Stephen Vincent Strange was a brilliant but arrogant surgeon, turning down cases that didn’t interest him or didn’t involve enough payment. One night, a car accident led to serious damage in the nerves in his hands, ensuring he could not perform surgery again. Unwilling to be a consultant or teacher, Strange spent his fortune traveling the world, seeking a way to restore his life. His journeys brought him to Tibet where he met the Ancient One, a centuries-old mystic who served as Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme and who believed that Stephen had great potential as a new student.
Strange initially dismissed this, but then stayed on when he realized that the Ancient One’s life was in danger, as the wizard’s student Karl Mordo intended to kill him. Impressed by Strange’s altruistic behavior, the Ancient One cast out Mordo and took on the former New York surgeon as his pupil, offering a new life to replace the medical profession he’d lost. After years of study, Dr. Strange became a “master of the mystic arts,” able to accomplish seemingly impossible feats with magic and now gifted with a retarded aging rate. He returned to New York, setting up his Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwhich Village, and over the years there were many children (including a young Matt Murdock AKA Daredevil) who grew up on stories about the doctor of black magic who lived on Bleeker Street and never grew old.
Along with his arsenal of spells, Dr. Strange was armed with the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto, a Cloak of Levitation, and the Book of the Vishanti, one of the most powerful spell books in creation. Some years after the modern age of superheroes began, the Ancient One died finally and, after beating several sorcerers that included the villain Dr. Doom, Stephen won and inherited his master’s mantle as Sorcerer Supreme.
Dr. Strange has fought alongside many superheroes, sometimes working with teams such as the Defenders and the Avengers. He has fought super-villains, alien menaces, and demonic forces. He’s worked on his own, as a founding member of the Defenders, as a member of the Avengers, and as organizer of the Secret Defenders. Along with Baron Mordo, one of his greatest enemies has been the demon lord Dormammu, an inhabitant of the “Dark Dimension.” But recently, Dr. Strange was became addicted to the use of dark magical energies. Realizing he’d allowed himself to be corrupted, Stephen decided he was no longer worthy of being Sorcerer Supreme, turning it over to the hero Jericho Drumm AKA Brother Voodoo. Though less powerful, Strange has not shirked from any opportunity to continue defending humanity. With the recent death of Drumm, Strange is figuring out his new role in the world, working alongside the Avengers once more.
MASTER OF BLACK MAGIC
Dr. Strange first appeared in Strange Tales #110 in 1963. In his initial stories, he was meant to seem somewhat dark and sinister. He wasn’t just a wizard, he was labeled a “master of black magic.” He was completely at ease utilizing forces that would have gotten him burned at the stake in an earlier age, secure in the knowledge that he acted for the benefit of mankind even if people looked at him with fear and suspicion.
On top of that, Dr. Strange was initially as much a mystery to the readers as he was to those who came to him for help. For the first few stories, we had no idea who he truly was, how he had acquired his magical spells, how he could afford such a swank place in the Village, or whether or not he was even a real doctor or just one of those superheroes who uses the title loosely, such as DC’s sorcerer Dr. Fate.
This initial look is pretty close to what Dr. Strange wears in later years. We have what seems to be a black shirt with blue highlights to give it texture. The gloves are a rather interesting design. The pattern resembles Kirby dots, which Jack Kirby would draw when he meant to indicate strange energies. It gives the impression that Strange’s hands are always crackling with power and at the ready, as befits a sorcerer. And their color is a nice unifying element with the mystical sash.
However, artist Steve Ditko was not always consistent with the gloves, sometimes making them plain orange with no design. Over the years, artists have gone back and forth about which model of the gloves to follow.
The black leggings are a bit odd to me, but over all it’s not a bad look. Dr. Strange uses arcane forces and so he looks like an old style sorcerer that is paradoxically operating in modern-day New York.
After a couple of adventures, the good doctor got his first cloak. This is a pretty simple and generic design. but it also highlights the “master of black magic” feel to Dr. Strange. Squint and you could mistake him for Dracula. It just adds to his eerie intimidation factor.
The amulet he wore also changed during these initial adventures, from a rounded, decorative piece to a simple eye on a disc to an eye on a golden square. All in all, this look works as far as it goes, making Dr. Strange somewhat sinister as a guy who controls dark forces. But eventually, the stories began to emphasize a sense of wonder rather than focusing on fear and so a new look was needed.
A SLIGHTLY BRIGHTER HERO
After defeating the dread demon Dormammu (try putting that on a business card) and freeing the Ancient One from the dark one’s spells, Dr. Strange was rewarded for his great skill and prowess. The Ancient One told him, “From this moment forth, you shall have a new cape and a more wondrous amulet! You shall need new powers, for you will be called upon to perform even greater deeds in the future!”
This, faithful readers, is the classic Dr. Strange who would one day earn the title of Sorcerer Supreme. We’ve gone for more traditional primary colors and they definitely show a marked difference in the storytelling. This is a heroic “master of the mystic arts” rather than a sinister “master of black magic.”
The basic outfit is the same, but now the shirt is blue rather than black with blue highlights, which brightens up our character considerably. The cape is now more unique. He seems odd still, but now you wouldn’t initially think he was a vampire. The brighter colors also make our hero seem far more at home in the bizarre, colorful dimensions he often visits.
And the cloak lends a very interesting silhouette to Strange at times. In this scene above, with his back turned to us as he contemplates being forced into dangerous, magical arenas, he seems less human and you could believe he has horns. But he doesn’t look dangerous so much as otherworldly, a man who no longer really belongs with mainstream humanity.
The outfit also works generally without the cloak. Strange’s shirt and sash recall old ideas of sorcerers and mages. You could see him visiting Prospero in “The Tempest” before then paying a visit on Dr. Faust to warn him about ill-considered bargains.
I’m still not sure about the leggings (add boots at least), but this is a very nice design and there’s a reason people keep going back to it time and time again over the years, despite all the makeovers and alterations Strange has gone through. The only thing is that some artists, over the years, have dropped the eyes and made the demon design sometimes look more like a trident or like a twisted letter Y. I prefer being able to tell that it’s a creature and not a glyph, but to each their own.
Roy Thomas took over the writing chores and was in charge of putting Dr. Strange through a make-over. The book needed more fan interest and it was decided that perhaps he would be more popular if he seemed more like a typical superhero. So an odd story arc came out where Dr. Strange was in another dimension while the evil wizard Azmodeus was back on Earth and adopted our hero’s face and form. When Dr. Strange attempted to return to Earth’s dimension, the shape-shifting spell Azmodeus had used prevented two identical Stephen Stranges from interacting in the same space. So, in Dr. Strange #177 (1969) the genuine Dr. Strange cast magical energies around his form, gaining a new masked bodysuit (and a more athletic body, it seems) that allowed him entry back to Earth so he could confront his impostor.
After defeating Azmodeus, Dr. Strange learned that the villain had been an old acquaintance who had used his personal knowledge of the sorcerer to help in his schemes. Deciding that he would benefit from having a secret identity rather than everyone knowing where he lived and how to look up information on him, Dr. Strange kept the masked look and made the world forget what he really looked like. So the name of “Dr. Strange” was now, for all anyone knew, just a superhero alias. When our boy took off his mask and reverted to his civilian guise, he now went under the alias of “Dr. Stephen Sanders.”
My impulse is so say, “No thanks, this isn’t Dr. Strange I know.” But the fact was, it wasn’t meant to be the Dr. Strange we knew, it was meant to be an entirely new take on him, a superhero rather than a weird mystic. This definitely has a stronger costumed crime-fighter feel, so that part has been accomplished. And I like that they at least kept the Cloak of Levitation, the Eye of Agamotto and the basic shirt design. In fact, the cape has a nice contrast with the suit and mask colors.
But even if you’re into Dr. Strange looking more like a typical superhero, this has a few things I would change. First of all, while some superheroes wear shorts over trousers that at least add color contrast, this outfit doesn’t fit that. They’re just shorts. What are they doing there? Secondly, blue body suit and with lighter blue gloves and boots? Why not gold or red or something? And the difference between the two shades of blue was not always consistent, so sometimes they almost faded into each other. If it blends in that well, why bother drawing separate gloves and boots at all?
Dr. Strange wore this until his series was canceled with issue #183. He then appeared again as a regular character in the series Marvel Feature. In the first issue of that magazine, published at the end of 1971, Strange dropped the secret identity idea, returning to his classic look and deciding he would not hide his face or his calling from the world.
Many years later, Dr. Strange reunited with his fellow Defenders founders. After twelve issues, the four heroes were manipulated into being over-powered by their darker natures. The corrupted champions renamed themselves “The Order” and decided to impose their own will and law over the Earth. During this time, Strange went back to his old masked bodysuit, this time losing the shorts and getting new gloves and boots.He’s basically got the same orange gloves he normally wears, but with the boots matching the color, it now has a nice balance throughout the entire look, especially with the sash unifying it in the middle.
As soon as “The Order” came back to their senses, Dr. Strange threw off his mask and went back to his classic look.
CONSTRUCTS, AVATARS AND LAST RITES
So the 1990s came and, well, how do I explain what happened?
SPAWN: Things got extreme!
ALAN KISTLER: Spawn? What the Hell are you doing here? You’re not even a Marvel character!
SPAWN: I’m a Hellspawn, I do what I want! And it will make sense, trust me.
ALAN KISTLER: I don’t… fine, whatever. So, in late 1993, this story arc started where Dr. Strange had to hide out. To act in his stead, he created two avatars or constructs that acted with their own will. One was the human businessman Vincent Stephen (because Dr. Strange’s middle name is Vincent) and the other was a creature just called Strange.
SPAWN: And that’s who I’m here to talk about! Just look at him. Look at that handsome devil. So dark. So demonic.
ALAN KISTLER: Actually… He looks like you.
SPAWN: Huh. You think? I hadn’t noticed.
ALAN KISTLER: You filthy Hell-born liar, you DID notice. That’s the only reason you’re here, you like that this guy looks like you!
SPAWN: What are you talking about? He doesn’t have chains or spikes! And that’s not my symbol on his chest, that’s Dr. Strange’s own symbol. This is just an update of the masked look from the late 60s.
ALAN KISTLER: It’s an updated masked look meant to look like you! The tattered over-sized cape, the funky, near-featureless mask, the arm spikes, the green hellfire energies around the hands. This is “Hey, look, Dr. Strange is interesting because he looks like Spawn now, oh, wait, it’s not really Dr. Strange, it’s his ill-tempered avatar, sorry!”
SPAWN: Whatever. This is a great design. Check out the cape claps that looks like the Doc’s window in his Sanctum Sanctorum.
ALAN KISTLER: Okay, that is kind of cool. But this just looks too much like you.
SPAWN: No, he has no chains. Now if he had chains, we could talk. Do you think we could photoshop chains here? Maybe some pouches.
ALAN: Oh, shut up and let’s move on. So yeah, during the story “Last Rites,” the constructs went away and Dr. Strange had to battle for the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme. And first he got this armor which is, um… interesting.
SPAWN: It sucks.
ALAN: It is not good, that’s true. He looks, um… dorky?
SPAWN: Lil’ bit. But didn’t he ditch this armor pretty quickly?
ALAN: Right, then he got this look, with a costume made of magic.
SPAWN: That… is weird. What happened to his beard? What’s Dr. Strange without facial hair? That’s like Superman WITH a beard. That’s weird.
ALAN: No, I agree. I’m not a fan. I think it could work for a different character, but this isn’t Dr. Strange to me. This is some weird, futuristic Wizard of Oz.
SPAWN: He only had this for like one adventure, right? What did he switch to?
ALAN: Um, this.
ALAN: It was the 90s. So, sunglasses and long hair. His eyes were sensitive to light now. And somehow, he became more of a hippie.
SPAWN: I think this guy teaches yoga downtown.
ALAN: Yeah, I know. this could work for a character who uses drugs to commune with the spirit world, but again, not for Stephen Strange, physician and master of magic. It’s lost the sense of power and authority that used to be there.
SPAWN: Do the next costumes look more extreme?
ALAN: Yes. And by “yes,” I mean “no.”
SPAWN: All right, I’m out of here.
TRENCH COAT OF LEVITATION
In 1995, writer Warren Ellis took over for one issue (Dr. Strange vol. 2 #80) and plotted a couple of other issues before leaving the series. In Ellis’ opening issue, Dr. Strange returned to Earth after an absence in other realms. He had grown out his beard to alarming lengths and was ready to start up the old practice again. After trimming the beard, he decided on a new shirt and re-weaved the Cloak of Levitation into a stylish, belted trench coat.
I kind of love this. The classic look is the paradox of someone who looks like he belongs in the past but operates in our world. This, however, is what I imagine a modern-day sorcerer may look like. It seems a bit like a Las Vegas magician, but more impressive and regal than a stage performer.
This is also, I think, a bit more practical for all the times that Dr. Strange has to walk about and interact with modern-day people and law enforcement. He still looks odd, but now I can imagine them taking him a bit more seriously because, really, a fancy shirt and coat is a far cry from a costume. Yet this isn’t ditching the costume elements entirely either. The collar reminds us that this is not an ordinary coat and the All-Seeing Eye is still there around his neck. And the color alone makes him stand out. How often do you see a seemingly middle-aged man wearing a red overcoat or trench coat?
The shirt may be a bit overly decorative. I wouldn’t mind seeing if this shirt could work with the classic demon design on it instead. Just a thought. All in all, though, I stand by this look. A compromise I could enjoy would be if Dr. Strange wore this while operating on Earth and would magically shift his clothing into the classic costume when he journeyed into other dimensions, where it would symbolize his official status as Sorcerer Supreme.
Dr. Strange’s series ended in June of 1996. He made a few appearance in other comics, still wearing this outfit, but then seemed to drop off the map for a while.
Dr. Strange got a mini-series in 1999 called The Flight of Bones. In this story, he sported this retro outfit. It’s basically the classic look, but with the shirt design now clearly a demon rather than something that could be confused for a pitchfork or a strange letter Y. The shirt is also a darker shade of blue, allowing it to better blend in with shadows.
I rather like this look. The demon design looks pretty cool and its red color is a nice match with the red of his cloak while also ensuring it will stand out in contrast to the dark shirt. This seems to be a balance between Dr. Strange’s colorful classic outfit and his original, more sinister appearance.
In the mini-series The Oath, Dr. Strange wore this version of the classic outfit. This is much less a costume. Take away the cloak and it’s really just a decorative shirt with black slacks. Not a bad look for walking around New York, but if he was going into action or heading into a strange dimension, I’d like to see him switch those shoes for boots at least. I also miss the demon design on the shirt.
When Spider-Man needed to consult the good doctor, our hero wore the basic, classic outfit but wore the Cloak of Levitation in the style of a kimono, similar to how it looked following the “Last Rites” story. Pretty sleek, actually, nodding back to the trench coat look. I’d personally prefer the trench coat or full-on cloak though.
Did you know there was a live-action pilot movie for Dr. Strange in 1978? The hope was that it would inspire a weekly series, similar to the success of the weekly Hulk TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. Alas, there was one major problem: It was lame.
In the movie, Dr. Strange was a psychiatrist recruited into magic by a mysterious sorcerer named Lindmer (which doesn’t sound at all like “Melin”) to be Earth’s next major magical protector. Strange wore normal, civilian clothes for 95% of the film. Finally, he wore a weird cloak in one scene where he was being corrupted by Morgan Le Fay. After she was defeated, Strange officially took over as Earth’s protector and got this second, star-shirt outfit as a result.
A big, unimaginative star is not a great replacement for a funky Steve Ditko demon design (love that alliteration). The belt buckle is the same odd symbol as his Sanctum’s window. And the cape is… pretty unimpressive. This outfit just seems like a generic thing worn at a ren fair. The belt buckle is the only thing interesting about it. Sorry, just doesn’t work for me.
SPAWN: They should’ve added spikes.
ALAN KISTLER: GO BACK TO YOUR DAMN CAGE, SPAWN!
A couple years back, Marvel made a direct-to-DVD animated film of Dr. Strange. Once again, this gave a different version of the origin but was far more entertaining than the 1970s film. And you know what? It had some really cool new designs in it. Bordo looked a lot more menacing. And Strange? Man, I’m not gonna lie, I kind of want this outfit.
Dr. Strange’s classic outfit looks like the Anglo-European idea of a wizard’s clothing. But the fashion here has a very Eastern feel to it, which is a nice nod to his training in Tibet. The design is nice and adding a metal sash to the Eye of Agamotto is quite clever. It now looks like an official symbol of his station as Sorcerer Supreme, rather than an amulet that clasps his cape. The only problem might be that this outfit has too much black to it. I’d be curious to see how it would look if the red and black of the coat were reversed or if he were given different colored trousers.
At the film’s end, Dr. Strange wore this outfit that again recalls the “Kimono of Levitation” that he was seen wearing after “Last Rites” and in a couple of his Spider-Man cameos.
SORCERER SUPREME NO MORE
In 2009, following his handing over the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme to Brother Voodoo, we got to see how Dr. Strange adjusted to his new life in a mini-series, simply titled Strange, that was brought to us by Mark Waid, Emma Rios and Christina Strain. It was a very fun mini-series that you should check out, by the way. If you’ve never read a Dr. Strange comic in your life, it’s a nice intro to what the character is all about.
The cover had him wearing the traditional costume under a trench coat, but the comic within had our hero hanging out in civilian clothes. And hey, Stephen looks good in a suit. He’s a professional and a consultant on things magical. I get that from here. I can understand the plain clothes look now that he’s no longer Sorcerer Supreme, but I’d like something still, some decoration to show he’s not quite one of us. A demon design on his tie or maybe his original amulet hanging around his neck. Something.
In his most recent appearances in the pages of New Avengers, Stephen’s been sporting an overcoat and a turtle neck. And this just doesn’t really work for me. Now he really does look like any ordinary guy and the fact is he’s not. He was one of the world’s most powerful sorcerer for years worth of stories before he became Sorcerer Supreme and he’s still one of Earth’s most powerful mages since giving up the title. At least the suit made him look professional. Now he looks like he’s not doing anything more stressful than browsing for a new paperback at the book store and grabbing a coffee afterward.
That’s fine is you want to go with that, if the idea is to contrast that a seemingly normal looking person is actually this insanely powerful guy. That strategy has worked well with characters in the past, such as John Constantine. But for Dr. Strange, especially since he tends to not hide who he is or what he can do, it doesn’t work for me.
And that brings us up to speed, faithful readers. Will Dr. Stephen Strange regain his title of Sorcerer Supreme? Will he switch back to a more traditional mage’s outfit? Will we finally get a sweet live-action TV series or movie that he so richly deserves? Only time will tell. Hope you’ve enjoyed this, as I have a deep fondness for the character myself. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.