Since 2011 the character Doctor Strange created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko became very important to me. He’s a rather odd sort of character that really should NOT work in narrative form. His only power is his magic. He doesn’t possess super strength and he’s not terribly flashy by today’s superhero standards. Last but not least, writers always run the risk of making his magical powers a deus ex machina, which makes him a difficult character to write for, hence his rather sporadic publication history. All the things most people dislike about him, I actually love. I love weird characters. He’s not an easy character to love, mind you. You have to have a rather eclectic background to have an appreciation for Doctor Stephen Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. I for one probably love him for very different reasons than most readers. For me, it comes down to magic. Real magic.
My interest in magic came pretty early in life, perhaps 12 or 13. Now, I wasn’t one of those kids who pulled rabbits out of hats or tried to wow friends with cards tricks that only worked half of the time and were still boring whether they worked or not. I was more of a Platonic magician, which is to say, I loved the IDEA of magic. But more precisely, I loved the idea of magicians. I loved Houdini first and foremost. His absolute and unswerving commitment to his craft was inspiring to that poor farm boy in North Carolina who was learning how to wade into the world of ideas. But what most people would call his magic was secondary to me. For me, the real magic took place BEFORE he performed his magic tricks. The real magic happened during all the solitary years he prepared himself to become arguably the world’s greatest (and certainly most famous) magician. To see his will expressed so elegantly, to witness his keen mind manifested in death-defying feats of physical and spiritual skill, was nothing short of sublime. I checked out every book from the local public library and even managed once to watch a documentary about him at my cousin’s house (who lived in town and had cable). Here was a man who through his will and sustained commitment transformed himself from Erik Weisz, one of seven children born in Budapest to Harry Houdini, magician-superhero. Becoming Harry Houdini was in many ways his greatest magic trick. Who he became was his highest creative act and a genuine work of art. All one has to do is look at a photograph of him at the height of his powers displaying his chiseled physique and his palpable grace and power, the external referents to his inner magic. So, magic and self-creation was linked in my mind from an early age.
Later when I was maybe twenty or twenty-one I discovered Doctor Strange. I can’t say for sure how I became aware of Doctor Strange, it’s one of the (pardon the pun) strange phenomenons where once you are aware of something it seems you were never NOT aware of it. If memory serves I thought he was a quirky character, one of Marvel’s B-listers for sure, and certainly very different from my most beloved DC superheroes like Batman and Superman. But there was an instant appeal, most of it on an intuitive level. Something about him spoke to me. Part of it I know now was Steve Ditko’s otherworldly artwork.
Ditko’s art was beautiful and unlike any I had ever seen. It was almost surrealistic with his depiction of the mystical worlds Doctor Strange travelled in. Shapes were twisted and space itself imbued with a shifting nature that it became almost a psychedelic experience to look at it. Many readers just KNEW Ditko was tripping on acid or mushrooms (this was the early 60s), and so, Ditko and Doctor Strange became a kind of symbolic hero for the hippie counterculture (of course, little did they know that Ditko was a staunch conservative who avoided all things remotely trippy). But his artwork was the stuff of magic itself—it created a space where the surrealistic beauty of the art alone was enjoyable. For me, his work became archetypal in its symbolic roots, and the formal qualities of his art represented in pictorial form what the inner worlds of consciousness vying with itself looked like.
He depicted the inner life of the mind as it sought enlightenment.
Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts was the enlightened mind warring with its own shadow elements manifested as demons, monsters, extradimensional warlords, wraiths, and even Death itself. Each adventure was the enlightened mind overcoming the stumbling blocks of illusion, human frailty, ignorance, and even evil. The landscape of Doctor Strange was for me always the inner life of the mind. It was psychology (the psyche-soul) played out in the superhero genre. But as I said, Doctor Strange also represented magic itself. Real magic.
The kind of magic I’m talking about is the kind that many artists of the past have used, artists like Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith, Austin Osman Spare, Kenneth Anger, Marcel Duchamp, and recently Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Real magic as I understand it is the manipulation of symbols, language, to bring about a result in the world. It’s a process of manifesting the will of the magician into the world by means of interacting with the subtle and largely mysterious metaphysical version of the morphogenetic and probability fields. One of the greatest magicians working right now is Alan Moore and he describes magic as nothing less than art itself. Art and magic are interchangeable. The earliest descriptions of magic usually referred to magic as “the art.” And rightly so, because that’s exactly what it is. Moore in the “Mindscape of Alan Moore” says that the magic and sorcery textbook called a “grimoire” was simply a fancy way of saying “grammar” and that when someone said they were going to cast a “spell” it literally meant they were going spell. Magic in many ways is the science of language (whether that is the grammar of words, visuals, or music). Moore sees magic as a transformative force that can change a human being, and in doing so, change a society.
In magic’s liminal building project of art, it destabilizes the consciousness of the experiencer and in this disorientation the consciousness then must reach to integrate this new experience. It is the consciousness’s reaching that creates a new space in which the world can be viewed (in fact the actual world becomes new—when the mind changes, so does the world). This new space is more whole, more inclusive, and more complete than the latter. What I’m talking about is transcendence, transformation, or at the minimum, a state of consciousness (or a peak experience) that can facilitate a transformation of consciousness. It is this function of art (magic) that can literally transform the world.
It is this idea of magic that informs my love of Doctor Strange. He is the personification of human spiritual potential in the realm of magic. But he is also like Houdini and all the other self-made people and fictional characters I have used as inspiration in my own self-making. Doctor Strange had to re-make himself after a terrible car accident. Stephen Strange was first a world-famous neurosurgeon, but he was selfish and narcissistic and only cared about money and his own notoriety. After his car accident, his hands were so badly injured that he could never perform surgery again. Alone, depressed, and quickly becoming broke, he travels the world to find a cure. Finally losing everything he had ever owned, his quest leads him to the Himalayas where he meets the being who will become his teacher and who he will inherit the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme from, the Ancient One. It is there in the desolate mountains that he learns what powers he innately possesses, and he masters the mystical arts, becoming who we now know as Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystical Arts!
Magic, self-making, mysticism, spirituality, human potential—all these things I equate with Doctor Strange. Every time I pick up a Doctor Strange comic I never fail to get an instant feeling of inspiration and hope. Sure, most people don’t get it, and that’s okay. He’s not for everybody. For me however, he’s one of the best comic book characters ever created. He’s pure magic.