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February 25, 2010


21 Things I Like About Dr. Strange

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In Alphabetical Order
For Comics Blogger Supreme Neilalien On The Occasion Of His 10th Blogging Anniversary
By Tom Spurgeon

I'm not the biggest Dr. Strange fan in the world -- that honor goes to Neilalien -- but I do like the character and think he's perpetually under-served by the caretakers of the Marvel Universe. Below are 21 reasons I like the character. This list is obviously behind the times and more about the character as classically conceived than the latest iteration, which I think has the former Sorcerer Supreme growing a beard, doing some consulting work and watching a lot of Travel Channel on TV while Howard the Duck has taken over his office and Baron Mordo is the reformist mayor of Syracuse, New York. Please take it in the old-school, uninformed, fannish spirit it's offered.

This post is a tribute to Neilalien, whose staggering 10th formal anniversary of blogging comics hits today, making him the Ancient One in a world where the rest of are lucky on our best day to be Jennifer Kale.

*****

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1. Baron Mordo Is Loaded With Potential
Wrongly cast as the salutatorian to Dr. Strange's first-in-class and thus by definition a second-rate threat, Baron Mordo is a Marvel heavyweight super-villain in the waiting. A brute with the ability to crack planets, Baron Mordo has trained for more years than Dr. Strange has and nothing about him being the wrong man for the job should automatically means he's less dangerous. Being knocked from succession should have unshackled Mordo from any qualms against strategies or beliefs or trials to bring him greater skill with magic, things that a sorcerer supreme might find repugnant or unsavory. My advice to future Strange scribes is to make Mordo a reactive super-villain, a spoiler rather than a schemer. If Strange imprisons a monster, let Mordo free it. If Strange reverses a curse, let Mordo re-establish it six months later. If he wins a great item of power, let Mordo find a way to get it into his pocket within a year or so. He'll resonate with everyone that ever had a rival that would just not let go.

*****

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2. Clea Is The Princess From Another World
She's usually had weird hair and has frequently been drawn.... oddly. Her relationship with Dr. Strange over the years has creepy paternalistic aspects, and the fact that they were drawn together in the swinging '70s didn't help either aspect. She's probably had some sort of plot resolution that's taken her far away from the character's main setting -- I'm guessing she's taken over her home dimension at this point. But at her heart Clea is one of the better Princess From Another World archetypes in all of comics: beautiful, rotten parents, needs assistance, capable of empathy and intimacy ahead of how well we know her. For a guy like Dr. Strange, having someone fall into your life that way would be more devastating than liberating.

*****

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3. Dr. Strange Has A Cool Pad
Save perhaps for Nick Fury when he's flying around in his floating aircraft carrier or Spider-Man when he lived next door to Glory Grant, Dr. Strange has the best headquarters/home in the Marvel Universe. Entire stories can be generated from what's resting in the cabinets and drawers, and it's likely the safest spot in a city frequently plunged into horrifying super-battles. If I were a young superhero, I'd bet I'd want to attend a party there the same way young Hollywood actors used to strain for invites to the Playboy Mansion.

*****

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4. Dr. Strange Has Cosmic-Leviathan Villains
I'm not a big fan of piles of goo or messes of tentacles or distended eyeballs as superhero bad guys. Still, there are very few Marvel heroes that have hard-to-grasp, larger-than-life cosmic evils in their rogues' galleries, and it's a different mechanism with which to organize a comic book story. That has to count for something.

*****

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5. Dr. Strange Has To Live Up To The Example Of The Ancient One
I think it would be weird for this reality to have two human sorcerer supremes in a row -- I guess three, now -- and considering how long he had the job I have to imagine the Ancient One was very good at it in a way that might constantly reflect on Dr. Strange. It would be like following John Wooden as coach of UCLA basketball, or coaching the Penn State Nittany Lions football squad once Joe Paterno retires.

*****

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6. Dr. Strange Has Multiple Weaknesses That Don't Have Anything To Do With Monkeying Around With His Power Levels
One thing that seems unsatisfying to Dr. Strange fans is that the character is frequently, artificially de-powered in order to function within modern superhero stories, either by an overriding wave-of-hand character change or via a cute plot that unfolds in the first few pages of an individual comic book. There are obvious ways that Dr. Strange could be challenged during his adventures, ways that don't require he be arbitrarily limited in some way. A first is to frequently have him confronted by terrifying, universe-destroying brutes -- just generally make sure he's challenged. A second is to shift the burden of danger on some sort of client or person or situation that Strange is trying to help. A third is to find some way that Strange's humanity limits the full effectiveness of his powers: perhaps Strange's professional background as a surgeon might lead him to see solutions in terms of excising problems rather than healing them through more systemic change. A fourth is that when compared to Ancient One Strange could still be portrayed as a relatively new #1 Kid In Magic-Town, a second-career guy. He may have even trained less than a lot of older magicians. Making a superhero a super-powered, all-effective Mary Sue and then making him less of one to generate drama is a lot easier than firming up a personality from which a character derives strengths and weaknesses, but that doesn't mean no one should try.

*****

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7. Dr. Strange Is A Fighting Champion
I see Dr. Stange being challenged a lot for his supreme bad-ass magic guy title -- when it's his, that is -- and also getting in the equivalent of bar fights with people that just want to take a shot at the biggest guy in the room. It's been a small element of stories in his past. I like the idea that you could have all these fun, potentially well-choreographed fights in the middle of longer stories, at the end of longer stories, whenever it's least convenient.

*****

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8. Dr. Strange Is The Gateway Character To Marvel's Magical Comics
Marvel's done a good job of rehabilitating its space-opera arm into a group of modestly successful comics (and, in another sense, a group of active properties). It might be nice to do that with their various magic-related characters, too, with Dr. Strange as an entry-point character or the major character with whom the entry-point character (say Augustyne Phyffe) immediately negotiates.

*****

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9. He Has Great Toys
I like the simplicity and pacifistic nature of Dr. Strange's basic tools: an orb, an amulet, a cape, a spirit form. I also like how they haven't really changed in much in all the years, opening up possibilities one way or the other -- he could need to equip himself more extravagantly to beat some particularly nasty foe, or maybe the simplicity of his approach is a strength. There's something eloquent about how Strange equips himself that could be teased out in a variety of different directions.

*****

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10. He Has One Of The Three Best Marvel Secret Origins
Dr. Strange may have my favorite Marvel origin story, although the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man origins are recognized as being all-timers for a reason. I like the thought that he had this entire life before seeking out the Ancient One, and how he became the sorcerer supreme in waiting by basically developing a new core of character attributes even as he extended himself beyond anything he'd ever known. I think the "now what" aspects of it might find resonance with a lot of people. I'm talking the classic origin, of course, not whatever knock-kneed Matrix rip-off has been slipped over top of it in recent years.

*****

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11. Nightmare Is A Great Minor Villain
Nightmare is one of those few super-villains who is more difficult than dangerous, if that makes any sense, the perfect complementary villain to a universe-swallower. There's little sense on my part that when Dr. Strange fights Nightmare he's risking extinction, and it's rare to get a villain that's intriguing without have to ramp up the personal danger aspects.

*****

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12. Stephen Strange Is Still Mostly A Blank Slate
I don't have any sense of how Dr. Strange operates in the real world, or if he does. I got a sense from reading those comics back in the day that he dates, but not much beyond that. Even Iron Fist as a corporation head seems more convincing than Stephen Strange is at however the heck he organizes his time. It might be that he skips having a life outside of work entirely, I'm not sure. It's there for someone good to play with, though. He has such a flamboyant costume that some sort of secondary way to operate on his magic business sojurns might be useful, too.

*****

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13. The Application Of Magic To Solve Problems Is Scary
If there's one thing they haven't quite worked out in the Marvel Universe where Dr. Strange is used as a resource of last resort is the cost of using that resource. It seems like being the beneficiary of having the magic guy, say, zap your broken arm would bring with it some scary consequences: open you up to being magic-sensitive for a while, or leave you vulnerable to Baron Mordo snapping his fingers and re-breaking your arm at an inopportune time. There's a lot of creative territory there.

*****

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14. The Dread Dormammu Has A Burning Head
I'm not sure I have anything to add here, and I've never had a great sense of Dormammu as a distinctive, all-time bad guy, but that flaming head really works for me. It's the floating high-collar elements that really distinguish the look. If I remember right, the burning head is some sort of honorific that switches to other characters, which I'm not sure I like, but I sure love it on the big guy there. It would be super-creepy to have to deal with a guy whose head was on fire.

*****

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15. The Mindless Ones Offer Up One Of The Great Marvel Visuals
Just look at those things. It's like Dr. Strange opened up a dimension populated by creatures drawn by Mat Brinkman. I remember being very impressed as a little kid with the notion that you could have good and bad doing battle over here and then this thing that just didn't care about good and evil crashing their way in.

*****

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16. The Next Adventure Can Walk Through The Front Door Any Second Now
The Ancient One lived on top of a mountain and Dr. Strange found him. Dr. Strange lives in the middle of New York City -- he has to be absolutely beset with people. There should be no end to the stories that one can tell with such an influx of characters.

*****

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17. The Original Comics Featured Some Of Steve Ditko's Greatest Art
I think we all knew that already, but that doesn't mean it's any less great to look at that stuff and just enjoy the way those stories look.

*****

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18. The Original Comics Features Some Of Stan Lee's Most Enjoyable Scripting
All those lovely and ridiculous spell names...

*****

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19. The Original Comics Had One Of The Three Best '60s Marvel Multi-Issue Storylines
And probably the most underrated of the three, too.

*****

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20. Umar Is A Great, Scary, Female Antagonist
How many middle-aged women bad guys are there in the Marvel or DC universes? The fact that you can do a lot with character-types that don't get utilized otherwise around Marvel is a great strength of the character and his setting.

*****

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21. Wong Is Loaded With Potential
Well, sort of. I'm not a huge fan of man-servants, even less so in modern times, but there's something to be said for partnerships that involve a guy taking on the physical, day-to-day jobs with which Dr. Strange can't be bothered and the fact that he provides continuity between this magic-user and the past one.

*****
*****
 
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