Tuesday, 22 January 2013

When Doctor Strange Fell In Love ...


In this week's look at the Doctor Strange of the early-to-mid Sixties over at Sequart Publishing, the subject is the moment when Earth's Master of Black Magic finally grasped that he was falling in love. As always, should you have a nettlesome moment to kill in your day, you'd be very welcome to whittle away at it with some admiring chinstroking on the matter of Ditko, Lee and O'Neil's Doctor Strange, which can be found here.

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18 comments:

  1. Strangely I couldn't post a comment on Sequart, but regards for another fine column, Colin. And notice that in Spider-Man as well, Peter Parker was a much different person by issue 33, "The Final Chapter", than in Ditko's first Spider-Man story. Peter & Stephen had both grown significantly as human beings as well as heroes during Ditko's run. Alas that Ditko seemed to leave Dr. Strange in what is apparent to me from reading his last few issues as a rush, but he did bring the drama he had built up over the previous two years to a satisfying conclusion, although Dr. Strange was mostly a spectator to the main event in the last segment. Certainly, such character development was rare in the Silver Age, and only a relative handful of comics writers have done it as well in the decades since.

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    1. Hello Fred:- Thank you.

      Peter Parker was indeed a VERY different character at the end of Ditko's run, wasn't he? I can't say I like the Parker from the last few months of SD's ASM very much at all. For all that Romita's era saw Parker's life represent wish-fulfillment rather than existential angst, it did at least haul Parker back from being a lad heading off in the direction of Randism.

      Strange's development very much relies on that final page. Much of that may be Denny O'Neil's script, which is rather smartly-done and may diverge from Ditko's intent. Or it may not. But as I'm going to try to discuss next time - well, it's written already, so the trying's done - there's a considerable degree of evidence in Ditko's art that he meant Strange and Clea to be falling for each other. And with that, we get a touching degree of change to Strange's character too.

      Of course, it was only a few years on that Stan Lee would declare to his writers than Marvel should be about the illusion of change rather than change itself. Understandable in terms of short-term profit, but a real shame. Change for change's sake is as useless a guiding principle as is the idea of the illusion of such. But somewhere between the two - as 2000AD have shown with Judge Dredd - is surely a sensible course to pilot.

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  2. Very true about Peter's character towards the end of Ditko's run -- he was more confident, but also increasingly full of himself and seemed to be purposely alienating himself from everyone. If Ditko's version of Peter & Gwen had gotten together, it would have likely been an intense love-hate relationship for however long it lasted. In Romita's first issue, Peter suddenly seems to be really trying to get along with his classmates, becoming friendly with Harry and getting Gwen's attention in a positive way after previously seeming intent on convincing her that he's a first class heel. Given Ditko's own reclusive reputation, it makes me wonder how much of himself he was putting into his depiction of Peter Parker. Curious that in both Dr. Strange and Spider-Man, Ditko left the characters on the cusp of what would become their first serious relationships, if we don't count Peter's relationship with Betty that never really went anywhere, ironically because she felt Peter was too much of a thrillseeker, needlessly endangering himself to take photos, while Gwen wondered if he might be a coward because he seemed to disappear whenever there was trouble.

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    1. Hello Fred:- As far as my reading has taken me, the change in Peter Parker's personality reflected Ditko's growing attachment to Ayn Rand's work. He felt that heroes shouldn't be marked by doubt, shouldn't be associated with groups, shouldn't represent anything but black/white thinking. As such, Peter's refusal to join in with a crowd of stereotypical college protestors - and the contempt he showed in doing so - reflected the artist's desire to create a Parker who was very different from the torn and beaten-down individual he first appeared as.

      There's a terrible irony in the fact that part of me so wishes that Ditko could've stayed on Spidey, and yet his whole approach was rapidly evolving to express an ideology that was antithetical to Parker's appeal for me in the first place.

      As such, I dread to think what Parker's life would've become, with Gwen or anyone else. Regardless of one's political convictions, a Libertarian Spider-Man would have surely marked a too-radical break with the character's past and strengths.

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  3. Very much so, Colin,and Spider-Man might have remained at best a cult figure rather than becoming one of the most popular fictional characters ever. Then again, how far would Lee have let Ditko take Peter in that direction? Lee clearly recognized Marvel had a potential gold-mine in Spider-Man early on and Ditko's creative genius was largely responsible for Spider-Man's popularity among fans but his philosophical extremism was becoming ever more problematic, even with Lee somewhat softening Ditko's edginess. Romita didn't have Ditko's genius but he was able to take all the elements Ditko created and make them more appealing to a much wider audience.

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    1. Hello Fred:- There's no counterfactual that I can design that doesn't end up with Lee and Ditko's partnership coming to a sad end. The Beatles were always going to split up, Lee and Ditko were always going their own separate ways. A shame, and yet, in some ways, it's remarkable how much work the two of them did together before Ditko - quite understandably - left.

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  4. Hi Colin,

    As you note, the inevitability of the Lee-Ditko break up couldn't be avoided. Ditko was going in a different direction and the creative chasm was far too wide to mend. Still, I would have liked to see some of the ideas he had planned. As I've noted in an article in Ditkomania, its entirely possible that Ditko was planning on a serious relationship betweeen Peter and Gwen and may have used some of his ideas on the Blue Beetle strip he created for Charlton. In that story Ted kord's assistant Tracey (sounds like Stacey) discovers Ted's dual identity and stands by his side. I suspect the same may have occured with Gwen.

    As much as I enjoyed the Lee-Romita run I will say the abrupt changes in ASM # 39 between Peter and his classmates, especially Harry (who was obviously designed not to be a wonderful guy) was a bit jarring. Ditko's edginess was missing, and its unfortunate that Lee and Ditko couldn't have worked together for a few years more. Still, his work with Lee on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange remains one of the most imaginative and seminal works in the comic art field.

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    1. Hello Nick:- It's certainly hard to imagine that Ditko would have introduced Gwen and not had serious plans for her, isn't it? That's a fascinating idea about the way in which his ideas for the character might have played out in Blue Beetle. The idea that Gwen and Peter might have turned out a couple - in the way that Joan and Jay were in the original Flash, perhaps? - is a compelling one. How very different everything would have been then!

      I agree entirely about the difference between the Ditko and the Romita years. As I believe you yourself have said, it's in no way disrespectful to Romita to suggest that the Ditko work was the character's ur-text. But looking back, it's as if the two versions of the character weren't actually in any way connected, but two quite distinct takes.

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    2. Having grown up on the Lee-Romita Spider-Man, anxiously awaiting the latest issue each month at the newsstand, I can see Romita's personality reflected a bit in the characters. From my few interactions with Mr. Romita he comes off as a warm and thoughtful person, very self-conscious of his own (supposed) artistic failings and always willing to praise others. I believe some of that comes off in his rendition of Peter Parker and other characters such as Daredevil.

      What was almost hard to describe in that period of my childhood was that, as much as I loved the then current Lee-Romita Spider-Man, i was equally enthralled by Ditko's original, since A) my older brother John had a collection going back to ASM # 3 and B) Ditko's stories were being reprinted in Marvel Tales. Even as a child Ditko's intensity and attention to detail made these characters very real. In comparing the two I would say Romita's more idealized version is what I would have liked to experience; Ditko's city streets, back alleys and population was more like the world I did experience.

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    3. Hello Nick:- You might a fine point about the wish fulfillment aspect of John Romita's Spidey tales. My experience was the same. I never once, as a young lad, wanted to live Peter Parker's life as Steve Ditko depicted it. Even in the artist's later issues, where Peter seemed to be finding his confidence and place in life, that wasn't a life that I wanted for myself. But I did daydream of the Coffee Bean, mopeds and Romita's spectacularly attractive women.

      And of course, there must lie a great deal of the difference between how the one Spidey and the other appealed, or didn't, to the broader audience. Now, of course, when it seems an absurd idea to be wanting to be anyone in the pages of a super-book, it's the Ditko version that works for me. Take away that sense of wanting to live the life that Romita seemed to describe at times and something of his Spidey's charm dissolves.

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    4. And yet, as serious and dread as Ditko's Spider-Man was, there was also quite a bit of humor in the strip as well, not all from Stan's dialouge (although that was a big part). Ditko often put Peter/S-M in absurd situations, such as his purchasing a replacement costume that didn't fit, being in romantic entanglements between Betty and Liz, JJJ's personality and, my favorite, his being chased through the streets by Flash and the gang while trying to avoid Jameson's Robot (which was caused because he thought it was ridiculous). There is much more fun in Ditko's Spidey stories than in the dead serious Dr. Strange, and as a child it certainly appealed to me more in that regard.

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    5. Hello Nick:- Oh, absolutely. And yet, it's a humour that reflects real life problems rather than magics them away with a sense that everything will be OK. Peter awkwardly shutting one eye while desperately trying to sow the holes in his costume, or he and Betty hiding under a table while - if memory serves - JJJ rants away, are examples of that. The first one suggests that there'll never be an end to the minor, overwhelming problems of everyday life for Peter, while the second seems to say that the best you get - for awhile at least - is to safely hide from power. They're not situations which suggest that Peter can rise above his circumstances. That's true for that wonderful scene of Flash and his cronies racing down the street in search of Parker too. Their body language is hilarious, and they're obvious a bunch of clowns. But there's no promise that Peter will ever win them over, and Ditko never obscures the fact that they'd be a serious problem for any other 'bookworm'. If they're fools, they're dangerous fools.

      For me, I think that's the difference in Ditko's humour. It's about making the best of a life that's a tough one. I never got that sense when watching Romita's Peter driving his moped through the city.

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    6. Hi Colin,

      I don't see it in quite the same way. I think Ditko was touching on the frustrations that many face, true, but in the same way that Laurel and Hardy or WC Fields were. Those characters also faced situations that bored on depressing, but there was also a wink at the audience, a knowledge that we've all been down that road and can laugh along. I don't see anything downbeat in those situations; I saw them as a contrast to the more serious situations and felt that Ditko was balancing the two with a very precise eye for storytelling.

      Romita's Peter/S-M was more cheerful but there are not a lot of moments that are truly funny. That was another element missing from the Romita years.

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    7. Hello Nick:- Oh, I don't think that there's anything downbeat about the fact that life's a struggle. I think that's just how it is. It's often a slog on an everyday basis and that's what I find reflected so brilliantly in the Ditko/Lee Spider-Man issues. It's what I enjoy in the comedies I most treasue; the business of extracting meaning from the meaningless. And that's why the matter of the wink at the audience - as you rightly call it - works so well, from my perspective. Even a wink is a sympathetic gesture to make to a fellow slogger smile :)

      But - and again this is just from my perspective, of course - the Romita years quickly became about the promise that life could - if things just went right - be wonderful. The Ditko years never said that. They said life could always be ultimately worthwhile, and sometimes terrific, but it would always also be hard work.

      Our own takes are different, but it's surprising how they overlap too. I find it very hard to laugh outloud at material which isn't rooted in that sense of life as a great challenging slog which can be made to make sense for brief and ever-passing moments. The Romita years rarely seem to do that for me. But again, I don't think that's downbeat. It's just the way things are, from where I'm standing. It's no more downbeat than the weather, or at least, the weather within normal limits ... :)

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    8. I quite agree. Romita's was a cheerful, sunny world filled with beautiful women and heroic characters. A little too clean for a kid who lived in Brooklyn, though. As Marie Severin once told Romita, "Your streets are too clean, show some garbage" (or words to that effect). The outlook of Ditko and Romita was very different, and that reflected in the look of the strip.

      And life doesn't always make sense as we slog through it but the absurdities make it interesting, at the very least!

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    9. Hello Nick:- I didn't know that statement by Marie Severin. That's wonderful. Everything I've read of her seems to express a smart and insightful creator. And a fine artist too, of course.

      Swapping words has made me wonder whether one of the things that I miss in much - if not all - of Ditko's post-1965 work is the sense of a world which could lack absolute meaning. The Ditko who often seemed to be representing the "little" citizen struggling to ensure that life makes sense is far more "my" favourite than the one whose characters so often seemed to have all the answers. Horses for courses, of course. I'd never suggest that Mr A, for example, wasn't worthwhile, and sometimes even enjoyable too. But I lack anything at all of that certainly, and so it's hard to enjoy watching a character who's experiencing it.

      But I remain every bit as challenged by the everyday as Ditko's Parker ever was, and I can still empathise with his confusion and effort :)

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  5. Your series on Dr. Strange has been a real delight and has deepened my appreciation for the good doctor. I read these stories 9well, most of them) years ago, but now I want to go back and reread the whole bunch with an eye open for those signs of Strange's evolution. Two observations:

    Prior to the denouement of the story you cover in this week's installment at Sequart, Dr. Strange is a familiar type of character. He's polite enough but strictly professional, if possibly a little haughty with people he interacts with in the Earthly realm. He doesn't seek attention but makes no attempt to disguise himself or his abilities (as you've noted). And his job title, particularly in those first stories, could easily be given as "Consulting Magician." He is, in other words, a version of that great Consulting Detective, Sherlock Holmes. (Is this occurring to me now, or am I repeating something you've already noted? if the latter, forgive me.) If the stories were told from the perspective of a Watson character, this latest would begin "To Stephen Strange, she was always THE Woman." Clea has gotten through that emotional armor as surely as Irene Adler got to Holmes.

    The long buildup, the many interactions Strange has with Clea before admitting his feelings for her to himself--and well before Clea comes to Greenwich Village be his live-in companion and apprentice destroys the justification for an odious portrayal of Strange in Matt Fraction's recent run on the Defenders title. Fraction describes it himself in a 2011 Comics Alliance interview:

    "I'm doing a creepy, f*cked up Doctor Strange love story right now. ... The first time we see Doctor Strange [in Defenders] he's in bed with a girl he shouldn't be in bed with. He's a teacher who sleeps with his students. I think that crosses a line, and I also think it speaks volumes to his character. It's an interesting lack of character."

    I'm not up on my Marvel continuity so I'm assuming it is Stephen's history with Clea that prompts Fraction's dismissal of him as simply "a teacher who sleeps with his students." How breathtakingly misguided this is. It was enough to keep me away from the series, in spite of some gorgeous artwork.

    There's even more gorgeous artwork, by Frank Brunner, in the first story arc of the 1974 Dr. Strange book (which I'm proud to still have). In that arc, Stephen is stabbed by Silver Dagger, a misguided Catholic cleric who assumes Clea is some Village hippie chick who needs rescuing from Stephen's "cult." This contrasts nicely with the rich, loving relationship we're shown between Stephen and Clea prior to the attack. Fraction is as misguided as Silver Dagger is shown to be. The latter, of course, didn't have access to our real-world back issues of Dr. Strange's adventures to learn from before making his boneheaded characterization of Stephen and Clea: What's Fractions excuse?

    Keep up the great work!

    -mikesensei

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    1. Hello Mike:- Thank you for the kind words and intriguing ideas. It's very much appreciated.

      I'm not sure that I agree with the Holmes analogy, though I do find it interesting and I've an awful suspicion that I've missed a trick here :) I shall have to nip back to my falling-to-pieces Essential Doctor Strange and think again. Yet memory tells me that Strange remains very much a hero in training in the Ditko years. Unlike Holmes, who usually KNOWS, Strange is constantly learning, improvising and seeking the advice of his mentor. Strange is marked by a considerable degree of doubt, which Holmes rarely shares to that degree. Yet if there was a "Holmes" in the series, however, I'd nominate the Ancient One for the role, for he's always in charge and always KNOWS. Though, as the cliche says, his body isn't willing, his intellect is sharp and his experience and knowledge seems to know much of what there is to know. Strange as Holmes or Strange as Watson? Mmmmm ... :)

      But I certainly agree you about Strange's manner, and I just LOVE the idea of Clea as his Irene. After all, she might have been a woman with a secret, contrary agenda. We never are told why she turned from warning Strange away to supporting his war against Dormammu. Our expectations can lead us to expect that she just feel in love with him, and yet, even if she did, that doesn't mean that she lacked any other motives too. At which point, I have to say, your idea has sent my mind off racing. Mmmmm. What was that Clea REALLY up to?

      And since I'm lining up behind your ideas, I have to agree with you entirely about the Strange of Fraction's Defenders. It's such a ... well, daft business that he followed through. I can't think of a character in the MU less likely to become such a bloke. Was there a perceived need to make him more 'edgy', more transgressive? Ach. There's all that's needed to make Strange fascinating in the Lee/Ditko tales, and yet, as I know I've said more than once, few creators seem to have ever really dug into the substance as well as the surface of those tales. While I completely understand that creators can't be held to decades-old continuity, it also think it's daft to ignore a character's ur-text, and that's especially so when Strange's background is so rich and different.

      The Englehart/Brunner/Colan Strange is probably my second favourite run on the character, and the Silver Dagger series is the highpoint of that, or at least, it is along with the Dracula guest appearance. And Silver Dagger is a perfect opponent for Strange.

      Quite why such material is ignored by so many of Strange's creators escapes me. Pah.

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