Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Greatest Superhero Of Them All? On The Ancient One In Ditko & Lee's Doctor Strange

Though it can't be said to be an opinion I've ever heard expressed by anyone else before, I can't think of any "superhero" that's more remarkable and admirable than the Ancient One. This week's post about the Doctor Strange tales of Ditko and Lee sees the end of the discussion of Clea and Strange's romance and the beginning of an attempt to argue for the importance of the latter's typically-ignored, 500 year-old mentor. If you've a moment to kill and you're curious to see a blogger edging his way further and further out on a limb, then here's your way over to Sequart Publishing.


  1. More magnificent musings on our favorite Marvel mystic, Colin! It occurs to me that Dr. Strange was introduced around the same time Iron Man was, and Shellhead's origin also included a wise, sympathetic much older Oriental character who helps the lead become a hero, although in IM's case, the benefactor is killed and Iron Man becomes his avenger (before he became an Avenger!). In Dr. Strange, however, the Ancient One is for much of Ditko's run the only regularly appearing supporting cast (I suppose Baron Mordo was the near regular antagonizing cast). Among Marvel's early stars, Dr. Strange was unique in that regard,although the later Silver Surfer series had even less of a supporting cast, which is probably one of the reasons it didn't do so well sales wise. Also, despite Clea's astonishment at Dr. Strange's youth, among the other mortal stars of the early Marvelverse, Dr. Strange appeared to be an elder statesman -- maybe not as old as Thor or Namor, but he certainly seemed older than those WWII vets Reed Richards, Ben Grimm and Nick Fury. Yet, of course, he appeared much younger in comparison to the Ancient One, who actionately refereed to him as "son". Despite the wisdom and power he already had in that short introductory story, Dr. Strange was still a pupil and throughout Ditko's run we see him becoming ever more self-reliant and confident, willing to take increased risks to prove himself a fitting successor to the Ancient One. We know nothing about Strange's biological father, but clearly he and the Ancient One adore one another as if they were father and son. This is perhaps the only relationship of any sort in Silver Age Marvel where there were no routine misunderstandings or serious disputes. Even with Reed & Sue after Namor was out of the way and they were married, they argued about her role in the FF. Sue and Johnny got along well as brother & sister, of course, but there were still the disputes that seem typical of a young adult and an adolescent sibling. Funny for about a year, readers could catch young Johnny Storm paired with Ben Grimm, who was old enough to be his father, but both were regularly depicted as behaving very immaturely; and then in the other half were Dr. Stange and the Ancient One, the most mature of Marvel's cast. Even old Odin seemed like a child compared to the Ancient One, and while Thor dearly loved his father, he was also clearly very frustrated with the All-Father's often infuriating and not-so-wise behavior. Fascinating contrasts.

    1. Hello Fred:- You're very kind. Thank you :)

      We're obviously thinking along VERY similar lines where Strange and the Ancient One are concerned, and you've quite rightly anticipated several of the strands that I'll be developing - or at least trying to - in the next part. As such, if I leave commenting on points you've made for the while, you can assume that they're already in the next piece that's in Sequart's hands. (I'm just tidying up the final part of the series, for whatever that's worth, which looks at Strange's role as a student rather than a master, and at how that role was - again! - unique in the super-book of the time.)

      Ho Yinsen is indeed the only other non-Caucasian, non-American character I can think of in the early Marvels. And his heroic identity was associated with his fealty to American's anti-Communist agenda. And as you say - and as I will be saying :) ! - he disappears incredibly quickly from the scene. By contrast, the Ancient One not only stays in place in the Ditko/Lee Strange tales, but becomes more and more powerful and important. From a passive adviser and inspiration at the beginning, he becomes a far more active, engaged and cosmically-recognised champion, until in Ditko's final issue - as I think I said in the last Sequart post - it's the Ancient One who's shown trying to create a new inter-dimensional order and Strange who's shown standing around and admiring him. But from the recovery of much of his health following Strange's first defeat of Dormammu onwards, the Ancient One actually becomes more and more important in the strip. It's a remarkable business ...

      But I'm getting ahead of myself, and though no-one could possibly mind my doing so, that's all in next week's post :)

      When I seized the chance to write about the Ditko/Lee issues, it was with the awareness that I'd never sat down and really read and re-read a specific run while blogging. And I thought I ought to take the chance to do that, with Strange being the perfect strip to focus on. In the paragraph I started with, I said that no-one would accept the basic set-up of Strange's adventures today wehen it came to commissioning a new strip, or even a new series of his exploits. He was, I tried to say, too adult, too calm, too lacking in youth, too compassionate, too competent, etc etc And what's come across as I've kept ploughing this particular furrow is that I still find myself being more and more impressed by how singular Ditko and Lee's vision was, and by how little of it has ever been truly picked up and used since. Spending such time with a text can lead to a sense of over-familiarity or even a serious diminishing of regard. I often found that happening when I ended up teaching work I had once admired, for example, when I was at the chalk-face. But with the original Doctor Strange, it seems to me - with a few weaker elements, such as the lack of distinctive villains beyond Dormammu and a few others - that I admire and respect it all the more.

      And part of that, as you ably argue, is indeed how Strange very much didn't conform to the model of what we now consider a first-generation Marvel hero to be. Huzzah :)

    2. Looking forward to those future Sequart posts, Colin! Regarding the dominance of Dormammu & Baron Mordo in Ditko's run, I initially read many of those stories in reprints in Strange Tales in the mid-70s, then caught a few more in the prestige format reprints of the late '70s or early '80s, then finally got the whole thing in volume 1 of the Essentials (I missed the colors but still worth it to at least fill in the gaps). Looking upon much of the last 16 or so issues as one long story, it works for me and is one of the triumphs of Marvel's Silver Age. Curiously, Ditko's successors on the title never came up with truly distinctive villains, at least none on the level of Dormammu or Nightmare, but then they were as difficult to top as Ditko's best Spider-Man villains.

    3. Hello Fred:- Thank you for being such an egg :)

      I'd wholeheartedly agree with about the second Dormammu story. It's one of the finest long-running serials in Marvel's history. I read in Bell's book on Ditko that there may have been two fully drawn and inked strips that Ditko held back when he decided to walk out on Marvel. It's possible that they were intended to immediately precede the very final chapter, which does lack a degree of set-up where the Eternity/Dormammu punch-up is concerned. Now that's the equivilant of a lost top-notch Beatles track. Apparently, there's reason to suspect that the pages lay in Ditko's rooms for decades afterwards. Ah, if only ....

      Other great Strange enemies? Nightmare's certainly a star, but sadly limited as a recurring antagonist. Umar, Silver Dagger and Dracula come to mind from the Englehart years. There must be a great many more, but I'm struggling to think of them at 10 am on the morning of a fast day!

  2. After that conversation about the Ancient One in the comments to that post about 'elderly' characters about a month ago, I was wondering when you'd get around to him in your analysis of all things (Dr.) Strange.
    Yes, the Ancient One was, to all outward appearances, an Asian stereotype, but as you note, there's much more there if you look closely. Looking forward to the rest of this (and also still pining for that Ancient One maxi-series penned by Roger Stern that I mentioned last month).

    1. Hello Edo:- Thanks for the kind words. And you're quite right, there was no way I was going to let the various distinct qualities of the Ancient One pass by without having the pleasure of discussing them :) In fact, as time has passed, I've found myself in some ways seeing that run of Doctor Strange as really being about the end of the Ancient One's story even more than it's concerned with the beginning of Stephen Strange's as a "Black Magician". By that I don't mean that Strange isn't fascinating and central to events. And yet, as I hope I can begin to adequately explain next week, I've gradually come to realise the Ancient One was a remarkable heroic figure known and respected and even feared far beyond our world. Strange's career is just beginning, and he's still very much in his Master's shadow, but the Ancient One has - without any other super-people we know of to call upon for help - been fighting alone and succeeding for more than half a millennium. That he was also elderly, frail, a non-Caucasian etc etc by the time he was introduced just makes him all the more remarkable, and, as you underline, establishes him a unique fusion of stereotype and heroic qualities.

      And you'd not believe how many times I've thought of the premise of that Ancient One maxi-series. One day, when I win several lotteries, I'll invest the pennies into getting it done, I will :)