Growing up, I was always a fan of Marvel comics, but if I had to choose a favourite character, it would have been Dr Strange.
Surreal, dark stories, other dimensions, impossible worlds. The villains were sinister, cerebral, mystical, they attacked your soul, not your body, they infected your dreams and drove you insane. They bled your compassion, tempted you, wore you down and ultimately controlled you. Other comics were dominated by slug fests and simpleton brutes knocking lumps out of each other, which I wasn’t adverse to, but Dr Strange was altogether different, suspenseful, verging on the horrific and very unsettling.
The introductory panels of the first ever Dr. Strange story (from Strange Tales #110, July 1963), art by Steve Ditko
As a kid, I somehow managed to get a pulp pocket book edition of the first Dr Strange stories, originally published in the early/mid 60s. I devoured them, I read them again and again, poring over the art and trying to copy the illustrations (my artistic peak was at 9 years old). Steve Ditko was perfect as the artist, already a veteran of many a horror / suspense title prior to joining Marvel, his mix of dark and shadow and then the explosions of colour in fantastic worlds and spells, was a revelation to a young boy.
Nightmare, haunting your dreams. From Strange Tales #110 and below, other dimensions, explosions of colour and psychedelic threats in Strange Tales #126 (again, all art by Ditko)
“EARTH SHALL SOON BE MINE!” – they all say that. Shut up Dormammu.
And the hands! He drew hands beautifully. In the deadline obsessed world of comic books, it would have been easy to take shortcuts. As any artist will tell you, hands are one of the most difficult things you can draw, but Ditko appeared effortless in the way he conveyed hands. Whether the incantations of Dr Strange and his enemies, or the web slinging endeavours of Spider Man (who he also co-designed) the focal aspect of his art, was of lithe elegance, and the hands expressed so much in the narrative and storytelling. The other main artist at Marvel at the time was Jack Kirby, who I also love, it’s a generalisation but his heroes were stockier, powerfully drawn with thick lines and prominent shading. Thor, The Hulk, The Thing, those were the characters perfect for Kirby. But Ditko, his heroes were althogether more graceful.
And so to the film, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I laughed at myself, feeling a pang of that childhood thrill of expectancy… there was a new Doctor Strange story! The casting was great (see panel below and publicity shot from Empire magazine) and the story was fun, well paced and well acted.
It also captured the conceit and self absorbsion of Dr Strange, the surgeon, prior to his accident, his humbling, his descent into depression and his transformation into the sorceror supreme. All this was faithful to the comics. The great thing about Marvel is their heroes are flawed. Sometimes the flaws are ugly. I remember, when I was 10 or so, being absorbed by quite a dark personal storyline of Tony Stark battling alchoholism in Iron Man. This was more intriguing to me than him fighting his enemies. I loved Iron Man, but my faith in him was being challenged through the writing, creating this self destructive angry victim, out of control and stuck in a bottle, with such a dangerous weapon at his disposal. I was scared he was going to kill someone. It stressed me out!
I wont spoil the film, but I reccomend it. Mads Mikkelsen is a great camp luvvy of a villain (in the best way possible) and he gets some funny dry lines, as funny as you can be if you’re a zealous nihilst desperate to deliver planet Earth to a frightening entity in another dimension. Cumberbatch is sublime too. It’s a heavyweight cast and they all delivered.
And Stan Lee’s cameo is trippy, again, a little nod to the 1960s, which pepper the film. They even use Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd at one point. And yes, the other dimensions are bonkers.
So go see it, it has a bit more depth than the relentless punch ups and groin thrusting of the Avengers films, and I think with Dr Strange being part of that franchise in the future, it can only improve things. By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, a respectable 8/10.
Ps – As for the reclusive Steve Ditko, it appears he’s still working independently. Oh to own one of his wonderful pieces of work one day!