It’s well-known that Steve Ditko, the formative Marvel creator, left that company in 1966 after broken promises and worsening relationships with the people at the outfit, notably editor Stan Lee. It’s also well-known that, for all that Ditko’s most popular and lasting creation for Marvel is Spider-Man, his work on the mystic series Doctor Strange is held in a regard potentially higher by aficionados of comics. But after Ditko left Marvel, he never again drew a Doctor Strange story. Except once, kinda.
THE MANY GHOSTS OF DOCTOR GRAVES was a Charlton anthology title, a mystery series typically given over to three or four spooky weird tales every issue. The eponymous Doctor Grave was the horror host of the proceedings, commenting on each tale but not taking an active part in any of them, for the most part. Again, except once. Published in late 1968 with a cover date of February 1969, issue #12 includes a story that is about as close to an unknown Doctor Strange story by Ditko as it’s possible to find.
Charlton was a safe harbor for Steve Ditko. He had worked there on and off since the late 1950s–and while they always paid poorly, they made up for it by buying in quantity, and not being especially concerned with what the content was. Charlton was a factory, stamping out comic books in order to keep their in-house presses running as much as anything else. So for Ditko, they were a steady source of revenue right up to the day they closed their doors. What Ditko most craved was freedom, and they gave that to him in spades.
A number of people over the years have mentioned an oft-quoted rumor: that when he walked out the door from Marvel, Ditko had two or three further Doctor Strange stories already drawn. This kind of makes sense–Ditko’s last gasp on the character in STRANGE TALES #146 looks like a last minute addition, in which Ditko valiantly tried to tie up all of his running subplots over the course of eleven pages. It mostly works, but it’s a bit abrupt. Either way, for all that many different people have heard this rumor, up to the present day no additional Doctor Strange stories drawn by Ditko have ever surfaced. So if he did do them, they appear to have been dispensed with long ago.
And that’s possibly what makes this DOCTOR GRAVES story so fascinating. On the surface, it plays like a lost one-off Doctor Strange adventure, with the horror host becoming a lead character, empowered with mystical abilities that mirror those of Strange in Ditko’s hands. The fact that Graves also sports facial hair doesn’t hurt either in terms of making him resemble his super hero predecessor a bit more.
The story is also the right length for a Doctor Strange adventure of the period, running eleven pages. So when this tale was first released in 1969, many fans simply assumed that it was one of those lost Ditko Dr. Strange assignments repurposed to fit Ditko’s new publisher.
The truth, unfortunately, is not as sexy. For over the years, it’s come out that the writer of this particular adventure was Steve Skeates, a journeyman who had once been an assistant editor at Marvel for a short time before transitioning into a career as a writer for DC, Tower and Charlton, among others. Skeates insists that he wrote the story not even knowing that Ditko was going to be the one illustrating it, and that it was merely a happy accident that caused it to skew so close to Doctor Strange.
Either way, it is one last little taste of Doctor Strange in the hands of his creator–even if he does sport a false goatee and wear a business suit instead of sorcerer’s raiment. And it’s a fun little time travel adventure with a good concept at its core. It would have fit in perfectly into the STRANGE TALES series.
There’s no question that this battle looks like the kind of magic fireworks that were the trademark of Doctor Strange.
This particular issue of THE MANY GHOSTS OF DOCTOR GRAVES was among the Charlton books reprinted in 3-Bags as part of the Modern Comics line in the 1970s–which is where I first came across it. I was bitterly disappointed to discover that other issues of MGODG didn’t contain similar adventures.