Strange Tales 110, 111, 114
Story: Stan Lee
Art: Steve Ditko
I think it’s important as we start to give some background on what Marvel was doing at the time. Writer Stan Lee, with the help of artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, were creating something special but I don’t get the sense they realized it. They were under restriction in the early 60s and could only publish so many books in a month. To get around this, several characters would share each book. Reading these starting issues you can tell they were trying out all sorts of ideas. Doctor Strange happened to be one of those experiments as a small 6 page back story in Strange Tales 110. All three issues covered here were the same size and structure.
It’s also worth noting that this was really Steve Ditko’s creation. All books followed what was referred to as the Marvel Method at the time. Stan and the artist would come up with a rough outline for a story, the artist would go off and draw the panels, and then Stan would add exposition and dialogue to the them. It feels like the art was driving the story here. Steve Ditko had so many grand ideas he wanted to put in the book. Stan compliments it well with his undeniable ability to write exciting and unique dialog. At the end of the day though, I see this original run as Ditko’s with Lee supporting.
In Strange Tales 110, We begin with an unfortunate man having trouble sleeping due to frequent nightmares. It just so happens he has heard rumors of a practitioner of black magic. That’s the first place I go when having trouble sleeping. He gets in touch with our main character, Doctor Strange. He agrees to help the man after astral projecting and seeking advice from his Master, an elderly man who resides somewhere in Asia. The next night he waits for the man to fall asleep and then projects himself into the dream.
Once inside, Doctor Strange confronts a foe he apparently has faced before, Nightmare evil ruler of the dream dimension. Nightmare reveals to him that the man is being punished for cheating his clients for their money. Meanwhile despite Strange being in his dream, the man wakes up and attempts to murder him. Thankfully he is able to concentrate on his magical amulet and blind the man as he narrowly escapes the clutches of Nightmare. Strange awakens and shames the man into turning himself in.
The opening issue does not pull any punches. Within just 6 pages the reader is introduced to Doctor Strange, an established practitioner of black magic. We know little of how he came to be, but featured in the issue are concepts of astral projection, use of a magical unnamed amulet, and traveling into dreams. It was surprisingly engaging for a first issue, I’ve certainly read worse.
Strange Tales 111 introduces us to another black magic user, Baron Mordo. It is revealed that like Doctor Strange he also trained under the Master. However, he went a little too black with his magic and was exiled. He spends his time brooding in a hidden castle in Europe, plotting against the Master and Strange with the goal of taking their power. His scheme this time is to use astral projection and mind control a servant of the Master, poisoning his drink! Luckily Doctor Strange wanted to check in on the Master with his… experiment findings? Realizing something is amiss, he projects himself to find Mordo. They engage in combat through their astral forms as the Master lies dying. Strange uses his magical amulet to heal the master and at the same time tricks Mordo into returning to his physical body. Better luck next time Mordo!
It is a visually interesting issue. We learn that you can fight in the astral projected form and more importantly, you can die while in it. The way Ditko draws the two fighting each other, dodging punches in dynamic poses and flying through walls is fantastic. Just two issues in, a couple key villains of Doctor Strange have been established. I also have a feeling that the unnamed amulet is going to a convenient plot resolution device for a while.
A few months would go by before the next story. It wasn’t until Strange Tales 114, and unfortunately it’s not nearly as good as the other two. Baron Mordo is already back and this time he means to set a trap for our hero. Disguising his voice, he lures Doctor Strange to a castle. After falling for it, he becomes paralyzed from a magic spell. For no good reason Baron Mordo leaves him to die a slow death. Strange then contacts the Master just to tell him not to worry, he’ll figure it out on his own. It turns out his solution is to take control of a local girl’s mind against her will. Not a good look.
It’s fine… desperate times call for desperate measures. I’m sure once she has helped out and freed him he will apologize and explain everything.
Oh okay then. I guess wiping her mind will work too. This is one of those examples where the Silver Age hasn’t all aged well. On that note, it appears as though Doctor Strange is drawn to be of Asian descent in these first few issues. You never see his eyes, and unfortunately in that time period this is how people were drawn in comics to represent Asian cultures. I can only theorize that Steve Ditko had originally intended him to be this way. It’s not until the next issue which establishes his origin where he starts to be drawn to look Caucasian. Even then his appearance would shift between the two for a few more issues. Perhaps there was editorial pressure to make this change and Ditko was fighting against it? We will never know.
Up next we finally find out the humble beginnings of our hero and confront Nightmare again!