Sunday, November 4, 2012

Strange Magic

My Very First Issue of:

 Doctor Strange
Strange Tales #120

And believe it or not, this was his deadly opponent:

Technically, I suppose my very first issue of Dr. Strange was another book that really only featured Dr. Strange--the appropriately titled Marvel Feature #1, which introduced the Defenders. I'd later follow that up with Strange's second series under his own banner, the Steve Englehart/Frank Brunner book from 1974. But the character of Dr. Strange had a prior incarnation before he became so mainstream--in his earlier, under-the-radar days as a promising disciple of the Ancient One, where he was a part of the Marvel universe yet still outside of it--and in comparison, I'd have to say that I was more intrigued in my first reading of that character than I was with the man who would be pulled out of mothballs to make up the odd trio of the Defenders.

So I'd have to choose this particular story as my first substantive exposure to Dr. Strange. The story was reprinted in an issue of Giant Size Defenders, but originally appeared in an issue of Strange Tales--a title which, at that time, had two characters (in separate stories) sharing the same issue. Since Strange was still a work in progress as far as getting readers to become interested in him, it made sense to bookend him next to established characters like the Human Torch (or with other characters that offered the reader a mixed bag, with the hope that the variety of the book would better sell it). And certainly the book's title provided the perfect format in which to introduce him.

Strange was an enigma to just about everyone in those days. Even in the story, there are references to people knowing about him (through gossip or news stories), but having rarely seen him in the flesh. So whenever he did make an appearance, the stunned effect that passers-by experienced usually had the nice side-effect of transferring to the reader, as well:

Strange's first artist was Steve Ditko, who was at the time also pencilling a more well-known character, Spider-Man. Ditko's style seemed a good match for Dr. Strange, with its exotic dimensions and sorcerous effects; but as far as establishing Dr. Strange as a character, with his brooding demeanor and solitary existence that invited a reader in but at the same time kept them at a distance, Ditko's sparse panels combined with the character's stiffness were well suited to his transformation from arrogant surgeon to a more noble character being built again from the ground up.

And, of course, the "world" that Dr. Strange operated in ("operated" in--heh heh) was our own world, yet Strange warns us that there are things out there we simply do not know about. And when you see a gorgeous opening splash page like this one, you can't help but be enticed by the journey he's about to take us on:

In a nutshell, word has gotten around about a house that's supposedly haunted--so a network TV channel has decided to do a show on it, by sending in a reporter who will do a live broadcast to a news crew outside on any supernatural events that may occur while he's in there. (Gee, I wonder why someone hasn't done a reality show on this sort of thing? Oh, wait...) The story attracts the attention of Strange, who arrives on the scene and keeps an eye on things. Literally:

But when the network abruptly loses contact with the reporter, Strange decides to investigate personally. And for added effect, look how writer Stan Lee contrasts Strange's grim determination with the continued skepticism of regular people--i.e., us--to enhance for the reader Strange's ability to perceive things that the rest of us have no idea exist:

As for Dr. Strange, luckily for us the man knows how to make an entrance:

And after fending off the house's attempts to contain him, and securing the release of the reporter, Strange discovers its secret:

Strange then banishes the "house" back to its world, in full view of the assembled crowd. But even then, the people refuse to believe their own eyes, chalking it all up to special effects by the network to impress the television viewers.

Given that I'd first read this story as a reprint, thanks to The Defenders I was already involved with a much more learned and engaged Dr. Strange, who had become more mainstream with the Marvel universe and far less enigmatic. Better sales of issues featuring Strange, after all, was the goal with the character, so I can't begrudge him his success; but what a treat it would have been to have seen him interacting with the likes of Namor and the Hulk as his old stuffy, stand-offish self. In fact, since at last report he'd renounced his "Sorcerer Supreme" status and returned to a more down-to-Earth "master of the mystic arts," I'd hoped he would readopt his original raiment and amulet in recognition of his need to assume the role of a less powerful practitioner again. Since that didn't happen, it's a good excuse to revisit some of these older stories, where our guide to the supernatural is just as diligent as ever--and, suitably, more unknown.

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