There are thousands of comic-book characters out there, many of them with publication histories going back decades. And while there are plenty of must-read or best-of lists for characters like Batman or Spider-Man, it’s not easy knowing where to start when tackling characters who are slightly less famous than the reigning box-office champs.
Recommended Reads is my attempt to shed some light on those lesser luminaries — not with a list of their “best” stories, but with a sampling of books that cover the many different points in their careers, and show how the characters have evolved over the years. In this edition: we look in on Marvel’s resident Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange.
1. “The Origin of Doctor Strange” (Strange Tales #115, 12/63)
Confession time: As a rule, I don’t like magic-users in my comics. It always feels like a bit of a cheat when writers are allowed to say “a wizard did it” and make anything happen by having someone wave their hand or say something backwards (hcihw si ylbidercni gniyonna ot daer, yb eht yaw). Then there’s the problem of characterization: too often, magic-users in comics tend to be aloof and distant, focusing on more cosmic matters that don’t have a direct connection to the mundane affairs of us mere mortals (I’m looking at you, Doctor Fate). That wasn’t the case with Doctor Strange, Marvel’s master of the mystic arts. Introduced in 1963’s Strange Tales #110, Stephen Strange — as detailed in this first telling of his origin story — was a brilliant but arrogant surgeon who lost the use of his hands in a car accident. Desperate for a cure, Strange travelled to the Far East in search of the Ancient One, whom he heard could work miracles. What Strange found instead of a cure was salvation, and a chance to do more with his life than amass wealth. Pretty powerful stuff, and all the more impressive considering how much of it was packed into just eight pages.
2. “The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!” (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2, 1965)
This story, the first team-up between Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, is vintage Silver Age Marvel — bad-guy wizard hypnotizes goons to steal the Wand of Watoomb from Strange’s house, Spider-Man arrives on the scene, Spidey and Strange team up to defeat mystical/physical menaces before parting as friends and wishing each other well in their journeys (“and may your amulet never tickle!”) — and for that reason alone it deserves a spot on this list. But there’s also the thrill of seeing Steve Ditko’s two major Marvel characters together for the first time, with the more grounded Spider-Man spending most of his time in Strange’s mystic realms (which Ditko always excelled at making look as psychedelic as possible). This is also the story that confirms Strange’s status as a member of Marvel’s then-growing universe, making it clear he occupies the same reality as the more science-based heroes that were coming fast and furious at that time.
3. Doctor Strange: A Separate Reality (originally appeared in Marvel Premiere #9-10, 12-14 and Dr. Strange #1-2, 4-5, 06/73-12/74)
Let’s be honest: Lee did a fine job conjuring up the mystical mumbo-jumbo that made early Doctor Strange stories fun to read, and Ditko had no equal when it came to visualizing the many weird dimensions and demons Strange dealt with. But in all fairness, a lot of Strange’s earlier stories (with the exception of “The Eternity Saga” that ran through Strange Tales #130-46, and isn’t included here because of its epic length) rarely rose above the “Let’s hurl magic bolts from our fingertips!” level of plot development. It would take a new generation of Marvel writers and artists to explore the potential in a character like Doctor Strange. In this multi-issue story (collected together as A Separate Reality in 2002), co-plotters Steve Englehart (script) and Frank Brunner (art) had Strange inherit the title of Sorcerer Supreme after the death of his mentor, the Ancient One — and just in time, too, as a power-mad warlock is travelling backwards in time to absorb all the magic that ever existed. Brunner clearly delighted in depicting the unreal parts of Strange’s journey, and the artwork as a whole is pretty fantastic, but it’s the story that really stands out here, with the complete destruction (and near-instant re-formation) of the Earth, a character who literally becomes God, and Strange meeting a giant talking caterpillar just a few of the more audacious plot points. A lot of Marvel stories from the early 1970s look clichéd and contrived today; these are among the few that have actually improved over time.
5. “The Showdown” (Marvel Fanfare #6, 01/83)
Marvel Fanfare was an anthology title launched in the early days of the direct market to give writers and artists a chance to offer their own takes on characters they may not have dealt with before. Issue #5, for instance, saw writer Chris Claremont (of X-Men fame) team up with artists Marshall Rogers and P. Craig Russell to tell the story of Strange using his wits to defeat a home intruder. And while that’s well and good, the story in the following issue by Roger Stern and artist Charles Vess is a bit more fun, mainly because it shows a more playful side to Strange that he hadn’t really shown up to that point. In a nutshell: a young sorcerer shows up at Strange’s Greenwich Village townhouse demanding a duel for the title of Sorcerer Supreme. Strange welcomes him inside and uses a bit of deception to gently dissuade the young man from his chosen course, leaving him a little wiser about the true nature of mystical power. Not a “great” story in the sense that it changes the doctor’s life in any way, but it serves as a reminder of the huge responsibilities he bears on his shoulders along with the awesome powers at his command. (With great power, etc…)
4. “The Chosen One” (Doctor Strange #66, 08/84)
Writer Roger Stern is not someone a lot of comic fans might recognize, and that’s a shame; his lengthy runs on Doctor Strange, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers and other Marvel titles during the ’80s included some of the best Marvel stories of that decade. While paying homage to the Lee/Ditko years with stories set in far-off dimensions, Stern also made room for more intimate stories, like this one (with art by the impeccable pairing of Paul Smith and Terry Austin) about Arnie Green, a young American underachiever with a few interesting quirks (for instance, he never has to wait in line at the movies and he always seems to have exact change for the pizza delivery) whose life takes a dramatic turn when monks from an ancient order show up and declare him to be their Chosen One’s next incarnation. It’s a nice, self-contained story that drives home the point that magic isn’t confined to Tibetan hideaways or otherworldly realms; it’s all around us, disguised in many marvelous and mundane ways.
6. “Perchance to Dream” (Marvel Fanfare #41, 12/88)
Another Marvel Fanfare production, this one finds Doctor Strange journeying through dreams and making a startling discovery about a “city of dreams.” The story by Walt Simonson is a delight, but the real treat here is the rare Marvel artwork by Dave Gibbons (of Watchmen fame), whose realist style is actually quite perfect for rendering one of the odder places to which Strange has travelled. One of the reasons offered for why Strange has never broken through to Marvel’s A-list is the fact that very few of his adventures offer up the kind of fist-flying action that Marvel fans tend to like in their comic entertainment. Indeed, “Perchance to Dream” is a perfect example of how well Strange does not easily fit into the typical Marvel superhero mold, with Strange using his brains to outwit a far more powerful opponent, and an ending that’s as pulse-pounding as watching the doctor drift back to sleep (mainly because that’s exactly what happens). Sometimes being a bit different is a good thing, no?
7. Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment (1989)
One of the finer hidden gems in Marvel’s library, Triumph and Torment offers a definitive look at two of the company’s most fascinating characters, painting Doom in particular as a far more complicated person than his early appearances would suggest. Writer Roger Stern (again with that guy) teams up with Mike Mignola (pre-Hellboy) and Mark Badger to tell the story of Doom’s quest to rescue his mother’s soul from Mephisto’s infernal clutches; Strange is… well, not exactly tricked into helping Doom fight the hordes of hell, but his armored ally certainly chooses a roundabout way to secure his help (always remember: Doom does not beg. Or use the first person). Granted, Doom takes over the book to some extent, simply by being the more flawed (and more fascinating) of the two men, but Strange’s willingness to help a child save his mother — even when that child is someone as devious as Doom — does him credit, and demonstrates a more merciful side of his personality that readers don’t often see.
8. “Strange Matters” (The Incredible Hulk #370-71, 06-07/90)
I’ve skipped over the doctor’s appearances in the 1970s title The Defenders, and not entirely by accident; while Strange was one of the original members of Marvel’s original non-team, there aren’t any stories from his time in that title that I would consider essential Doctor Strange stories. This story, on the other hand, certainly fits the bill. In a nutshell: Peter David and artist Dale Keown bring the good doctor and the Sub-Mariner back together with the Hulk to fight Strange’s counterpart Sorcerer Supreme from a dark dimension, and things get hairier when the sorcerer from the other place possesses the Hulk’s body. Come for the witty banter; stay for the chance to see our three heroes act like a bunch of former college buddies reminiscing about old times. Strange doesn’t have a lot of close friends in the Marvel universe (“colleagues” is probably a more accurate term for his relationship with most other heroes), but Namor and the Hulk are probably as close as Strange will get to having friends, so it’s always fun to see the old band get back together for one more gig.
10. Doctor Strange: The Flight of Bones #1-4 (1999)
The 1990s wasn’t the best time to be a Doctor Strange fan; the first few years saw Strange’s ongoing series (his third) hijacked by Marvel’s many crossover “events,” while the company’s financial woes and focus on higher-profile properties during the back half of the decade led to a lot of different directions for the character that never really went anywhere. After Strange’s series ended in 1996, there were a few graphic novels and mini-series published, including a 2004 series by J. Michael Straczynski that updated Strange’s origin. But for my money, The Flight of Bones, by Dan Jolly, Tony Harris and Ray Snyder, is a good example of the kind of experimentation that Doctor Strange saw during that time. Published under the more noirish Marvel Knights imprint, Flight of Bones offers up a tale in which the doctor plays the supernatural detective when bizarre robberies and cases of spontaneous combustion send him on the trail to meet up with an old nemesis. Not recommended for anyone who prefers the “By the hoary hordes of Hoggoth!” version of the character, but a good read for anyone interested in seeing how someone like Strange might work in a story more suited to, say, DC’s John Constantine.
12. Doctor Strange: The Oath #1-5 (2006)
Where to begin? The story starts with a great concept — a secret medical clinic for New York’s costumed heroes gets a visit from a panicked manservant and his bleeding boss — adds an intriguing plot about a magical elixir that can cure all diseases, and presents Strange with an impossible choice to make. All the while, Brian K. Vaughan never lets us forget Strange’s roots as a medical practitioner who was very good at what he did and delivered results with a wink and a smirk. The chemistry between Strange and Night Nurse (“it’s just catchier than Night General Practitioner”) sizzles, even as Strange leads the rational-minded doctor farther and farther away from the rational world. And then there’s Wong, the dying friend whom Strange risks everything to save, showing just how far he has come from his days as an arrogant, self-serving surgeon. Oh, and did I mention how Strange totally kicks ass in one scene without hurling a single magic bolt? It doesn’t get much better than this.
13. X-Statix Presents Dead Girl #1-5 (2006)
And now for something completely different. X-Statix was yet another team of mutant heroes, only with the extreme luck of having Peter Milligan and Mike Allred as their creators; Dead Girl was (long live truth in advertising!) a dead girl whose mutant gene allows her to communicate with the dead and move between the living and non-living worlds. Strange enlists her help after a group of souls consigned to hell are led by The Pitiful One back to the world of the living; Strange recruits Dead Girl to lead him to the deceased heroes in the afterlife who can help him fight The Pitiful One’s plans. As if the duo’s pseudo-romantic relationship (“we’ll always have the stinking oesophagus of Cerberus”) and the fun dialogue among the condemned villains weren’t enough, Milligan inserts a scene in which Strange visits a therapist, where he confesses he’s the “loneliest man on the planet” because of the path he has chosen in life. Is it any wonder he might be intrigued by a sassy young woman, even one he has to bring back to life with a ritual involving 40 pounds of fresh meat and a set of false teeth?
14. Strange #1-4 (2010)
Part of the allure of magic is the idea that you can take a shortcut around life’s problems, or that you can call upon some higher power to ease your way without worrying too much about the cost of asking for that kind of help. In this story, Mark Waid and artists Emma Rios and Christina Strain introduce a young woman who crosses Strange’s path at a baseball game (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a master of the mystic arts heckle an umpire) and soon learns the first rule of magic: everything has consequences. It’s a story that comes along at an interesting time in Strange’s life; as a visiting demon tells us, Strange is no longer the most powerful magician in the universe, and he doesn’t have access to the power and resources he once did. But what he does have up his sleeve is more than enough to save the day when a demon strikes in the most hellish place you can imagine and the souls of innocent children are at stake. Waid even works in a brilliant swipe at the perils of government deregulation, with an old-school demon muttering about how younger demons are risking the very fabric of reality just for short-term gain and greed. Again: consequences.
RECOMMENDED REELS“Strange Days,” Ultimate Spider-Man (original airdate 07/08/2012)
To date, Doctor Strange’s appearances outside the comics have been confined mostly to guest spots in animated shows starring other Marvel characters (there was a live-action TV movie in 1978 and a 2007 direct-to-DVD animated film that tweaked his origin story, but neither are particularly good). Of his animated appearances, his guest-starring role in the irreverent Ultimate Spider-Man ranks as the best, with the good doctor helping Spider-Man and Iron Fist enter the Dream Dimension and defeat Nightmare, an old nemesis who’s the living embodiment of, well, nightmares. Bonus geek cred: Strange is voiced by Jack Coleman, best known as the guy with the glasses from Heroes and Senator (make that State Senator) Rob Lipton from The Office. I’m not in love with the longer hair, but Strange gets in some great lines in the scenes leading up to the main event (to a skeptical Spider-Man, who demands Strange guess what number he’s thinking of: “You aren’t thinking of a number, you’re thinking of flapjacks”).
Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa (1986)
The plot: Doctor Strange returns to the Ancient One’s Himalayan home to pay his respects to his departed master, and discovers that his former mentor has left him one last — and very baffling — gift. Less a comic and more an illustrated short story, Into Shamballa is also told by Strange in the second person, an interesting editorial choice that doesn’t quite work as a storytelling device. To be sure, there are plenty of pretty pictures to gaze upon in this 23rd volume of Marvel’s Graphic Novel series of the ’80s, but the story is ultimately a little too pretentious, and lacks that connection to the real world that makes the best Doctor Strange stories a memorable read.