Doctor Strange has been around as a character for 53 years, and was somewhat of an an oddity in the early days of Marvel. This is one of few characters created in the 1960’s who had any input from Jack Kirby, who created most of what we know as Marvel today, with arguable amounts of input from Stan Lee. Doctor Strange comes purely from the mind of Steve Ditko, and it shows. Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon, but arrogant as well as complacent in his lifestyle of opulent luxury until a car accident robs him of the skill he had, so travelling to the East to a mythical land he finds the Ancient One, a mystic who teaches Strange how to wield the mystic arts and Strange becomes the hero known as Doctor Strange.
Ditko’s work is astonishing on the strip. From the first appearance in Strange Tales #110 in 1963, Doctor Strange wasn’t like other Marvel strips, as the hero was a dick. True, he did fight evil but he was aloof, arrogant and well, strange. This is a Ditko trait; he’d make his characters not always likeable and contradictory (Ditko’s Spider-Man is a reactionary misanthrope as well as being a strong hero) which made Strange stand out from the fairly square jawed uncomplicated heroes of the time. Ditko also injected a trippy weirdness in his Doctor Strange work as the scale of the strip grew larger, and larger to the point where one of the characters was Eternity, the personification of everything in the universe. Doctor Strange by Ditko was a wonderfully psychedelic trip with a run that came to an end when Ditko left Marvel after a dispute over credits and ownership of characters.
After Ditko left, Doctor Strange eventually left the pages of Strange Tales to get his own title; well, not quite. What happened was Strange Tales was renamed Doctor Strange with #169 and, over the decades, Strange has had his own title often and been cancelled just as much. Although post-Ditko the character enjoyed many a period of critical acclaim, commercial success wasn’t always forthcoming. A run by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gene Colan was critically acclaimed up until Doctor Strange’s final issue in 1969, but at that point it was only selling a few hundred thousand copies an issue. Today that’d get you a number one or two book easily, but in 1969 got you cancelled.
But Doctor Strange couldn’t die off. A run in Marvel’s showcase book, Marvel Premiere by Steve Englehart and artist Frank Brunner looked fantastic, as well as controversially featuring a villain who becomes God. At the same time in the early 1970’s, Doctor Strange was a regular in the team book The Defenders, as he returned to his own solo book (volume 2) in 1974 with Englehart and Brunner, then Gene Colan on art for most of the 70’s in a run which gathered praise and controversy (there’s a heavily implied sex scene between Strange’s sorcerer ally/girlfriend Clea and Benjamin Franklin which Marvel later wrote out of continuity) . Latter issues of volume 2 were to feature a run with artist Frank Miller, though that never came to pass. But runs by artists Marshall Rogers and Paul Smith managed to get the title the commercial as well as critical success the character had struggled with. The 1980’s were good for Doctor Strange with a successful graphic novel, Into Shamballa, also being released.
Volume 2 was cancelled in 1987, before returning the year after before spending much of the 90’s dodging cancellation in his own book, a returned Defenders comic and whatever title he’d end up sharing space with other characters. The problem with Strange was that few writers knew what to do with him, but by the 21st century Doctor Strange had become a linchpin of the Marvel Universe as writer Brian Bendis made him more and more important with appearances in The New Avengers, and making him part of Marvel’s secretive team, the Illuminati. These days Doctor Strange plays essential parts in Marvel’s regular big crossover events like Secret Wars, and seems to have finally settled down though much of the early experimentation, psychedelia and philosophy remain in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
In 2016 a new feature film starring Benedict Cumberbatch is released this month, which brings Strange to a new audience – and like in the 1960’s, opens that audience up to the magic in the Marvel Universe. Whether the film is a hit remains to be seen, but I’d wager it will be. I hope it does make people search out those original Ditko stories and wonder at the sheer imagination as if you want a definitive version of the character it will always be the Steve Ditko version.