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.


1.

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.


2.

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.


3.

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.


4.

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.


5.

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.


6.

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.


7.

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.


8.

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.


9.

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.

.

34 comments:

  1. Very nice, sir. I agree whole-heartedly. All of your points are also, unfortunately, likely why Dr. Strange is so regularly ill-served in his guest appearances recently...as the Only Competent Man in the MU, he would take over a given story quite quickly if he wasn't hamstrung in some way.

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  2. Hello Josh:- thank you for the kind words. It's good to hear from you. I hope all is well. And of course you're right that the Strange of this period would create endless problems to a modern-era writer trying to incorporate such an character into the modern MU. Horses for courses, of course. Still, perhaps somewhere we'll see this Strange again. After all, the Silver Age Superman, to a greater degree, reappeared in All-Star Superman and that went well enough.

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  3. Hi Colin! That's a lovely appreciation of the Lee/Ditko Doctor Strange, surely one of the most underrated characters of the Marvel Silver Age.

    On the subject of Stephen Strange being a fully-formed man with no "hero's journey" ahead of him, Steve Engelhart's later take on the character did portray a "rising and advancing of the spirit", to borrow a phrase from Engelhart's Master Of Kung Fu. Strange was forced, in the "Silver Dagger" and "Eternity" storylines, to confront his own mortality and that of his friends - and the world! And in Engelhart's unfinished "Occult History Of America" story, Strange had to deal with Clea's Satan-induced infidelity - with Benjamin Franklin, no less! Doc acquired a kind of mystical serenity, similar to Captain Marvel's "cosmic awareness", after his brush with Death, but I'm not sure what he learnt from the other story. Don't trust historical figures?

    Anyway, that's enough of my ramblings. I'm off to dig out some old Strange Tales.....

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  4. Hello Mr C:- thank you for reminding me of the Engelhart/Brunner/Colan run, one of my favourite of all the takes on the character. In fact, I once met Mr Brunner at a con in the late Seventies, I believe, and had him autograph issues 4 and 5 of the series. He told me that he'd love to have a crack at a Dr Fate series and I remember thinking how that was a very fine thing indeed.

    You're absolutely right to point out how Mr Engelhart and Mr Brunner in particular worked together to create a heroes journey for Strange. In retrospect, I love the story but overall I prefer the original take. Yet I wouldn't be without the Silver Dagger finale, and, in particular, the crossover with Tomb Of Dracula, where the Judaic-Christian God gives Strange the power to boil Dracula to death in Heavenly sunlight.

    That Benjamin Franklin plot was, I assume, a way of dealing with the fact that Clea had been in many ways infantalised, shacking up with her mystical master, a disturbing business which reads alot worse now than it did at the time. Given that Stephen Strange couldn't grasp the immorality of being both teacher and lover, I think I'm rather on Clea and Franklin's side. Some awakenings you can't get through magical training or even dying when you're a superhero, I guess.

    And thank you for your kind words too.

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  5. I don't have a big background in sci-fi & fantasy literature or art, so I have to ask: did Ditko invent the look to those otherworldly realms of floating rocks, winding ways, and random flora? Does anyone know if they have a recognizable antecedent? Because they're brilliant, and I love the idea of seeing where an idea or motif began.

    If only Ditko hadn't been dissuaded with Marvel or so into Objectivism that his later work became either devoted to the philosophy or by-the-numbers. His Dr. Strange & Spider-Man comics are among my favorites, despite their being made over a decade before I was born.

    (If only Englehart & Colan had been able to finish their last Dr. Strange story, too. As much as I love the Ditko version, and agree it can't be beat, Englehart/ Brunner/ Colan & Stern/ Rogers/ Smith/ Mignola did a hell of a job with the good doctor.)

    Considering how ill-used the character has been, especially in Avengers (it's like Bendis thought it would be cool to have the character on the team but then had little idea what to do with him), it's always nice to be reminded how wonderful his original appearances were. I await the next exciting installment of the Avengers (analysis) eagerly.

    - Mike Loughlin

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  6. Hello Mike:- I will find my copy of Blake Bell's Steve Ditko's book and post in these comments what I can discover there about the specific antecedents of Mr Ditko's otherworlds.

    And you're SO right. Isn't his work just brilliant? I've never loved and admired it as I do today having just finished the piece. It's one of the great privilages of having a blog, to possess a focus that inspires close attention to well-worn texts. Because I find I admire, in this case, Mr Ditko's work even more than I ever did before. And, I should say, I feel the same about Stan Lee's work & the character as a whole. I've always loved and admired the comic, but it's as if the penny has well and truly dropped.

    I think it's a mark of how fine Mr Ditko's work of the period is that you can admire it as you do despite it coming from the two generations of creators at least before those you'd've been first exposed to. When I was a nipper, some ten years older than you, I believe, I just couldn't get the measure of Ditko, though his 1964/5 work in particular was always attractive to me. Too odd and individual, I suppose. But I was wrong.

    I'm interested in your take on how Mr Bendis has used Dr Strange. I've not read much of those stories so I'll reserve judgement until I have. I will say that a provisional judgement of what I have seen isn't anywhere near as positive as I'd like it to be.

    You are, of course, quite right to credit later creators with their own outsstanding takes on the good Doctor. The Stern/Rogers/Austin run was deeply loved in thse quarters, as was the later Stern/Smith issues. I also enjoyed Mr Mignola and P Craig Russell's versions of the character. Indeed, now I come to think of it, John Byrne's back-to-1963 version of Strange in his early FF run touched me too.

    Thank you for your kind words on the Avengers pieces. That's very much appreciated!

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  7. This:

    "that sense of magic as a means to an end rather than a weapon or a standard-issue super-power"

    and your other thoughts on magic, chime with my concerns about its misuse in modern comics, it seems to be a poorly defined hand-waving to do whatever the writer wants. This leads to modern magic users having very poorly defined skill sets - I've just finished the first Secret Warriors collection and I am still none the wiser as to what the powers are of this new Druid (son of proto-Strange doctor Druid who was dicked around with so much there was little left to do but let Warren Ellis have his evil way with him), he just launches into a big punch-up with glowing pentagrams on his fist, presumably for some mystical knuckle sandwich action (then again by the time Noh-Varr had left the Dark Avengers a reader new to the character would have no idea of what he could do other than shoot things, a bit of a waste given his mind-boggling abilities).

    It was Warren Ellis who described magic as the cheat codes for the Universe, which is a good way of thinking about it. If you can find the keys to the Cosmos and discover the right ways to use them then you can defeat your foe. Strange's Heroe's Journey may be over but each challenge requires a quest and this is one achieved by careful research and the correct use at the right time.

    It is why I genuinely think they could have an Annihilation reboot of the magic system in Marvel (and Mystic Arcana wasn't it despite the billing) to introduce a system where there was a cost to using magic - whether that is time and effort seeking a solution or some kind of sacrifice. The Marvel horror characters, and the Midnight Son, have had the dust blown off them with Marvel Zombies, so this would give them a chance to expand out of that corner they are stuck in too. Then again, typing this I have the horrible feeling you've already been on the receiving end of this rant before (although the deja vu might be coming from my covering similar ground elsewhere).

    What you say about Reed Richards and Tony Stark is also interesting - something similar struck me while watching the Iron Man film on TV the other day: Stark is a child prodigy an is seen getting his hands dirty with some engineering and later keeping them very clean with some fancy holographic CAD but he never does actual science (establishing hypotheses, testing them and repeating) or crunching any kind of numbers. They are both engineering savants, which is interesting but it might demonstrate a different mindset to a true man of science (I had a tutor who reckoned engineers were prone to becoming Creationists as they are given the physical laws and science they need, accept it and move on to start building, whereas a scientist has to question everything. My abortive engineering studies, followed by a more successful time at the scientific cliff-face do not introduce a bias into this at all, oh no ;) ). Ironically Strange comes closer than either. Reed and Stark's ability to wave their hands around and make amazing things spring to life is much closer to magic than Strange's years of careful study and analysis (even if we accept Clarke's third on science and magic or my corollary: any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology ;) ).

    Aaaaaaaaaand back in the room.

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  8. This came through when I was typing (I think, or I missed it in my eagerness to comment):

    "it's like Bendis thought it would be cool to have the character on the team but then had little idea what to do with him"

    As mentioned in my previous comment this is exactly the impression I got for Druid but especially most of the Dark Avengers (Noh-Varr, Daken, Ares and Venom). Some of them clearly got the role because they have been brought to prominence elsewhere (Noh-Varr in Morrison's Marvel Boy and Ares in Incredible Hercules) but they are poorly used, but this might be because they are squeezed out with all the page time given over to Osbourne, as well as The Sentry (and to some extent Moonstone) but there is really little point in having them there other than as superpowered wallpaper or to flesh out a fight scene, OK possibly to justify the name of the title. The core of Dark Avengers is Osbourne and his interplay with The Sentry which is interesting enough to warrant the book, it just makes everyone else rather redundant, a pity as I largely followed it over from Thunderbolts which consistently shows how you can highlight a disfunctional teams group dynamics in the action scenes, as well as the more talky parts.

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  9. Man, these scans of full-color Ditko art are simply gorgeous! Thank you for scanning them in large, so I could click and revel in them.

    I heartily endorse your take on the good doctor. Some observations:

    The decline of the Mentor figure in comics: sad but true, and the rare exceptions--such as Jack Knight's troubled relationship with his father, the first Starman, and his admiration for an aging Wesley Dodds in Robinson's Starman series--make the general absence of such figures even more keenly felt. At the end of DC's first Crisis series, when the JSA and the JLA were retroactively placed on the same Earth, I expected the former to play such a role to the latter--and was surprised when it didn't happen: the JSA were immediately sent off to fight Ragnarok or some such thing, as if DC was somehow ashamed of the oldsters (Although Jay Garrick's wife Joan offered wisdom to then-new Flash Wally West in this period). And since then, the JSA has been kept too young (physically) and active to assume the aging-advisor role that we're talking about. The JSA, Marvel's Agents of Atlas and Invaders...these characters are apparently too valuable to allow to age: they're all still in the game, chronologically pushing the century mark, but physically apparently in their late 30s or 40s. I understand it, but I'd like to see a wider-scale application of what DC did with Sandman in the 90s: they gave us further adventures set back in his prime in Sandman Mystery Theater while showing him as an aging mentor-figure in Starman and elsewhere.

    - Smart heroes: they seem to be hard for comics writers to write. Clever heroes they can handle, likewise brlliant scientists like Reed Richards and Tony Stark. But Dr. Strange's kind of knowledge-based problem-solving, not so much. Where is the superheroic version of Nero Wolfe? Why, with all of the many other ways he could be portrayed, is Brainiac Five consistently shown to be an merely an inventor and a smug jerk? Really, he's no more likely to be smug about his intelligence than any other hero would be with their own power.

    - The abrupt derailment of the Occult History of America storyline--near the US Bicentennial hoopla, no less!--was a travesty that sent me away from the good doctor's adventures for over a decade.

    So much more to say, but I've got the evening rush hour to face. I'd love to see a flashback series with the 40ish Dr. Strange as the experienced elder interacting with other heroes at the dawn of the Marvel Age, and in turn learning from The Ancient One.

    - My enjoyment of heroes in their middle years seems to coincide with my being in those years myself!

    Happy New Year, Colin. I have less time to post these days, but I am, as ever, an avid reader.

    -Mikesensei

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  10. Hello Emperor:- I'm all for comics starring "mystical knuckle sandwich action", myself, BUT THEY SHOULD BE CLEARLY IDENTIFIED AS SUCH. I want a superhero who regularly offers to deliver such a sandwich and I want them now!

    But back in the (un)real world of comic books, there are indeed the strange matters of undefined and unexploited super-powers in comic books which you'd expect would take a touch more interest in such things. It's something I rattled on earlier in the recent pieces on the Avengers, so I won't bend your ears backwards here, though I could. One of the joys of the paternalistic approach is that in feeling obliged to explain and illustrate the matter of super-heroes, creators often came up with inventive ways of making their points. (At other times, we just saw bullets bouncing off Superman's chest, mind you, though I find that charming and would like to see more of it. Bullets are, after all, terrifying things out here in the real world.)

    I do understand your feelings about codifying the nature and use of magic. We've discussed it before, though in a different context to here, meaning you're not repeating yourself at all, I assure you. After re-reading these Lee/Ditko masterpieces - I believe that word is appropriate - I'm not sure any such reworking is necessary. (That doesn't mean that it couldn't be both fun and useful to do so, of course.) But I'm convinced that the solution to the problem of magic lies in presenting protagonists faced with impossible problems and then having them reason, no matter how absurdly, a way out of them. Magic, it seems to me, is an extension of will, though I'm not going all Crowley here, and so might work just as super-mental powers do on the page. What's interesting is how reason and training and personality comes into play, I think.

    Gosh! I'm glad that piece about Strange's academic nature and the comparison with the MU's "scientific" genii appealled, because it was one of those unexpected thoughts that re-reading those stories generated and I felt lucky to have stumbled onto the point. To have an Emperor who can express more clearly what I was trying to say about the scientific method is MUCH appreciated.

    Your analysis on DA was such an interesting one, and based on what I've read of the title, an accurate one too. Ironically, I was far more interested in characters other than the ubiquitious Osbourne and the sadly misconceived Sentry, of whom I've written before and must restrain myself from writing about again. Yet DA was a title designed to exist in the context of the Osbourne era, so I can understand, as you obviously do, why it had the focus it did. Perhaps a more paternalistic approach might have given the reader the illusion that the supporting cast were being lent more panel-time than they actually were?

    Thanks for the comments, Emperor. I do hope you're well.

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  11. Hello Mikesensei! It's splendid to hear from you again, and I do hope you're well and that the world is treating you as kindly as you might for. Thank you for popping over, for it's much appreciated.

    I have recently, as I believe I said above, begun to adore Mr Ditko's work to a degree that I never expected to. As a middle aged man, if not an adult, I've always respected and enjoyed his work, but now I find myself entranced by his art and plotting, particularly of the period of '62 to early 66. I'm glad you enjoyed the scans.

    We certainly think along similar lines re: the decline of the mentor figure. The JSA has often seemed to be the only book, as you rightly mention, where a measure of mentoring remains, though there are other exceptions that come to mind, such as Mark Waid's family of super-speedsters. Yet there does seem to be a fear or even a distaste for giving superheroes role models and authority figures, unless, of course, they can be killed off and used as a source of angst and an excuse for a spot of revenge killing. I think it's a misreading of the appeal of fiction to assume that superhero fans want power not just without responsibility, but without the odd good example being set too. But then, like you, as I add each year under my belt, I find myself looking more for characters who know something of the ageing process themselves. You're right to point out that Starman was a title which presented such mentors well.

    Smart heroes ARE a problem, aren't they? I wonder why. Short of indulging in ill-informed and unsubstantiated cod-psychology, it's hard to grasp why so many writers find clever folks hard to write. I would mention Matt Fraction's writing on Iron Man as an example of a creator doing a good job re: this matter. Whatever quibbles I might have, and there's hardly a book I wouldn't quibble with, Mr F has done a good, indeed a fine, job of engaging with Stark's intellectual abilities rather than ignoring them as some others have done.

    Happy new year to you and yours, Mr M! I hope the evening rush hour wasn't too odious a business. It was a pleasure to hear from you.

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  12. This is a great piece. Now if only we could get someone at Marvel who actually knows the first thing about Doctor Strange to write his stories. Because Bendis clearly has no concept of who the character is or his history.

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  13. Hello Percival:- thank you for the kind words.

    Reading your comment and those above have made me determined to sit down as best I can with the resources of my cheap sub to Marvel Digital and whatever the local library has to offer and really take a serious look at how BMB has written Dr Strange over time. As I think I intimated in the piece, I'm fascinated by the matter of how various writers have tried to make the good Doctor a going concern in the MU as the years have passed, Strange being to Marvel what Aquaman is to the DCU, the character most folks know of and quite enjoy, but whose books, with a few notable exceptions, never really sell over time.

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  14. "I'm all for comics starring 'mystical knuckle sandwich action', myself, BUT THEY SHOULD BE CLEARLY IDENTIFIED AS SUCH. I want a superhero who regularly offers to deliver such a sandwich and I want them now!"

    I want it yesterday!! At the moment I assume he is punching people with his pentagram fists but it isn't clear what he is up to, he might be touching them and turning their brains into chocolate buttons (which I'd also like to see). I suppose Ellis' Gravel, who is a combat magician, might fight the bill but isn't quite what I would be looking for to fulfil that fancy description. I quite like the idea of some with fighting magic, a little this side of Dragonball (although a fan of mystical kung-fu perhaps go for something less obvious, like a Russian: the Occult, Face-Busting Reindeer-Fighter), the opposite of Dr Strange in that he is all impulse and action. It'd really force Strange onto the backfoot as he has to use his slower techniques to find and implement a solution, a teeth-rattling tortoise and the hare situation.

    "What's interesting is how reason and training and personality comes into play, I think."

    Indeed, whether it is research or two-fisted mayhem it is all about discipline, focus and control - finding the ways to impose your will on reality.

    "Magic, it seems to me, is an extension of will, though I'm not going all Crowley here, and so might work just as super-mental powers do on the page."

    Yep, but I'm already working on a Quantum Theory of Magic, so I thought I'd try something different here ;)

    "Ironically, I was far more interested in characters other than the ubiquitious Osbourne and the sadly misconceived Sentry"

    Me too. Fortunately your analysis of Bendis' writing and Ellis' fine work on the Osbourne in Thunderbolts (which pretty much inspired the use of the character in Dark Reign) so there was plenty to get out of the story, just not what I was looking for going in and there are some problematic aspects to the writing and story when it isn't just people sitting around and talking.

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  15. Hello Emperor:- I love the way that the good folks who comment on this blog constantly keep me aware that I know nothing about this medium and genre that I try to make sense of. Gravel is a book I've had recommended to me by several good folks, and I know I must go seek it out, and as for Dragonball, which I assume to be rather unlike a book by Mr Ellis, exists completely off my radar. And yet the way you brightly and playfully draw on both shows how these humble and yet wonderful superheroes can be informed by cultural influences from all over the map. (Oh, I'd buy Occult Face-Busting Reindeer-Fighter, unless there actually is such a character, in which I will be checking THAT book.cartoon out.) And using this post-modern stew does bring with it the counter-point to Strange's reliance/virtue of needing time and concentration to solve his problems that you suggest. A very interesting thought.

    For a man of the scientific method to be pursuing his quantum theory of magic brings with it the hope for all of us of untold wealth, security and calorie-light eclairs whenever we want. Go, Emperor, go!

    On BMB and Dark Avengers; I do find your attitude to the book interesting and heartening. Reading it, I realised that my approach to comics is different to how it was when I started this blog, in part at least. When I pick up a book now, I'm keen to enjoy myself, of course, but I also want to know what I can learn of the craft involved. And that immediately means that I start from a position of respect for the creators, and boy does that cut down on the waste of life that is fanboy angst.

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  16. "Gravel is a book I've had recommended to me by several good folks, and I know I must go seek it out"

    Definitely. It is basically "what if John Constantine joined the SAS?" which allows Ennis to layer on research-rich tales of a tough cynical guy beating the crap out of all sorts of supernatural nasties. The "Never a Dull Day" books isn't cheap but it is quite good value, especially considering the originals were in B&W and I believe the stories have been coloured for this collection. Might be an idea to start with the trades of the ongoing series because you can jump in there and see if you like it.

    "as for Dragonball, which I assume to be rather unlike a book by Mr Ellis, exists completely off my radar."

    I must admit I am largely drawing off the cartoons, vast manga series are a little intimidating unless I'm really enthusiastic (like with Lone Wolf and Cub or Blade of the Immortal), although I admit I should try more.

    "Oh, I'd buy Occult Face-Busting Reindeer-Fighter, unless there actually is such a character, in which I will be checking THAT book.cartoon out."

    There is, surprisingly, a gap in the market for animistic, reindeer-herding* mystical martial artist out of his mind on hallucinogenic urine. Odd that. You'd imagine someone who was already tough from castrating stags with their teeth in some of the coldest conditions on earth, before taking the road of the warrior-shaman to fight the terrors that whistle down from the frigid north might make a suitable opponent for someone who turned his back on his effete, dissolute ways to follow the page of the sorceror-sage.

    to be continued...

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  17. part 2:

    "When I pick up a book now, I'm keen to enjoy myself, of course, but I also want to know what I can learn of the craft involved."

    Me too really. I do sometimes wonder if a good slice of my enjoyment of Ellis is from him wearing his research on his sleeve, so you can spot them easily, as some of his tropes can get a bit samey but the actual comics themselves are always interesting on a number of different levels. I might not be as... passionate about Ellis work as I am over Moore and Morrison but I do try and read most of his output if I can and I am rarely disappointed (except that he seems to get bored easily so he throws out these story nuggets and moves on when I am still up for further adventures).

    I do wonder if some of the fan's hate for Bendis comes from some kind of... existential disjunction** (well hark at me with my big words)? If you are a lifelong fan of the Avengers and you tune in for more action-packed adventures and you find a lot of people sitting around talking for a good slice of the time then the shortfall between expectation and reality could lead to some kind of angst*** that, in some, can only be relieved by being rude to random strangers who happen to touch on one's bugbear. Approaching the work on a number of different levels does mean you can get something out of it even if the story or, just the approach to story-telling, isn't what you were expecting. So I picked up Dark Avengers because I'd been following the Thunderbolts team under Ellis and some of them became the core of the DA with the addition of other characters I was interested in, like Noh-Varr (who has a tonne of potential that hadn't yet been exploited since Morrison's reboot). It wasn't what I was expecting but it was an intriguing tale that I enjoyed, although I am lucky Osbourne is so well known and I'd read both Sentry trades, because otherwise I might have been all at sea. So, although I might not have jumped in if I'd had different (more accurate) expectations, I am looking forward to dipping into the next volume when it turns up, which has to be some measure of success, in that he won round someone who wasn't a rabid fan and who was expecting a different story ;) It helped that a knowledgeable guide to help show me the way, even if it was just largely coincidence ;)

    * Not really Reindeer Fighting, it isn't a fair fight. That bit of the name was a nod to "Karate Bearfighter" and "Karate Bullfighter" (based on a real story, kind of ;) ). Although thinking about it I am hardly one to raise an eyebrow at such things - I am at the front of a very short queue of people to fight a Colossal Squid if they ever find a lively one. I'm probably past my cephalopod-battling best now though - squid-fighting is a young man's game.

    ** I just Googled that to see if I hadn't accidentally used some pre-existing term that had some other meaning and found "existential distress" defined as: "distress caused by a completely unacceptable way that one finds themselves in the world." Which seems to fit. There is also existential crisis too.

    *** There you go, perhaps existential angst is what I was groping for? Although telling the raging fanmen they don't hate Bendis but might be suffering from existential angst will probably not go over well ;)

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  18. "For a man of the scientific method to be pursuing his quantum theory of magic brings with it the hope for all of us of untold wealth, security and calorie-light eclairs whenever we want. Go, Emperor, go!"

    Although it is worth noting this is purely for fictional use but you can rest assured that if this does uncover any secrets then I will be sure to use it for my own personal gain and general wrongdoing.

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  19. Did you ever have the opportunity to read BKV's The Oath? My impression at the time was that he had got what made the original Strange tick. That Stephen was a man with immense personal knowledge, but physically frail - and yet, was willing to put himself at risk constantly.

    The final fight scene is quite fun.

    I think you have nailed the reason for Strange's sidelining over the years. Where he might have originally been intented to be in possession of an esoteric perspective on earthly good & evil, the Dr Strange of modern times often seems aloof, arrogant, authoritarian.

    The default state for Marvel heroes seems to be fifteen going on twenty-something. Hence Spider-Man, Brand New Day, Claremont throwing a fit when Ellis had Kitty Pryde enter a sexual relationship with Pete Wisdom etc.

    For Strange to be a defiantly mature character, wise after gaining hard-won experience about the vicissitudes of life, well - that's simply intolerable.

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  20. Hello Emperor:- "There is, surprisingly, a gap in the market for animistic, reindeer-herding* mystical martial artist out of his mind on hallucinogenic urine." Well, you simply HAVE to solve this problem. And given that you write, and given your possession of what sounds by your admission of a suitable range of artistic skills for such a project, I'd say there's no time like the present.

    Oh, and I'd like an action figure too.

    I wonder if a list of why some folks have a problem with BMB's scripts might also include, in addition to the lack of certain familiar tropes which you quite rightly discuss, might also include the fact that his scripts often seem easy to read and yet can be quite challenging. That Ronin scene of a silent adventure in Tokyo, for example, simply CAN'T be read quickly without missing at least half the key information there. And that was another of those points which I wanted to mention to you about American developments, in that BMB is playing with the form in a way which is modest but radical. THERE'S RONIN IN A SILENT TOKYO AND NO-ONE CAN PICK UP ON THAT FIRST TIME ROUND! And then second time round, the experience is quite different and far more powerful. Now, I don't know about you, but I missed that. I'm not used to trying to make sense out of comics in that way. I'm used to a paternalistic method handing me my reading experience, to a greater or lesser degree.

    Now, I'm not saying that such techniques are present in all of BMB's scripts. I don't know, because I'm only just realising that there's more going on there than I thought. But perhaps there IS more going on there than some of us - I include myself - know how to immediately recognise?

    Just a thought.

    ps: Senator, I know existential despair, and anyone who finds it triggered by a deceptive facade of decompression masking more complex storytelling techniques needs to GET A LIFE (c: William Shatner) Yet, I find it a convincing explanation for some of our less rational brethren’s responses ...

    pps; I'm glad to hear that the issue of absolute power corrupting absolutely won't apply to your saintly powers of restraint when you uncover the secret powers of the Vishanti, quantumly-er-speaking

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  21. Hello Emmet:- I hope you’re bearing up well with the weight of that extra year you’re carrying.

    I read the first few issues of The Oath and now you’ve returned it to my attention, I‘ve been inspired to pop over to Marvel Digital and found it all collected there. Ah, well, that’s tonight’s reading sorted.

    What I do recall is that I enjoyed the fact that Strange was an adult in those first few issues. The idea of him having a relationship with NIGHT NURSE – cue cognitive dissonance – unexpectedly made him seem ever less a teenager, which was a thing well done. We need more convincing heroes with a touch of maturity under their belt, just it would be good to have a few more comic books on the market which present believable representations of teenagers too.

    I think you make a fine point that Strange’s power and knowledge can inspire less able writers to present a bloke who’s “aloof, arrogant, authoritarian”. I wonder, do many comic book creators feel comfortable with authority, and do many of them have experience of power in a wordly sense? I say this not to suggest that they’re under-cooked as people, but there’s often a feeling in many comics that the creator doesn’t know much about how power and authority actually work in the real world. A simple model of ABSOLUTE FREEDOM versus THOSE WHO’D MAKE ME TIDY MY ROOM AND PAY TAXES can prevail. And if that’s true in any way, then some folks would have real problems showing Strange sympathetically.

    ”For Strange to be a defiantly mature character, wise after gaining hard-won experience about the vicissitudes of life, well - that's simply intolerable.” as you so rightly say.

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  22. ""There is, surprisingly, a gap in the market for animistic, reindeer-herding* mystical martial artist out of his mind on hallucinogenic urine." Well, you simply HAVE to solve this problem. And given that you write, and given your possession of what sounds by your admission of a suitable range of artistic skills for such a project, I'd say there's no time like the present.

    Oh, and I'd like an action figure too."

    If I even get a quarter of a chance I will make this happen, having him riding into town on a large angry reindeer like some demented Father Christmas would be worth the price of admission alone. It would then leave the way open for the action figure, with mad reindeer accessories and mug of steaming, trippy piss.

    "Now, I'm not saying that such techniques are present in all of BMB's scripts. I don't know, because I'm only just realising that there's more going on there than I thought. But perhaps there IS more going on there than some of us - I include myself - know how to immediately recognise?"

    Indeed. I am going to have to keep an eye open for these other layers too. The danger though is that it might be too clever and you lose a good slice of the readership (who might not appreciate having it pointed out to them that they have missed a pretty major layer to the story). I have to say that it'd be a sad state of affairs to declare any comic too clever (unless someone is being clever clever or a clever clogs, of course ;) ), as the alternative would be dumbing down comics, which is not the way forward. Perhaps we readers (including ourselves) need to raise our expectations and bring our A game to this comics reading lark. It might lead to a little disappointment from time-to-time but it might also force other writers to up their ante.

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  23. Hello Emperor:

    "It would then leave the way open for the action figure, with mad reindeer accessories and mug of steaming, trippy piss."

    I need no further encouragement to promise I will buy said goods if they are fairly priced in my local supermarket.

    "The danger though is that it might be too clever and you lose a good slice of the readership (who might not appreciate having it pointed out to them that they have missed a pretty major layer to the story)."

    Yep, the creators have to make sure that the basic package is both comprehensible and interesting at first glance, so that any "layers" serve as extra value. Otherwise, yes, such techniques could well be a serious problem.

    "Perhaps we readers (including ourselves) need to raise our expectations and bring our A game to this comics reading lark."

    Does the audience for comics want to do this, Emperor? BMB's achievment is, in one sense, to have retained an experimental frame of mind at times while appealling to a broad audience. I suspect that this is the ideal where sales are concerned. I would hope, however, that a few more BMB-haters might note that the commercialism they so loathe carries with it other virtues too. Perhaps it's less that a few folks need to bring their A game and more that they ought to abandon being so willfully obtuse.

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  24. "Does the audience for comics want to do this, Emperor?"

    I do. I want people taking risks, pushing the envelope of the form, challenging readers to put a bit of work in and even subverting those expectations. It doesn't mean I need them in every comic or that some are as suitable for this as others (I think the Ronin example is a good one for how you can still tinker with the medium within a mainstream continuity-heavy comic book, but it really pushing things might not suit that style of book - I still having the feeling I need to re-read Final Crisis to tease out what is going on, it is either genius or a mess, of course it might be a genius mess, but I wonder if that amount of envelop pushing was wise in the lynchpin series of DC's year that left so many people angry and confused) or even that I'm capable of coming anywhere close myself but that doesn't mean people shouldn't try. The Ronin example opens up interesting possibilities, if you are writing a story from an alien's point-of-view why should everything be presented as if they were just another bemused traveller from afar? How would different sense or thought processes work? How could you even present such things on the page? I'm sure there is at least a Future Shock in there.

    "Perhaps it's less that a few folks need to bring their A game and more that they ought to abandon being so willfully obtuse."

    That too ;)

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  25. Hello Emperor:- well, I do too, and we're on the same page with the ideal of ambitious material that unpretentiously co-exists within a popular form.

    I'm with you that Final Crisis needs re-reading, especially since I've been told that Mark Millar's Saviour appears briefly in it! I'm afraid to look unless that's not so, because it would be too sweet given my current responsibilities were it to be so.

    I absolutely agree about the whole issue of representing POV's which are anything but standard-issue ones. Just that single BMB example raises a whole raft of possibilities, doesn't it?

    Ah, the "willfully obtuse"; I'm not so sure who they might be now, but I'm sure I'm in their number for a good period of the time. I've only just realised there's more a purely paternalistic approach to mainstream comics. (A slight over-exaggeration perhaps, but sadly, not that much of one.) It's a question of what folks want and what they'll resist that was quite haunting me as I wrote the latest piece on 2000ad for Girl Wonder; to what degree does it make sense to criticise a comic for being what it is, and who's got the right what a creator's A-game is anyway? But then, we've been there, haven't we?

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  26. Ahh, thank you for reminding me why I love Dr. Strange. I'd love to hear what you think, however, of the later storylines.

    I actually fell in love with the too-short black magician run in Strange Tales II (the one he shared with Cloak & Dagger, and sorry but I don't remember the writer).

    Anyhoo... talk about a heroic journey where his descent into black magic is both inevitable and torturous. I still remember that one image where he is reading the Ancient One's diary which states that Strange could be his "greatest failure" and he lashes out shouting "I AM NOT A BLACK MAGICIAN!" (and then enter Kaluu as his teacher!) or a bit earlier when he allows Valkyrie to claim a dying man's soul in return for help.

    My point is that given Strange's maturity and place that he's previously reached, this run was just fascinating to read because it introduced real CHANGE in his maturity (which future writers totally ignored, of course). I don't necessarily mean self-doubt; he never doubted that he needed to do what he did, but that he knowingly became a black magician to fight the evil he himself released. Lovely.

    (As an aside, that's where the Star Wars prequels went wrong... Anakin's transformation to Vader was so lame; it should have been a mature man knowingly converting to the dark side rather than the lovesick kid doing it to save his girlfriend.)

    In a similar way, his experimentation with chaos magic and whateverthehell the other thing was at the end of Dr S/Sorcerer Supreme was also interesting (though maybe not interesting enough since it ended up being a little confusing and not as well written).

    Anyway, I hope you write your thoughts on this later Strange.

    Rich

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  27. Hello Emrys:- thank you for your kind words. They are much appreciated.

    I've never read the Strange Tales II stories you've mentioned. However, they were written by Peter Gillis, a writer whose years at Marvel mostly occured when I wasn't really reading the company's books. Why would that last point be at all relevant? Well, I have heard from several folks whose opinion I have a great deal of respect for that Mr Gillis was a writer of some considerable virtue and that I ought to go back and pay attention to his work. (The novelist and 2000ad writer Al Ewing, for example, has spoken highly of Mr Gillis.) So, when I can find some affordable copies of those 19 issues, which just a few years ago could be had for peanuts, I think I will take the chance to write them up. Your enthusiasm for them is inspiring and I'm always curious to read material from folks who're so fond of a particular book and a particular era.

    I do agree with you about the Star Wars issue. I was never convinced that Anakin could become the super-Nazi that was the man in black in the original trilogy. The psychology was all over the place. Yet radical change can of course be made to work. Your description of Mr Gillis's work on turning Stephen Strange from a white to a black magician makes it seem worth seeking out just to see how well he pulled such a transformation off.

    Thank you for your comment. I suspect I'll be writing about the Stephen Strange of the first 4 years of the Defenders in the relatively near future. He's one of those characters I've always had a great deal of fondness for.

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  28. On the strength of the feel conveyed by the two dozen or so scans, I am following this blog now. I can't wait to come back and read this whole article, and more. I was making a case for the sake of fun how visually interesting his "powers" are, though they are based more upon understandings, aren't they?

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  29. Hello cease ill: thank you for your generous words, they are much appreciated.

    I am always amazed when returning to the Lee/Ditko era to note how incredibly interesting, as you say, his powers are visually. Yes, in order to enjoy how they're presented, the reader has to also buy into the whole idea of Strange as the thinking person's sort-of superhero. Much of what Strange does lacks the immediate appeal of Spider-Man racing across walls or the Torch lighting up, but as soon as the basic of Strange's mission is bought into, what we see becomes quite fascinating.

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  30. Well said. The Doctor is not a man possessed of physical powers: but rather, understandings, alliances, and natural enemies.

    I'd love to finish those Gillis stories; I remember Stephen's dark turn as very exciting, and Gillis was, after all, the writer for Shade, the Changing Man (another, more radically-changed Ditko character). Gillis added exciting adversarial roles to go with the pure conceptual exploration that suits Strange like few others.

    For my money, Englehart's plots, working with Brunner and Colan, were definitive Doctor Strange, full of occult concerns and deliciously imaginative quandaries (who else dies to win?).
    But the single most likable interpretation is Steve Gerber's Defenders run. Stephen had a warmth, compassion and wit in dealing with his oddball fellows, and later wrestled with a most subtle threat via the fine-tuning added by the Headmen. The raw emotionalism categorizing the non-team also provided him a contrasting maturity, in one of the genuine peaks for the character at Marvel.

    I've dived into those stories with relish over on integr8dfix.blogspot.com, btw. It's a delight to find thoughtful, articulate individuals willing and able to share their insights into such timeless creations.

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  31. That, is the most beautiful, compelling, and distinguished discussion of Doctor Strange (I'm tempted to say, any comics character, if you'll pardon the happy hyperbole!) that I've ever read. It beckons one to establish characters worlds away from mediocrity, by contrasting Strange with the short-hand "pop"-flavored analysis so often pirated by lazy journalists and high lighting his strengths, even observing the weaknesses, to frankly lay out the conditions under which a piece parallel to the stunning richness of All Star Superman might be created for the Master of the Mystic Arts.

    While some of these observations came to me as well upon my true discovery of Dr. Strange three or four years before, the intense articulation, in a context of some modestly presented literary erudition, has forged a portrait so essential, I could not step apart as yet to consider critically its structure, which layers cogent observation in a style in keeping with strong traditional essay writing.

    I particularly value these details: 1) the good of a mentor figure 2) an expression of the mis-step in subordinating Clea and the difficult paradox of his disciple as his lover (but especially extra-dimensional princess Clea)
    3)the ethics of a fictional character that today faintly echoes the true life Fukushima 50

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  32. Hello Cease Ill:- I was reading your much-appreciated comment and thinking how the original Dr Strange was a character who I'd have loved to have seen approached by creators outside of the superhero mainstream. A Herge Dr Strange, for example, or an Arbuli/Bernet version. He's such a solid character with so much of his world well-defined that I can't help but feel anyone of competence could be trusted to run with him.

    That's not mean to insult all those from within the US mainstream who've created stories with the character. I know from your blog, for example, that we'd both put our hands up to having enjoyed a great deal of Strange's time with the Defenders.

    And given how fondly remembered those Peter Gillis stories are - which I didn't grasp until recently - let's cross our fingers for a TPB of them.

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  33. Let's!
    Glad I came back to spend my down time with your wonderful writing. I think it's well-hidden enough here for me to say: I sent your Scorpio essays to DAK himself. I wonder what he'll say? Every writer hopes to be appreciated so richly.

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  34. Hello Cease Ill:- thank you for your generous words. I do hope Mr Kraft won't mind the manner in which I've attempted to pay my respect.

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