The Secret Origin of Dr. Strange

Imagination Connoisseur, Victor Rosasrio-Fermaint, writes in to ROBSERVATIONS with some interesting details on how Dr. Strange came to be thanks not only to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, but also Vincent Price, Roger Corman and, yes, Jack Nicholson.

Dear Rob,

After the initial spurts of creativity of 1939 and 1941, Marvel then Timely Comics migrated into copycat territory. They imitated every genre that sold elsewhere.

Disney & WB funny animals; the romance comics Simon & Kirby, their former superstars originated; EC comics horror anthologies and Archie comics. Even the giant monster/giant insects B-movies popular in the ’50s had many marvelous doppelgangers.

At the dawn of the sixties, Marvel unexpectedly switched gears, and exchanged imitation for inspiration. All of a sudden they realized that originality could made them a bigger buck, or maybe it was just a desperation move to stay afloat.

From the mind of Stan Lee sprung … ?

Stan Lee was a solid comic-book writer and editor, yes he was often corny, but every now and again he was able to leap tall buildings in a single script. He also developed over the years a different power set; the skills of a world class salesperson. Memory is a tricky thing, and when you are a salesman, facts and hype sometimes blur. In his last interviews, before he forever left behind planet Earth (with the Watchers?), ninety-something Stan admitted to have forgotten details regarding the co-creation process he shared with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko et al.

When talking about Doctor Strange, he did remember Chandu the Magician as his fountain of inspiration. Chandu started out as a radio play when radio was king, but there were also two movies starring Bela Lugosi. In the first one he played the villain Roxor, in the second one Lugosi played Chandu himself. Kind of creepy right? Makes you wonder if in some lost episode the hero possessed the villain’s body like Doc Ock did with Peter Parker a few years ago.

Stephen Strange and Chandu share the same “white savior in exotic garb” archetype, a cliff notes master of some eastern mysticism that should take half a lifetime to master. Chandu commanded a variety of powers, but the projection of his astral form is the most strange-like.

Chandu, like Mandrake the famous comic strip magician, probably inspired other wizard heroes with strange names like DC Comics’ Zatara, and Sargon. Zatara first appeared in 1938, Sargon in 1941.

Isn’t it odd that Stan waited till 1963 to come up with his radio inspired magician? It is really not odd at all, because he did not really conjure up Doctor Stephen Strange. Stephen J. Ditko did.

No, scratch that. From the mind of Steve Ditko …

When it came to the creation of heroes, most of the time Stan Lee took all the credit. This time he credited artist Steve Ditko, fully. From his remarks you can tell that Stan was unimpressed with the character. He said back then “The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him– ’twas Steve’s idea and I figured we’d give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much.”

He still published the story, probably to keep his quirky and opinionated, but popular Amazing Spider-Man artist happy, and named the character Strange after Strange Tales, just like he had done with Mr. Fantastic and the Fantastic Four.

What event could have prompted the creation of Doctor Strange?

Let’s rev up our flux capacitated DeLoreans and turn back the clock. Doc first appeared in a five-pager in Strange Tales #110 (cover dated July 1963). To give my theory a historical context, let’s remember that the Beatles would visit America for the first time seven months later. Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy were still in the White House, and the Dallas motorcade was four months in the future.

I don’t think anybody here was born yet. Oops! Well almost, I was a year old.

A July cover date means that the comic appeared in newsstands and in the spinning racks of drug stores & supermarkets in May, two months before the cover date. That was the shelf life of a comic-book. Still kind of is. Let’s also be generous and give the printer a whole month to process and ship the book. April.

As a comic-book artist myself I know that you can pencil and ink 5 pages in just a few days, but Mr. Ditko was Spidey’s regular artist (he had already drawn the first year of his adventures) so let’s give him a whole month. March. So whatever inspired Ditko likely ocurred in January or February of 1963 or maybe in late 1962.

Where were you in ’62?

Roger Corman’s “The Raven” was one of the three movies that impacted my childhood when I saw it on TV, along with “Jason & The Argonauts” and George Pal’s “The Time Machine”, just like Pal’s “War Of The Worlds” did yours. “The Raven” was released on January 25th, 1963, and it was penned by the great Richard Matheson, and loosely inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name. In Poe’s “The Raven” a still mourning widower is tormented by a raven that he imagines is talking to him.

In Corman’s movie, the grief stricken widower is a 15th century wizard named Doctor Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price), and the raven that comes to visit is really a man punished by black magic, a bumbling mage named Doctor Adolphus Bedlo (Peter Lorre), whose son Rexford is played by a young Jack Nicholson. The warlock who transformed Bedlo is the nefarious Doctor Scarabus (Boris Karloff). It turns out that Craven’s dead wife Lenore (Hazel Court), faked her death and ran away with Scarabus. The movie ends with perhaps the earliest live action magic duel I ever saw. Later that year audiences would enjoy an even more humorous animated wizard fracas between Merlin and Mim. Certainly the coolest part of “The Sword In The Stone”. A few years before Toei animation and Metro Goldwyn-Mayer delivered “Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke” aka “Magic Boy”, a beloved anime classic with an astonishingly violent sorcerer fight.

It doesn’t take much to fire up an artist’s creativity. For instance, Prince Valiant carves a demon mask out of the skin of a goose to spook away superstitious viking raiders. This throwaway plot device in Hal Foster’s strip, became the look for Jack Kirby’s Etrigan, but Foster’s mask design itself might have been inspired by a 1922 swedish film called “Häxan”.

I’ll be the first to admit that a theory no matter how elegant and neat is not a fact. Real events and statements cannot be replaced with conjecture.

Vincent Price in The Raven

But in “The Raven” we have three sorcerers titled doctor, or I guess witch doctor. At first Steve Ditko gave Dr. Strange a pencil thin horseshoe moustache that he later trimmed to Vincent Price length. Of course it can be argued that Mandrake wore one too. However, early Baron Mordo looks a lot like Boris Karloff.

It’s easy to imagine that Price vs Karloff duel becoming the match that lit the fuse of Mr. Ditko’s imagination. Like a true visionary, he would not merely repeat on paper what he had maybe witnessed on the big screen, instead he would push it beyond what cinema was capable of at the time. The ensuing explosion of sheer genius and visual insanity blew me away when I discovered his work in the mid-seventies, in one of those oversized Marvel Treasury Editions, after years of loving Gene Colan’s depiction of the Ancient One’s favorite pupil, and just when Frank Brunner had become my favorite Doctor Strange artist.

Brunner’s run is still up there, but now he shares that peak with a couple of issues drawn by Michael Golden. Nonetheless, when it comes to the master of the mystic arts’ corner of the Marvel universe and its neighboring dimensions, Steve Ditko will always be its god and king.

Finally if the sorcerer supreme’s birth is as intimately related to Corman’s “The Raven” as I propose, I feel it’s eerily fitting that a filmmaker who cut his teeth directing horror comedies like Sam Raimi will be behind the camera for Doc’s sequel. We may never know if his arrival was due to divine or eldritch intervention though.

– Victor Rosario-Fermaint
Carolina, PR, USA

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