The Forgotten and Undying Ones: The Most Compelling Dr. Strange Stories You Probably Missed
Part 1: What is it that Disturbs You, Stephen?
In anticipation of the movie version of Dr. Strange, my favorite character since I started reading comics, I attempted to reread all the Dr. Strange comics in my possession and often such a massive reread leads to out-of-body, who-did-I-used-to-be? shame and terror, especially since the decade I started reading was the 1990s, a decade notoriously prone to such why-did-we-ever-think-that-was-cool? experiences: the Gambits of our youth simply have dumb gloves and headgear with the wisdom of age, and that all the Avengers are wearing matching leather jackets seems less cutting edge and more like the forced cool of ill-conceived family photos. Plus, Dr. Strange was always an exponentially nerdier and niche-ier comic than the X-Mens and the Avengerses of that era, which makes a comprehensive retrospective a little easier; a singular character with a stuttering start-and-stop publishing history makes the full publishing history easier (and cheaper) to cover, but the lack of central editorial focus makes quality a total gamble.
However, I was pleased to rediscover how delightful (or at least compelling or perplexing or challenging or stunningly creative) so many of the forgotten stories were. Of course, when considering great Dr. Strange stories, the high points of the initial Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run in the 60s and the runs Steve Englehart had with Gene Colon and Frank Brunner in the 70s always justifiably occupy the majority of top ten positions, but so many of the rest of the intervening and subsequent comics were consistently reader-worthy even if they fell slightly short of those twin peaks. Part of the reason for this is that Dr. Strange seems to be the site of boundless experimentation of various narrative modes due to the dimension-traveling trope definitive of a Dr. Strange narrative including the inventive nightmare worlds and creatures he encounters, not to mention the multifoliate complexity of Doc’s personality and the free transition between genres intrinsic to Doc’s boundlessness, from psychedelic inward journey to horror to cosmic/sci-fi to cosmic horror to traditional superhero narrative to a genre wholly unique to Dr. Strange.
If you've never read Dr. Strange, here is a brief and mostly random overview of the history of Dr. Strange:
In considering great forgotten Dr. Strange stories, a great place to start is Dr. Strange: What is it that Disturbs You, Stephen? (1997) written by Marc Andreyko with art by P. Craig Russell, a self-contained graphic novel published after the end of volume 3. Despite what I said about the potential of originality in the series, the story itself is a pretty standard Dr. Strange narrative – Doc follows a mystery, he enters a magical world to save someone, he battles the sorcerer or sorceress behind the plot, chthonic dreamscapes tempt him to surrender to madness, that old yarn; this makes it a perfect place for new fans to start: you don’t have to know anything about Dr. Strange to appreciate it, but if you don’t like this comic, you’re not going to like Dr. Strange.
The prime asset of this book that makes the forgotten status tragic is the great organic rainbow bloom of P. Craig Russell’s art: a lush mix of Ditko's biomorphic psychedelia with Moebius's spectral architecture. Bachalo's current work on volume 4 seems to be following a similar model: panels packed with tons of playful business that turns the reading experience into a Where’s Waldo of clever little particulate tricksterism. The art easily compensates for any story deficiency or first-reader obstacles: the dreamlike plot shifting might boggle a new reader briefly before the clean, tightly-constructed, essentially self-contained story picks up. It’s also blessedly free of continuity fog – it’s essentially an “Elseworlds tale,” as DC might call it, except most Dr. Strange stories are elseworlds tales, making it often a convenient comic to jump in and out of. To follow the story, you only need to know he does a particular type of magic, a broad mix of comic-book-filtered Lovecraftian and Eastern mysticism. For example, you don’t have to know the whole history of Watoomb (and Watoomb does have a whole history, but don’t worry about it until you become a hardcore fan); you can just appreciate that “The Winds of Watoomb” is one of the many crazy spells Doc does. The relationship between Doc and Wong might be a little surprising if you only know the movie Wong, but long term fans have seen their relationship develop from the Asian servant stereotype of the 60s to a deep friendship based on mutual service of subsequent decades, even if Dr. Strange puts on the air of superiority (and Doc has the same air of superiority with everybody). Still, the relationship may seem superficially anachronistic at first. Doc’s deep bromantic commitment to Wong is the driving force of the story as Wong is this story’s damsel-in-distress whom Doc must journey into another dimension to save – in other words, the loose excuse for exploring Russell’s imaginative biomorphia. The other dimension, in this case, is called Ditkopolis, and the influence of Steve Ditko is obvious (as it is with most post-Ditko Dr. Strange stories, and arguably most post-Ditko comics in general).
The story develops a lot like one particular classic Lee/Ditko story: Doc’s encounter with the evil sorceress Electra and her good sister Celeste in What is it that Disturbs You, Stephen? is similar enough to his encounter with the evil sorceress Shazana and her good half-sister Nazaka. The earlier story is just a small part of “The Eternity Saga,” the classic Lee/Ditko Strange Tales tale at the top of most must-read lists, and any dedicated Dr. Strange must absolutely read that story, but Shazana and Nazaka get lost in a series of dimension-hopping adventures and evil-sorcerer-of-the-month sequences that climax with the first appearance of Eternity and the defeat of Dormammu, both of which overshadow anything that comes before. What is it That Disturbs You, Stephen? is basically similar but more tightly focused and self-contained, which could effectively help the new fan train up to “The Eternity Saga” without having to readjust to the 60s formatting differences, like the dense paneling. Russell’s lush and sprawling panoramas take the best of Ditko and anticipate Bachalo’s recent work in a way that would seem just as fresh and delightful in 1967, 1997, or 2017.