Getting Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch to appear in a Marvel movie would always require one of their finest characters. Who better than Doctor Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystic Arts?
First appearing in 1963, Doctor Strange has a distinguished pedigree. He was created by the same team behind Spider-Man: writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko. Ditko was one of Marvel’s finest pencillers of the Silver Age of comic books (1956-1970), and his character designs have mostly survived unchanged to the modern day. I particularly like Strange’s cool gloves with the black dots on yellow.
However our focus today is on the Bronze Age of comics (1970-1986), when Marvel grew up and a host of talented writers (such as Chris Claremont and Len Wein) as well as stylish artists (John Byrne and Mike Zeck) brought the company to its creative peak.
Often less heralded from this period is Roger Stern, the author of this fabulous three-part tale from Doctor Strange #60-62. Stern was a bold, brilliant storyteller who took characters in directions hitherto unimagined. For example, who would have believed that Captain America would use his red, white and blue shield to decapitate someone, as happened in Captain America #254 (1981 – art by John Byrne)?
By 1983, Stern had become the writer on Doctor Strange, and just as before, he was not holding back in his story arcs. In these three issues, Dr. Strange must gather together a rag-tag team to aid him to battle Count Dracula, with the ultimate objective of purging the world of the threat of vampires forever.
One of the quirks of Marvel is that many of their most successful characters on film are not major figures in the comics, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man or Wesley Snipe’s Blade. Blade, the vampire hunter, is one part of Strange’s team here, along with other quirky companions such as Hannibal King, a vampire who has never taken a human life.
It all makes up for an entertaining romp across the US and Europe with Dracula and Dr Strange using minions both witting and unwitting to do their dirty work. Mostly unwitting in Dracula’s case.
Dracula is a fitting opponent for the Master of the Mystic Arts since he is pretty much indestructible, utterly evil, and has armies of slaves at his command. Strange, meanwhile, can do almost anything magically just by uttering a few rhyming couplets that could come straight out of the pages of a H.P.Lovecraft story.
The final confrontation takes place in the castle of Strange’s arch-enemy Baron Mordo, and it involves a final leap into the Astral Plane, that hippy-trippy wonderland where Strange floats around a world of wild colours and shifting shapes.
It’s the Astral Plane that has excited most of the film critics looking at Cumberbatch’s first movie as the character, which is great because that’s one of the things that makes this non-super superhero unique. It’s always a weird moment in the comics when Strange leaps out of his mortal shell, but in fact the concept of an Astral Plane dates right back to the time of Plato, although I doubt that he had the psychedelic Marvel version in mind.
For anyone interested in finding out more about the Sorcerer Supreme’s comic history, this tale is an excellent place to start, even though it does end up in a very final conclusion for Dracula and his cohorts of the living dead!