There have been some mind-bending Doctor Strange stories over the years, and many redefined the very boundaries of the Marvel Universe. Stephen Strange has faced Lovecraftian monsters, vampires, satanic cults, demons, elder gods, werewolves, creatures from the Nightmare realm, and other things that go bump in the night.
We’ve compiled an easy guide to get you primed for the weirdness that you may have only experienced in the movies so far!
Strange Tales #110-#146 (1963)
The duo that started it all, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The Dr. Strange stories in Strange Tales broke new ground in terms of the length and breadth of the Marvel Universe. Suddenly, the world of Marvel was not limited to the waking world or the realms of reality. Dr. Strange literally went everywhere; his adventures only limited by the visual imagination of Steve Ditko. In other words…limitless.
The stories in Strange Tales were filled with the usual Stan Lee bombastic prose and storytelling tricks, but it was in these pages that Steve Ditko shined. Most fans know Ditko from his work on Spider-Man, and his Spidey work was superb, but his masterpiece was truly Dr. Strange. This wasn’t just a Mandrake the Magician riff. Filtered through Ditko’s pencil was a metaphysical adventurer who was as comfortable in hellish mindscapes as he was in his own Greenwich Village Apartment. Ditko’s renderings of the realms and realities Strange traveled to were chilling in their otherworldliness, his villains were wild eyed and desperate, a sense of madness and forbidden knowledge radiating from their skillfully rendered frames.
In these pages, Lee and Ditko introduced Stephen Strange, a broken and arrogant surgeon who discovers inner peace and immense power from the Ancient One, the villainous Baron Mordo, the lovely Clea, the brutish Mindless Ones, and more strange and wondrous worlds than you can shake the Wand of Watoomb at. These early issues are like a surreally twisted film with an infinite budget, a limitless exploration into the comic arts, and a how-to guide in world and character building. Let’s hope that Marvel uses the tone and daring of Ditko’s original issues as the stylistic spark for their film.
One particularly effective trick Lee and Ditko pulled off was the constant teasing of their big bad, the Dread Dormammu, long before the monster finally appeared. Dormammu was talked about in hushed whispers for many issues, so that when the flame headed demon finally appeared, readers were filled with a sense of awe. He wasn’t just the villain of the month, he was the Dread One and assuredly all reality must crumble. Now that’s storytelling.
Without the villains, heroes, ideas, and artistic daring of these early issues of Strange Tales, the Marvel Universe would have been a much more boring place. Thanks to Steve Ditko, the boundaries of reality bent and a multiverse of opportunities were born.
Marvel Premiere #9-14 (1972)
Before Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, comics got seriously metaphysical with Steve Englehart and Frank Bruner in their early run on Dr. Strange in Marvel Premiere as well as the character’s second solo series. Englehart had written Dr. Strange before in the pages of The Defenders, and on his website, Englehart himself admits “I’d written him basically as a superhero who shot rays out of his palms. When I took on his solo series, I decided I should learn a little about actual magick – and it led to a continuing interest in the subject.” Englehart, aided by the lush and dynamic pencils of Brunner, did just that, charting Strange’s metaphysical journeys and expanding the boundaries of the mystic side of the Marvel Universe.
In Marvel Premiere #10, Englehart channels his inner Lovecraft by detailing the mind-blowing struggle between the good Doctor and Shuma-Gorath. In Doctor Strange #13, with art by the great Gene Colan, Baron Mordo destroys all of reality only to have reality rebuilt by Eternity.
That’s insane stuff, but it was Marvel Premiere #14 that showed just how far Englehart and Brunner were willing to go in stretching the boundaries of the medium. In this issue, co-plotted with Brunner, Englehart presents a tale where Dr. Strange witnesses the creation of the universe when a mystic being by the name of Sise-Neg recreates the Marvel Universe. In addition to his biblical creationism, Sise-Neg builds a paradise for the first two humans on Earth and protects it from the serpent like Shuma-Gorath and rains destruction down on the Marvel Universe’s Sodom and Gomorrah. Essentially, Englehart and Brunner had the balls to make one of their characters God. This is the type of daring storytelling that would go one to inform the experimental nature of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison.
Stan Lee demanded the duo print a retraction to the story, but Englehart appeased him by publishing a fake letter from a preacher that praised the inventiveness of the tale. It seemed every issue Englehart was altering, destroying, or rebuilding reality, all while keeping the human element that has always made Dr. Strange so compelling. As we mentioned, Englehart also got to work with Gene Colan who, other than Ditko, was the quintessential Dr. Strange artist.
Doctor Strange #1-18 (1974)
These issues were certainly a product of their time, the psychedelic experimentation of the era made manifest. Some of the highlights of the run include the first insane arc in Doctor Strange #1-2, 4-5, that began with Dr. Strange getting stabbed by the villainous Silver Dagger followed by the entire cast getting trapped in the Eye of Agamotto.
The Roger Stern Era (1978-1986)
Here is a bit of fascinating trivia for you. Roger Stern was originally supposed to begin his Dr. Strange run with legendary artist Frank Miller. There were even downright gorgeous house ads trumpeting the duo’s arrival.
For reasons lost to the history of the Dark Dimension, Miller never worked on Dr. Strange with Stern, but Marshall Rogers and a cadre of amazing artists (Tom Sutton, Alan Kupperberg, Kerry Gammill, Marshall Rogers, Brent Anderson, Paul Smith, Michael Golden, Kevin Nowlan, Dan Green, Steve Leialoha, Bret Blevins, Sal Buscema, and Gene Colan to be exact) certainly did in one of the most action packed runs in the character’s history.
Roger Stern was really the first writer to turn the spotlight inward and focus on Doctor Strange the man. Strange, as a character, never shined brighter than he did under Stern, which isn’t to say that Stern and his artists, particularly the aforementioned Rogers, didn’t send the character on some of his most sweeping adventures.
Some of the highlights included a six part story that began in Doctor Strange #56 that saw Doc transform into a cat, the return of Mordo, a time spanning team-up that saw Doc join forces with Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos to stop Dormammu from once again escaping the Dark Dimension, and a visit to ancient Egypt where Doc witnessed the Silver Age battle between a young Fantastic Four and Rama-Tut.
Doctor Strange #59-62 (1983)
The most beloved story of Stern’s run was the epilogue he wrote to Tomb of Dracula, a truly epic battle between Doc, the Avengers, Blade, Frank Drake, and Hannibal King against Dracula and his legion of undead bloodsuckers. The story centered on the Montessi Formula, an ancient spell that would destroy all vampires on Earth. Very rarely do any mainstream comics get an act 3, but this arc served as a riveting third act for Tomb of Dracula.
By the end of the book, vampires were history and Blade, Drake, and King all received happy endings. After Tomb of Dracula ended, Dracula made memorable appearances in Thor and the X-Men, making him a recurring threat to the entire Marvel Universe, but nothing was quite like this.
Doctor Strange and Dr. Doom: Triumph and Torment (1989)
Yet, Stern’s best Dr. Strange work was outside the regular Doctor Strange series. In 1989, Stern and a young Mike Mignola (Hellboy) oversaw the magnum opus graphic novel Triumph and Torment, a dark and tragic tale starring not only Strange but Doctor Doom as well.
The story shows just how compassionate Strange could be as he helps Dr. Doom try and rescue the despot of Latveria’s mother from the fires of Hell. The result is a terrifying journey around the darkest edges of magic in the Marvel Universe. The care and skill that went into this project has to be seen to be believed, but it was arguably the greatest self-contained Dr. Strange story of all time.
The Roy Thomas/Gene Colan Era (1968-1969)
The great Roy Thomas had two memorable runs on Dr. Strange, the first, following Stan Lee on the book in the Silver Age and the second, during the excessive and turbulent ’90s. In his initial run on the Sorcerer Supreme during the ’60s, Thomas was blessed with the presence of artist Gene Colan.
No one could emulate the wonderment of Steve Ditko’s work on Dr. Strange, so Colan did his own thing, using form and shadow to create his own dark corner of the Marvel Universe. Colan was a pure horror artist, creating the most hideous demonic entities ever seen in comics up to that point. Thomas played to the strengths of his artist and grew the legend of Stephen Strange to new proportions.
One of the most memorable tales from this era came in Doctor Strange #177, where Strange takes on the demon Satannish and his cult of worshippers. First off, Thomas and Colan channeled the era’s preoccupation with satanic cults and secondly, essentially introduced Satan to the Marvel Universe…in a Code-approved book no less! After this issue, Strange took on a new form and a new costume, a form of darkness and mystery, a character-rattling change that was unheard of in the Silver Age. Colan and Thomas were doing character redesigns before the number 52 meant anything more than being one less than 53.
The whole thing was cancelled prematurely, but not before they presented a story of the newly costumed Doctor Strange teaming with the Black Knight to take on the Asgardian demons Ymir and Surtur. Let’s just hope Marvel Studios is familiar with these issues because WOW!
Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme (1988)
In his second run writing Dr. Strange, Roy Thomas took a more traditional approach to the Sorcerer Supreme. After a few aborted attempts to modernize the characters (they gave him an eye patch…wheeee!), Thomas brought the classic Doctor Strange back.
While characters in the ’90s were extreme and kewl, Thomas’ classic Strange reminded readers of the glory days of…Roy Thomas and Gene Colan. Yes, the series did feature Wolverine and Ghost Rider guest spots, but the focus of the story was the magical side of the modern Marvel Universe.
One of the highlights of the run was “The Faust Gambit” in which Baron Mordo returns more powerful than ever. It seems the Baron made a deal with both Mephisto and Satannish and when the two demonic entities come to collect, Doctor Strange must protect his greatest foe from their devilish clutches. The series also introduced Mephista, the daughter of Mephisto and if that doesn’t get your interest, we don’t know what will.
The series also returned vampires to the Marvel Universe after Stern’s great run on Doctor Strange and also saw the Sorcerer Supreme go up against characters like Hobgoblin, the Juggernaut, and other villains. The early part of the series featured some downright gorgeous artwork by Jackson Guice. Roy Thomas will go down in history as the most prolific Dr. Strange writer, and man, beginning with Guice, did he have a murderer’s row of artists with him on the character (seriously: Dan Adkins, Tom Palmer, Jackson “Butch” Guice, Jim Valentino, Chris Marrinan, Tony DeZuniga, Dan Lawlis, Geof Isherwood, Frank Lopez).
Doctor Strange: The Oath (2006)
Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin should have been the defining creative team of the good Doctor’s modern era. The Oath was an exploration of Strange as a man, as a wizard, and as a physician. The story saw Stephen Strange desperately seeking a cure for his most trusted confidant Wong’s brain cancer. It also set up Night Nurse, a character whose purpose was to be an emergency general practitioner to the super-hero population, as Dr. Strange’s new romantic interest. The series grounded the concept of Dr. Strange but never lost sight of the character’s metaphysical roots as introduced by Ditko.
The series set up the character for inclusion into the New Avengers and set the standard for all of the good Doctor’s appearences moving forward. Mostly, it is a testament to the creative glory that is Vaughn and Martin. Vaughn displayed the same skills at drama, humor, and world building that he would later utilize in Saga while Martin’s visuals combined the eeriness of Colan with the imaginative scope of Ditko.
The Oath is a Doctor Strange primer, a series that finds everything special about the character and pushes it into the new world of the modern Marvel Universe. Any fan interested in just how awesome Dr. Strange can be should carefully study every panel.
Doctor Strange: The Way of The Weird
Since 2015, writer Jason Aaron and artist Chris Bachalo have been weaving an incredible spell, making Doctor Strange the must-read book of Marvel’s entire line. “Way of the Weird” really humanizes the character by showing readers the price Strange pays for keeping the world safe — consequences like not being able to eat real food because his body rejects anything non-magical. Details like that make this series so special.
And, oh, the artwork! Chris Bachalo creates a tapestry of images worthy of the visual language conjured by Steve Ditko so long ago. Aaron and Bachalo play the hits, explore many of Strange’s classic foes, and introduce some new threats, as well.
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