Sunday, January 25, 2009

Strange Sunday: Dr. Strange, Masked Superhero

I started reading Doctor Strange in 1970, first in reprints contained in Marvel Tales, then later in Marvel Premiere.  Always one of my favorite characters, but when I unearthed Dr. Strange #177 (volume 1, circa 1968), I was astonished to see that the good Doctor once wore a mask:

Doctor Strange 177

Not only did Doc have an earthly mask (which gave an other-worldly Spectre or Phantom Stranger type of appearance with white eye-slits), there were other improvements.  Whereas Doc’s original costume was more Eastern, with billowing robes and a sash, the new costume had removed those elements.  Now he had a streamlined costume, skintight, with new boots and flared gloves.

This cover by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer became an instant classic.  Marvel even made a poster out of it, which I managed to find and put on my wall.

Roy Thomas, who wrote the series at that point, came up with a convenient excuse for the costume change:

Doctor Strange 177 transforming

The villain Asmodeus had assumed Strange’s identity on Earth, and had trapped Doc and Clea in another dimension.  In order to escape, Doc needed to transform…

Doctor Strange 177 transformed into masked mystic

As this dynamic splash page proudly displays!  The real reason for the costume change was the downward sales spiral on Doctor Strange.  He’s never been a strong seller within his own title.   The costume lasted from Doctor Strange 177 to 183.  When the Doctor popped up a year or so later in the Defenders and Marvel Premiere, he reverted back to his original Ditko designed outfit.

There have been two attempts to bring back this costume.

Defenders, The Order 5 by Pacheco

The first was the 2002 mini-series The Order, which featured the Defenders reuniting to conquer the world (under the mind-control of Yandroth).  The story wasn’t the greatest, but it featured great covers by Carlos Pacheco.  Doc really becomes the focal point of this cover in The Order #5.

HULK Defenders poster

The next costume revival will occur just one month from now—in Hulk #10, on sale in late February 2009.  Hulk once again teams up with his former Defenders to battle Red Hulk and his team of Offenders (Baron Mordo, Tiger Shark, and Terrax), courtesy of Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness.  I can’t wait for this story arc.  I think I heard on Word Balloon that Loeb is pulling the Defenders out of different time periods.  Notice that McGuinness has made one slight alteration—he kept the Ditko curves on the top part of the cape, instead of the Colan designed spikes.

Despite the failure of the Doc’s superhero-look to ignite sales in the late 60s, I think Marvel should reconsider using this costume for the modern era.  I think there are two big barriers to Doctor Strange’s popularity.  One is the fact that he looks like a middle-aged man.  The second is that he saves the world in baggy pajamas.  Just as Thor and Iron Fist needed a little revising to make them more attractive to modern readers, I think the same can be said for Doc.  Nuff said.

Update: Comments from my old MT blog...


Bite your tongue! The blue period was a low for the character. Save the full mask look for Vizh and Silver Surfer. I know where you're coming from, but, as a woman, I LOVE that Doc is a middle-aged man. He's really not much older than Tony Stark or many of the others, and, gosh darn it, he's sexy.
Now, now, you guys get super-boobed babes, give us few female comic fans something to enjoy too! Thank you naked Tony Stark!
For me, it's important that Doc not be masked. Aside, from the Hello, Doctor! factor, it's important because he has no secret identity. His lack of a mask is representative of his "what you see is what you get" style. He's honesty personified, no subterfuge, no games. He's given up any other life to be the Sorcerer Supreme.
So, while I'm thrilled he's getting back together with the old gang, I hope the blue face is a brief arc. Maybe he's been walking the earth again and this is the rebirth to his newfound inner peace, the coccoon he will emerge from. Or not. :-)
Anyway, great blog. Sorry for the ramblies.
I believe there was also a brief period in the '90's when the mask made a comeback. Right around the time that a younger Dr. Strange w/ long hair and Lennon-style sunglasses became the "default" doctor, however temporarily. Don't recall the entire storyline or justification, but it wasn't very good.
The blue faced Doc Strange was a stupid idea. First, it looked as if the Silver Surfer was wearing a modified Doc Strange get up. It fact, the first I saw this version of Doc Strange was in a Defender comic, in a flashback sequence. I was totally confused as who wearing a modified Dr.Strange look, with the Surfers face.Doc Strange,s true is his costume is the original one, not blue faced version of the Silver Surfer-which I'm might had some bearing why this design was chosen. Now the look might have worked another character-an alien sorcerer, similar to Doctor Strange, but really do these major alterations work major characters, unless costumes really stink like say Thor.
The blue faced period was a low for the character. Save the full mask look for the Vision and Silver Surfer. Doc Strange work as he was originally presented. Costume changed generally isn’t the problem. It’s always bad storytelling that kills a book, not cosmetic look to attract the narrow minded boobs who need the same here that they are getting elsewhere. The thinking is to make cooler-with it, to current generation, who something is old or corny, who will start buying something they never planned to buy anyway. Often it shows desperation and stupidity on the part of the producers of the material and misguided fan boys, who become producers of such material, begin it must have cool, when was out when I was young decide to bring it back again. Well if it didn’t work then, then it won’t work now or years from now. Like the look, give it another character-maybe an alien Doctor Strange or one from alternate reality-not the standard character.


  1. Clearly the writer of this article knows very little about Dr. Strange. If he had read the first appearances of him, he would know that Dr. Strange IS middle-aged! Steve Ditko clearly draws him as a man who is in his early to mid 50s in those early issues. In his origin story, we see him go from 30ish surgeon to accomplished sorcerer- his studies and experience with magic took TIME, dear heart...he didn't get injected with a serum or bitten by a radioactive whatever and then, become Instant Superhero. Its called discipline....and it takes effort and time.

    1. Ah, my dear, I have been reading Dr Strange since 1970 and I have read nearly every tale featuring the good doctor. I am well aware that Ditko drew him as a man in his 50s. My point was, from Marvel's point of view, a younger looking doctor would have sold better. I appreciate the fact he is older. However in the movie coming out next week, he will be 40 (Cumberbatch's age), so they split the difference. :-)