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Bring back the ‘stache! – Doctor Strange #178

December 16, 2010

There have been many ill-advised costume changes in the history of comics. They usually tend to be the New Coke of graphic storytelling. Disasters.

For an oh-so brief moment in the Silver Age, Doctor Strange had himself a new set of duds. And a mask. The storytelling reason for this change was so that he could conceal his identity. I’d suggest some manner of spell might work and would also be right up his alley, but okay, a mask might do in a pinch. A big part of the good doctor’s appeal, though, such as it is, is his look. And that look includes a glorious moustache. And that moustache cannot be seen through a mask.

I think you understand the problem here.

The change didn’t last long, so I guess we can’t complain.

Roy Thomas, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer handled the respective scripting, pencilling and inking chores on this one. In “…With One Beside Me,” Strange has to travel to another dimension (what else is new?) to recruit some foot soldiers to aid him in battle against Surtur and Ymir the Frost Giant.

Tall order.

He needs another mystic to help him, so he zaps over to the British Isles to recruit fellow spellcaster Victoria Bentley to his cause. He finds her ogling the Black Night’s sword at a fancy soiree:

Yes, she’s admiring his long ebon sword, which is dangling betwixt his legs. This calls to mind all manner of humorous phrases, though I’ll refrain from writing them down. But why not let Burgess Meredith uncork a few, even if they aren’t all that germane?:

Moving on.

Strange gets a two for one bargain — while Victoria stays behind to anchor him in his home dimension, the Black Knight accompanies him to the realm of the evil Tiboro.

Huge two-page splashes weren’t all that common back in the Silver Age, but this one, which marks the opening of battle between the two heroes and this issue’s big bad, shows Colan at his fluid best:

After some back and forth, the Knight uses that attention-getting sword of his to finish off Tiboro:

His mission accomplished, Strange moves on to the next stage of his quest and the next issue as well.

Costume misadventures aside, this issue had its moments, but reading it got me to thinking about Doctor Strange and the other Ditko Marvel co-creation, Spider-Man. When going through Doctor Strange comics I’m always struck by how they’ve never really lived up to Ditko’s original work on the character. Spider-Man doesn’t have that problem, at least for this reader. I love Colan, and his work is cool as always in this issue, but I found myself wondering how Ditko would have depicted Tiboro’s realm, and Colan’s version was lacking in that imagined comparison.

Perhaps John Romita’s biggest contribution to Spider-Man was making it kosher for other artists to draw Spidey in the future. His art was different from Ditko’s, and he made Peter Parker more robust and less the nerdy teenager that he had been. But his contribution was on par with (and maybe surpassed) Ditko’s, and he started bopping four hundred foot home runs and breaking the backboard and throwing bombs downfield — pick your sports comparison — as soon as he came on board. I think Doctor Strange may have suffered a bit in the post-Ditko issues. The work was creditable, but it wasn’t up to those hallucinogenic backgrounds of Ditko’s that transformed every panel (it seemed) into an acid trip. And Doctor Strange has never crawled back out of the lower rung of the Marvel Universe.

I’m sure there are folks out there, and perhaps you, dear reader, who’d disagree with me. And I’m not sure that I buy all this myself.  It’s more an impression than a carefully thought out theory, but that’s what this issue kindled in my addled synapses.

I think we can all agree, however, that Strange needs the ‘stache. Do you think he and Tony Stark ever catch the other giving loving looks to their thickly haired upper lip? Or that they take a quiet moment to compare notes on trimming techniques? They have to, right?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2010 1:16 pm

    The thing about that mask is that it wasn’t even necessary; as a rule, Strange didn’t perform his miracles on the streets of New York for the rank-and-file to see, and on the rare occasions he did, he just used a spell to make everyone forget not only him but the entire incident. All the super-types already knew what he looked like and anyway, he operates under his own name, not an alias. So what’s the point of a mask? With no functional application, it becomes just a fashion statement (the statement being: Stephen Strange has no fashion sense).

    I know Roy gave a reason for it in the book, but it was obviously invented to “explain” a decision he’d already made. I have to assume someone somewhere decided masked heroes sold better, therefore Dr Strange gets a mask. But the mask they picked here — obscuring not only Stephen’s specific features but indeed anything vaguely human about his face — only has the unfortunate effect of reminding us of that *other* magical character with a cape and amulet and face-obscuring headware. You know, the one who came FIRST.

    I agree nobody ever touched Ditko on the strip when it came to visualizing spells and other dimensions. He wrote the book and hexed everyone who followed; either you tried to invent an alternative take on alternate realities — and came in a poor second — or you followed Ditko’s lead, and got accused of swiping.

    I also agree Romita saved Spidey from a similar fate in a way only he could; by completely re-imagining Spidey’s world from the ground up, visually, but doing it in such a way that he grounded it in reality. Nobody could out-Ditko Ditko, but once you’ve got Spidey in a more realistic setting, everyone can play. Obviously, this strategy wouldn’t work for Dr Strange, however; bring his look down to Earth and you’ve torpedoed the whole strip.

    Regardless of what I wrote above, I think the Colan/Palmer art on Dr Strange is some of the most gorgeous stuff in comics. But the magic is still gone (ahem). For my money, the closest they came to recapturing it was the too-brief Englehart/Rogers run in the 80s, followed by that one-off drawn by Michael Golden, arguably the best stand-alone issue of any Marvel book, ever.

    • December 20, 2010 6:04 pm

      I can’t disagree with any of your points. But, as much as I love Colan’s work, there was a Doctor Strange issue I read the other day from around the same time (I think it was one with Dormammu on the cover) and the art looked like ass to me. I hated to admit it, but it did.

      • ratpack223 permalink
        December 22, 2010 9:28 am

        “…and the art looked like ass to me. …”

        Your way of expressing yourself isn’t any better.

  2. December 18, 2010 6:18 pm

    Dr. Strange is not a super hero. He is heroic and he does super things but he doesn’t need to fight and punch, and he doesn’t need a mask. This is why he is one of the most powerful of Marvel’s heroes and the most difficult to pigeon hole in the genre. I’m not a Strange fan, though I appreciate him. He is one of my brother’s (a hardcore affecianado) favorites. He is a thinking man’s hero. All his adventures happen in the mind. I don’t think the current climate or the genre’s structure can do Dr. Strange justice.

    Ditko made it happen it will take an eccentric like him to introduce Dr. Strange to the top rung. It’s a different kind of storytelling, as much visual as visceral.

    • December 20, 2010 6:07 pm

      Strange has always reminded me of Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, the fixer who cleaned up the mess that Travolta and Jackson had made. Strange is sort of like that — a secondary character who’s called in when things get hairy.

      • ratpack223 permalink
        December 22, 2010 9:30 am

        “Strange has always reminded me of Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, the fixer who cleaned up the mess that Travolta and Jackson had made. Strange is sort of like that — a secondary character who’s called in when things get hairy.”

        And you don’t have any understanding of this character.

  3. December 22, 2010 10:20 am

    Ratpack223 — first, thanks for stopping by. Is Stephen Strange a relative of yours? I seem to have really pissed you off, but I don’t think you understood what I was saying in either of the comments that you highlighted. The Pulp Fiction comparison was just an allusion, a fleeting impression between the character as I experienced him in my youth and the film that popped into my mind the other day. I don’t think it was all that baseless.

    And as for my way of expressing myself being “like ass,” well, that’s your opinion, and of course you’re welcome to it. It’s a harsh phrase that I employed to describe one issue of work from an artist whom I’ve praised to the moon and back on this blog time and time again.

    Happy Holidays.

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