Years before the hippie movement would bring wild colors and mysticism to the mainstream, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created a character (and a universe) the likes of which had not yet been seen. It was an age when the United States was regularly launching vehicles into space, and comic books were filled with teens getting bitten by radioactive spiders or meek doctors transforming into gamma radiated goliaths Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, eschewing the norms of the time, spun tales of a moustachioed mystic, in a then-blue cape, spouting off spells and sayings like, “Hoggoth, Protect Me! To my aid, Dormammu and the Mighty Vishanti.”
Using colors and abstract imagery, Lee and Ditko created a fantastical world on par with “Alice in Wonderland.” All before the first hippie donned the still-drying tie dyed shirt. With Marvel Studios‘ “Doctor Strange” major motion picture just weeks away, what better time to take a look at the trippiest Doctor Strange stories of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era?
10. Strange Tales #115: The Origin of Doctor Strange
Five issues after Dr. Strange’s debut appearance, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko finally got around to creating an origin story for the “master of black magic.” A brilliant but “haughty” surgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange traveled across the world seeking the assistance of “The Ancient One.” Due to a car accident, the nerves in Strange’s hand were irrevocably damaged, and the doctor hoped this Ancient One might be able to restore his hands to their former glory.
A man of science, Strange initially doubted everything the Ancient one showed him. Not until the former surgeon witnesses strange green vapors attacking the mystic master (courtesy of his former pupil, Baron Mordo) did Strange begin to realize that he may have been wrong about the his teachings. Further witnessing Mordo casting another spell, this time on a replica of the Ancient One, Strange found himself in some seriously hot water.
To keep him quiet, Mordo cast a spell onto Strange: any time he might speak of what he saw, an iron clamp would cover his face and cause him great pain. Realizing the pickle he was in, Strange decided to stay at the Ancient One’s Tibetan home and learn the ways of sorcery in hopes of protecting the him from the evil of Baron Mordo.
While not necessarily overflowing with Ditko’s telltale trippiness, there are moments throughout this issue that may make your head spin. Mordo’s green vapor swirling around, then turning into the iron clamp all reveal hints of what was to come from the two creators in later issues.
9. Strange Tales #110: Dr. Strange Master of Black Magic
A nameless man wakes up one night from haunted dreams. Frightened of what they might mean, the man heads down to Greenwich Village to see the Master of Black Magic, Dr. Strange. Upon meeting with the man, Strange agrees to help him, by entering his dreams.
Later that evening, in a trance-like state, Strange leaves his body as an “ectoplasmic spirit” to travel across the world to confer with the mysterious Ancient One in Tibet. An Asian gentleman, the Ancient One schools Strange on the way to deal with the man’s dream issue.
Entering his dreams, Strange almost immediately runs into a robed, chained figure. The figure tells the Sorcerer Supreme that the nameless man has done him wrong, and that he is haunting the man’s guilty conscience. Upon hearing this, Strange is soon confronted by yet another form, this time one of the magician’s many enemies, Nightmare.
While the issue isn’t full of Ditko’s classic abstract imagery, the concepts introduced were mind-boggling at the time, like the Ancient One and the spirit world. In a day when science ruled, all talk about the metaphysical in such a mainstream way was nearly unheard of, especially in a comic book.
8. Strange Tales #119: Beyond the Purple Veil
Hanging out in his Sanctum Sanctorum, Strange examines a priceless crystal one particular evening. His examination is interrupted by two common thieves, breaking into his humble abode. Annoyed by the would-be cat burglars, the sorcerer of the dark arts simply dumps them outside the Sanctorum’s walls.
But these thieves weren’t giving up without a fight. The next evening, while Strange is deep in meditation, the thieves break in once again and steal the priceless crystal. Of course, this is no ordinary crystal. It’s a gateway to the Purple Veil!
When Strange realize that the crystal and the thieves are gone, he travels through the Purple Veil, and is met by Aggamon the All Powerful. Amused by the magician’s presence, Aggamon informs Strange that he is collecting slaves across all dimensions to labor for him, in his mines for gems that “delight him.” Aggamon continues his monologue telling Strange that no one in over a thousand years has ever left the Purple Veil… which, of course, Strange then proceeds to do.
This is the issue where Stan Lee and Steve Ditko really begin to weave in their weirdness. The story has elements of both mysticism and that early 60’s/late 50’s futurism, culminating with a battle of wills between the typically odd looking Aggamon and Dr. Strange. Their battle includes Aggamon hitting Strange with a blast of pinkish plasmic energy from a fancy looking ray gun, while the Sorcerer Supreme counters the attack with a blast of yellow energy from his “magic amulet.”
7. Strange Tales #125: Mordo Must Not Catch Me
The evil Baron Mordo retuned in “Strange Tales” # 125, but this time, he managed to take The Ancient One hostage. And only Dr. Strange could save him.
A gaggle of goons one evening attacks Strange in his Sanctum Sanctorum. Strange handles them almost too easily, as he realizes it was just a distraction by Mordo. With the Sorcerer Supreme’s attention tied up with the thugs, Baron Mordo was able to take the Ancient One hostage. Unable to sense the master anywhere in his Tibetan digs, Dr. Strange steps up his game, allowing the power from his magic amulet to enter his brain. From his mystic third eye, Strange is able to discern that the Ancient One is indeed missing. That’s when Mordo casually strolls in to confront the magician.
At once, the Master of the Black Arts transforms into an ectoplasmic spirit and takes the battle skyward. Mordo quickly follows suit. The battle of spells criss-crosses the globe, from a quiet countryside in England to the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the Great Pyramids of Egypt. And that’s what makes this issue particularly interesting.
Mordo and Strange’s spirit battle across the globe sees the two enemies toss yellow and red spells at each other while floating around monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the Sphinx; not to mention the few panels where Strange is trying to locate the Ancient One with his oft off-putting third eye!
6. Strange Tales #132 – #134
Proving you can’t keep a good bad guy down, Mordo returns in this three issue story arc. But this time, he’s not alone. Mordo’s joined forces with the alien, Dread Dormammu, who has powered Mordo up beyond imagination. Mordo goes for broke, casting spell after spell at the beleaguered Strange in the confines of his Sanctum Sanctorum. By the end of issue 132, Mordo has the Sorcerer Supreme down, but before a finishing blow can be administered, Strange realizes the Dread Mormammu is behind Mordo’s power up and manages to escape by transporting himself into another dimension.
Over the course of the next two issues, Strange does battle with the sorceress Shazana in “a nameless land, a timeless time,” only to end up back in his dimension to finish his battle against Mordo and Dormammu… on the surface of the sun!
While we’ve seen the likes of the nameless dimension, with its endless white backgrounds, abstract yellow ribbons and pink explosions that populate most of the middle issue of the story arc, it’s the battle on the sun in issue 134 that is the highlight of the tale. Strange taunts Mordo (both in spirit form) into flying to the core of the sun. The white spirit forms of Mordo and Strange, surrounded by miscellaneous black atoms against the fiery orange background of the sun, is fairly clever of Ditko. Of course, Strange manages to outwit his enemy (making Mordo overthink things) and saves the day.
5. Strange Tales #135 -138
In an epic four-issue story arc, Dr. Strange goes on a quest to find Eternity. Over the course of four issues, Baron Mordo and Dread Dormammu conspire together to not only stop Strange on his quest to find Eternity, but destroy him, as well.
The two devise an evil plan to capture Strange: Mordo, disguised as a nameless man, is shackled to a wall in another abstract, nameless void. Because it is his vow to save and protect fellow humans, Strange goes to release the shackled man, only to find himself trading places with the disguised Mordo. Now confined to the wall, unable to transform into his spirit form, Strange watches in horror as Mordo (dressed in Strange’s attire) casts a blinding spell upon the Sorcerer Supreme. All is not lost, though, for even though he cannot move or see, the Master of the Mystic Arts still has his mind. Strange uses his thoughts to control his Magic Cloak of Levitation that Mordo’s wearing, binding him and setting the good doctor free.
Over the course of the next two issues, Strange continues his journey to find Eternity, crossing over an infinite amount of dimensions along the way. Finally, the magician finds himself face to (half) face with Eternity, who is massive and comprised of planets, stars and galaxies; all in the form of a man.
Only the second mortal to stand before Eternity, Strange and the Infinite entity spend the next several pages in conversation about how to deal with Baron Mordo and the Dread Dromammu. Strange wants more power, of course, but Eternity isn’t giving any up. The imagery across the story arc is once again classic Ditko. Filled with colorful, abstract objects, portals and spells, it culminates with Strange’s weird confab with the all-powerful, mind-melting might of Eternity.
4. Strange Tales #111: Face to Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo
Two issues into the new series, we meet Dr. Strange’s primary nemesis, “the dreaded Baron Mordo.” Mordo, though, is not your average arch-enemy, he is one of the most powerful magicians on the planet. Second only to his master, the Ancient One, Mordo’s seemingly only goal is to take the Ancient One hostage and force him to teach Mordo all of his black magic secrets.
In this relatively short story, Mordo manages to trick the Ancient One and poison him with a potion. Across the globe, Dr. Strange receives an odd response on his amulet and realizes the Master must be in “terrible jeopardy.” Upon arriving in spirit form, Strange finds Mordo hovering over the incapacitated form of the Ancient One. An ectoplasmic spirit battle ensues, with Strange and Mordo matching fists and wits.
This issue is chock-full of mysticism, with plenty of wisps of smoke throughout the story, interstellar/dimensional travel and of course, Strange and Mordo taking part once again in their favorite pastime of ghost fighting.
3. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #02: The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange
Poor Spidey. The ol’ web-head is just minding his own business, swinging through New York on his nightly patrol, when he catches two thugs on the rooftop of Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. Of course, Spidey knows something’s up with those thugs and as it turns out, he’s correct; they’re under the spell of the evil Xandu! The mindless thugs are after the second half of an enchanted wand (from another dimension) that’s located right in Strange’s Greenwich Village homestead.
Spidey’s interference in Xandu’s plan gets him excommunicated from our reality and launched into another dimension; one that is quintessential Ditko: illustrations full of planets and windows, orange smoke, disembodied limbs (stuck in other dimensions), the works. Spidey and Strange team-up to battle Xandu and the mindless thugs across both dimensions, with Strange, in his spirit form, blocking Xandu’s spells and Spidey battling the mindless thugs in between dimensions, cracking jokes in his usual style without missing a beat.
2. Strange Tales #126 – #127: The Domain of the Dread Dormammu
After battling Baron Mordo across the globe in the aforementioned issue #125, Strange finds his master, the Ancient One, being hounded by a messenger of the Dread Dormammu. Once banished to the realm of darkness, Dormammu seeks to make his presence known on Earth. The Ancient One, though, is too weak to fight the awesome alien power of the Dread Dormammu, leaving it to Dr. Strange to save the earthly realm.
By the Shades of Seraphim, Strange find himself cast into the Domain of the Dread Dormammu. Amongst the giant red monsters, purple branches and swirling yellow ribbons, the Sorcerer Supreme finds Dormammu floating on a red chair. Decked out in a green ensemble, the headless Dormammu dispatches all sorts of threats to take care of Strange; a power absorbing faceless yellow man, a “two dimensional object” that looks an awful lot like a red carpet, and faceless grey robots trying to tie Strange down.
Finally coming face to face with Dormammu, another problem surfaces: the “Mindless Ones” have entered the realm. A race of ravaging, grey hulk-like creatures that shoot fire from their eyes, Dormammu has been keeping the Mindless Ones at bay for years. However, he has become too weak fighting Strange and the monsters are at the gates. Strange does the right thing and powers up Dormammu so he can save the realm. Instead of being thankful, Dormammu is insulted by the assist from the Magician, and vows to put him in his place. Eventually.
1. Strange Tales #146: The End… at Last
The final issue of Steve Ditko’s run on Doctor Strange sees the master illustrator pulling out all the stops. Dread Dormammu is still none too happy about being bested by the earthling Strange in issue #127. He spends many panels cursing Strange’s existence, walking through one colorful reality after another; endless blue backgrounds peppered with red and yellow explosions and pink fireballs.
Strange finds himself teleported back into the “nether” world, where a waiting Dormammu casts a spell of green energy at our hero. During the battle, space is ripped open and out comes… Eternity! Eternity chastises the two beings for quarrelling, with Dormammu not taking kindly to the “dressing down” he’s getting. The battle between Eternity and Dormammu doesn’t end well, with the realm being torn asunder. Before Strange’s existence becomes extinguished amongst all the fiery explosions, the Ancient One pulls him out of the collapsing nether world.
This last story, more than any of the others, showcases Ditko’s style: full-page panels of Dormammu fighting the space figure of Eternity, only to end up in a giant pink explosion. The colorful, fiery imagery of crashing worlds and melting planets is the culmination of over three years of work for Lee and Ditko, and a fitting end to their combined run.
Which Lee/Ditko Dr. Strange stories do you think are the trippiest? Let us know in the comments!
Marvel Studios “Doctor Strange” hits theaters on November 4, 2016.
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