landmarks. Perhaps most memorably, Strange's astral form hides his own magically-crippled body inside a typically-Ditko-esque water-tower. Magic is made to seem more spectacular by counter-pointing it against the mundane, and yet at the same time magic is shown to be impressive more for what it can achieve for others than for how spectacularly heroic it can make Stephen Strange appear. And, of course, the consequences of Strange on occasion using his magical skills in such everyday circumstances makes the threats he faces seem all the more serious, because we can see the world and the people he's fighting for, the stakes that he's risking his life for.
Similarly, the wonderful extra-dimensional settings that Steve Ditko created are far more grounded and recognisably of the real-world than might at first sight be obvious. For no matter how absurd the environments are that Mr Ditko draws and inks, they are always constructed from elements of the reader's ordinary lives, albeit shown floating free from their typical contexts while always being recognisable as familiar forms. These mystic dimensions are exotic and enthralling not because they're entirely alien so much as because they're our world separated from commonsense and presented as a deadly challenge to our hero rather than a recognisably banal backdrop. It's still the everyday, the mundane, that makes Strange's experiences as a dimension-hopping sorceror so impressive, for we can always immediately recognise where we are and what's occurring. Even the gatherings of the great and good of other dimensions are staged as if Mr Ditko were portraying a performance of one of Shakespeare's history plays in a small theatre on a tiny stage. Characters are packed together as if they were players and spear carriers, recognisable as Kings and Queens and courtiers, no matter how oddly they might be attired and how strange and yet familiar the world they're positioned against can be seen to be.
In truth, it quickly becomes obvious when reading these Lee/Ditko tales that Dr Strange's "super-power" isn't really "magic" at all. Despite what decades of later creators have often represented, Strange isn't really distinguished by the ability to fly through the air and fire off colourful mystical bolts at his enemies. Rather, his abilities are grounded in his knowledge of magic, in his wisdom of how best to use it, and in his inventiveness and calmness in the most extreme and unfamiliar of dangers. Time after time, conflicts are closed not through the application of raw power, but through swift thinking and astounding resourcefulness. Dormammu is
defeated in hand-to-hand combat, for example, because Strange commands fighting techniques that the all-powerful alien despot does not. The sorceress Shazzana - ! - is defeated when Strange deduces which artifact grants her her power, the comatose Ancient One's defences are finally mentally breached by Strange proving himself to be his aged mentor's trustworthy disciple. Time and time again, Dr Strange wins his battles through quick-thinking, mental hardiness and moral decency rather than by a simple process of unleashing an overwhelming force of magical shock and awe.
And even the variety of magic in these stories is broader than we might normally expect. There are spells to deceive opponents by creating images of multiple Dr Stranges, and alien minds worn down by sheer will-power. The martial arts are used in open combat against alien tyrants and evil spirits are lured through bravery and trickery into the incredible and destructive heat of the sun's core. It's a process that gives the lie to the argument that Strange's powers are somehow less precisely defined than those of other super-heroes, and that his possession of such magical abilities means that he can never be convincingly placed in jeopardy. Lee and Ditko knew better, because they grasped that the key to Strange's achievements wasn't to be found in his magic so much as his intellect. Place Strange into a situation where he'd be desperately challenged to improvise an strategy against overwhelming odds, and make any such improvisation an exhausting and desperately difficult business, and there can be no complaints about dei ex machina and a lack of suspense. The key to the original Stephen Strange's appeal, it might be argued, is perhaps not in how he's shown using his magiks, as interesting as that can be, so much as in the cleverness of his responses to the overwhelming forces he's shown being threatened by, especially in the later issues of the Lee/Ditko run.
Indeed, so convincing is Strange's intelligence and nimble-mindedness that it often compells the reader to accept the validity of events which otherwise might prove alienatingly esoteric and even pompous. Yet, if, for example, Strange believes that calling on great cosmic powers, including even Dormammu himself, to lend him the magical strength he requires is a feasible policy, then we believe it too. The matter of what the likes of the Vishanti and Hoggoth might require of Strange in return is forgotten, because Strange's version of events is obviously trustworthy, and he's never here shown paying a price for the might he borrows. And given how convincing Dr Strange's struggles are, and how obviously able a character he is, the reader willingly collaborates with what's on the printed page to make sense of what's going on. Perhaps, it might be argued, Strange calls upon the great magical powers for help only when facing their particular enemies, just as a small nation playing a game of diplomacy sets one predatory neighbour against another in order to maintain its own independence.
After all, this Stephen Strange is incredibly smart and able, fighting against impossible odds and securing the continuation of the everyday each and every time. We can believe anything of his improbable magical existence if we're convinced of Dr Strange's character and capacities, and, surely, where the stories of the Lee/Ditko years are concerned, we are convinced, and so we do believe.
Ah, I know this wasn't the Avengers piece that was promised, just as I know no-one is in the slightest bit concerned that we've been discussing Dr Strange instead. Still, the above unexpectedly presented itself as essential business was being undertaken, and I thought a gentle chat about a classic Ditko/Lee comic book too kind a modest gift from the unconscious to put aside. We'll be Assembling next time out, and until then, I do wish you a splendid time, and an appropriately helpful sticking together too.