Comics/Graphic Novels

First Appearance Flashback: Doctor Strange

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Jessica Plummer

Contributing Editor

Jessica Plummer has lived her whole life in New York City, but she prefers to think of it as Metropolis. Her day job is in books, her side hustle is in books, and she writes books on the side (including a short story in Sword Stone Table from Vintage). She loves running, knitting, and thinking about superheroes, and knows an unnecessary amount of things about Donald Duck. Follow her on Twitter at @jess_plummer.

Superheroes have been around a long time, and most of the characters and genre conventions are pretty well-established. But did every character always look and act the way we expect them to today? In this series, I’ll be looking at the first appearances of iconic superheroes to see what’s familiar, what’s fallen by the wayside, and what’s goofy as heck. Today: Doctor Strange!

This May, Doctor Stephen Strange headlines his second movie in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where he will once again be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. In both the MCU and the comic book universe, Doctor Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme, the foremost magic-using mortal on Earth. Like so many other superheroes in the past decade, he’s gone very quickly from relatively obscure to household name, thanks to his first solo film in 2016 and appearances in the rest of the MCU. But what did the good doctor look like when he first appeared?

The cover of Strange Tales #110, featuring the Human Torch battling The Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete. There is nothing to indicate the presence of Doctor Strange in this issue.
Note that Doctor Strange isn’t even on the cover of his first appearance. But Paste-Pot Pete is! Ouch.

Doctor Strange debuted in Strange Tales #110 (July 1963) in a story by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Despite the coincidence of the names, Strange Tales was not named after Doctor Strange and had been running for 12 years already, first as a horror anthology, then a sci-fi anthology, and finally as a superhero book starring the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. Doctor Strange first appeared in a mere five-page backup story, but proved popular enough that he kept that backup spot for years, even after the Human Torch was replaced by Nick Fury. In 1968, the series was renamed Doctor Strange (though it was subsequently canceled entirely in 1969).

A page from Strange Tales #110. There is a title, "Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic!" followed by a large panel and then three smaller ones below.

Panel 1: Doctor Strange stands with his hands up and his eyes closed.

Narration Box: Men call him Dr. Strange! Never have you known his life! It is a great pleasure and privilege for the editors of Strange Tales to present, quietly and without fanfare, the first of a new series, based upon a different kind of super hero -- Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic!

Panel 2: A man tosses and turns in bed.

Narration Box: Somewhere in the city, between darkness and dawn, a tortured man tosses fitfully in his bed, vainly seeking peace that will not come...
Man: No! No!! Go away! Please - please go away!

Panel 3: The man sits up, his posture despairing.

Man: It's no use! I can't sleep! I dare not sleep! It's the same dream! Every night the same! But why? What can it mean?

Panel 4: He lights a cigarette.

Man: I can't fight it alone! I need help! I've heard a name - spoken in whispers - Dr. Strange! He dabbles in black magic! Perhaps he can help me!
“Quietly and without fanfare.”

We open with Doctor Strange and his truly enormous hands, looking reasonably similar to how he does today, albeit with a slightly altered color palette. Marvel’s usual braggadocious narration announces his arrival with great fanfare, while the panels below harken back to the book’s origins as a horror comic.

The next day, the unnamed man arrives at Strange’s home, which is already specified to be in Greenwich Village. I adore this detail. Though 1963 isn’t quite peak counterculture (it would be another six years before the neighborhood’s most well-known event of the decade, the Stonewall Riots), the Village had already had a reputation for over a century as a haven for artists, bohemians, and general weirdos. Placing a for-real wizard in this neighborhood is a deliberate and delightful choice that probably merits a full-length dissertation for context, but in the meantime, I’ll just reread John Strausbaugh’s The Village.

Seven panels from Strange Tales #110.

Panel 1: Mr. No Name speaks as Doctor Strange listens. A hooded figure wrapped in chains is visualized between them.

No Name: It's always the same! A haunting figure, bound in chains stares at me! It never stops! Never!
Strange: Enough!

Panel 2: Strange holds up a finger as the unnamed man watches.

Strange: Tonight I shall visit you! I shall find the answer to your dream! Now go!
No Name: But how?? How will you do it?

Panel 3: Strange speaks while No Name looks shocked.

Strange: ...By entering your dream!!!
No Name: !!!

Panel 4: Strange sits cross-legged in front of an incense brazier.

Narration Box: Later, alone in his room, Dr. Strange sits silently in front of an ancient incense burner, as his physical body goes into an eerie trance...
Strange: It is time for me to visit the Master, from whom all my powers stem...

Panel 5: A ghostly silhouette of Strange lifts up out of his seated body.

Narration Box: Like a fleeting ghost, his metaphysical spirit leaves his motionless body and drifts away...

Panel 6: The spirit flies through the wall.

Narration Box: ...Being without form or substance, nothing can impede its flight! It drifts effortlessly thru the building wall...

Panel 7: The spirit flies across the globe.

Narration Box: ...high into the sky...across the vast ocean...across the continents...conquering all of time and space in its silent flight...
Benedict Cumberbatch has been in a lot of people’s dreams, I think.

Anyway. Mr. No Name explains that every night, he has a nightmare of a figure in chains, staring at him, which quite frankly sounds like something you could pay money for in the Village, but he’s not enjoying it. I do love that just like real life, it’s the kind of nightmare you describe, hear how it sounds out loud, and then kind of have to add, “I promise it’s scary when I’m dreaming it.” Poor Mr. No Name.

Dr. No First Name Yet Strange promises, without opening his eyes (rude), to thwart these nightmares by entering the man’s dreams himself. Later, he prepares by sending out “his metaphysical spirit…”

Three panels from Strange Tales #110.

Panel 1: The spirit of Strange flies to a temple on the side of a cliff.

Narration Box: ...Until finally at a hidden temple somewhere in the remote vastness of Asia...

Panel 2: The spirit lands in front of an elderly Asian man with a long white beard who is seated on a cushion.

Ancient One: It is good that you have come, my son! I sense danger surrounding you! You must be cautious, for my days are numbered, and it is you who will someday take my place in the battle against the forces of darkness and evil!

Panel 3: 

Strange: I shall heed your words, respected master! I shall try to prove worthy of your trust in me!
Ancient One: So be it! Now go, for I am weary! But mark you well - should danger threaten, depend upon your magic amulet!
Tilda Swinton, everyone.

…to “somewhere in the remote vastness of Asia,” which is exactly the sort of problematic vagueness I’d expect from the Silver Age but still makes me sigh. Here he meets an elderly Asian man referred to only as “master” in this issue, but who is easy to recognize as the Ancient One, a key member of Strange’s cast. (You may recall that the casting of Tilda Swinton as this character for the 2016 movie was met with controversy; last year, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige admitted it was a mistake. Even in this very short story, we can already see the trappings of Orientalism that are such a major component of the Doctor Strange franchise and which made that whitewashing so much more tasteless.)

Six panels from Strange Tales #110.

Panel 1: The chained figure speaks to Strange as they float in a dream bubble above No Name's head.

Chained Figure: I am the symbol of evil! The evil he has done! That is why I am chained so! If you do not believe me - ask Mr. Crang!

Panel 2: A dark figure rides up on a horse.

Narration Box: Suddenly, another form appears - far more menacing than the first!
Nightmare: So! It is Dr. Strange! you have entered the dimension of dreams for the last time! Never again shall you thwart me!
Strange: Nightmare - my ancient foe!

Panel 3: Closeup on Nightmare, a shadowy figure in a green cloak.

Nightmare: You know the rules of sorcery, Dr. Strange! Those who enter a hostile dimension must be prepared to pay for it - with their lives!

Panel 4: Back in the bedroom, No Name sits up.

Narration Box: Meanwhile, in the semi-dark bedroom, the sleeper awakes!

No Name: He mentioned Mr. Crang! So that's what it's all about! There's Dr. Strange! He must have heard it all!

Panel 5: No Name takes a gun from his nightstand.

No Name: He is in a trance - helpless! It's just as well! He mustn't be allowed to live with what he has learned!

Panel 6: No Name approaches Strange's body with the gun. In the dream bubble, Nightmare's horse stands before Strange's spirit.

Nightmare: Behold, Dr. Strange - you may witness your own destruction! Your mortal body is unprotected - its life is about to be snuffed out!
I really feel like if you want to keep secrets, you shouldn’t invite wizards into your dreams.

Back at home, Strange enters Mr. No Name’s dream and confronts the chained figure, who claims he is a symbol of the evil Mr. No Name has committed. They are suddenly joined by a being called Nightmare, who Strange recognizes as an old enemy, and who remains a member of his rogues’ gallery today.

Meanwhile, Mr. No Name awakens. Realizing that the chained figure is about to reveal his wrongdoings to Strange, he prepares to kill the sorcerer.

Nightmare inexplicably warns Strange, who telepathically contacts the Ancient One for help. The Ancient One then…makes Strange’s amulet glow. Mr. No Name’s one weakness!

Four panels from Strange Tales #110.

Panel 1: Strange sits, face clenched in concentration, the gun aimed at his head in the foreground.

Narration Box: And, halfway across the world, the mysterious gold amulet on Dr. Strange's chest begins to glow - brighter, even brighter...

Panel 2: Close up on the glowing amulet.

Narration Box: ...until it slowly opens, revealing a fantastic metal eye within...

Panel 3: It glows brighter.

Narration Box: An eye such as no mortal has ever beheld...such as no mortal would ever want to behold again!

Panel 4: No Name is frozen in the beam of light coming from the amulet.

Narration Box: And suddenly, from that unblinking orb, a blinding hypnotic ray shoots out, freezing the amazed human to the spot, as his limbs grow strangely rigid!
Thrilling cinematic action, coming soon to a theater near you!

Strange scoots back into his body and confronts Mr. No Name, who confesses that he once cheated a man named Crang in business. Strange tells him that only by confessing will he ever sleep comfortably again, and the story ends.

Boy, that sure was five pages of people sitting cross-legged and thinking very hard at each other!

Again, we’re already starting to see many of the trappings of Doctor Strange here: Greenwich Village, the Ancient One, Nightmare, the general Orientalism. (We also get a panel of Strange’s valet Wong, still unnamed at this point.) And we see the beginnings of the surrealist art that would later appeal to readers for its psychedelic qualities. In a lot of ways, this story is quite prescient.

But yeah. A lot of people sitting and thinking. Feed your head, man.

Presumably there will be a bit more action in Multiverse of Madness. By the time you’re reading this, you may already know. In the meantime, may the Eye of Agamotto look kindly on you, true believers!

Catch previous First Appearance Flashbacks, including SupermanCaptain AmericaHarley QuinnArchie AndrewsWonder WomanHawkeyeSpider-Man, Batman, and Thor.