Atomic Roundtable: Who IS Doctor Strange, Anyway?

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From The Oath, script by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Marcos Martin.

The latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will open on Friday November 4; Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, Sorcerer Supreme and wielder of both the Eye of Agamotto and the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, brings magic to the previously science-based world of Marvel movies.

Even if you’re not familiar with Doctor Strange, you’ve most likely picked up everything you need to know about his origin from the trailer: brilliant surgeon has his hands destroyed in an accident, and, desperate to find a treatment, seeks out a legendary figure called the Ancient One; he becomes a disciple and learns to manipulate supernatural forces; as Master of the Mystic Arts, he defends Earth and our plane of reality from supernatural forces and invaders from other dimensions.

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Several of us here at the Junk Shop are big fans of the character and we all set down a few thoughts about him. So here’s our first-ever Atomic Roundtable: Who Is DOCTOR STRANGE?

Jim: Doctor Strange is one of the very few Marvel characters that Stan Lee cannot and does not claim to have been in any way involved in creating. Steve Ditko brought Stephen Strange to Marvel as a fully developed and plotted character, to which Lee could only add dialog and captions.

The biggest paradox of the series, I think, is that this mystical character was created by a strict materialist who does not believe in anything mystical, supernatural, occult or religious in any way. Ditko is an Objectivist, a follower of Ayn Rand, whose primary operating belief is “A is A,” in other words, things are exactly what they are regardless of how we view them or feel about them. Meaning and interpretation are things we project upon objective reality, and when we do so we are wasting our time and confusing the issue. And yet here is his creation, Dr. Strange, whose entire raison d’etre is hidden worlds and things not being as they seem.

Greg H: My personal favorite version of Doctor Strange is the hippy-dippy era that started with Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner in the early 1970s, though I really love the Lee-Ditko stuff that came before–and a lot of what came after.

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The concept I like best about Strange is the idea that he’s the forest ranger in the guard tower. He is the one that keeps Earth safe from all the weird psychedelic hell-demons trying to infiltrate our reality and do Bad Stuff. The strip really cooks when it’s about the clash between our normal everyday world and the nameless things lurking in the next dimension over. My ideal approach to a Dr. Strange story goes back to the very first one– a guy is having trouble sleeping and it turns out that it’s Nightmare, the Lord of Dreams, messing with him. So Doctor Strange has to go to the dream dimension to face down Nightmare.

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That idea, that Strange is tasked with rescuing humanity from demonic other-dimensional evil of one sort or another, should be at the core of any story you do about him. And it should combine the mind-blowing psychedelic visuals of the alternate dimension with the prosaic street-level look of New York. The best of the artists to work on the book could move from one to the other with ridiculous ease. One of my favorite Dr. Strange stories was the annual where Craig Russell did all these mind-blowing visualizations…

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…but he also drew Strange’s home in an accurate rendition of Greenwich Village.

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It’s that contrast that makes it fun. The TV-movie with Peter Hooten and Jessica Walter is often cringe-worthy but it understood that the contrast was the key to the whole thing.

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The other thing that endeared Strange to me was that he was the weird cool kid among the Marvel heroes. I used to love the old Defenders from Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema where all these other misfit superpeople just naturally ended up at Doc’s place in the Village, not to fight evil or anything, but just to hang out.

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All the jock heroes were at Avengers Mansion. But the nerds and weirdos gravitated to Doc’s pad. I adored that. It was such a perfect reflection of my old high school posse. You just knew that Doc would be the first guy in the Marvel Universe to have the new Yes album or to have seen FANTASTIC PLANET. (For Doc, that artwork must have looked like documentary footage.) He was the COOL nerd. That resonated hugely with me. In high school, it was my guitarist friend Joe; in the world of the Marvel heroes, it’s Doctor Strange.

Jim: I was always amused that he had to sort of be the designated grownup for this bunch of petulant misanthropes who didn’t seem to much like each other but really enjoyed hanging out together.

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Greg H: That was Joe too. In every band he ever played in, I think.

Jim: I’ll also suggest that Dr. Strange is one of only a small handful of superheroes who have emotionally solid origin stories; there’s Batman, Iron Man, the Silver Surfer and Dr. Strange. Everyone else is sort of a weak imitation of one of them or is a hero “just because.” Batman, of course, was the first comic hero whose origin was rooted in pain and loss; Iron Man is motivated by regret and a desire to make amends; the Silver Surfer laid down his life for the woman he loves; and then there’s Stephen Strange.

Here’s an arrogant prick who thinks he’s better than everyone else in the world until his life is destroyed. Desperately wanting his life and (most especially) status back, he travels the world looking for the answer, only to discover that his salvation lies in finally putting his old life to rest, taking on a purpose far greater than he could have imagined, and most importantly,  learning humility.

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Ironically, by becoming humble and learning to serve others, he acquires undreamt-of power and status, even though almost nobody knows who he is or how important he has become. It’s almost religious in its message; a pretty neat trick from an Objectivist atheist who rejects altruism. I love contradictions.

John: I agree with pretty much everything Jim and Greg H. have said so far. That origin story is damn solid, probably even moreso because it was done a few issues into the run, and Stan and Steve had to figure out how to explain all the stuff they’d already established on the run. The story of Doctor Strange is the story of a materialistic guy who becomes a spiritual guy (the perfect hero for the countercultural 60s), and I think that’s pretty damn cool. It looks like the movie has captured that aspect, so I’m really looking forward to it. And it doesn’t hurt that they cast my first choice for the role, either. Cumberbatch is a pretty atypical leading man, and I’m thinking he’s got just the right amount of quirkiness to succeed in the role (Quirkiness is a must in Ditkoville).

Greg’s point above about the balance between the fantastic and the mundane — That’s the engine that makes the Doctor Strange series run. One of my favorite-ever Dr. Strange moments is from one of those Stan Lee Meets… specials that Marvel did about 10 years back. Wong escorts Stan the Man into the Sanctum Sanctorum, where we see a beautiful Alan Davis-drawn panel of Strange sitting cross-legged in midair, scrawling something into a huge, leather-bound book, surrounded by incense burners and all sorts of mystical bric-a-brac. Stan says, “I don’t mean to disturb you if you’re studying your incantations.” and Strange just breezily replies, “S’okay, Stan. I’m just working on my taxes!” That’s Marvel Comics in a nutshell, right there.

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My personal favorite Strange stories are the original Stan Lee / Steve Ditko tales (particularly the Eternity Saga), the 1980s Roger Stern era (handicapped only by not having a steady artist throughout, but still — Marshall Rogers, Michael Golden, and Paul Smith are nothing to sneeze at), the Roger Stern / Mike Mignola / Mark Badger Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment, and The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin, where Strange goes through hell to save Wong’s life. That five-issue miniseries even found a way to make Night Nurse cool, so you know it’s great.

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A classic cover by Paul Smith.

Neat bit of trivia: In the first couple of Doctor Strange stories in Strange Tales, Ditko draws the good Doc as Asian. He gradually becomes more caucasian as the feature goes on, and he’s definitely a white guy by the time his origin story is told.

Jim: My Doctor Strange is from that Stern era too, especially the stories drawn by Marshall Rogers or Paul Smith, though I have gone back and read a lot of the older stuff, mostly in the reprints they used to run back in the ‘70s.

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Script by Roger Stern, art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin.

Okay, so what are the “must have” elements that a Doctor Strange movie demands? We see some of them in the trailers already, and Wong is mentioned in the cast list on IMDB, but there’s no mention of Clea, unless somehow Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) assumes a new identity, or there’s a casting surprise waiting for us. Dormammu is likewise AWOL, and most of the weird scenery we’ve seen has been a warped Manhattan and not one of Ditko’s freaky psychedelic dimensions. My short list includes several things that have already popped up:  the window, the cape, the Eye of Agamotto, the Ancient One, Baron Mordo. What am I missing?

John: I figure that there’s plenty of time to see Clea, Dormammu, or Nightmare in sequels. The Mindless Ones or Eternity would also be cool. I really like Rachel McAdams as an actress, so I’m fine with her being the love interest instead of Clea. And a more-earthbound character certainly provides better contrast to the Doctor’s fantastic adventures. I’m personally really hoping to see some weird Ditko-esque mystical environments, with things like floating eyeballs and winding pathways leading to other dimensional realms. The kind of places that Salvador Dali would see in a fever dream and go, “Whoa. That was weird.” I don’t want to see some Hollywood effects artist’s version of an otherworldly realm, either. I want to see Ditko’s.

Beneditct Cumberbatch demonstrates "Ditko fingers" (as seen in the inset); sometimes it's the little things that are the most reassuring.
Beneditct Cumberbatch demonstrates “Ditko fingers” (as seen in the inset); sometimes it’s the little things that are the most reassuring.

That, and some cool funky hand gestures and incantations. Oh, and Doc doing an astral projection, but judging from the trailers, I think that that’s a pretty safe bet.

Jim: In one of the publicity photos from the set, I saw Cumberbatch doing “Ditko fingers.” It made me stupidly happy.

Greg H: Well, the Marvel movies have been a fixture long enough now that we know that everyone gets signed for three. So assuming this is a hit, we’ll get two more. I would love it if the second was the Mordo/Dormammu team-up that introduced Clea, and the third one was the Silver Dagger/Death story. But juiced up and remixed the way they did Civil War.

As for the first one, you know what I want? I don’t want an ORIGIN movie. I am so with Trumbull on this. We know it’s there from the trailer, but I hope it’s done in the middle, or in intermittent flashbacks, and not that damn 1978 Superman frame of origin, first night out, and big battle. I’d love it if we opened with a woman timidly seeking Strange out in his Greenwich Village pad as a ‘consultant,’ he meets with her in a very normal-looking library/office with the only oddities being maybe a couple of weird paperweights on the desk or something. She explains that she just fired her shrink and threw all her prescriptions away because she’s NOT CRAZY, but she heard that he was a very special sort of psychiatrist. Then the kicker. She thinks someone is trying to invade her dreams. Strange takes her description of events seriously, promises to visit her at home that night… and then when she leaves he walks through a door to the rest of the house and it’s just crazy WEIRD, maybe even with one wall missing and instead a swirling psychedelic view of the Nightmare Realm or something. Then later when he visits her dream astrally or whatever, he sees a silhouette he recognizes and gasps…. “MORDO!”

THEN you do the flashback to the origin and get through it quick. Get back to the battle with Mordo with Strange’s client’s soul as the prize. Some kind of second-act twist where we find out why THIS person is valuable. Maybe she has the Ancient One’s genetic code or past lives or something hidden within. Or maybe we introduce Nightmare, Mordo’s recruited the Dream king by promising him this woman in exchange or something. Whatever. Big fight spilling over from the Nightmare Realm into our world and back again, crazy shit everywhere, full-on ditko/reality collision. And we end with the client rescued, Mordo damaged but escaping, reality is patched up and Strange is aware that it’s not done, it’s just beginning.

…sorry, I get carried away. But honest to God I’ve been picturing the Perfect Doctor Strange Movie in my head for years now. Marvel? Call me.

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From Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment, script by Roger Stern, art by Mike Mignola and Mark Badger.

Travis: About all I have to say is that I thought I was a bigger Ditko fan than I apparently am, because I was unaware that the character was all him, and I’ve only read a few of the Ditko stories.  I do wonder if Ditko was offered any money for this film, and if he turned it down.  Otherwise, I liked the character in the Defenders stuff I’ve read and maybe someday I’ll get around to watching the movie.

John: The “Ditko is the sole creator of Doctor Strange” thing comes from an old Bullpen Bulletins page, IIRC. Stan writes something like: “We’re introducing a new character called Doctor Strange… ‘Twas Steve’s idea.” But Stan Lee certainly played a big role in developing the character through his scripting the feature and naming spells, villains, and the like. Dr, Strange would certainly not be the same Dr. Strange we know today without Stan Lee’s contribution.

As for Ditko taking money for the film, I doubt that he would. As I understand his philosophy, he would not think it’s kosher to accept money for Dr. Strange beyond the page rate that he received back in the 60s. He knew the deal going in, and he’s not a believer in changing the conditions of that deal decades after the fact.

But I hope that Marvel still offered him something, at any rate.

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Jim: That’s where it gets complicated. For whatever reason, Ditko must have accepted a work-for-hire arrangement when the book started, so the studio is not legally obligated to pay him anything. In recent years, Marvel has stopped being jerks about this sort of thing (roughly since they started making their own movies; Marv Wolfman lost a lawsuit trying to get a payment for Blade, but he told me himself that he got paid for Guardians of the Galaxy because they used some of his contributions), so they most likely did offer Ditko something for this movie. His response to previous offers regarding Spider-Man was reportedly “a deal is a deal,” but he might feel differently with this one, since Stan never claimed to have created the character. But it’s hard to figure out where he draws his moral lines sometimes. I hope he’s happy with the movie in any case.

John: I hope that DC and Marvel, or at least their parent companies, realize that even if they’re under no legal obligation to pay the comic creators something, it makes good moral and PR sense to do so. It doesn’t look good to have a huge corporation picking on a guy in his 80s. And in most cases, it’s just so easy to share the wealth a bit and get the comics creators on their side. It’s a drop in the bucket for the companies, but for the comics people, it’s huge.

But man, how cool would it be to watch the Dr. Strange movie with Steve Ditko sitting next to you?

Jim: A final note and tease… I saw a preview screening the other night. This may very well be the Marvel movie that’s closest to its source material. That panel above with Strange standing on an orb connected by tendrils to other orbs, looking out on the freaky alternate dimension? It’s in the movie, exactly like that, only cooler, because the orb is dotted with rings of mini-volcanoes. I won’t spoil anything, but I will have a review up the day the movie opens. Suffice it to say, if you are a fan of the Doctor Strange comics, especially the Ditko era, you might as well start smiling now.

27 Comments

  1. frasersherman

    Part of the mystical/mundane mashup (though I’m fine with those Ditko/Lee stories where the mundane is barely noticeable) is that in the Ditko/Lee period people know who Strange is. They know where to find him. They know he works with this sort of problem. He’s a familiar sight in Greenwich Village. Even people who think he’s a phony know who he is.
    2)I thought Steven Grant had a good point about Alan Moore and Ditko’s refusal to accept money for the movies–they’re not being paid to promote the film or being paid to let it happen, they’re being paid extra for their original work. So there’s not really a moral conflict in taking the cash (though it sounds like Ditko’s objections are different from Moore’s).

  2. Edo Bosnar

    I think my favorite incarnation of the good Doctor is from the 1970s and early ’80s – mainly the Roger Stern run, but also the earlier Englehart material as well as his appearances in Defenders. Love that annual with the gorgeous art by Russell, and my very favorite single Dr. Strange story is Triumph & Torment. That said, I absolutely love the original Ditko/Lee run, which I first read in those pocketbook reprints from the late ’70s (and I read the hell out of those, until the pages started falling out of them).
    I’m assuming the movie will be fun, as most of the Marvel films have been thus far, even though I was initially not too happy with the casting of Cumberbatch (but based on the trailers I think he’ll do fine). One thing that’s still bugging me a bit is Swinton as the Ancient One. The latter is probably my favorite character in Strange’s supporting cast (well, favorite after Clea who I see as more of a partner). I’m completely indifferent about the gender switch, but I really feel strongly that the Ancient One should be a) Tibetan, and b) ancient – by which I mean old, really, really old, and look that way. A pale, spry-looking middle-aged woman, no matter how good an actress, just doesn’t fit the bill for me (however, it’s not a deal-breaker; I’ll wait to see the film before I pass judgement).

    Otherwise, though, I love Greg’s proposed plot structure for the movie, but my guess is that this one is going to follow the typical, origin-first formula.

    By the way, I also find Ditko’s creation of Dr. Strange quite puzzling given his reportedly rigid adherence to Objectivism – a few years ago I recall reading on Jim Shooter’s now defunct blog that Ditko objected to drawing a story for Defiant Comics because it involved magical, other-dimensional realities. My guess is that back in the early 1960s he probably wasn’t that deeply committed to the whole idea yet.

  3. Simon

    That pitch sounded like what a DECENT movie should do—so abandon hope before Marvel BREAKS your heart… again!

    But WHEN is Strange going to rid us of Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep—or Donald and Hillary, anyway? Also, the best Strange may currently adorn the pulsating pages of—COPRA!

    – “By Watson”

    Who IS Dr. Watson, by the way? I thought he was Jim’s ADMIN account, then Jim’s SCOTTIE, but now he’s—a FOUR-HEADED creature out of Ditko!

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    Dr Strange never really pulled me in, much. Magic characters and I don’t get along well. However, visually, I loved Ditko’s stuff. Even as a kid, when I first saw some of it (probably reprints), it was mind-boggling. After that, it was Gene Colan, as he did atmospheric better than just about anyone. I still recall one story, with Dracula and Dr Strange, where he got to have a lot of misty fun. Apart from that, Defenders was my theater for Dr Strange.

    1. frasersherman

      There’s a sequence in Strange’s battle with the Sons of Satannish where Colan tracks from the rainswept city down through a grate, through the sewers, and finally to the cult’s lair. It’s very nicely done. Also the unmasking of the leader of the cult totally blindsided me so hats off to Roy Thomas for that.

  5. Le Messor

    I’m looking forward to the movie. Although didn’t I see on CSBG right before the end that #1 actually took place in India? Which would mean they could’ve made the Ancient One Indian, and got rid of the controversy?

    My friends and I were trying to figure out which theatre to go to to watch it tomorrow* (I’ll let you know how it was, spoiler-free of course); it was down to Dendy or Limelight.
    Looking at that P. Craig Russell page above, I’d have to say we chose… poorly.

    Ditko’s still alive?!?

    I’m hoping it’s magical, and doesn’t dip too much into the ‘no, it’s really science’, the way the Thor movies did. (And Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be going.)

    * The Australian release date, for some reason, is a full week before the US.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        On the Ditko documentary, I found it more than just a bit frustrating – I though it was downright obnoxious. Well, the way it ended anyway: Jonathan Ross (who made it) and Neil Gaiman barge in on Ditko in his studio off camera even though he told them not to come, end up having a pleasant little private talk with him anyway, and then they gush about it in front of the camera. They kind of came off as double jerks: for disturbing Ditko in the first place and then for rubbing viewers’ faces in the fact that they got to see him and we all didn’t…

          1. Edo Bosnar

            Yeah, I should clarify that my harsh assessment only applies to the way it ended; it is in fact pretty well-made otherwise, and I really loved the parts with Alan Moore in particular.
            And yes, I just checked today, the whole thing is still on YouTube, broken up into seven parts.

          2. Aw, man, you guys gotta stop telling me about cool stuff that’s going to take up my whole weekend 😉

            Ditko is alive and well, last I knew, making comics still and with Robin Snyder, running Kickstarters for them.

            And for me, total buhduhbuhbuhduh (the noise of my fingers moving up and down over my lips) when I found out that a few years back, when Dave Sim visited NYC for … a comics art auction, I think, he visited with Ditko and they talked at Ditko’s apparently quite nice NYC apartment. Man, to have been a fly on THAT wall!

  6. Le Messor

    I saw it last night and loved it.

    I loved the humour of it (hadn’t expected that much!), and that it was actually fantastic (in the magic sense).

    The colours were dark, but there were a lot of them and you could tell them apart.

    It definitely kept the psychedelia. I also thought it was very well-paced.

  7. Le Messor

    Oh, and btw, I loved how they used Pink Floyd music in there, after PF had Doctor Strange (and the Living Tribunal) on an album cover. (A Saucerful Of Secrets; you’ll have to google ‘Doctor Strange on Pink Floyd cover’, I can’t seem to post a link.)

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