Monday, June 28, 2021

The Coming(s) of... Dr. Strange!


As he did in Sub-Mariner, Fantastic Four, and Invincible Iron Man, writer Roy Thomas came aboard Doctor Strange in mid-1968 (the first issue of Strange's first solo series) and provided an expanded version of the title character's origin--perhaps partly as a way to pivot to a new direction, but also to use a different "lens" of sorts to offer new perspective to Stephen Strange the man, characterization which was skirted by in the original telling by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko but which artist Dan Adkins appears eager to offer.

Thomas's updated version, which appears 4½ years after the original origin story, offers an interesting comparison of storytelling styles between the new material and Strange's origin as depicted by Lee and Ditko. For one thing, Adkins had the luxury of presenting his work within a full issue of twenty pages--and though Ditko included the essential scenes in his story, he had only eight pages in which to frame it, given that the character of Dr. Strange at the time was a feature of Strange Tales which shared its issue space with a second Marvel character in a separate story (while also making room for a fictional "strange tale" insert). Thanks to the additional leeway, Thomas and Adkins can take a more presentational approach with Strange in his new series, while taking advantage of his brief history in battling occult threats to have him wondering if he's the right person for the challenges he faces.  (Thomas would later take a similar approach with Iron Man.)

While in Lee's version, the introduction comes in the form of a narrative splash page which immediately lets us know we're about to read Strange's origin; yet from there, we jump directly to Strange's arrival at the Ancient One's abode in India*, and work our way backwards.

*Later stories would establish the location as Tibet, to the northeast--though perhaps a moot point, since the Ancient One's temple is located in the Himalayas, a vast mountain range which is spread across five countries and bordered by both the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateau.

In Thomas's tale, however, Adkins elevates Strange's journey to a grand scale--a trek which will either be a turning point in Strange's search for salvation, or a hopeless trudge through miles of snowy wasteland which will bring to an end a life he feels is pointless without a return to his former status.

Strange's pursuit of his goal might be familiar to those of you who remember the origin tale of Dr. Doom, another man who was dealt a harsh blow in life and who made his own trip to the Himalayas seeking the secrets of black magic. Doom's journey received a grand total of just over one panel of space; but in the 2006 Books Of Doom series, Ed Brubaker and Pablo Raimondi are inclined to follow Adkins' lead and depict Doom's arduous journey as something which will change the course of his life, should he survive.

As for what led Strange to undertake this quest, we've already seen in Lee's story that it's the Ancient One's probing of Strange which reveals how the man named Stephen Strange came to be standing before him, desperate for the means to regain the life he once had:

Yet in Thomas's tale, it's Strange himself whose reminiscences bring this story to light--with a drive to attend a society party ending in the same tragic accident, followed by the same feelings of helplessness and frustration.

(Adkins tells a good story, doesn't he? There are definitely similarities one can see between his style of drawing and that of Gene Colan, the main difference being in how sharply they render their panels. Adkins mainly did inking work for Marvel, but his talents were welcomed by a number of publishers and spanned a wide variety of projects throughout his career.)

It's at this point that Strange would hear of talk in a "sleazy dockside bar" of an ancient mystic who could cure all manner of conditions, a sliver of hope which would lead him east in an all-or-nothing search effort. But if Strange's circumstances ring a bell for those of you who were readers of Marvel's stories from the mid-1980s, you know that as destitute as Strange's life had become, things could have turned out much worse for him had a certain demon taken an interest in him at the scene of his crash, as was the case with former actor Marvin Preston--a man for whom life and limb were just as important as wealth and prestige.

(Yes, instead of "Master of the Mystic Arts," Strange could very well have had an entirely different calling as Master Pandemonium.)

Thomas then brings Strange full circle with what Lee and Ditko have already shown us first thing: his meeting with the Ancient One, and the condition under which the mystic would help him.

From here, it would be Strange's encounter with the Ancient One's pupil, Mordo, which would determine his own priorities as far as what was truly important to him. As we'll see, Ditko and Adkins have framed those scenes differently in terms of their order, in that, originally, Strange doesn't confront Mordo about his duplicity until after the Ancient One has barely fought off the attack that Mordo launches against him.

Yet in the newer version, Strange, despite his helplessness under Mordo's spell, would strive to go to the Ancient One's rescue while the attack is underway--a change which would serve to add a layer of drama to the situation.

Here, as then, Strange's gambit to bypass Mordo's spell works--though it's only after the Ancient One has revealed the true nature of that spell that Strange is able to reach the decision of studying under the tutelage of the Ancient One on his own. In that respect, the two stories are able to find more synchronous common ground.

As an observation, Adkins has demonstrated that Strange remains quite the smoker, a habit which he carries over from his days as a surgeon but which you'd think might interfere with those moments where he would need absolute focus for a mystic task. (It wouldn't do, for instance, to be craving a cigarette while facing the Nameless One, or break into a cough while invoking a spell against Dormammu.) Apparently it's not a problem that Strange's wizened master had a problem with; then again, who's to say the Ancient One didn't light up a hookah once in awhile?


Colin Jones said...

I think Dr. Strange's origin is my favourite of any Marvel character because of the journey he takes from being selfish to selfless. I've read both of these origin stories, the newer one first - possibly in the Dr. Strange Treasury Edition?

Big Murr said...

That Adkins is art depicting Strange's origin is as iconic to my memory as the Ditko panels. Apparently both have been used in equal measure in the flashback scenes of Dr. Strange comics I've read.

That black and white dream sequence looked awfully familiar to me..."Ah, Mr. Adkins was heavily influenced by that master of the meticulous ink and pen, Virgil Finlay." Then I went digging thru my art books "Influenced" as in "flat out traced-stole".

Apparently not one of Finlay's better known works, but, ten demerits on Mr. Adkins permanent record!

Comics (movie, TV) from the time period that depict smoking give me an unpleasant shiver of childhood memories. But, I shrug it off because that's just the way life was. However, media made in the 21st century that is set in 1960's attempt to be authentic and have characters smoke...and it makes me wince in revulsion. Very odd double standard of some sort.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, a number of those Treasury Editions were rife with reprints, so I wouldn't be surprised!

Murray, "influenced," "inspired"... later on we'd call it "homage," which I've taken issue with myself from time to time. As it turns out, Adkins and Finlay used to frequent the same stomping grounds as illustrators of old pulp SF books such as not only Thrilling Wonder Stories but Worlds Of If, Fantastic, and probably a number of other such titles that seemed to rotate and/or switch their title words ("fantastic," "startling," "astounding," "galaxy," to name just a handful) to create a seemingly new pulp mag to browse. It's possible that the two men, along with their peers, illustrated at times with a wink and a nod toward each other--"Hey, look how I mixed in what you did in your piece from that March book we worked on with this new stuff..."--I don't get the sense that anyone's hackles were raised. (Though of course I could be mistaken.)

Anonymous said...

Smoke 'em if ya got 'em, Doc! The Adkins art shown above is new to me, and very striking. I've seen some of his other work on Doc Strange, but not this.
It makes me wonder what else has not been brought to my attention!
I agree with Colin that part of what makes Strange compelling is that he was an arrogant jerk before he became a humble student of the Ancient One. Even with the nerve damage in his hands Steven Strange could've been a consultant, a medical teacher, heck, even a general practitioner, but no, he hadda be a surgeon. The top of the profession or nothing.
They are a strange breed, surgeons, as I'm sure everybody here knows. They are the high priests. Loads of ego. But has anybody ever heard of a "famous" one, like the Ancient One said? I dunno.
Great post all around, C.F.


Comicsfan said...

All part of the service, M.P. :D