Tuesday, 8 January 2013

On The Paradoxical Behaviour Of Steve Ditko & Stan Lee's Doctor Strange

    
This week's look at Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's Doctor Strange over at Sequart - find it here - considers some of the most beguiling paradoxes of the two creator's run on the strip. Why was Strange so keen to suppress the truth of magic's existence while allowing himself to be cast as a celebrity sorcerer? Why was he set on ensuring that the masses and the media's gatekeepers alike were cynical about the possibility of magic while at the same time being so apparently determined to keep their suspicions alive? And why, if Strange cared so much about the survival of the Earth's people, did he have so little to do with any more than a tiny number of them?

Well, what was that Doctor Strange really up to?

     
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10 comments:

  1. Great piece, I have commented over there thusly: Let's face it, Stephen seems to have been a bit of a dullard in those pre-Clea years; perhaps he was too new to the Master of the Mystic Arts game to realise that active relaxation is a good thing. But such an attitude is easier said than done when you know that a hostile incursion could occur anywhere on the planet, day and night - it's not just a matter of keeping an eye on those double doors. Poor fella.

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    1. Hello Martin:- Thank you, and thank you for popping over, and back again! I'll head over tomorrow to Sequart, with tonight being most dozing after an epic visit to the tooth-surgeon :)

      I find Strange's absolute focus on his job quite entrancing, an the fact that he really was, as you say, a bit of a dullard really helps him stand out as an individual for me. And as you say -again - the burden he carried was immense. Given that he also seems to have inherited a code of behaviour which demanded a huge amount of him, I find his untypical obsession with work a sympathetic rather than cold-hearted business. He really is carrying the world on his shoulders, bless him.

      And far better that than the bed-hopping Strange I came across in one recent and short-lived Marvel book. There's so much that's undeveloped where the original Ditko/Lee stories are concerned. I'm baffled as to why the source material has been so rarely drawn from.

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    2. Dr. Strange, both as a medical doctor and as a practitioner of the mystic arts (as depicted by Ditko), was a perfectionist. As a physician, he knew he was good, one of the best even and wanted others to recognize it and pay him well for his skill even if he cared nothing about the welfare of his patients. The accident broke him because he could no longer live up to his own standards. Learning that there was a new set of skills he could learn in a field he previously regarded as absurd gave him new hope that he could rebuild himself while serving a more noble purpose than accumulating a fortune. Thus he was totally focused on learning the mystic arts, memorizing the enchanments, honing his physical skills, to live up to his new ambitions. I don't know if any subsequent writer ever delved into Stephen Strange's childhood and his relationship with his parents but it strikes me that the Ancient One and Clea may be the first people he ever grew to really care about, and once Clea became part of his life he bacame less of a workaholic and more humane, although I think Englehart & Stern depicted that far better than either Lee or Thomas did.

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    3. Hello Fred:- One of the great thing about old texts is the degree to which they're open to different interpretations. For example, I don't see any concluding evidence that Strange was a perfectionist before his conversion to Black Magic, as Lee wonderfully had it. But I 100% accept that that's a perfectly sensible reading of the material! We all find what we regard as most pleasing, rational conclusions. I feel more comfortable seeing medicine as a road to power, wealth and status, rather than a way in which he he fulfilled his perfectionist instincts. It makes the jump to Strange both more wonderful and more believable to me. But then, that's me. And your ideas are exactly what I most welcome, because I've now got to go back when I re-write these pieces for the E-Book and make sure that my own beliefs hold water even if they can't win the argument.

      If "argument" is a good word for a perfectly civil exchange of views, which, of course, it isn't :-)

      I do certainly think that it's well possible that the Ancient One and Clea are the only people Strange had ever cared about. He takes so long to cotton onto Clea's meaning to him that it's as if he just hasn't fallen in love before. And the relationship between Strange and his mentor is astonishingly - I use that word quite deliberately - intimate in terms of how much they love each other. It's a surrogate father/son relationship that's tremendously moving.

      Of course, Stan Lee wasn't scripting Strange anymore when O'Neil had him begin to cotton onto his feelings for Clea. In a way, Strange's acceptance that he was capable of love made for a perfect final beat of the Ditko era. Much as I love some of the later versions of the character - Englehart, Gerber in The Defenders, Stern, Thomas with Colan - I tend to feel that the "real" Strange was last seen in Ditko's final story, arriving back on Earth after Dormammu's fall.

      But as for whether "that" Strange ever became less of a workaholic .... I hope not. It was part of what made him such an interesting character.

      Again, an undeniably personal point of view.

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  2. Speculation on such things is certainly part of the fun of this comics habit, Colin! Not enough info was provided about Strange's past in the Ditko years (or to my knowledge in the nearly 50 years since) to really know for sure. After all, Strange may have been born to wealth and prestige but had emotionally cold parents who expected much of him. Of course, some new writer may yet come along and reveal that Strange was really raised in a poor farm family in Iowa and has spent his entire adult life trying to escape his roots. As you indicated, however, that wouldn't be the "real" Dr. Strange. Heck, even in the first post Ditko story, with Lee returning as writer, Dr. Strnge didn't seem to be himself anymore.

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    1. Hello Fred:- I certainly find your hypothesis about wealthy but cold parents to be a fascinating one! And yet our discussion has brought home to me that ... I'm really not sure that I want to know. The soapy dimension of the superbook means that every little nook and cranny in a character's background gets filled up with melodrama, and then filled up again, and again. I find the lack of information in the Ditko/Lee Strange to make the whole business all the more intriguing.

      Which makes it seem that the "real" Dr Strange - as you call him - is in fact a Dr Strange who we know relatively little about :)

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    2. I concur, Colin. Whatever the full background of the origin story itself, it's brief 10 pages worked well enough to acquaint us with how medical doctor Stephen Strange took the path to become the Master of Black Magic without dispelling too much of the intriguing mystery of the character. It's not really essential that we know anything about Dr. Strange's parents. Along the same lines, I didn't particularly care for the Spider-Man Annual that revealed the mystery of what happened to Peter Parker's parents. Of course, Spider-Man was a far more high profile character than Dr. Strange ever would be, and Stan was likely deluged with fan requests to tell us how Peter became an orphan, but I think that was a mystery that should have been left alone -- at least if it couldn't be much better written and drawn!

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    3. Hello Fred:- Oh, I entirely agree. That Spider-Man Annual was a catastrophe, and showed how Ditko could act as an important break on Stan Lee's worst instincts. When Ditko argued that the Green Goblin should very much not be someone Peter Parker knew, he was fighting Lee's tendency to make everyone ultimately extraordinary in the sense of being able to generate soapy angst. As with the Goblin, so with Parker's backstory. Lee made him a princeling of sorts and diminished Peter's standing as an ordinary bloke. It's a problem which Marvel has rarely cared to attend to. With Parker in the Avengers and the FF and prestigious employment and so on, the sense of him being "our" representative in the MU disappears.

      I'd wouldn't even have left it a mystery. Peter's parents could have died in a flu epidemic or a bus crash. That would have underlined the sense in the original run that we were looking at a comicbook take on a meaningless universe. Parker's struggle was to impose meaning on a world that was set on defining him as nothing much at all. To reward him with an untypically noble ancestry and membership in elite super-groups is to re-cast the MU as a fairy tale, and Parker as royalty of a sorts.

      Which doesn't work, I'd suggest, even as the latest big Spidey event shifted a million and a half books. Obviously there may be flaws in my reasoning!

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    4. If there's a flaw in your reasoning, we're both going against the grain, Colin, as I fully agree with you! When I initially got into Spidey circa 1970, I liked that despite his incredible powers he was also in many ways very ordinary -- yeah, he was brilliant, and he had a beautiful girlfriend, but he also had many foilbles and money problems and could screw up just like anyone else. And considering the impact it had on the Spidey-verse for most of its history, that Annual might as well have taken place in an alternate universe. As far as I knew until I read that story decades after it came out, Pete's parents did die in a car crash that was purely an accident. And Peter still got his powers due to an accident at a science demonstration; it may be silly but it still works better for me than all the revisionism of the last decade or so.

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    5. Hello Fred:- I can only agree with everything you've said. In particular, there's been few examples of creators reworking the fundamentals of a character's origins which have ever significantly improved what was already in place. I can think of a few; Moore's Anatomy Lesson with Swamp Thing, Miller's addition of Stick in Daredevil, and Waid's reworking of the FF as Richards' attempt to make up for what he'd done to the Storms and Ben Grimm stand out. But against that, there's been so much that never should've been allowed into print ....

      But it is useful to remember that Peter's parents showed how such misjudgements started far earlier than is often imagined.

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