Doctor Strange has never been a conventional superhero. You could even make a strong argument that he isn’t one — though he wears a cape (more of a cloak, really) and fights evil, his mystic abilities and demonic foes place him more in the traditions of horror and fantasy. Nevertheless, he’s tightly woven into the tapestry of the Marvel universe, right alongside Spider-Man, Captain America, and other spandex-wearers. That has always made the character exceptional in the comics canon, lending him an unorthodox spirit that carries over to his upcoming solo film. Before you head to the theater this weekend, here are some classic Strange tales to get you primed on the Sorcerer Supreme.
Doctor Strange Omnibus, Vol. 1
“The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him.” So said Marvel impresario Stan Lee in a letter published just before the release of the first Doctor Strange story in 1963. That modesty, as it turned out, was undeserved. Strange was the brainchild of writer and artist Steve Ditko, with whom Lee had co-created Spider-Man the year before, and Lee took a mostly hands-off approach to Ditko’s new addition to the burgeoning Marvel canon, just adding in dialogue and narration to Ditko’s existing plots and artwork. The resulting collaboration was unlike anything the company had ever published.
In this omnibus edition, you can see Strange’s earliest adventures, in which the exotically dressed Master of the Dark Arts confronts extradimensional foes and protects the innocent. The writing is fun, but the real treat here are Ditko’s drawings. The medium had simply never seen imagery this unnerving, expansive, and Escher-like. Though Ditko’s run only lasted a few years, it remains one of the most influential in comics.
Doctor Strange Epic Collection: A Separate Reality
Though Ditko abandoned his creation when he left Marvel over disputes with Lee, the doctor was put in good hands. In this volume, you can peruse a potpourri of the second generation of Doctor Strange creators, including writers Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart and artists Gene Colan and Barry Windsor-Smith. Of particular note are the tales co-written by Englehart, one of comics’ most ambitious scribes. As documented in historian Sean Howe’s masterful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Englehart would ingest LSD and wander the streets of New York in the mid-’70s, taking note of his hallucinations and endeavoring to put them in the pages of Doctor Strange (often co-plotted at the time by writer/artist Frank Brunner). The work reflects that mind-expanding approach, and you’ll understand why the character occupied many a blacklight poster in the dens of his readers.
Doctor Strange: The Oath
Though Doctor Strange has never been the most famous figure in the Marvel pantheon, an array of comics’ top talent has had opportunities to play around with him. One such creator was Brian K. Vaughan, best known for writing Y: The Last Man and Saga. He’s done with superhero work these days, but back in 2006, he cut this rip-roaring mini-series about the Sorcerer Supreme, in which our hero inadvertently stumbles upon a magic potion that can cure cancer. After that, he has to face down baddies who would have it destroyed, but more important, he has to grapple with what one would do with such an elixir. As is always true of Vaughan, the narrative is as clear as it is thrilling, and so is the pencil work of artist Marcos Martin. If you’re looking for a single, self-contained story about Stephen Strange, this is a good one to grab.
Doctor Strange: Season One
In 2012, Marvel executed an odd initiative called “Season One,” in which they hired ace creators to reimagine the origin stories of long-standing characters with an eye toward grabbing new readers. The results were spotty, but one of the better entries was Doctor Strange’s, which came from the talented minds of writer Greg Pak, penciler Emma Ríos, and colorist Jordie Bellaire.
The original Ditko-Lee stories ran through Strange’s early days pretty quickly, opening the door for the team behind Season One to fill in the blanks and give us a story that fits firmly in the tradition of fantasy-steeped training tales like The Once and Future King and the Harry Potter series. It’s also an interesting reclamation of a problematic story: Doctor Strange’s origin is an Orientalist fantasy about a white guy learning magic in the mysterious East, but the Korean-American Pak manages to flesh out the nonwhite characters in a way that feels rich and sympathetic.
Doctor Strange: Way of the Weird
Never let it be said that Marvel doesn’t understand brand synergy. The comics world had gone without a Doctor Strange solo ongoing series since 1996, but with the movie on the way, the publisher kicked him back into the spotlight in 2015. Fortunately, this was no mere cash-in: The creative duo that helms this new title is fantastic. Writer Jason Aaron is widely regarded as one of the best writers in the industry today, and artist Chris Bachalo has a sumptuous style that looks unlike anything else on the comics page. Together, they’re crafting an eye-popping story in which Strange unexpectedly takes on a new companion and simultaneously finds himself doing battle with threats that sap his abilities every time he strikes back at them. The story is exciting, funny, and eye-poppingly gorgeous. If Ditko weren’t a recluse who refuses to comment on the contemporary comics world, he might be proud of what his creation is up to, 53 years on.