Posted on Friday, November 18th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
The new Doctor Strange movie has done what 50 years of comic book lore could not – it has made the the Marvel Universe’s master of the mystical arts into a household name. Like Iron Man before him, Stephen Strange is no longer a B-tier superhero, beloved only by dedicated comic book readers. He now belongs to movie fans around the world.
Any character who has existed for half a century undergoes significant changes. But at the same time, any character who can exist for half a century has something at his core that allows him to endure for so long. So I decided to revisit the earliest Doctor Strange comics, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko, to see just how much the Sorcerer Supreme has evolved… and how much he’s stayed the same. (Spoilers ahead for the Doctor Strange movie, if you haven’t seen it yet.)
In the Beginning…
Dr. Stephen Strange, the master of the mystic arts, the Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe, does not have the most auspicious start. His first appearance comes in the pages of Strange Tales #110 and he’s not even the main attraction. He’s a five-page filler story in a comic series dedicated to the solo adventures of the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. He doesn’t even earn a mention of any kind on the cover, which is more interested in asking the readers if Johnny Storm has met his match in villains known as “the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete.”
And unlike Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, both of whom arrive with a bang in their first story, Doctor Strange’s first adventure is a whiff. He doesn’t even get an origin story at first: he’s already a working practitioner of the working arts when a man plagued by horrible dreams visits him to request aid. Naturally, the good doctor enters the dream dimension to see seek out the source of the man’s troubles (the first appearance of Strange’s astral form, referred to here as his “metaphysical spirit”), briefly tussles with the villainous Nightmare, and learns that his client’s dreams are a manifestation of his guilt over cheating various business partners.
Even if you meet the first Doctor Strange adventure halfway and recognize that it is a product of its time and place (a necessity when enjoying the early Marvel comics), it’s one of the company’s weaker debuts. But there’s something here. Steve Ditko’s art, while crude compared to the stunning and hypnotic work he’d be turning in by the end of his run, is undeniably weird and unsettling, feeling more like a ’60s horror comic than a superhero tale. It’s enough to counterbalance Stan Lee’s dialogue and narration, which transform almost every panel into a chore (this also improves with time).
Doctor Strange would return for another quick five-page story in Strange Tales #111 (which introduces his arch-nemesis Baron Mordo), but he’d sit things out until Strange Tales #114. But that brief vacation does wonders for just about everything. Upon returning, Doctor Strange finally begins to look like himself (more on that in a bit) and the storytelling from Ditko and Lee starts to find a rhythm. He still isn’t getting mentioned on the covers yet, but it’s a start.
The Origin Story
The humble beginnings of Doctor Strange are finally unveiled in Strange Tales #115, the first issue to grant the character eight pages (the Human Torch’s battle with the Spider-Man villain Sandman dominates the cover). When stripped down to its core, Strange’s origin story follows the same beats as the new movie: talented, arrogant surgeon has his hands destroyed in a car accident, ventures to the Far East in search of a miracle cure, and meets a wizened old wizard named the Ancient One. He dismisses the talk of magic until he witnesses it first hand, defends the Ancient One against a murderous apprentice, and takes his first step toward commanding the mystic arts.
Of course, everything else is completely different. In this case, the murderous apprentice isn’t Kaecilius, but Baron Mordo, a husky, square-jawed weirdo with bad facial hair who poisons the Ancient One so he can be the one true master of Earth’s mystical forces. And the Ancient One isn’t running an entire school filled with followers and disciples, but living an isolated existence in the mountains. It’s pretty low-key as far as superhero origin stories go, especially since the Ancient One reveals that he was never in any real danger, knew about Mordo’s intentions all along, and was just acting the part so Strange could find the goodness within him to step up and become his apprentice.
In comparison, the film’s trial by fire involves Stephen Strange literally stepping up to save the world with the help of Mordo, who is still an ally when the credits roll (but changes his allegiance once they’ve finished rolling). It’s a smart update, adding cinematic bombast and stakes to a scenario that was already old-hat in the ’60s. Sending a westerner to Asia to learn superpowers from a wise old mystic was tired 50 years ago. The reinvention of the Ancient One’s compound as a full-fledged academy where any who wish to learn are welcome is a necessary update, allowing Strange’s journey and his destination to feel like a reflection of a globalized scenario rather than a copy-and-paste from an old pulp.
The Ancient One
In the Doctor Strange movie, the Ancient One is an ageless Celtic woman with a shaved head played by the great Tilda Swinton. In the early Doctor Strange comics, the Ancient One is an elderly Asian man with a Fu Manchue-esque facial hair and eyes that are in a permanent squint. To Lee and Ditko’s credit, the Ancient One is portrayed as more powerful than Strange himself, a necessary ally who often steps in to help him whenever he’s cornered. In the earliest tales, he’s something of a deus ex machina – if Doctor Strange is in trouble, his teacher always intervenes at the last second to save the day. It’s almost funny just how many times Strange requires the Ancient One to save his bacon in his own comic book.
But Lee and Ditko have also created something of its time. Something cringeworthy. In the first twelve issues of Strange Tales to feature Doctor Strange, we rarely see the Ancient One’s eyes because his face has been contorted into every possible Asian stereotype. And while he may be a powerful character, the Ancient One is barely a character, speaking in platitudes that fluctuate between fortune cookie nonsense and tired chatter about the importance of good battling evil. While Strange himself is allowed to be flawed, to be clever, to have an inner life, the Ancient One borrows a series of Asian tropes and builds them into a character who, while an improvement over the depiction of Asian characters in other forms of American entertainment at the time, makes the skin crawl just enough today.
Director Scott Derrickson has spoken at length about the decisions that led him to make the cinematic version of the Ancient One a white woman instead of an Asian man and it’s easy to recognize the conundrum. By whitewashing the character, he’s sidestepping the inherent cliches of the character, avoiding the “wise Asian mystic” stereotype altogether. But he’s also removing an Asian character from the playing field entirely, turning one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel universe into another white character.
And yet, Derrickson and Swinton’s take on the Ancient One is ultimately superior to the comic book counterpart. Unlike the comic version, who never seems to stand up from his golden throne in his mountain compound, the film version of the Ancient One is an active hero, a charismatic leader, a badass warrior, and a deeply flawed, troubled woman whose own fears have led her to make poor decisions at the expense of the universe. While the whitewashing is a subject that must be discussed (and Derrickson’s willingness to talk openly about it feels like an important step), there’s no denying that Swinton’s take on the character is more interesting than the non-entity introduced in the pages of Strange Tales.
In other words, I really love this new take on the character and think the cinematic Ancient One is richer and more human than the comic book version is just about every way. I just hate that it came at the expense of the character’s race, removing one of the precious few Asian characters from the Marvel Universe.