Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Second Thoughts On Doctor Strange

Over at Sequart, you can find the first of a short series of new posts on the matter of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's Doctor Strange. (Here) They're pieces which share the most general of themes and half of a single line with something I wrote about the subject last year here at TooBusyThinking. Though the original had received a kind response - including a generous shout-out from Neilalien, a site I've always been very fond of - it really didn't read at all well when I returned to it. Having had it  suggested to me that some of my old posts might be reworked for an E-book, I swiftly discovered that starting from scratch would actually be the only sensible option.

Whether you decide to jump Sequart's way or not - and I hope you will - perhaps you might care to pop in here tomorrow, when the concluding post about Gail Simone's Batgirl #12 will be up. If not, then why not Thursday, when a review of Earth One Superman: II will appear here? As always, you'd be more than welcome.



  1. Colin,

    Any time spent contemplating Dr. Strange's origin is certainly well spent! I love Roger Stern's description of the story as "Biblical," it is almost a parable.

    I'm curious to see where you're headed with the assertion "As such, what’s most remarkable about Strange’s ultimate redemption is that it seems to have been inspired far more by logic and self-interest rather than any moral or sentimental transformation." I had thought his motivation stemmed from sentiment in some form - what I perceived to be a humanitarian concern for the aged Ancient One's life, as though his role as a caregiver had finally crystallized. However, since he's also worried at what might happen to the world without the Ancient One alive to defend it, I suppose there is some self-interest mingled in.

    You're right in noting how the origin story is where most of Strange's flaws are dealt with. It probably has a lot to do with Ditko and his feelings about heroes being confident and self-assured. Strange's past has come back to haunt him under the pens of writers like Chris Claremont & Brian K. Vaughan (his sins of the past being a substitute for the "daddy issues" I've discussed before) and writers have enjoyed wallowing in his formerly loutish self (ie, J. Michael Stryczinski). I recall one author discussing his dream of a rewritten Dr. Strange origin wherein Strange would be performing back alley abortions during his time between the car accident and Tibet (mentioned in Comics Scene, I think?). Then there was the ill-advised villainizing of Dr. Strange which went on during the Midnight Sons era... let us say no more.

    It's interesting to note how the Stephen Strange living on the docks isn't so far off from the O'Neil/McDonnell alcoholic Tony Stark, as though Stark had been descending down to Strange's level (one of many comparisons you could draw between the two - probably why trading their origins is a popular What If? concept). Notably, there's no mention of alcohol being behind the accident in the first version of the origin, but it was added many years later. I recall neilalien railing against this at some point (circa 1999?) because giving Strange a hang-up with alcoholism places him firmly in Iron Man's shadow.

    1. Hello Michael:- Thank you for the feedback! It's much appreciated. In trying to take a look at the Ditko/Lee run on Strange as a whole, I'm well aware of how valuable it is to get to chat about the material.

      The comment you quite rightly seized upon about Strange’s logic/self-interest & how it influenced his taking to magic is very much what the next section is about. I'm aware that I'm out on a limb there, and yet I thought "Why not try to bring another way to look at this?". :-) Of course, that doesn't mean that doing so either (1) holds water, or (2) matters in the slightest! Yet I think that Strange's decision to take up the mantle of disciple to Ancient One reflects the thought processes which guided his life as a predatory medical capitalist. It’s not a break with the values and practises of his past so much as an extension of them. As such, what appealed about the Ancient One's way in the first place was that (1) it worked!, and (2) it brought the best possible life to Strange in a way that could be empirically tested. The definition of “his best interest” changed, but not the way he evaluated it.

      Hah. I leave my evidence - and my dubious reasoning - to next week, when I will be permanently available for torpedoing. Until then, I rest uneasily knowing how thin my case must be.

      There is a point to this beyond that too, I do assure you.

      Your summary of just some of the horrors that have been loaded up into Strange's back story makes me shudder at the stupidity of it all. (To raise but one point, "status" is massively important to the pre-magic Strange, and snobbery rules his affairs. Such a man doesn't resort to back street abortions. Not because he's too ethical, but because he's too proud.)


    2. cont;

      And in the insertion of what you playfully and quite rightly label as "Daddy issues" can be found the lack of imagination and understanding of a great many folks where the power of the original origin is concerned. The old Strange wouldn't break the law, for example; he used it to behave in terrible ways. That's what makes him the monster he is. And to have him indulge in ungawdly behaviour so as to spice up his past is to miss the point that Strange's past is utterly horrific as it is. He let people suffer and die because saving their lives – or even helping them get well - wouldn't bring him enough wealth and status. Strange is the very worst of a medical system organised around profit and his advantage was founded in the most raw and absolute of suffering. If that isn't enough to make the character both fascinating and appalling, then I don’t know what is. (It's a point which the Ancient One is given to slyly underlining - me thinks - when he refers to Strange in the origin as "Man Of The Western World" and gently mocks his empiricism. It’s not Strange’s essential humanity that’s the problem, but the system which has rewarded the expression of his best qualities for the worst of ends.)

      Again, the alcoholism is to my mind a complete and utter misreading of the reason why the origin is so powerful. Strange is – as I know I keep saying - terribly, terribly proud. He may be reduced to poverty for some reason - as I touch upon, that's never explained - but he's still fantastically focused and haughty. (He may be smoking a roll-up, but smoking per se wasn't associated with degeneracy as alcohol abuse was.) If we want evidence of this; he travelled across the world to India with no funds at all and then walked - we must presume - to the north of India. Up a mountain. A snow covered mountain. His was always the fiercest of wills matched to incredible powers of intellect and physical focus. To make him anything other than THE most selfish and proud of men undermines the point of the character. As learn when he meets the Ancient One, Strange is poor but he's hardly broken or lacking gifts. Doctor Strange is - for me - the tale of how a man of formidable qualities can be corrupted by the logic and rewards of "Western man". Take the same qualities and attach them to a life serving an ethical code - with its own entirely predictable, measurable rewards - and what was a monster becomes a hero.

      That's the Strange I love. There was no-one worse in an everyday sense, and now there's no-one better. I really do think that the Ditko/Lee version is an incredible resource that's been typically ill-used. The more you read – as of course you’ll know far better than me – the more there is to fascinate, from common cross-dimensional codes of behaviour to a unique version of a hero’s code.

    3. Wondering how a seemingly-destitute Stephen Strange afforded a trip to Tibet is just one of those fannish questions we fannish types indulge in. The comics themselves have lingered over problems such as "why didn't the Spectre just end World War 2 himself?" and "why do Sandman and Norman Osborn have the same hairdo?" or "why did Toro coincidentally have the same powers as the Human Torch?" (seriously, there are two different retcons addressing this latter question). I think you describe the pre-redemption Stephen Strange accurately and I don't think we need to concern ourselves too much with how he'd solve the problem. He's Stephen Strange, by gum! If he wants to travel to Tibet, he'll find a way, be it forging tickets, blackmailing pilots or maybe simply pawning his last family heirloom (thus leaving him free to decorate the Sanctum Sanctorum with curios from his new life, rather than the old one).

      It strikes me as interesting to note how seldom Strange's background as a physician is integral to his stories. It comes up when he's a guest star: "physician to the super people," but outside of a brief effort by Roy Thomas in the 60s, he hasn't resumed being a surgeon. I wonder if granting Strange a normal occupation would help him connect to the audiences who usually have problems with him. If he resumed medicine, he'd have to face up to his old self everyday, especially when confronted with colleagues or patients from the old times who'd assume he hadn't changed. There could be new sources of conflict for him... supposing he realizes a colleague's patient has mystical complications surrounding their illness, but he can't make anyone understand without sounding like either a new age hippie or like the infamous egomaniac he was once. He'd find a way to save the patient, but then face disciplinary action for his behaviour... I think it'd be compelling material.

    4. Oh dear, and now I've recalled the observation many have made of how Ditko evidently originally intended Strange to be Asian and this makes me wonder what insights it might offer into his original character development... 'tis a gift which keeps on giving, this subject.

      May the ever omnipotent Oshtur smile upon thee, o favoured blogger of Balthaak!

    5. Hello Michael:- You're right, it's a fannish curiosity at play, and I must admit, I rather like that as long as it's played out in the spirit you mention. All too often there's a sense that there's a "right" way of reading these things, a "correct" way of linking (a) with (b). To me, and obviously to you and Mike too - huzzah! - these are just examples of playing with the texts so that they sharpen our own sense of why things strike a chord.

      And in that spirit, it's lovely to get the idea of Strange decorating his new world in the way he does. I talk about the complete lack of connection with his old life later in the coming posts, and in the E-book version too, which will come later and will have some previously unpublished material. I'll not weary you with the way I try to make that fit with a few other matters that I’ve raised in the above post. But again, I do like the way that Strange moves so easily and completely from one paradigm to another. Once he's sure the new way makes sense, he adopts it entirely, doesn’t he, from ethics to furniture.

      I do agree that the medical mission angle is an intriguing one. But I think he's already got a mission in the wider world, and that it’s one that runs through the Lee/Ditko tales as a whole. And by that, I don’t mean “Save The World” in a general sense. It’s something I’ve just tried to tighten up in the rewrite for the Tuesday Sequart post next week that I’ve just sent off. I’ve just tried to explain it here, and posted a long comment which attempted to do so, but it didn’t work in the space. It really is a post of its own. As such, my own playful version about Strange’s worldly mission, which has all too often been ignored since, will be up next week. It can’t possibly trump yours, of course, but that’s where we came in. It’s not intended to. What I like is placing “your” Strange’s mission next to that of “mine” in my head and seeing what gets generated from the two :)

    6. Hello Michael:- "Oh dear, and now I've recalled the observation many have made of how Ditko evidently originally intended Strange to be Asian .."

      It IS a quite fascinating business, isn't it? Since I'm using only the published stories of the period and nothing else, it's something which I've pushed to one side. But I do hope that we might have something definitive about this from Mr Ditko himself, who does appear to be issuing some essays which touch on early-Marvel issues. As you say, Strange is indeed the gift that keeps giving. I was keenly aware writing this that you yourself - with your knowledge of the pulps as well as of the Oriental stereotypes in the work of Rohmer AND of course the comics themselves - would be able to bring FAR more than I could to the subject. But as a bottom-feeder social scientist, I thought I could have a go at trying to construct the world-view which might have informed the actions of Strange and his fellows in Marvel's magical shadows. As a playful exercise, I hasten to say! But it does strike me as an out-of-the-way approach to do some writing practise on ....

  2. I did intend to comment on this but last night, the first night of our new house move, my elderly mother passed away so I shall not be posting anything more for the moment.

    1. Hello Karl:- My sincerest condolences to you and yours on this saddest of losses. I really do send my very best wishes to you during what must be an immensely difficult time.

  3. Maybe Dr. Strange used up a lot of his funds on expensive, possibly experimental medical procedures in an effort to restore his hands' functioning? Sure, let's go with that. He had just enough money left to make the trip to Asia, where he figured he'd solve his problem or die trying.

    Not that the Ditko origin needs my speculation, mind you.

    - Mike Loughlin

    1. Hello Mike:- It's an origin that doesn't need mine either! But since I started ...

      I like the idea of Strange spending all his money on medical procedures which didn't work. There's a terrible stress there, since he was told by an expert - who he presumably recognised as such - that he'd never have the control of his hands back. That means Strange would have been involved in at the least chancey procedures. The uber-rationalist being forced by his pride and desperation to pursue some very long shots? Fascinating.

      And all the while, he'd have been too stubborn to take work as a consultant. In effect, he'd have been driving himself into poverty. I like that.

  4. Great work, as usual. Doctor Strange is a fascinating case, since he is on paper a poor fit amongst the other founding Marvels. As you mention, his maturity and emotional stability mark his as a breed apart from his fellows. However, I would suggest there are other differences as well.

    Unlike every other member of the founding Marvel, Doctor Strange is not a science hero. There is no hint of radiation, or mutation, or strange experiments. He is almost an anti-science hero, since he starts as a man of scientific reason and becomes a person defined by spiritual faith. Even in the case of Thor, Marvel was consistently pulling away from spiritualism and magic and toward science fiction and pseudo-science as its animating principals. Dr. Strange was the lone salmon swimming against that current.

    Dr. Strange was moving against the Marvel current in another way as well. Lee, Kirby and Ditko were largely moving away from the pulp conventions that had informed the Golden Age and, therefore, DC Comics. They were moving toward a new and different set of conventions that would really come to define the superhero genre. The antagonists were no longer political enemies, gangsters and the odd mad scientist. The glamorous super-villain replaced them. In fact, the socio-economic class of the protagonist and the antagonist were nearly reversed. With his swanky townhouse and the faithful Wong, Dr. Strange was almost retro. His earliest antagonists were nearly all social outsiders of one kind, or another.

    And yet it is impossible for me to imagine Dr. Strange outside the Marvel Universe. He seems as woven into its fabric as Spider-Man, or the Fantastic Four.

    1. Hello Dean:- Thank you. I hope the following pieces will show that I agree entirely about the differences between Strange and his fellow champions of the MU. It feels very self-serving to say that - as if OF COURSE reading another piece by me is something anyone would do. But all I mean is that this piece is actually something I've never tried before, for good or ill :) I've usually got one or two key points that I'm worrying over in my posts, but here - since Sequart were talking about an E-book - I tried to go for something with a broader range. But as such, it's terrific to have your ideas about the difference between Doctor S and his sort-of peers. As with Michael above, it's like receiving notes on a work in progress and it's much appreciated!

      I do - of course - agree with you about the issue of comics-science vs comics-magic. Strange is in so ways a man apart. But in the Tuesday-coming piece, I do head out on a limb and suggest that there's one way in which that conflict can be reconsiled. I do think that there's a reason why Strange doesn't seem to be entirely out-of-step with the "science" heroes, although of course he was always very different.

      As always, your point about the changing nature of the relationship between heroe and villian is right on the nose. I do feel that some folks over-exaggerate how class became a radical component of the Marvel Revolution. The only members of the proletariat - to use the term broadly - in the MU were the Thing and Nick Fury, and both of them had actually moved right up to the very top of society too. (Steve Rogers was effectively classless in the period and lived in the luxury of Avengers Mansion.) Peter Parker's homelife was distinctly middle-class, in British terms, despite the arrival of seriously hard times. Beyond that, the MU's heroes were all either affluent professionals - Murdock, Blake etc - or members of the bourgeoisie itself - Professor X, Richards and Stark are stinking rich. As such, there's a difference of sorts in the class background of the MU's characters, in that real-world problems are allowed to appear in the narratives, but the high summer of early Marvel saw characters who were still largely the same as the DC superheroes of the period. (Who similarly split into professionals and super-rich.) As such, Strange does - as you imply - occupy a strange position, in that he does harken back to a previous era in terms of his dislocation from everyday melodrama - the key distinction, I think - and yet in class terms he's not actually so different at all to the likes Of Richards or Xavier, in their pseudo-scientific "sanctorums".

      The strange thing is that I think your category of "political enemies, gangsters and the odd mad scientist" actually applies very well to Strange's antagonists in a general sense. The super-villain has no place in his adventures, while the conflict is always about magical power. Again, there's little that reflects Marvel's soap opera melodrama there, or at least, in the sense that Lee and his comrades allowed aspects of the real world - health, bills, public standing, love - to season their stories. In that, Strange again stands apart. He's rich, independent, free of social pressures, untouched by family, love or friendship beyond the Ancient One ....

      And yet his stories are entirely compelling. Which is, I think, why I thought I might like to write about him in a little more detail. Because picking apart something of why he's so compelling and yet so different from what came before AND what was happening at the same time ... well, I sometimes wonder if - Amazing Spider-Man and "tragic" Silver-Age Superman aside - there's an more fascinating character from the period to be found.

    2. Hi Colin,

      I am eager to see how you comic book science vs comic book magic question. The relative lack of success of magical heroes in a genre that willingly accepts ultimate nullifiers and cosmic cubes is worthy of fleshing out.

      You are quite right to point out the lack of true class difference between the founding Marvels and the pulpier heroes of the Golden Age. Thinking further, what I meant was a concept from NIXONLAND by Ron Pealrstein. The segmentation of the voting population into pseudo-classes that Pearlstein dubs Franklins and Orthogonians. Franklins were like the Kennedys: wealthy, polished and socially connected. The Orthogonians were like Nixon: awkward, but determined and hard-working. Therefore, it is a social distinction that cuts across class lines. By flattering the Orthogonian segment of the U.S, population that Nixon built his majority and the modern Republican coalition.

      The clubby quality, congenial tone of the Silver Age DC organizations marked their heroes as Franklins. Literary fiction from the same period is largely by and about Franklins. That is what made comics such a low-stakes (and low investment) enterprise. Readers who were interested in the lives of the talented and exceptional could graduate from Superman, Batman and company to the Glass family. Whereas, the fractious Marvel families, schools and workplaces are Orthogonian territory. The Marvel Universe is packed with likely Nixon voters.

      It is in that sense that Dr. Strange is in a different class than his fellows.

      Dr. Stephen Strange enjoys a sort of easy affluence that can tolerate a mid-career meltdown and still yield a very comfortable existence. His misfortunes effect him only temporarily. Once he discovers the Ancient One, Dr. Strange retains few hints of bitterness over his losing his prior career. He is perfectly comfortable setting up an unconventional household with two students, one of whom doubles as his servant and the other his mistress. He is utterly unconcerned how that might appear, since he is utterly assured of his social standing. He is (in short) a Franklin of the first order.

    3. Hello Dean:- Oh, I do like that 'Franlins/Orthogonian' distinction.

      "The Marvel Universe is packed with likely Nixon voters."

      That certainly got me thinking! I've long felt that the only likely political form for an America in a super-people universe would be fascism. The endless uncertainty of a world in which alien invasion follows alien invasion, and in which it's a tossed coin between it being the Hulk or the Juggernaut who flattens the family home first, would surely promote political extremism. Given that it's America, a right wing authoritarian govt would seem the most likely. there's certainly a lack of superheroes who seem likely to object. A number of the mutants - who would be likely to be the scapegoats, of course - perhaps, but then, few of the citizens of Utopia objected to Cyclops reign of torture etc etc. I suspect even Marvel's mutants would be relatively open to a state so like the one they accepted for themselves.

      In fact, I'm struggling to find too many folks who'd resist such a thing. Daredevil. Perhaps Luke Cage. It's certainly hard to come up with too many Marvel superheroes who display consistently liberal, let alone left-wing principles.

      We're do - omed!

      (by "do - omed", I didn't mean to suggest your politics, of course, whatever they may be. Just to say that there's not much hope in terms of healthy political debate in the MU when most folks are either apathetic or at best conservative.)

      I take your point about Strange seeming to be a Franklin according to the points you've made. (Although being that I've spent far too much time with the Lee/Ditko issues recently, I would say that Clea's period living with Strange is from the post-Ditko/Lee era, while Wong is nought but a rarely appearing servant fondly regarded in the period.)

      But Strange isn't well-connected. He lives quite separate from any elite, and even his time spent with super-people up until 1966 is remarkably limited. (One adventure with Spidey, the FF and Thor, all in their mags.) But he is polished and wealthy, or at least he seems to be. The one variable which might give him a slightly indeterminate position is his dedication to helping anybody of any class. It's obviously something which is whispered about, and it makes him the only one of the early MU's superpeople who is immediately accessible to the "people". Try getting hold of the Avengers or the FF and you'd be in trouble. But if someone was suffering from a magical problem, Strange felt obliged to drop everything to help.

      So, a cousin of the Franklins. perhaps? An oddball who’s neither quite of the Nixon or the Kennedy tendency? That Strange, he will not quite fit into any category …