My younger self of a half-century ago was a little slow in warming up to Marvel Comics’ Master of the Mystic Arts, Doctor Strange. As I related a few weeks ago in my post about Avengers #61, I think it mostly had to do with the good Doctor’s look — the mustache, the white temples, the blousy tunic, etc. — which didn’t seem quite “superheroic” enough for my eleven-year-old sensibilities. However, the “new look” that artist Gene Colan and writer Roy Thomas introduced in issue #177, effectively giving the sorcerous hero a more conventional costume of tights and a mask (the latter actually being a magical transformation of his physiognomy), intrigued me when I saw it in Marvel’s house ads — and the deal was sealed when I bought and read the aforementioned Avengers issue, in which Dr, Strange showed off his new look in a featured guest appearance. That book primed me to check out the Doc in his solo series, and I made plans to pick up the next issue when it came out.
But when I finally did see Doctor Strange #179 in the spinner rack, roughly a month later, I was in for a surprise. Because the face that gazed out at me from the cover wasn’t the new, blue one — rather, it was the mustachioed, white-templed visage that I thought was now old hat. What was going on? I had no clue, but hey — Spider-Man was guest-starring in the issue, and the wall-crawler was by now not just my favorite Marvel hero, but my favorite comic-book hero, period. I didn’t see how I could go wrong buying this comic; and thus, I put my twelve cents down on the convenience store counter, and took it home.
I may or may not have opened the book to the opening splash page while I was still in the store; but whenever I got around to looking at it, it let me know the reason for the titular hero’s “retro” look on the cover — the story was a reprint, pulled in to occupy issue #179’s inside pages when (according to the blurb at the bottom of the page) “genial Gene Colan got the flu-bug” and couldn’t complete the pencil art for the story planned for the issue before the deadline.*
The splash page, while identifying “The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!” as “one of our most requested sagas of all time”, didn’t identify which comic it came from — so my eleven-year-old self had no way of knowing that it had originally appeared in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (1965). That meant not only that this wasn’t “really” a “Doctor Strange” story — but also that a completely new cover was necessary, since the original one didn’t feature the Doc at all. Not knowing that, however, as far as I was concerned, the cover of Doctor Strange #179 could have been a repurposed older cover — it certainly didn’t look much like the ones Gene Colan had been turning out either before or after the hero’s recent costume change, and even if it didn’t match the look of the issue’s interior art 100%, it did have a sort of “old-fashioned” (what we’d call “retro”, today) feel. If I’d been a couple of years further along in my comics knowledge, I might have identified more than a hint of Jack Kirby in the work.
And that would have made a lot of sense, actually — since the uncredited cover art was by a new, young artist then known as Barry Smith (though of course he later changed his preferred professional appellation to Barry Windsor-Smith, which is how he’ll henceforth be referred to in this blog). The then nineteen-year-old Britisher had had his first work for Marvel published just one month earlier — and as this item from that month’s Bullpen Bulletins page indicates, it, like all his early work (including this cover), was mightily influenced by Kirby.
I’ll have more to say about Mr. Windsor-Smith next month, when the blog gets around to the first full book of his I picked up, Daredevil #51. For now, however, we’ll focus on the creators of the 1965 story that followed the cover — who, as the splash page’s credit box informed me in January, 1969, were Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.**
Having been a regular Marvel comics consumer for over a year by this time, I had of course already read many stories by Stan Lee; but Steve Ditko was still largely an unknown figure to me. I’m pretty sure I at least knew his name, via fans’ references to his work in Marvel’s letters pages; it’s even possible that I’d seen one of his early 10-page “Doctor Strange” stories in an issue of Marvel Collector’s Item Classics (see the Avengers #61 post for details). But this was the first book-length Ditko story I’d yet encountered, as well as the first time I’d seen his work on Spider-Man — and as such, it was a revelation.
I don’t really remember this, but I think it’s a good bet that my first thought on scanning this first page of story, even before I read any of the words, was, “What’s up with the webbing under Spidey’s arms?” This was an element of Ditko’s original costume design that had largely gone by the wayside when I first started reading Amazing Spider-Man in late 1967.
The two barroom brawlers — prototypical Ditko goons, though I wouldn’t have known them for such at the time I first read this story — quickly succumb to the mysterious Xandu’s spell. They immediately become his mindless slaves, as well as having their natural strength, stamina, and resistance to pain increased to superhuman levels:
On page 5, the hero whose comic book I’d thought I was buying finally turns up. Dr. Strange attempts to halt the home invaders in their tracks with a simple spell, but since they’re already under Xandu’s mental control, that’s a no go. His next gambit is to create a number of illusory duplicates of himself:
The caption in the last panel above provided my eleven-year-old self with a clue that just maybe this story hadn’t originally appeared in a Doctor Strange comic.
On the next page, Spider-Man challenges the “burglars” — and my younger self had his first taste of a fight scene choreographed by Steve Ditko:
One of the bruisers’ punches finally connects, sending our wall-crawling hero flying. Spidey then tries another tack:
In obedience to their master’s command, the two strongmen silently stalk away — but unknown to them, Spider-Man is able to plant a “spider tracer” device on one of them just before he slips into unconsciousness.
While Ditko hardly needed any sources beyond his own imagination to visualize bizarre alien dimensions, such as shown above, it’s worth noting that in depicting the material culture that’s also a large part of Doctor Strange’s milieu, the artist often took visual cues from the real world. The “Wand of Watoomb”, which closely resembles a ritual tool of Eastern religious traditions called the vajra, or dorje, is a prime example.
Xandu intends to use the Wand to destroy the insensate Doctor Strange where he lies — luckily for the Doc, however, Spider-Man has by now recovered, and he arrives on the scene just in time:
Yanking the Wand into the portal with him just before it closes, the Amazing Arachnid ensures that Xandu won’t abandon him… wherever it is the sorcerer has sent him:
I can recall that upon experiencing this panel for the first time back in ’69, I was not only knocked out by the spectacle of Ditko’s surrealistic dimension-scapes, but also as impressed as heck by the courage of Spider-Man — who, faced with a situation way, way beyond his usual frames of reference, manages to keep his head. At this point in my comics reading experience, Spidey felt more “real” — and was thus easier to identify with — than any other superhero I’d ever read about. As such, his fortitude in this extremely bizarre circumstance was, dare I say it, inspiring to a young reader such as yours truly.
Meanwhile, back at the ol’ Sanctum Santorum, Dr. Strange has at last regained consciousness. Realizing that his half of the Wand of Watoomb has been taken, he employs his own version of Spidey’s tracer — his enchanted amulet — and goes in pursuit:
From within his lair, Xandu watches Spider-Man’s desperate struggle against his untiring foes, confident that they will ultimately be successful in retrieving the Wand… and then, Doctor Strange shows up. Without the Wand, Xandu is no match for the Master of the Mystic Arts:
Slipping back into Xandu’s lair as an invisible, intangible, spirit, Doc seeks out Spidey, who’s still battling the sorcerer’s thralls:
It’s great fun to see two solo heroes as disparate as Spider-Man and Doctor Strange teaming up to take down a baddie — and at Marvel Comics in the 1960s, well before the advent of Marvel Team-Up and its ilk, it was also pretty novel.
Alas, the moment’s over all too quickly. Even while in possession of the whole, rejoined Wand of Watoomb, Xandu’s simply no match for our superheroic duo:
And on that humorous, mildly self-mocking note — so typical of Stan Lee’s scripting — our tale draws to a satisfying close.
As I mentioned earlier, this issue was my first full-length Steve Ditko comic book; and I feel fortunate that it was one that featured both of the characters that represent his two greatest achievements while at Marvel Comics. In many ways, it’s a more typical Doctor Strange story than it is a Spider-Man story. Quite a few of the Doc’s Strange Tales-era adventures involve nogoodniks of one sort or another invading his Greenwich Village home, after all, and he almost always resorts to projecting his astral form at some point in those stories. But the way Spidey is presented in this tale, of which he’s ostensibly the star, is highly unusual for a Spider-Man comic, especially of the era in which it was originally published. None of the hero’s renowned supporting cast appear within the story; concurrently, none of the ongoing subplots that would usually fill at least a few pages of the comic are touched on at all. All of that stands to reason, at least to an extent, considering that this story was produced for an annual and was intended to stand alone. But “The Marvelous World of Doctor Strange” goes further than that in its oddness. Not only does Spidey never appear out of costume within the story, but his civilian identity of Peter Parker is never even mentioned. If Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 had been your first Spider-Man comic book back in the day, you’d have finished the issue’s lead story with nary a clue as to what the hero looked like under his mask, what motivated him, or what he did when he wasn’t swinging above the streets of New York looking for trouble. (Though, of course, you’d be able pick up a wealth of that kind of information via the issue’s other stories and features — something that was probably in Ditko and Lee’s minds when they conceived and crafted the story.)
But even allowing for all of that, this story still incorporates a lot of the elements that make the Lee and Ditko Spider-Man, as well as their Doctor Strange, definitive in the minds of so many fans (including relative latecomers such as myself): the quirky, but still somehow graceful poses into which Ditko places the web-slinger; the skillful fight choreography, so different from that Ditko’s fellow architect of the “Marvel style”, Jack Kirby, but just as effective in its own way; and, of course, the mind-blowing vistas of Ditko’s imaginary worlds. Ultimately, it’s a great showcase for both heroes; a story that was a blast for me to read fifty years ago, and still is so today.
And fifty years ago, it also served as a sort of preparation for my first encounter with Steve Ditko’s then-current work. More on that in just a few weeks.
*I’d always taken this blurb at face value until recently, when I read Roy Thomas’ introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Doctor Strange, Vol. 3. There, Thomas writes that “for some reason, we found it necessary” to make Doctor Strange #179 a reprint issue, and then goes on to say of the “flu-bug” excuse offered on page one: “…for all I know, that could even be true!” Which rather begs the question, why else would a reprint have been scheduled, hmm?
**Something in the credits which I doubt I paid any attention to in 1969, but which jumps out at me now, is Ditko being listed as having plotted as well as having drawn the story. That specificity — so different from the generalized “produced by” credits that Lee regularly shared with Jack Kirby and his other artistic collaborators in the “new” Marvel comics I was then reading — was an acknowledgment that Ditko had received only because he had demanded it; though, ultimately, it wasn’t enough to keep him at Marvel.