BHOC: DOCTOR STRANGE #21

This was another book that I bought out of my drugstore’s Big Bin of Somewhat Older Comic Books, all issues that had been reported as destroyed but instead which had been sold on the secondary market for a cut-rate price. This was one of a pair of DOCTOR STRANGE issues that I picked up at the same time–we’ll see the other one tomorrow–and its cover actually relates to the second issue in my stack, not the first. That’s right, this was one of those last-minute reprint issues that happened at Marvel all too frequently during the 1970s when somebody dropped the ball in the production cycle and a given issue wasn’t ready to go to print on time.

That all being the case, I probably enjoyed this issue more of the two. But then, I hadn’t read it when it had originally seen print in 1968, just ten years before. The story had initially seen print in DOCTOR STRANGE #169, the first solo issue featuring the character as he graduated from being half of STRANGE TALES to headlining his own series (and carrying on the numbering of STARNGE TALES, for any who are wondering why a first issue was #169.) As such, it’s an expanded retelling of Doc’s origin by Roy Thomas and Dan Adkins. They had more than twice as many pages to work with as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did initially, which meant that at the very least their version was a bit grander on the visuals.

Interestingly (at least to me) Stephen Strange is depicted as a cigarette smoker, and in the present as well as in flashback. That sort of behavior wasn’t typical of a lot of super heroes, though smoking was a lot more common in those days. As I mentioned at the top, the artwork on this retelling was produced by Dan Adkins. Adkins had started out as an assistant to Wally Wood, and he’d absorbed the essence of Woody’s philosophy to doing comics: “Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up.” This meant that Adkins’ work was littered with swipes of other artists’ work, which got him in dutch at least among the fans of the day. When he was pulling from newspaper strips and the like, he could often get away with it. But he’d also swipe from earlier Marvel books as well as though put out by competitors, and eagle-eyed fans noticed and complained. (As did at least one artist and at least one company.)

But for all that, Adkins was talented, and he absorbed a lot of the stylistic quirks of both his mentor and the work of the various artists that he sourced from. So this isn’t a bad looking issue at all, for all that it doesn’t have a whole lot of what we’d think of as the typical bombast of a Marvel book of this period. That’s really down to the story, though, which was relatively far from super heroics. I’ve somewhat been dodging just recapping this tale here, since it’s well known (and heck, there was a whole movie devoted to it) But the gist is that Stephen Strange is a hyper-talented surgeon and a bit of a raging egotist, who is more concerned with fattening his bank account than the lives of the people he plies his trade upon as patients. He’s a wealthy jerk, albeit a talented one–and he’s drawn broadly as most comic book figures were, so that it’s difficult to empathize with him. You sort of want to see him get his comeuppance just from the few pages showcasing him pre-accident.

Writer Roy Thomas follows the original Lee-Ditko story closely, often sampling swaths of dialogue while adding his own spin to moments along the way. This he accomplished through the conceit of having Dr. strange narrating the story of his own origin to himself–which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but does get across the sort of self-reflection that suited a sorcerous character like Strange. Anyway, back at the ranch, the arrogant Stephen Strange totals his car, and while he survives the crash, he suffers nerve damage in his hands–such that he won’t ever be able to perform a delicate operation again. Strange is distraught, and crashes emotionally. He turns to the bottle, refusing to use the medical skills he still possesses–he must either be the best, or nothing at all. And then, in his misery, he begins to hear stories about a mystic, the Ancient One, who can cure all manner of maladies. Using the last of his dwindling funds, Strange sets out overseas to find this man, should he be real, and petition him to heal his injured hands.

And find him he does–but the Ancient One will not help one who is so selfish and self-centered. But a freak snowstorm traps Strange at the Ancient One’s monastery, and he is forced to remain until the way back can be cleared. Strange is introduced to Mordo, the Ancient One’s disciple in the arts of magic that Strange himself gives no credence to. But when he finds Mordo plotting against the old man, the villain turns his powers against Strange, preventing him from speaking of what he has witnessed. This convinces Strange that something real is happening here, and he tries to warn the Ancient One about the peril the sorcerer is in. But Mordo’s spell still seals his tongue.

Mordo’s spell doesn’t stop Strange from saying other things, though, and so he petitions the Ancient One to instruct him in the ways of magic. This is what the Ancient One has been waiting for–the true, buried virtue of Doctor Strange coming to the fore. Of course, he was aware of all that had transpired (and it’s implied that he was responsible for the snowstorm that stranded Strange there in the first place.) The story ends rather abruptly here, both because the Marvel books of the 1970s contained fewer story pages than the ones they were reprinting, and so as to eliminate the set-up for future stories that the original had done in 1968. All told, this was a decent and moody issue, a fine recounting of Strange’s origin (origins tended to be something that the young readers of the era were endlessly fascinated by, and I was no different.) But for readers who were hoping for the next installment of Dr. Strange’s adventures, this unexpected reprint was probably not received warmly. (Especially given that DOCTOR STRANGE was being published bimonthly at this point, which meant there would be four months between installments. That’s a lot to ask of a readership.)

5 thoughts on “BHOC: DOCTOR STRANGE #21

  1. Re Adkins’ swiping, a couple of years ago I was reading an old mystery/horror story, from the 50s I think, and suddenly recognised a panel in this book – not shown here, but Dr Strange seen from outside a window with a glass in his hand. I wish I could remember what that story/issue was!

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  2. One aspect of this origin which bothers me is the Ancient One’s supposed legendary healing powers. He’s so internationally famous that he’s discussed in a “sleazy dockside bar” half the world away. But we never seem to hear of it again, or ever see him heal anyone. And note, “scurvy” is pretty easy to cure without magic, just eat foods rich in vitamin C. It’d be amusing if all the Ancient One actually did in terms of medical cures was treat nutritional deficiencies and do stuff like clean out impacted earwax (“cured ‘im of deafness”), and this seemed like magic to all the poor people around.

    It must have been really weird for all Dr. Strange’s former medical friends and coworkers to see the great surgeon who had a tragic accident which ruined his life, suddenly return after several years as an outre mystic. That is, if he runs into a old acquaintance: “Stephen! I haven’t seen you since we worked together on that tricky punctured-heart case a decade ago, I still think of that amazing maneuver you did. I heard of your problems, but you’re looking good now. Whatever happened to you?”

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  3. I bought the original when it came out (#169) and have always been a major Dr. Strange fan. And altho I think Dan Adkins is a fine artist, he was so dead wrong for Dr Strange. I loved Ditko, Marie Severin, Bill Everett, Brunner, Rogers, Colan, etc… but Adkins was too solid, too grounded for me. Again, I admire his skills but I thought it was an awful artist/hero fit and I hated all the Adkins issues. Luckily there were few.

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