One indication of the esteem that "Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts" held during his first run in the early days of the Marvel Age of Comics can be noted on the front and back covers of the hardback Marvel Masterworks volume collecting his first adventures. While other entries in the company's reissue series sport reproductions of front covers where the characters (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Hulk, et al) first made their appearance, the Sorcerer Supreme only gets represented by a pin-up page that'd appeared in one of the comics' interiors. Look to the back, where an array of covers is reprinted, and you can see the reason. None of the covers of Strange Tales, home to Strange's earliest adventures, contained a good full-page image of the guy. More often, Strange's feature was shunted to the bottom of the page while Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, was more prominently displayed.
Last laugh's on Doc Strange, though. Today, few recall the Human Torch features as anything more than a weak Fantastic Four spin-off, while Stan Lee & Steve Ditko's second big co-creation after Spider-Man has grown in fannish stature over the years, largely on the strength of artist/co-plotter Ditko's surreally inventive eye.
The series' beginnings were humble enough. As shown in Volume One (which reprints Strange's 1963-6 run in Strange Tales from issues 110-111, then 114-141), the early Strange Tales barely read less like a hero strip and more like one of the soft supernatural comics that had been Marvel's bread-and-butter before Fantastic Four revitalized the comics company. In his earliest appearances, in fact, Strange's adventures don't appear much different than those experienced by Doctor Droom, an earlier sorcerer character who'd made sporadic appearances in the line's monster comics.
In the first five-pager, for instance, a businessman comes to Strange because he is being tormented by nightmares. Strange agrees to help him, and travels into the land of nightmares, but - surprise! - it turns out that the tormented sleeper is being bedeviled because he has a guilty conscience. This was the sort of "twist" ending that writer Stan Lee recycled endlessly in the pre-superhero Marvels, and he clearly wasn't ready to abandon it in those early outings. That big ol' seemingly haunted house? It's really - big spoiler here! - a creature from another space-time continuum! That town of bewitched European villagers? They're actually possessed by aliens from another dimension!
Lee & Ditko didn't even bother to craft an origin for Strange until his fourth story, a situation that Lee would attempt to frame as chaos-as-usual in the Marvel Bullpen ("It could only happen to the off-beat Marvel Comics Group!") but more likely reflected the character's flyweight status in the Marvel lineup. Despite these modest beginnings, the character began to develop his own unique look and storylines, grabbing more pages of his host comic and growing his own continuity. Artist Ditko started receiving open credit as "plotter," while Lee apparently stepped back and basically filled in the blanks with his stentorian dialog. (Anyone who believes Lee wasn't essential, though, need only compare his agreeably hokey prose with the flat-fisted fare by Don Rico, who scripted one episode midway into this book's run.) This open shift in creative responsibility seemed to free Ditko to let his fertile visual imagination run rampant - which was all to the good.
Many of the early Strange adventures were variations on the western gunslinger plot: Stephen Strange, a former haughty surgeon who has trained with a wizened wise man known only as the Ancient One, is regularly challenged by punks wanting to steal his mantle of Sorcerer Supreme. Chief of these is Baron Mordo, a former student of the Ancient One who chafes as Strange's favored status. He strikes at Strange, often by attacking the enfeebled Ancient One, leading to an inevitable showdown with the two antagonists casting spells against each other. Lots of wavery beams of unimaginable power get cast in these scenes: first mana-a-mano in standing dueling position, then through more enjoyably preposterous stances and settings as the series' fantasy world became more elaborate.
Our hero, unlike his adversaries, is sworn to avoid harming them at all costs, so a lot of his early battles, in particular, wind up being resolved through trickery: Strange sending out an army of doppelgangers, for instance, to confound an enemy who wastes his spells on the wrong Strange(s). As a character, Strange never quite got rid of his haughtiness, which made him a refreshing contrast to wisecracking urbanites like Peter Parker or Johnny Storm. Scripter Lee was fond of crafting solemn invocations during Strange's battles - heavy on the alliteration ("By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!" "In the name of the dread Dormammu!" and so on) - and in one case, at least, that propensity worked against him. When it came time for our hero to venture into the realm of one of these all-powerful beings, Lee selected Dormammu, one of the most unfortunately named nemeses in all of comicdom. (Just try speaking it aloud in a menacing tone - I dare you.)
Despite his goofy moniker, though, the Big D. made a great villainous adversary: a flame-headed master of another dimension with a suitably fiery temper (he tends to cage unsuccessful underlings in the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak rather quickly) and a tyrannical hold over his people. Dormammu also is the only one strong enough to hold back the rampaging Mindless Ones, creatures whose sole purpose is to "fight. . .and destroy," who live on the fringes of his domain. Once our hero enters Dormammu's dimension, you can really see Ditko visually let go, playing with perspective and Dali-esque imagery, popping characters in and out of the picture through oddly placed dimensional doors, doing away with solid ground altogether. The results are wondrous.
It's with Strange's first trip to this proto-psychedelic landscape (a phrase that the conservative Ditko would probably loathe) that the series really begins to take hold. The conflicts grow more cosmic and the adventures more imaginative. Volume One's highlight is a twelve-part serial that comprises that last part of the book: in it, Dormammu, having sworn to not attack Strange at the end of their first encounter, gives his power to Baron Mordo to defeat Strange by proxy. Our hero is forced to desperately flee across the globe, seeking the key to defeating the Dormammu/Mordo alliance while servants of the dark duo pursue him around every corner. Ditko, who is at his best when his protagonists are harried and persecuted (think of all those panels of an unreasoning mob waving its fists at Spider-Man), has a field day messing with his isolated hero.
Marvel may've continued to treat him so, but by this time Dr. Strange was no mere second-stringer. Unfortunately for growing fans of the character, the Lee & Ditko collaboration would only last one more issue past the last story in this volume: Lee left after one more story, while Ditko stayed on to work with Roy Thomas and Dennis O'Neil for just four more stories. Without Ditko's whacked-out visuals and plot sense, the strip began to flounder. It wasn't until the early seventies, when young Marvelites Steve Englehart & Frank Brunner took hold of the character, that he once more lived up to the title of Sorcerer Supreme.
But good as these later Strange Excursions were, for many fans (including me) the Lee & Ditko Doc Strange remains unparalleled. Over the past few months, Marvel has been re-releasing quite a few of these Masterworks hardbacks. As a document of one character's four-year evolution - and as entertaining old-fashioned Marvel Age hero comics - this book is one of the best.