The untold truth of Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange inhabits a unique place in the Marvel Universe. If it's accurate to call him a superhero, then he's a very specific kind of superhero: He doesn't patrol the city for muggers or bank robbers. He fights demons and warlords from other dimensions. He wrestles with the physical manifestations of otherwise abstract concepts, like Eternity and Death. In times when his popularity has diminished too much for the character to support a solo title, he's usually acted as the go-to guest appearance for mystical stories in otherwise magic-less titles — the magical consultant to the likes of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.

Doctor Strange has left huge footprints on the cultural landscape, and he was doing it long before Benedict Cumberbatch signed any contracts with Marvel. He was a favored figure in the psychedelic and Steve Ditko's crazy extra-dimensional landscapes in Strange Tales were interpreted by some more as drug-aided perception than as mystical journeys. The sorcerer has been mentioned in numerous rock songs and inspired album covers. Considering that, it's downright strange (pun intended) to think that there have been times in between Steve Ditko's conception of the character and now that even some comics fans would respond to the name "Doctor Strange" with something like, "Doctor Who?" (again, pun intended)

Here's the untold truth of Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange is immortal

In 1974's Doctor Strange #4, the sorcerer battles Death. Literally. Inside the Orb of Agamotto, Doctor Strange is confronted with the character Death, the same skeletal woman whose tender affections have always been craved by Thanos. Strange fights hard to free himself of her fatal embrace, blasting her with mystical bolts and racing through a cosmic landscape in an attempt to escape the flames and meteor swarms she hurls at him. Ultimately, the Ancient One's teachings come back to Strange, and he remembers that death is another part of life. The sorcerer ceases to struggle and allows death to overcome him.

He awakens in a void to find the floating disembodied head of the Ancient One to welcome him. His old teacher tells him he has passed the first in the series of trials that Strange must confront as the Sorcerer Supreme. As a result of his surrender to Death, Doctor Strange is now ageless. The Ancient One tells him, "You will not age. Death may come only from without, in battle — and not from within." We briefly see an ankh symbol flash on Doctor Strange's forehead. 

As Doctor Strange authority Ptor notes, the Ankh regularly appeared in Strange's comics for some time. Kind of like Strange's own semi-Spidey-Sense, the Ankh would appear whenever he was in mortal danger "from without." It hasn't been seen much in recent years, but no comics have ever discounted or retconned the consequence of Strange's encounter with Death. Stephen Strange is still ageless, and will be around after most of us are dust, playing cards with Thor and Wolverine.

Doctor Strange vs. Amy Grant

In 1986, after six successful studio albums, Christian singer Amy Grant released a greatest hits compilation titled The Collection.

Four years later, Jackson Guice decided Amy Grant could look a lot like a vampire. 

Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #15 included the second part of a five-part story, "The Vampiric Verses." Jackson Guice's cover art for the issue included a red-tinted face that bore a striking similarity to the picture of Amy Grant gracing the cover of The Collection

The similarity did not go unnoticed. Amy Grant's managers brought Marvel Comics to court soon afterwards. Their complaint cited the comic's connections to "witchcraft and the occult," and how associating Amy Grant with such a comic could do "irreparable injury" to her reputation among Christian fans. 

Marvel Comics and Amy Grant settled in 1991, and the settlement was sealed by the court. We don't know what was agreed or what, if any, damages were paid. However, if you look up Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #15 on Marvel Unlimited or Comixology, you will find an empty, red background replacing Amy Grant's borrowed face.

Where's Steve Ditko's cameo?

As it is with many of Marvel's Silver Age superhero creations, most people tend to credit Stan Lee as co-creator of Doctor Strange. But the evidence suggests that while Stan Lee would certainly help to guide the character's evolution, Doctor Strange has one creator — the reclusive Steve Ditko. 

Steve Ditko still makes comics though you likely won't find many on the shelves of comic book shops. In one such comic, The Avenging Mind, Ditko wrote of Doctor Strange's creation: "On my own, I brought in to Lee a five-page, penciled story with a page/panel script of my idea of a new, different kind of character for variety in Marvel Comics."

Lee admitted this himself in a letter to Marvel superfan Jerry Bails. Lee mentioned Doctor Strange was one of Marvel's upcoming projects and added, "'twas Steve's idea and I figured we'd give it a chance." 

So, it seems clear Doctor Strange 'twas Ditko's idea. And they 'twid give it a chance. Which 'twas nice of them.

Too many zeroes

In 2012, when the New York Post tried to interview Steve Ditko — co-creator of Spider-Man as well as Doctor Strange — he said very little. But according to The Post he did answer "No," when asked if he had ever received any money for any of the Spider-Man films that had been released up to that point. 

A later attempt at an interview may suggest either Ditko wasn't being completely honest, or he may have received money for another comic book character.

In 2016, Abraham Reisman staked out Steve Ditko's Manhattan studio, hoping to get an interview for Vulture even though the reclusive artist hadn't willingly given an interview since 1968. According to Reisman's story, he failed. The best he managed was to get Ditko to answer his studio door, which Ditko promptly shut again after shaking his head in what Reisman describes as "what I assume was disgust."

But before that, Reisman says he spoke to a number of other people with offices in the building. One unnamed woman told Reisman that about ten years prior, she had mistakenly received a piece of Ditko's mail and had opened it before she realized it wasn't for her. She said that a check was in the envelope — a check from a movie studio — and that she realized it wasn't hers because it had "too many zeroes." She told Reisman when she gave the mail to Ditko, he took it and said nothing.

If the story is true, then it could mean an undisclosed agreement exists between Ditko and either Sony or Marvel Studios. And if Ditko was being honest about not receiving money for Spider-Man's films, there aren't a lot of other candidates beyond the Sorcerer Supreme. 

Doctor Strange is cool with Doctor Strange

While Steve Ditko may not want anything to do with film adaptations of his creations, apparently at least one of his creations feels differently. 

Some people think the conception of Doctor Strange was inspired by drugs. Arguably, a more likely candidate for a comic book character birthed by hallucinations is the insane merging of Gwen Stacy and Deadpool — Gwenpool.

In The Unbelievable Gwenpool #3, the twisted assassin has need of Doctor Strange's services. Gwen is from the real world and so has no valid Social Security number or other identifying information to give her new employer in the Marvel comic book world, M.O.D.O.K., and so the supervillain refuses to pay her. Gwenpool makes an appointment with Doctor Strange in exactly the way you would guess — by being forced to crush a magic egg to reveal a card that says, "1:00 PM." 

Once the allotted time rolls around, Strange takes her on a journey to see her old world, where he discovers the relationship between the real world and the Marvel Comics one. Specifically, he discovers the film based on his own comics. While we don't get any commentary about the infamous Ancient One whitewashing controversy or the fact that they hired a guy named Wong to play Wong, at the very least he seems happy with the casting choice for the main character. 

The Doctor is in and the Doctor ROCKS

One of the first things we learn about Stephen Strange in the 2016 film is that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern music. It shouldn't be a surprise, since Doctor Strange has a long history of inspiring the world of rock. 

Perhaps the group most inspired by the Sorcerer Supreme — at least judging by the covers, the song titles, and the lyrics — is Pink Floyd, who used interior art from 1967's Strange Tales #158's "The Sands of Death" on the cover to their 1968 album Saucerful of Secrets. Look closely and you can see both Doctor Strange and the Living Tribunal on the cover. They mention Strange by name in "Cymbaline" from Soundtrack from the Film More released the following year. 

On September 28, 2016, Benedict Cumberbatch strengthened the connection between his Marvel role and Pink Floyd when he sang "Comfortably Numb" onstage with David Gilmour.

It doesn't stop with Pink Floyd. T. Rex mentioned Doctor Strange in "Mambo Sun" on the 1971 album Electric Warrior. In 1965 Jefferson Airplane, The Charlatans, the Great Society, and others appeared on a handbill for a concert they called "A Tribute to Doctor Strange."

But the prize for the most longform Doctor Strange tribute has to go to Al Stewart. Among Stewart's many albums are 1974's Past, Present and the Future and 1975's Modern Times. The cover of the 1974 album shows Doctor Strange leaping into a portal. The cover of the 1975 album shows him appearing in a flash of light before a mansion.

The clothes make the man

Doctor Strange's stories were initially published in Marvel's Strange Tales, in which Strange shared space with first the Human Torch and then Nick Fury. In 1968, the title of the comic changed to Doctor Strange and the good doctor had the book all to himself. 

But sales slumped and hoping to shake things up, his costume was altered, with the most obvious addition being a blue mask. Arguably the most interesting detail about the costume change is the ridiculous way it was explained. 

Doctor Strange #177 opens with Strange and his lover Clea banished to another dimension by the sorcerer Asmodeus. The villain plans to mystically disguise himself in Strange's form in order to fool the Ancient One.

When Strange attempts to re-enter his own dimension, an unseen mystical barrier stops him. Strange says, "My sorcery-trained senses tell me I cannot re-enter the Earth dimension — because Asmodeus has stolen my very face and form!" Meaning, presumably this barrier wouldn't let Doctor Strange in because it was essentially telling him, "You're already here. You can't come in if you're already here." 

So Doctor Strange casts a spell that changes his costume and creates a mask. 

Rather than writing a story that could create a reason for Strange to want to remain anonymous, or even just having Strange say, "I don't know. Masks are cool. Everyone's doing it," they actually had him fool a mystical dimensional barrier with a slight shift in clothing. 

It just seems like if the barrier was really that easy he could've just, you know, shaved?

Doctor Strange, Substitute Supreme

Before Marvel's Netflix heroes took the name "The Defenders," there was a much different team with an ever-shifting line-up. But while the ranks of the team changed often, there were a few stalwarts who were almost always there, and for years Doctor Strange could be counted among them.

Ironically, while a '70s Defenders comic without Doctor Strange seemed almost unthinkable, the truth is Roy Thomas originally didn't want him for the team. 

Thomas wrote a two-part "Titans Three" story in Sub-Mariner with Namor the Sub-Mariner, Hulk, and the Silver Surfer. In a 2013 interview with Back Issue!, Thomas said he wanted the Titans Three line-up for Defenders, but Stan Lee hadn't been thrilled with the Sub-Mariner story because he wanted to be the only person who wrote Silver Surfer. He suggested Thomas use Doctor Strange instead. 

That's precisely what Thomas did and in 1971's Marvel Feature #1, the world met the Defenders for the first time. Doctor Strange, though initially there as a substitute, would become become as irreplaceable to the Defenders as Captain America was to the Avengers.

Apparently Lee's Surfer-exclusive edict didn't last too long because after two more issues of Marvel Feature and the first issue of Defenders, Silver Surfer joined the team in Defenders #2.

Galactus? Pfft.

By the way, Doctor Strange is powerful. 

How powerful? Galactus is pretty much no problem. 

Well, that might be an exaggeration, but the fact is that Doctor Strange's talents have rendered him both a formidable foe and an indispensable ally to the Devourer of Worlds. 

In Fantastic Four #243, when the Avengers and Fantastic Four combined forces against Galactus, it was latecomer Doctor Strange who made the decisive blow and turned the tide of battle. While even Thor's mightiest blows could do little against Galactus, Doctor Strange cast a spell that left the Devourer frozen and screaming. Mister Fantastic and The Thing, though they had no idea what was happening, took advantage of the moment to knock Galactus unconscious. Once the smoke cleared and the Thing asked Strange what happened, the sorcerer revealed the spell he cast was called the Images of Ikonn and it forced Galactus to confront "the ghosts of all those he has slain." Considering Galactus has laid waste to entire worlds, it's easy to see exactly how Strange was able to get the best of him. 

Much later — in Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #45, part of 1992's Infinity War event — Doctor Strange singlehandedly saved Galactus' life, as well as those of Silver Surfer and Nova. When Galactus' ship exploded, Strange found himself once again confronting the character Death — just as he had when he earned his immortality way back in Doctor Strange #4. This time, Strange refuses Death's embrace without faltering and wins through, saving not only himself but his four cosmically powered allies from the inevitable.