CONTENTS | PROLEPSIS | INTROIT | VOLUME ONE | INTERMEZZO | VOLUME TWO | APPENDICES
THE ONCE AND FUTURE DR. STRANGE
by cat yronwode
From "Instant Gratification" Vol. 1 # 1, 1979, pp. 15-18.
As all of us probably know by now, the major comic book companies are presently in very precarious creative and financial straights while, simultaneously, television adaptations of comic books are enjoying an unprecedented popularity. And as anyone who has watched even one or two of these "television comics" knows, the folks in Burbank seem to be making a deliberate policy of sabotaging the origins, names and identifying personality traits of the protagonists, as well as working a large number of arbitrary and alarming changes on the supporting casts which surround each character. The only way I can keep from having an apoplectic stroke when I watch one of these shows (which is as rarely as possible) is to place the whole phenomenon into an Omniversal framework and constantly remind myself that, for instance, TV's David Banner isn't "wrong" -- he simply lives on a different continuum than Marvel's Bruce Banner. In this manner I can make stylistic comparisons between the two versions, without succumbing to the nagging feeling that I ought to be Primal Screaming instead. Most of the time.
Actually, a scream of pain and outrage wouldn't be too far out of place at this point. You see, a short while back the bastards "adapted" my favourite Marvel character, Dr. Strange. Did I say "adapted"? Sorry, I meant "disfigured." Let's hear it:
There, that feels much better. True, the Dr. Strange television show was the best adaptation to date, particularly in the area of sets, mood and special effects, but somehow that's not enough for me. Even the fine performances turned in by several charismatic actors failed to distract my attention from the fact that the director was busily undermining fifteen years worth of plotting and characterization in what seemed like a purposeful attempt to render the Dr. Strange mythos into so much lard.
On the off chance that someone who is reading this is ignorant of comic books or is too young to remember, the glorious Marvel Age of the 1960s, I suppose I'll have to run through an Obligatory Origin Paragraph on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Master of the Mystic Arts. Believe me, I wouldn't bother to restate the obvious unless it was relevant, so bear with me folks.
As chronicled in Strange Tales 115 and retold in Dr. Strange 169 (reprinted in the Dr. Strange pocketbook and in Dr. Strange 21, respectively), Dr. Stephen Strange is a blue-haired and mustached surgeon whose only interest in life is the acquisition of money and prestige. There seems to be no limit to the man's greed and arrogance until the day when a car wreck damages the delicate nerves in his hands and leaves him unable to operate. Although he is offered a job as a medical consultant, his immense pride will not allow him to become anyone's subordinate. He prefers to squander all his wealth in a futile search for a cure and when this fails he is left a bitter unshaven derelict, wandering the docks in search of a drink and oblivion. One day he overhears two sailors talking about a healer in Thibet who has helped a friend of theirs. Driven by a determined despair verging on suicide, he makes the journey to the East in search of this reputed "Ancient One," knowing that if he fails in this final attempt he may as well end his life. After struggling alnoe through remote snow-covered mountain passes, he is rewarded at last by a glimpse of a cave high on the cliffside above him. However, all of Strange's heroic efforts seem to be in vain when he is given a cold brush-off by the cryptic Ancient One, who refuses to aid him, saying that he is motivated solely by selfish desire. A sudden blizzard prevents Strange's angry departure, and during his enforced stay in the cave of the Ancient One he discovers that the old man's disciple, Baron Mordo, is plotting to kill his master. Although Strange is magically prevented from warning the aged sorcerer of the danger, the Ancient One, who has been aware of Mordo's plot all along, points out that the Doctor's concern is the first sign of his incipient humanity. After disarming Mordo, the Ancient One agrees to take the now humble Dr. Strange on as his disciple in the mystic arts. Years later, Strange returns to New York City, proficient in the magical "Vishantist" tradition. This form of metaphysics, a Stan Lee creation replete with mysterious alliterative references to arcana such as The Flames of the Flawless Faltine and The Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, is remarkable for its ability to evoke an aura of eldritch enchantment while virtually never referring to any known historically "authentic" rituals.
In Strange Tales 127, Dr. Strange meets Clea, a white-haired princess from a bizarre alien dimension who, many years later, moves to Earth and becomes his lover and disciple. Another character from the early days (Strange Tales 114) is the brown-haired latent psychic, Victoria Bentley, who eventually plays a major role in Strange Tales 159-168 when she falls under the spell of Mordo who is plotting to tap the spiritual energy of the world's occultists for his own evil ends, and Yandroth, the so-called Scientist Supreme, who wants to marry her. Lastly, a catalogue of Dr. Strange's supporting cast would not be complete without mentioning Wong, a gentle and devoted servant who manages the Strange household, and Hamir the Hermit, a close associate and part-time helper of the Ancient One's.
Basically, Dr. Strange's origin is a Quest story, and in the tradition of all such myths the protagonist must overcome great mental and physical obstacles before attaining the prize, a prize which in this case is simply the opportunity to acquire knowledge. As the Ancient One makes clear, the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood is the first step on the path, and to this end he sets Dr. Strange the task of dealing with an entity he once worshipped as a deity, the Dread Dormammu (who is, incidentally, the brother of an arch-villainess named Umar the Unspeakable and hence the uncle of Strange's love Clea). Upon successfully, albeit temporarily, defeating Dormammu, Dr. Strange is presented with an enchanted amulet by his mentor. This talisman, known as the Eye of Agamotto, is worn as a clasp for the Doctor's cloak of levitation. Its power is much that it can be used *against* its rightful owner, thus neatly demonstrating that the truth is a two-edged sword. Its uses for good are too numerous to mention, chiefest among them being the ability to shine the light of truth upon people and things and thus in effect reading minds and dispelling illusions.
So much for "our" Dr. Strange. Television's Mystic Master is another matter altogether. A young curly brown-haired psychologist, he has a great love for humanity an in fact is willing to jeopardize his career by ignoring hospital regulations which call for him to deal with his patients in a depersonalized manner. We first see him helping an alcoholic (as opposed to *being* an alcoholic) and then treating an amnesiac woman named Clea who is actually, both in form and function, a run-on of Victoria Bentley. Television's Clea, unlike Marvel's, has a cute last name: Lake. One which admirably suits the new powerless, frightened and "feminine" role into which she has been ast by a sexist screenwriter. I found this so-called Clea very hard to accept, as the "real" Clea got to know Dr. Strange by saving *his* life, not vice versa. Come to think of it, that's what the "real" Ms. Bentley did too, the first time she met the Mage. Anyway, this Victoria-Clea is the unwitting psychic pawn of a villainess named Morgan Le Fay, herself a dead ringer for Umar the Unspeakable. Morgan-Umar in turn serves an extra-dimensional demon known as the Nameless One. Here, at last, a definite connection is made with the Marvel Mythos -- the Nameless One, leader of an alien raced called the Undying Ones, actually did appear in several of Dr. Strange's comic book adventures, namely Dr. Strange 183, Sub-Mariner 22 and Hulk 126, all by Roy Thomas.
Events in the television drama conspire to bring the action directly to the doorstep of the unsuspecting Dr. Strange. Morgan Le Fay, who naturally plans to conquer the world, must first overcome the Earth's protector, an ancient wizard named Lindmere. This man lives in a dupicate of Marvel-Strange's sanctum, practices a form of medieval ceremonial magic rather than the Vishantist arts of the Ancient One and is accompanied by a faithful Chinese companion named Wong (who is not to be confused with Marvel-Wong, being in fact an urbane clone of Hamir the Hermit). To make a long story short, after the Morgan-possessed Clea Lake pushes Lindmere off of an overpass, the aged and weakened sorcerer decides that it's time t call up reinforcements. Eventually he succeeds in awakening Dr. Strange's latent occult talents and in short order both the now-comatose Clea and the world at large are saved.
What with the wholesale revision of characters and characterizations related so far, it should come as no surprise that, although he changes his costume a number of times during the course of several mystic battles on Earth and the astral planes, not once does television's Dr. Strange don the familiar blue tunic and red cloak which are his virtual trademark. This radical departure from Marvel reality, equivalent to giving the Hulk purple skin, is, nowever, surpassed by an even grosser bit of "adaptation": the famous Amulet of Agamotto never appears at all. The talisman is replaced utterly by a ring of power which is formed in the likeness of the well-known sanctum window, a window which artist Steve Ditko swiped intact in 1963 from Will Eisner's Spirit comics of the 1940s. Aside from the quaint humor implicit in the transubstantiation of Denny Colt's cemetery window and its subsequent apotheosis as a "sacred symbol of light," this substitution brings up a serious point: television's Dr. Strange has owned the ring all his life and has never been able to remove it. He is eventually informed by Lindmere that his parents, who died in a car wreck which he avoided altogether when he was young, were occultists and allies of the old man. Strange also learns to his incredulity that he is a latent adept, needing only a little training to bring him into his full power.
The whole show is laced with parallels and swipes from post-Ditko Strange Tales and Old Series Dr. Strange comics. The Bentleyization of Clea, Le Fay's Umar-like arrival on Earth and the Nameless One in his barren dimension all date from this period, circa 1967-1969. One further incident wherein Strange narrowly escapes being hit by a bus, echoes the opening pages of Marvel Premiere (Dr. Strange) 3 -- right down to the camera angles! But although it's fun to trace swipes and unintentionally borrowed elements, the most intriguing and consternating aspects of the television drama center on the abandonment of the Heroic Quest myth and the substitution for it of the Predestined Hero theme.
New cup! Everybody move down!
Perhaps, Dear Reader, you are familiar with one of the many published or dramatized variations of the Holy Grail legend, itself a fragment of the King Arthur cycle. Unless you have delved beneath the surface of the story, however, you are unlikely to know that it was massively rewritten between the 12th and 14th centuries, when it achieved its final form. The parallels between the two variant forms of the Grail Quest and the Origin of Dr. Strange are so exact that I should like to digress here somewhat and elucidate the differences between Questing and Predestined Heroes in terms of the older story. Literary pretentions aside, this may serve to place the revision of Dr. Strange's origin in a wider historical context -- if not a wilder, hysterical one.
In Chretien de Troyes's original Conte del Graal, written around 1180, the hero is a young innocent named Perceval. He is selfish, foolish and naive to an incredible degree, as a long prologue to the quest proper makes plain. Once set upon the task of finding the Grail (a sacred cup), he distinguishes himself by alternate displays of bumbling ineptitude and foolhardy courage. Perceval is often moved to action by outrage and despair as he is by the nobler sentiment of chivalry. Thus the real quest is not so much a search for some metaphoric power-object as it is a story of personal growth and evolution, leading to the renunciatio of mundane concerns and the embracing of spiritual values. Similarly, the Ditko-Lee Dr. Strange, while not a naif, is a worldly man who though tragic circumstances is led to a reconsideration of his life and embarks upon a spiritual voyages which continues to this day. Perceval and Dr. Strange resemble you and I -- who, in spite of our selfishness, our flawed honor and our stupid mistakes, keep on trying for the brass ring until the day we die.
By contrast, later Grail stories, such as Sir Thomas Mallory's 14th century Morte d'Arthur (upon which most modern versions, such as T.H. White's The Once and Future King, are based), feature a protagonist named Galahad, the son of Lancelot and Elaine. This hero is actually born in the Grail Castle, ventures out, as prophesied by Merlin, solely to spur King Arthur's court into greater feats of chivalry, and eventually accomplishes his "quest" by the simple expedient of returning to his grandfather's house where the Grail has been waiting for him all along! Television's Dr. Strange is a similar character. His parents conceived him to be a great sorcerer with Lindmere's aid, he was given his amulet-ring without passing a trial of personal hardship, indeed, without even asking for it, and eventually, like a puppet on a string, he is drawn to the feet of his preordained Master, a man whose name is not-so-coincidentally a sloppy anagram for Merlin, thus further identifying him with the Galahad tradition. The Predestined Hero theme, which appears in science fiction as the Latent Deity (A.E. Van Vogt's Book of Ptah and Ted White's Phoenix Prime are classic examples) usually touches resonant chords within most readers. After all, don't you know, deep in your heart, that you are Special, Unique and Important? Sure you do.
Thus we have two diametrically-opposed views of Our Hero -- the struggling seeker versus the preordained success. Basically this schism is a philosophical one.
The Idealists, as exemplified by Plato, postulate that there are certain archetypes to which reality conforms as an imperfect copy. These "essential ideals" predate existence, thus spiritual heroism consists of nothing more strenuous than recognizing one's "true nature." To put this in practical and mundane terms, Galahad and Dr. TV-Strange are heroes in utero, heroes born and heroes always. Strange's sorcery is "latent," that is, he is unconscious of it, but with the proper stimulus he can be awakened to his full potential. He is a sorcerer when he fumbles, and a sorcerer when he craps. Once touched by Lindmere, he is aware of his noble destiny and from there on it's all downhill.
On the other hand, Existentialism, a philosophical system espoused by Jean-Paul Sartre, argues that existence preceeds essence.
Thus Perceval is first, foremost, and only himself. If he chooses to become a hero and, having chosen, succeeds in attaining that goal, then he is a hero, but only so long as he continues to fulfill the arbitrary conditions defined as "actions befitting a hero." He can stop being a hero at any time, either through failure or by an act of will. Similarly, Dr. Marvel-Strange is a sorcerer by will alone. He was born a baby, he grew up to be a skilled but egocentric surgeon, he lost his skill, he degenerated, he changed his outlook on life, he studied for many years and he became a magician. But this was not the end of the story -- in Hulk 126 he "put aside the trappings of (his) former life (to) walk among men -- as a man -- plain ordinary Stephen Strange again -- a former surgeon who can still be useful as a medical consultant." This is the ultimate existential decision -- to recognize one's self beneath the veneer of one's role. For two years Stephen Strange was not the Master of the Mystic Arts and when he returned it was again by a simple act of will -- he wanted to do what a sorcerer does and, doing it, he was once more a sorcerer.
The question, then, is a philosophical one, not merely an exercise in preferential aesthetics, because the most one could hope to accomplish by an aesthetic comparison between Dr. Strange comics and the Dr. Strange television show would be the formulation of a set of axioms which in turn would only serve to define the differences between the media in which the two versions were presented. Such an analysis might run along these lines: "The television show contained some jazzy special effects but it didn't begin to approach the otherworldly excitement of even a mediocre Steve Ditko drawing. On the other hand, the comics are too limited to develop the gripping emotional overtones which virtually any two-bit soap opera can produce at will, etcetera." Such considerations of relative beauty are of no real consequence. The media are different, and they neither can nor should ape each other's special strengths and weaknesses. Putting aesthetics aside then, we are left with some rather curious philosophical questions, to wit: What are the ethical implications of the rewritten origin story? Why is it a historical fact that Quest Sagas tend to be revised as Predistined Hero myths? Why is Existentialism, with its seemlingly harsh insistence on personal responsibility, so often subverted into an easy-going form of Platonic Essentialism which demands nothing more of a hero than "good karma"? Do the makers of television dramas know a secret I don't know about the minds of their audience?
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