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:
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:
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…
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.
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.
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...