“Each Of These Four Are You, Stephen Strange…”

…Stephen Strange, all of these four are you.

Welcome, Bloggers, to a little tutorial on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s second most famous creation that I didn’t really expect to have to give, but now see that I probably should. Because it seems there’s a lot of — ahem, can we just call it “modern mythology”? — there’s a lot of modern mythology out there about our good friend Dr. Strange, he of the ASL love-bombing and the flying-carpet opera cape. To wit:

Myth #1: Dr. Strange is an awesome character, but no one can seem to make him work properly.

This is of course a bald-faced lie. The list of creators who’ve written and drawn an absolutely brilliant Dr. Strange is a very, very long one, and it isn’t getting any shorter: didn’t we just see a couple different great Doc interpretations in the last couple of years, in fact? The very idea is absurd — making Dr. Strange work is almost as easy as finding an audience that thinks he’s an awesome character. Fred Hembeck does an excellent Dr. Strange, for heaven’s sake! So let us dismiss this myth right out of hand, Bloggers: there’s no evidence for it.

(And hey: no knock on Fred — he is, after all, the Patron Saint of Comics Bloggers. In fact I call upon him to draw a magic circle or pentagram or something ’round this post to protect it from inauthentic influences…)

Myth #2: Dr. Strange, though an awesome character, is too vaguely omnipowerful; he would work better if he had a clearly-defined power-set that marked out what he couldn’t do.

Well, this is simply Heroclix talk. In fact the few Dr. Strange runs that haven’t worked have been just those that strove to bring some top-down regulation to what Doc can and can’t do — to rationalize the rules of his magic beyond the way it’s been depicted in past stories. No, he can’t do just any old thing; yes, he can do an awful lot nevertheless. But in this way he’s no different from, say, Iron Man: like all comics characters, he lives in an envelope of ability that the necessities of plot must often push — and just like any other character, whatever the writer and artist can come up with for him to do, he can do that. And some writers and artists make plot choices that are not quite as good as some other writers and artists might make, but that isn’t Doc’s fault! Anyway, a poorer choice by one writer is easily corrected by the better choice of a later one — the lesson being, no off-the-cuff mistake in a forty-year old character’s development can ever be a mistake that must stick. It might not always make for the best comics. Depending on its context, it may seem to legitimize further poor choices by later writers (for example, Dr. Strange’s appearances in “What If?” have rarely done well by the character, instead trying to make him into some other character, of lesser interest, and for no good reason)…but in comics, no fumble is (or at least, no fumble should be) unrecoverable. For a character like Dr. Strange especially, it’s only when the walls of context start closing in, and are not stopped, when the death-trap becomes inescapable.

Myth #3: Dr. Strange, though he’s an awesome character, can’t support a solo title as he is; to work better, he at least needs some sort of modification.

Are you noticing that whole “he doesn’t work; he needs to work better” thing yet, Bloggers? I suppose the underlying idea here is that a “working” character is a character who brings home the bacon to his publisher — doesn’t really matter how good the stories are, if the character doesn’t connect with a reasonably large audience, there’s something wrong with him, that needs fixing. In other words, if you build it, they will come; and if they’re not coming, that must be because you didn’t build it.

But this underlying idea is only a cloak of concealment (you’ll pardon me) for another underlying idea, isn’t it? Comics publishers of the past (we should know!) have had no compunctions whatever about changing characters, even changing them drastically, in an effort to grab more readers. That happens all the time, really; it’s part of the game. So why has this never happened before with Dr. Strange?

Answer: historically, there’s been no need for Marvel to screw with the Doc basics, because his appearances have in fact supported sales very well. Not all the time, of course: but then no one ever said every character would be a Spider-Man or a Hulk…or a Wolverine. Or even a (remember those days?) a Ghost Rider. Doc, however, has in the past successfully supported back-up features, solo titles, and team books very adequately for the second-stringer that he is. Also, he’s been the site of some incredibly skilled storytelling, that not only generated a loyal fan-base but even proved attractive to new readers. Doc, in his particular literary niche, is a success story…and he’s been a success story outside it, too, sometimes. The Spider-Man numbers are never coming, but for what Doc is…well, he’s a hell of a performer.

Myth #4: Even though he’s an awesome character, it’s hard to use Dr. Strange in the larger context of the Marvel Universe; if he’s fighting Dormammu in his own book, that’s one thing, but as soon as you put him on a team, his basically-unlimited power makes it difficult to write good team stories, because he overshadows the other characters so much that you basically have to have him be knocked unconscious once an issue.

Corollary: If other characters are having problems with, say, magical menaces, why don’t they just call in Dr. Strange? You’re trying to tell me Reed Richards doesn’t have him on speed-dial, or something? It’s just silly.

May I take this opportunity to mention how much I hate the “Hero X calls in favours from all the other heroes to get them to help him with his (say) Aunt’s illness, dead teammate, magic curse, whatever”? Because I really detest that fannish idea of “Why don’t they just call Brother Voodoo?” Well, maybe Brother Voodoo’s busy doing something else, okay? Not that this can’t be handled delicately; it can. But we’ve seen that before, and it always ends the same way: having exhausted every other Marvel character, only to find none of them can help, the hero ends up turning to Dr. Doom, only to have him offer them a Faustian bargain. Which they enter into, but then wriggle out of, only to find the answer is no further away than their own back yard, or something. But you can’t make a fetish out of this sort of thing — how many times do we need to see it, for God’s sake? In my memory it’s been done exactly three times well (a No-Prize from the Aged Genghis is yours if you can guess which times I mean); and enough, I say, is enough. Official continuity has many rots, but this one’s the rottiest: “why wouldn’t so-and-so just call up…?” Gharrrrr. Yes, if it’s a genuine possibility, it needs to be addressed, plot-wise. No, that doesn’t mean the plot should involve going and seeing all the people that should be able to help, only to have them say “I’m so sorry, but…” Clearly this is just another cloak of concealment, that hides a fan’s contempt (and there is nothing quite like a fan’s contempt, I’m sure you’ll agree) for his own trashy enthusiasm. Once again the walls of context close in, like a death-trap, but this time there really is no way out…the Abomination simply hires someone to plug Bruce Banner in the back of the head with a high-powered rifle.

Problem solved, I guess.

I mean any writer ought to be able to write themselves around such questions. If they don’t, it means they didn’t want to.

But on to Myth #4 proper:

Actually you can have Doc knocked unconscious, if you need to. Hell, sometimes he’s been knocked unconscious in his own book. Again it’s a question of what gets written, and why: and the idea that a writer’s only solution to Doc’s limitless magical whim-whams is to have him knocked out without sufficient cause, that is without an efficient and integral dramatic justification for his unconsciousness, is to me as much as to complain that Doc is too hard a character for unimaginative writers to make stuff up for. Knock him out, if you must; after all, that’s a whole lot better than portraying him as incompetent. But don’t ask for training wheels when so many other creators have found themselves quite up to the challenge of grappling with this very same difficulty. The Defenders premiered in the early Seventies or something, and we haven’t run short of workarounds yet.

This is what the logicians call question-begging, actually. Circular reasoning: “if Doc is so powerful that he can’t be written well in a team setting, how can we write him well in a team setting?” Yes: this certainly begs the question, doesn’t it? My God, if this isn’t begging then I don’t know what is.

Because the answer is to write it so that it isn’t a problem, isn’t it.

And I’d say “Nuff Said”, here, but…

As it happens, there is a problem with Dr. Strange, Bloggers.

Have you guessed it yet?

Put simply, it’s that Dr. Strange is an awesome character.

That’s the problem right there. No, really. Because, let me ask you, if Dr. Strange were not such an awesome character, would:

Reality #1: Writers (both good and bad) not be more capable of staying away from him?

Reality #2: Every attempt at “updating” him have not been met with something more forgiving than the resounding yawns/guffaws/death threats these attempts have traditionally attracted?

Reality #3: The attempt to turn him into just one more Superpowered Guy not have resulted in enormously increased sales?

Reality #4: Every Doc story that attracted editorial re-writing mandates not have immediately spiralled into awful, sudden crap, shedding readers by the boatload and effectively killing the title?

Marvel would love to have a thriving Dr. Strange title, you see. But that’s only because Dr. Strange is an awesome character that writers and artists simply can’t resist using in their other titles. Interest in Dr. Strange will always be high, because of this. He’ll always be high-profile. He’ll never fade away. But, he can also never be revamped, without losing the awesomeness.

And this presents a problem, I think. Thankfully Marvel has never gone the route that DC went with Dr. Fate in the Nineties, turning him into Wolverine (or maybe just Moon Knight) with a magic pig-sticker and a bad attitude. Those days, at least, are gone. But the problem — the Nineties problem, if you will — of what to do with Dr. Strange still remains.

How do you prove he needs updating, even though he doesn’t?

I’d thought of writing a little bit more on this, here, but…doorways, you know? Not to repeat myself (and others), but maybe I’ve opened too many of them already.

So come on in, Bloggers: let’s have a spirited discussion about it, if we can. Be It Resolved: Dr. Strange Is An Awesome Character, Who Consequently Needs And Deserves An Awesome Creative Team…!

Otherwise, why bother touching him at all?

Be it resolved: in these days of advanced editorial control, of extreme top-down mandated organization and approval, Dr. Strange may be a character that no longer fits with the comics company he was born in. And yet, there’s no way for them to leave him alone. So essentially, Marvel and Doc are at war. And who knows who’ll win?

But I’ll wager a Golden Globule on the human interloper, myself.

How ’bout you?

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15 responses to ““Each Of These Four Are You, Stephen Strange…”

  1. There’s plenty of room in his backstory for Stephen Strange to have fathered a now-teenaged daughter of whom he was previously unaware. Suddenly, she turns up at the doorstep of his Greenwich Village digs, hoping to stay there before the start her freshman year at NYU. Generational misunderstandings and warm family comedy ahoy! For the first time we see a more human side of Strange as he tries to cope with the challenge of being a responsible father to young Triana Traci Trixie. I’m just saying, is all…

  2. Pingback: Code Blue for Dr. Strange « Plus Two Charisma·

  3. I think Strange would work really well as sort of an American John Constantine (though obviously with fewer rough edges). He should be the connective tissue between all the different magic parts of the Marvel Universe.

    It’s always been weird to me how a continuity known for its interaction and cohesiveness that also happens to be partially founded on ideas like Atlantis and Asgard can be so disjointed when it comes to its magic characters. I’d love to see someone like Neil Gaiman mine that history and pound it into some kind of coherent shape.

  4. As I was just saying over at your place, Plustwo, I’m not sure I need more cohesion on the magical side of the MU as such…but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing the odd magic-oriented guest star in a Dr. Strange comic, now and again! I’ve said it before, Marvel desperately needs a book in the Defenders mode, a book where the odder corners of the universe can be explored…that’s really the tragedy of Alias, that after carving itself a niche out in the marginal spaces of the MU, it ended up by fleeing for the centre anyway, and pretty damn quickly, too. A terrible mistake, in my opinion: a shared universe is a nifty idea, but a cramped universe is a rotten one — the more collegial the heroes get, the more boring things seem to become. A Doc book goes a long way to correcting this even without guest stars, of course…but as soon as Stern and Rogers had Brother Voodoo show up in their luminous Doc run, I knew I’d have to keep reading…

  5. Actually, Marvel already has a John Constantine: he’s called Pete Wisdom. I mean beyond the obvious “Brit-created, Brit-approved” aspect, he’s also being used in much that same way, serving as connective tissue between a bunch of previously unrelated characters and concepts. Not specifically the magical ones, true, but there’s a bit of that in his storyline as well.

    On the magical side, there was something that may have been introduced by Englehart — I’m not sure, but it seems likely to have been him — the idea of Strange consorting with other magic users, even having them over as occasional house guests, comparing notes with them much the way a medical doctor might consult with fellow practitioners on a tricky procedure. They may not have been at his level as Sorceror Supreme (presumably there can be only one, right?) but they were still in the same field and dwelled in the same world. Stephen Strange getting together with other magic users for shop talk just feels right somehow.

    (I’m particularly reminded of a What If story by Peter Gillis in which Strange is a disciple of Dormammu rather than the Ancient One, and a summit meeting of all the other big magic players in the MU is called on how to deal with the threat he poses. Agatha Harkness, Lord Phyffe, and a bunch of others; they even try to recruit Victor Von Doom. Alan Moore later borrowed this idea for Constantine’s magical war council in Swamp Thing…)

    Did I mention that Strange’s daughter could be an irreverent wisecracking goth chick?

  6. I always wondered why JQ would refer to Doc as a hard sell who needed to operate with a concrete set of rules to work in today’s marketplace.

    I mean … what about Harry Potter? Or are comic book readers so far away from the mainstream these days that we consider ourselves above trends that are popular in other media?

    (Wait a minute. Don’t answer that one.)

    This also reminds me of the problems modern writers have with Superman. It seems that when a character is able to do anything, creators have a harder time coming up with something to write about.

  7. Sure, because they can only think of one thing to have him do, and once you take that away…

    Englehart may indeed have been the initiator of Doc keeping in touch with other mystics…so it shouldn’t be any surprise that I love that stuff. And hey, didn’t Peter B. Gillis write that “On Having No Head” Doc thing, where he and Kaluu team up?

    Or have I got that wrong?

    Anyway, irreverent wisecracking goth chick…you know, I don’t remember if you mentioned that, but it seems so familiar to me I think you must have…

  8. Any present-day writer should be able to incorporate Doc in a story, just as long as they take account of what makes him work on his own turf. I.e. he’s a spooky guy who deals with a spooky place full of soul-eating bastards. Once in a while, Hawkeye or somebody needs to bluster past Wong into the Sanctum Sanctorum, to find Strange struggling with nets of black lightning, or in conversation with Something in the shadows, who exclaims, “An offering! How kind of you!” That’ll learn them.

    And the playbook needs to state firmly that Dr Strange does not run an all-hours teleportation service for your plotting convenience. He comes and he goes. But he is spookily in at all hours for the desperate.

    I’ve spent years trying to define Strange’s appeal, but never quite managed it. Part of it, though, is the brilliantly original take on “magic”. Doctor Strange magic is not primarily like other kinds of magic, where anything is possible if the you know, Great Nebbish says it is, and saying so is basically all the Nebbish has to do. Strange’s magic is hard work. You can see how he has to exert himself at every turn.

    Digression. And that is the key to his unique aesthetic. The magic is not merely signified, and then comes true. It is quasi-material stuff: fluid elements which Doc gestures into shape, bolts and halos of energy whose intensity you can see in the tension of his body. Watch his astral projections in the Ditko issues: he turns himself horizontal like a swimmer, and opens his palms in the direction he means to go. There never was a magic as visually specific as this. Ditko materializes it, brings it right onto the drawn page. Other writers only ever bothered with the spooky setup decor, and the desired results.

    I don’t mean he should be restricted to that aesthetic, though. He should be able to work in the daylight. I think the key is to make it clear that he doesn’t do things for people that they need to do themselves; and that his most powerful manifestations are done with the aid of the Awesome Agamotto and the gang, who won’t do for Strange what he needs to do for himself. So that sometimes it’s Nighthawk and the Gargoyle who have to pull his chestnuts out of the fire.

    Oh yes, and Peter B. did write “On Having No Head”, and the splendid series that led up to it. Pulled it out of the pile recently. It was quite odd, also pulling out some of Steve Gerber’s Mister Miracle run, where the hero is also getting his head together with some senior help and a game try at usinng Buddhist renunciation as a superhero plot device. I cheer for stuff like that, but it’s easy to see why the fans went for more straightforward action.

  9. Good Christ, you absolutely nail it, Jonathan. A pity Christopher Bird posted on Doc at pretty much the same time I did, or Neilalien would get to see your extraordinarily acute comments.

    Hmm, maybe I should just buzz him about that…

    “On Having No Head” is the only Doc comic of that run I’ve got — jeez, it was bloody impressive though. Wow. Knowing a bit more about PBG now than I did then, I’m not one bit surprised — in fact if I ran Marvel, he’d be on my shortlist of writers I want to have mess with Doc.

    Superb description of the Ditko aesthetic: physical, ectoplasmic, and metaphorical. Bravo.

  10. I can’t comment on this post with any of my thoughts, because I have WAAAAAY too many ideas for what makes a great DOCTOR STRANGE story and have a wonderful batch of concepts that I’d LOVE to pitch to get him back as a top tier seller.

    But to go down that route of fan/nerd/what-iffery would cost me what little is left of my sanity.

    It’d be like the monkey that was surgically altered so that he couldn’t ejaculate.
    He’d just keep workin’ it and workin’ it and building in anxiety as there was never any payoff or release.

    That is how I’d describe any attempt at such a “How I can “fix” Dr. Strange as an outsider/fan” exercise.

    :-(

    But ONE Day, I’ll get my ideas all lined up and make an honest to goodness PITCH – even if I have to make a deal with Mephisto (I understand he’s available for such things).

    THAT said, Johnathan absolutely “GETS IT”.
    WELL SAID.

    Oh, and RAB. the Teenage daughter WAS done.
    Marvel had that aborted “EPIC” anthology and one of the titles was “SOFIA STRANGE”. She was to be the teenage daughter of Stephen & Clea, but was spirited away by an “aunt” so that DOC wouldn’t know about her – and be tempted to mess her up somehow.

    It was one of TWO Dr Strange related pitches approved for the anthology (the other being the adventured of the Young Ancient One & Kaluu).

    Anyway, when the EPIC deal was dropped, the writer & artist took their idea to IMAGE and reworked it as “SYLVIA FAUST”.
    Same thing, different name.
    That only lasted a few issues before there were scheduling/lateness issues.

    At this time, SOFIA STRANGE is a published Marvel concept, but if it’s in continuity/canon is another thing entirely.

    And I want to END this note by stating that PETER GILLIS has been my ALL-TIME favorite DOC writer since his stint on the title.
    ENGLEHART is a close 2nd.
    In his PRIME, he’d be the # 1 slot, but now… I dunno if he has the darkness in his chops.

    I’ve been meaning to scan in all the issues that Gillis wrote, arrange them in book form (paginate correctly for a folded 11×17 double-sided print-out) and print them into a TPB for my own collection.
    THAT’s how much I love his take on it.
    If only the artwork for those issues was stronger.

    ah well…

    ~P~
    P-TOR

  11. Over at CSBG, somebody brought up a good point about Dr. Fate and hawkman, and endless retooling of characters that don’t really need it: when you’re pitching to Marvel or DC, they don’t want to hear you pitch Spider-Man, because somebody’s already writing Spider-Man. So you have to pick a character without his or her own successful title. But then, as a matter of course you will not pitch “basically the same sort of stuff Writer X did in his run”, you will pitch a “re-imagining”. Unless you’re already an established writer, you can’t simply say “I want to write Nova; I think it’ll be cool”.

    This is perhaps a bit like what’s happened to Hollywood, by the way — as an acquaintance of mine puts it (who used to be a studio starlet), in Selznick’s day they wanted your pitch to be good, they wanted you to come in there and be successful at knocking their socks off, basically they wanted to make your movie…but today everybody’s got an M.A. and a Ph.D. and an F.u.CK., and they want you to prove to them why they should make it, instead of giving you the bum’s rush.

    But now, Doc: it’s really quite remarkable that he’s resisted “reimagining” for so long, isn’t it? When just about every other character under the sun has had to go through it. And not just Dr. Fate and Hawkman, but Wonder Woman, y’know? Yet Doc soldiers on, all-but-untouchable, while things like Ultimate Dr. Strange flop both horribly, and rapidly.

    Now that’s awesomeness!

    So, a problem for writers who love Dr. Strange, and are looking to break in: how do you prove he would benefit from re-imagining? Well, you really can’t prove this, because he wouldn’t. Your redesign is never going to come up to the level of Ditko’s original design, it just isn’t going to happen. Your “world of Dr. Strange” is never going to be as good as the one with Dormammu, Eternity, and the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth in it. You might as well pitch Spider-Man, if you’re going to pitch Doc! Even though he’s a second-stringer.

    So, obviously Doc doesn’t need someone who can update him; he needs someone who can do good work with what’s already there.

    And I think this is what Joe Quesada and his go-to guys quite possibly just don’t understand.

    Ha, knew I had another couple of thoughts to get out, there.

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