cover #1DC Comics Presents

(1984 - four issues, Marvel Comics)

Writers: Stan Lee, Steve Ditko. Art: Steve Ditko.

Before TPBs became en vogue, a "classy" reprint format was the heavy paper, deluxe format comic -- wherein both Marvel and DC would reprint (and sometimes re-colour) old comics, not as a single volume, but as mini-series, though with each issue usually double the length (or so) of a regular comic, allowing for more pages.

So with Doctor Strange Classics it's a four-issue deluxe format mini-series reprinting a consecutive run of vintage 10 page Lee/Ditko 1960s Dr. Strange stories from Strange Tales #130-141, presenting three stories per issue (plus pin-ups to fill up the page count). At first one might wonder why this particular run. Sure, arch foes Baron Mordo and Dormammu are involved, but it's not like this is their first appearances. However it turns out this isn't simply a consecutive run of issues -- but an actual 12 chapter story line. So perhaps it was the longest Dr. Strange "epic" of its day and among Strange fans may be regarded as a minor classic.

The premise is that while Strange's mentor and guru, The Ancient One, has slipped into a coma, his arch foe, Baron Mordo, launches an all out attack on Strange -- Mordo seeming more powerful than usual. The reason for that turns out to be that he is in league with the Dreaded Dormammu, the supremely powerful sorcerer/dictator of another dimension (and I've always thought one of the eeriest visual designs in comics).

It's a pretty simple "plot" with just a lot of running and chasing, and sorcerous battles. Yet credit where it's due -- there is a degree of genuine suspense and tension, particularly in the early chapters, a true feeling that Strange is facing a greater threat than usual. He's the underdog being hunted and forced to go on the run across the globe. Mordo enlists an army of operatives who are on the look out for Strange, and sends out translucent demonic agents to ferret him out, generating a true degree of suspense and eeriness. There are, of course, divergences to the plot -- as Strange will escape into another dimension for a chapter or two (and get caught up in an adventure there) or follow a clue mumbled by the Ancient One to find someone or something called Eternity that may be able to aid him.

Steve Ditko's art is a big part of the appeal here. I would argue this was Ditko's peak period, his basic drawing surer and more confident than in his earlier days, while his inking is solid and lends contour and dimension to his figures and environments, unlike later years when his art would often lack such embellishment. And, of course, Ditko largely defined the concept of "head trippy" when it came to comics, and his Dr. Strange visuals set the bar when it came to strange, otherworldly dimensions and arcane chambers.

With all that said, these are still 1960s comics, and Dr. Strange wasn't playing in the same league as Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four in terms of imbuing the simple heroics with deeper human drama or knowing humour. As I say, there is some genuine suspense and tension, and with atmospheric visuals -- but equally there is a lot of just repetitious running and fighting, without a great deal of nuance or subtlety to the personalities or the plot. And the problem with such long, rambling sagas is that even when they come to the end -- it still doesn't fully resolve. Mordo and Dormammu are thwarted, certainly, but in Dormammu's dimension Strange was aided by Clea (though unbeknownst to Strange -- and not her first appearance either) and by the end her fate is left in limbo (literally!) One thing I read suggested the story, in a way, could be considered to have continued for the next few issues, though mainly as a protracted epilogue.

Still, as a chance to sample that era, outside of expensive hardcover volumes, or black & white Essential collections, there is a certain fun -- if occasional repetitiousness -- to such an epic saga.