Thursday, October 8, 2009

Strange's Strange Tales: An Introduction

Seeking to latch onto the popularity of EC Comics' horror titles such as Tales from the Crypt, Atlas Comics (the precursor to Marvel Comics) launched 1951's Strange Tales. The book stuck to a horror and suspense format until the mid 1950's, when the Comics Code Authority was set in place following the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency's investigations into comic books. Books without being approved by the new Comics Code Authority could often not find distribution, and with the code banning material such as the undead and werewolves, as well as words such as "crime" or "horror" from book titles, the comics industry shifted more towards science fiction. Strange Tales was no exception, and it changed to sci-fi in 1954. Other Atlas Comics of the time dealt with two very popular comics subjects in the 50's - Romance and Westerns.

Strange Tales #1 from 1951

Steering the sci-fi stories for Strange Tales were Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and Joe Sinnott, to name a few. These pre-superhero days of Strange Tales focused on aliens and colossal monsters from Kirby or more freaky fare by Ditko. Then in 1961 Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics and a shift began towards superhero offerings. Spurred on by DC Comics' success with superheroes in what would later be known as 'the Silver Age of Comics,' especially by new hot properties like the Justice League of America (which debuted in 1960 in The Brave and the Bold #28), Marvel sought to capture some of that magic. In November, 1961 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's The Fantastic Four became an overnight sensation. The Marvel Universe as we know it today was officially born. Other heroes would soon follow, including Marvel's most popular character Spider-Man, who was first introduced in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy in August of 1962 and would soon star in his own title, The Amazing Spider-Man.

Looking to boost sales on Strange Tales, Stan Lee had the Fantastic Four's Human Torch become the central character for the book in 1961 (with issue #101). Another Fantastic Four star, the "Ever Lovin' Blue-Eyed" Thing, would start to share panel time with the Torch in 1964. But the book's breakout new star debuted with Strange Tales #110 in the summer of 1963 - Doctor Strange.

Strange Tales #110 from 1963

Hot to find a popular new hero Lee looked to a radio show he enjoyed in the past called Chandu the Magician, which ran from 1932 to 1950. The show's central character, Chandu, could project himself outside his body and could perform illusions and do other tricks. Chandu's enemy was the powerful and evil Roxor, who was hell-bent on conquering the world. And the woman who captured his heart was Nadji, a princess from the far off land of Egypt.

For your listening pleasure, here's an episode of the Chandu the Magician radio show...

In the same year the show debuted Hollywood turned out it's own version of Chandu.

(From left to right - Bela Lugosi as Roxor, Irene Ware as Nadji and Edmund Lowe as Chandu in 1932's Chandu the Magician.)

Looking at that the film's publicity still it's not hard at all to see where Baron Mordo, Clea and Dr. Strange (complete with a thin mustache) started out. In an odd note, Bela Lugosi plays the villain Roxor in the 1932 Chandu film and then plays Chandu himself in the 1934 sequel The Return of Chandu and another 1935 sequel Chandu on the Magic Island.

Using Chandu as inspiration for a new character Lee discussed ideas with Steve Ditko, who in turn set about designing the characters. The end result was Doctor Strange's adventure in the Marvel Universe - a five-page debut in Strange Tales #110 called simply "Doctor Strange - Master of Black Magic!" The story also contained the first appearances of a recurring enemy of the sorcerer's, Nightmare, as well as Strange's faithful student and servant, Wong, and Strange's mentor - the venerable Ancient One. Baron Mordo appeared for the first time in the following issue.

Doctor Strange's 1963 Marvel Universe debut in Strange Tales #110

Doctor Strange proved to be a popular character for Marvel fans, especially fans in college who enjoyed Ditko's surreal visuals. Following a two-issue hiatus Doctor Strange became a mainstay in Strange Tales as the back-up story behind whatever the Human Torch was doing. Marvel's two-hero "split book" format later became the standard for Tales of Suspense in 1964 with Iron Man and Captain America and Tales to Astonish with Giant-Man & Wasp and the Hulk in the same year. Journey into Mystery, which started out in 1952 and dealt with the same horror, suspense and sci-fi stories that Strange Tales did, changed to feature Thor and would eventually change its title to The Mighty Thor.

Always hungry for new hero blood, Lee had the Human Torch exit Strange Tales and Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. were introduced into the book with issue #135 by Lee and Kirby. Fury had previously debuted in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos in 1963. Strange Tales would stick with Dr. Strange and Nick Fury for another thirty-four issues before splitting the two characters off into their own solo series in May, 1968 - Nick Fury, Agent of Shield and Doctor Strange, which kept the Strange Tales numbering and started with #169.

Over five years later Strange Tales would pick up again with #169, introducing Len Wein & Gene Colan's Brother Voodoo into the Marvel Universe and later Adam Warlock through #181 in the summer of 1975. Following several reprints of previous Doctor Strange stories, Strange Tales ended its initial run with issue #188.

The title was relaunched with a second volume in 1987, this time featuring Doctor Strange and Cloak & Dagger. This volume lasted nineteen issues and ended with Doctor Strange and Cloak & Dagger moving on to their own books. Other volumes (with few issues) continue to be published, as well as some one-shot and collected editions. The latest incarnation, 2009's Volume 5, unfortunately finds the once great Strange Tales reduced to a humor book.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would point out that Stan Lee has noted that Dr. Strange was Steve Ditko's idea and Ditko says he brought in the five page story on his won for Stan to dialouge. Stan did get involved in story plots early on, and likely came up with an origin story. By the time of the Dormammu story line (Strange Tales 126 or so) Ditko was plotting all the stories himself, with Stan editing and adding dialouge, so Dr. Strange owes plenty to the imagination and storytelling of Steve Ditko, moreso than Spider-Man in many ways.

Nick Caputo

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