Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Strange Days Indeed: Who is Doctor Strange?

Yesterday, Marvel Studios announced that Benedict Cumberbatch, best know for playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's Sherlock, had been cast as Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, Sorcerer Supreme. While this is a big announcement for some of us, Doctor Strange isn't exactly the biggest name in comics, probably better known than the Guardians of the Galaxy, less so than Iron Man. So, as a public service, here's some background on the good doctor, and a few stories you might want to check out.

My personal history with Doctor Strange begins, aside from an appearance in an episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, where a lot of my history with Marvel characters does: with The Infinity Gauntlet. Strange was a principal character in the battle to stop Thanos and his god-like power, not just in the main mini-series but with crossovers into his own title. Strange would continue to have a large part in the sequel, The Infinity War, and a smaller roll in the final part of the trilogy, The Infinity Crusade.

Doctor Strange is a character with a long history, having first appeared in 1963 in Strange Tales #110 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. But unlike the other major Lee/Ditko creation, Spider-Man, Strange has had a hard time holding down a series. He has had no fewer than three ongoing series that have ended, plus runs in Marvel Premiere and numerous mini-series. This isn't to say he's a failure as a character; he is still mainstream comics best known magician and has been active even when not in his own title, as a supporting character or a member of the Defenders or the Avengers.

As origins go, Stephen Strange was one of the world's best surgeons, or if you asked him, the best. Arrogant and callous, Strange cared for no one but himself. But after a car accident cost him the use of his hands (in most versions of his origins, an accident caused by his own carelessness or drunkenness), Strange went on a quest to find a way to repair them. This finally led him into the Himalayas, where he met the Ancient One, a mystic who agreed to tutor Strange. Here he learned magic and selflessness, taking up the mantle of Master of the Mystic Arts, and eventually Sorcerer Supreme. It is Doctor Strange's duty to keep this dimension safe from incursions for Hell, The Dark Dimension, and any other plane of existence.

As power sets go, Strange's magic makes that kind of hard to classify. The rules of magic are a little hard to describe, as they are flexible to fit the story, so Strange can do pretty much anything. Usually there are lots of raybolts of energy, binding spells, and the like. He does fly using the Cloak of Levitation, and wields the Eye of Agamotto, the amulet at the neck of the cape, that allows for visions and truthseeing. Many of these powers he draws from the Vishanti, a triumvirate of extra dimensional beings, named Agamotto, Osthur, and Hoggoth,the last of which gives us Doctor Strange's signature comic book catchphrase, "By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!" It might not be, "It's Clobberin' Time!" but I still think it beats, "Oh, my stars and garters!"

That's really all you need to know up front. One of the good things (and/or problems) about so many cancellations and new beginnings is that Doctor Strange is often returning with a mostly clean slate. The baggage is often discarded to provide a clean new start that will be the one that's a hit. That hasn't happened in recent years, but with a movie coming I'm sure we'll see it tried again. Strange does have certain key supporting characters and nemeses, though, and here's who they are,

Wong was introduced in the same issue as Doctor Strange, and has been Strange's manservant since that first appearance. Initially, he was simply the inscrutable Asian stereotype you couldn't get away with now, who had served the Ancient One as well as Strange, silent and always with a fortune cookie of wisdom. But over the years he has developed, and his backstory in some versions now involves him being a former student of the Ancient One as well, and besdies being a master martial artist, he is now more Strange's partner, friend, and aide rather than simply his servant.

The Ancient One is the master sorcerer who trained Strange. Sometimes portrayed as a smiling, Yoda like mentor, he is usually instead a hardass who will smack down Strange any time he gets too big for his britches, even returning from the other side to do it. He is not to be trifled with.

Clea is Doctor Strange's on again/off again love interest (they are currently off again). His wife at one point, she is the daughter of Umar and niece of Dormammu (both of whom we'll get to in a  minute), and is often fighting for the freedom of the people in her native Dark Dimension. She is a powerful sorceress herself, and has been Strange's apprentice.

Rintrah was another of Strange's apprentices and... oh, who am I kidding? We're never going to see Rintrah again. I just think the fact that he's a greenish minotaur is one of those great things that flies pretty much only in comics.

Baron Mordo is Doctor Strange's oldest foe. A fellow apprentice of the Ancient One, Mordo was corrupted by Dormammu, and tried to kill the Ancient One and steal his power. Strange interfered, and began a rivalry that lasts until today. He is Strange's opposite number.

The Dread Dormammu is an extradimensional demon who has designs to conquer Earth. He is constantly attempting to break the barriers between dimensions and bring an army of evil, or just his own form, onto our plane of existence, often using puppets like Mordo. This constantly draws him into conflict with Strange, and depending on who you ask, he might be Strange's arch-foe even more than Mordo.

Umar is the sister of Dormammu and the ruler of The Dark Dimension. A despot, she usually comes into conflict with Strange at the behest of Clea, her daughter, who tries to liberate the people from her rule.

If all those crazy characters and magic have drawn your interest and you want to learn more about Doctor Strange, here are some places to start.

Essential Doctor Strange Vol.1-4: Marvel's late and lamented line of big, black and white collections of classic comics has four volumes for Strange. The not only collect all the stories by Lee & Ditko, which include all sorts of great crazy art by Ditko, but stories from Steve Englehart, Roger Stern, and Jim Starlin. I only have one to three personally, and am on  my own quest to find a volume four.

Doctor Strange Vs. Dracula: The Montesi Formula: I've written about my love of Tomb of Dracula before, and this trade not only collects the crossover between Tomb and Doctor Strange, it also contains a later story where Doctor Strange is in a race against time to find the  Montesi Formula, the spell that will wipe out all vampires, before Dracula takes over the world. It's an exciting story, and a worthy successor to the original Tomb of Dracula series.

Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment: One of Marvel's original graphic novels, this volume not only is written by Roger Stern, one of the definitive Doctor Strange writers (I know some people go with Lee or Englehart but for my money, Stern is the best), but it features early art by Mike Mignola. After a sorcerer's duel to determine the world's best mage, the Doctors, Strange and Doom (best known as the Fantastic Four's archenemy, but a pretty good sorcerer in his own right), must make a trip to Hell to retrieve the soul of Doom's mother. Strange gets some really cool moments, but I have to say that Doom steals the show in his dealings with Mephisto.

Doctor Strange: The Oath: While not the most recent attempt to restart a Strange franchise, this is one that I feel like had the most potential. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y:The Last Man) and drawn stylishly by Marcos Martin, this is a story that draws comparisons between Strange's oath as a doctor and as a sorcerer. It does great things with the relationship between Strange and Wong, and gave Strange a new love interest, Night Nurse, the doctor to the superheroes.

Doctor Strange: Season One: A couple years back, Marvel created a line of graphic novel's called Season One, where their principal heroes got modern retellings of their origins. The volume for Doctor Strange, from creators Grek Pak and Emma Rios, was one of the highlights of that line. The story does a great job of fleshing out Strange's journey from selfish tool to superhero, builds a solid relationship between Strange and Wong, and adds mythologist Sofia Do Cosima (created by Pak for his Incredible Hulks) run on to Strange's cast. It's a globe trotting, action story with strong characters, and is a great place to start if you want to get a good sense of Doctor Strange.

Strange is also a regular member of the cast of New Avengers, so if you need your monthly dose, that's where you can head. I'm sure we'll be getting a new series for Strange before long, too, and I have some ideas of cool places that could go. Maybe there's a post in that soon... But until then, may the Vishanti protect you.

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