Doctor Strange — a product of his times

  • Doctor Strange by iIllustrator Ronald R. Nelson, the artist for “(H)afrocentric: The Comic," available in stores and online via RonaldRNelson.tumblr.com. COURTESY OF L.A. WILLIAMS 

For the Bulletin
Thursday, November 17, 2016


Even if you’ve not seen the new “Doctor Strange” flick, you’ve seen the promotions for it, because Marvel Comics’ marketing is trés effective.

Although less well-known than other Marvel characters, like Spider-Man and The Hulk, Doctor Strange has been a respected character in the comics for decades, and is a great reflection of the times when he was created.

For this to be an article, and not a dissertation, I need your consent for my oversimplification of the following complex matters: The 1960s was a decade when many Americans questioned and challenged convention. Previously, most Americans thought fighting in this country’s wars was a matter of patriotic duty, the government could be trusted, and religious, cultural and family traditions were the country’s bedrock.

But, many of those beliefs were “turned on their heads” during the ’60s, as Americans questioned race relations, our involvement in the Vietnam War, gender inequality, what we were doing to the environment, sexual norms and more. Thinking changed in the ’60s, and that included the way comic book heroes were created.

DC Comics’ Superman and Batman, for example, were created in the late 1930s as all-around admirable characters. Back then, the practically invulnerable Superman didn’t want enemies to attack his human friends, so he maintained a secret identity as Clark Kent, feigning cowardice as part of the disguise.

But in the revolutionary 1960s, DC’s competition Marvel Comics changed that formula by creating heroes whose flaws weren’t fake.

A case in point: When a cop asked for Spider-Man’s help to stop a criminal in 1962, the teenager dismissively responded, “Sorry, pal! That’s your job!”

In 1939, Bruce Wayne (Batman) acted like an aloof playboy (and pretended to regularly over-drink in later years) but in the early 1960s, Tony Stark (Iron Man) actually was an aloof playboy (and revealed to be an alcoholic in later years).

Then, in 1963, enter the arrogant and cynical Dr. Stephen Strange, a surgeon who purposely restricts his world to those to those who can afford his high fees.

Probably because he was created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the same artist-and-writer duo that created Spider-Man, Doctor Strange’s story is similar to the Wall-Crawler’s in that his selfishness is changed only when he suffers a tragedy.

Frequently, Marvel’s heroes’ failings were prominent when their characters were introduced to readers and diminished as the characters matured.

When Western medicine, religion, and technology fail to help him, Strange goes on a spiritual quest to the Himalayas. In order to properly meet his new challenges, Doctor Strange’s views must expand with the times, like those of most Americans. And when Strange humbles himself to learn from “The Ancient One,” he discovers the power of magic and new realms and, finally, becomes a hero.

Place matters

Superman was created in 1938, and based in the fictional city of Metropolis, but I propose he could’ve been created 20 years earlier or later and still been based there. But Doctor Strange’s headquarters were in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and the symbolism of that location, at that time, is crucial: Without the influence of Timothy Leary (the American psychologist and writer who advocated the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs) and the rise of the drug culture, it isn’t likely readers in 1963 would have understood, or accepted, Strange’s travel to other realities via astral projection.

Could the trippy and quirky art style of the comic have worked 10 years earlier? Had Strange not been created during a time of non-conformity, would his creators have had him battle the destructive hoards called the Mindless Ones?

The universe-embodying character, Eternity, introduced in 1965, only works if it comes during or after the Age of Aquarius. And the idea that Strange had to save Eternity reflects the environmental movement that burgeoned after 1962’s best-selling “Silent Spring” by conservationist Rachel Carson.

Finally, Strange is an unmarried superhero who cohabits with Clea, an alluring disciple and lover. Given that the comics were bought mainly by kids and teens, Marvel never would have gotten away with that, if not for the radical shift in America’s sexual norms in the 1960s.

Mind you, I’m not saying the “Doctor Strange” comics had it all together — there were stereotypes aplenty: White guy travels to distant land, and immediately becomes the greatest master the world’s ever known. What’s more, Strange had a faithful Asian “manservant,” Wong, and an equally stereotypical (albeit presumably less offensive) wise Asian teacher, The Ancient One.

And black folks? I don’t recall any key ones in Strange’s circle during the ’60s (or ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, for that matter).

But, some things have changed since then: When “Doctor Strange” opened at theaters Nov. 4, it altered the comic’s dynamics by having Tilda Swinton, a woman, portray The Ancient One and Chiwetel Ejiofor, a black man, play Baron Karl Mordo.

But what you may be most interested in, is seeing how well the magic of the 1960s fares onscreen, some 50 years later.

L.A. Williams is an Amherst Regional High School and University of Massachusetts Amherst alumnus, and a former comic editor, who runs AquaBabyBooks.com, an online bookstore.