Comic Book Review – Doctor Strange Epic Collection V1: Master of the Mystic Arts

Doctor Strange Epic Collection Volume 1: Master of the Mystic Arts (2018)
Reprints Strange Tales v1 #110-111, 114-146, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2
Written by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Art by Steve Ditko

For such a massive movie star, Doctor Strange’s origins didn’t guarantee that level of fame. He began as a back-up feature in the aptly named anthology Strange Tales. Despite the name, Strange Tales was initially a showcase for science fiction stories in the 1950s. It was part of Marvel chasing the popularity of gorier stories found in EC Comics like Tales From the Crypt, but as superheroes rose back into popularity in the 1960s, the company pivoted. The feature story of Strange Tales in the early 1960s was The Human Torch. While having waned in popularity in recent years, The Fantastic Four was the premiere book published by Marvel in the 1960s. They were the company’s entry into the Silver Age cape & tights landscape, and the Torch was one of the most popular characters. A few issues in, a back-up feature was needed, and there was creator Steve Ditko with the idea for Dr. Strange.

Like most Marvel creations, Stan Lee was involved, but more credit needs to go to his collaborators. Ditko co-created Spider-Man shortly before the good doctor came onto the scene. I recently read through the two Epic Collections that reprinted Ditko’s entire Spider-Man run and was thoroughly impressed with how he grew as an artist in those years. These stories were published concurrently, so the evolution can be seen on a smaller scale. It is evident that a little less work went into these short stories as they weren’t as front and center as Spider-Man. However, you can feel Lee & Ditko eventually find their groove and deliver an incredibly epic introductory arc that firmly establishes Doctor Strange’s place in the magical realms of the Marvel Universe.

Doctor Stephen Strange is introduced without an origin in his first appearance. We get his Sanctum in Greenwich Village, an unnamed Asian servant (who would later be developed as Wong), and his mentor, The Ancient One. The astral projection appears to be an artistic special effect Ditko was quite fond of, as Strange does it a lot in these early appearances. This first story features a man plagued by horrible dreams and seeks out the mystic he’s heard of. Strange enters the realm of dreams, where he faces Nightmare, an entity that embodies all that word signifies. It’s a quick read and doesn’t offer any nuance or complexity. Just pure adventure comics.

Strange’s second appearance in the following issue introduced Baron Mordo into the mythos. Right away, we learn that Mordo was also a student of The Ancient One. Unlike Strange, Mordo is jealous of his teacher’s power and wishes to kill The Ancient One so he can possess it. This leads to a fight between Mordo and Strange’s spirit forms through a series of bizarre backgrounds representing mystic dimensions. It’s another one and done, straight to the point. I hope you like Mordo because he becomes the most recurring nemesis to the doctor in this book. Unlike Spider-Man, who had a new foe in every issue, Ditko puts less effort into these stories. Instead, Doctor Strange is more about exploring surreal dimensions and executing complex spells.

Most of this isn’t quite enticing until you get to the book’s second half, where things really kick-off. Ditko seems to have become much more interested now that he’s found an audience for this type of character. That leads to a massive, sprawling story that was contained as a back-up in Strange Tales. The artwork becomes increasingly trippy and more detailed. Ditko is having fun thinking up worlds that defy our physics and laws of reality. Mordo is still the main antagonist, but his plans are vaster and begin to bring in demons and otherworldly beings. Dormammu is introduced, the lord of the Dark Dimension, and part of Strange’s odyssey involves finding Eternity. 

Despite all of this, it is still funny that Strange typically ends up punching the bad guys as any other random superhero might. He even wrestles Dormammu at one point. This element clarifies that Ditko wasn’t a hundred percent confident in featuring the spellcasting aspects of Strange. Instead of spells, we get oodles of flowery language about the “Wand of Watoomb” or “Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth,” very Lovecraftian-sounding names with little substance behind them. By the end of this collection, Strange has acquired his Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agamotto. I did find it funny that these signature visual pieces were not part of his original design and that we have stories showing them coming into his possession.

It’s always interesting to go back to these foundational comic texts. They always offer surprises because we’ve become so used to contemporary portrayals we often don’t realize it took years and the hands of many creators to shape the characters into who they are. That willingness to play and change things should come back to comics as so many characters have stagnated, living in loops of the same stories being retold with different window-dressing. Doctor Strange is a fundamental lesson in how where you start is not where you have to stay, and in art, it’s essential to explore and allow things to evolve.

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