Dr. Strange: Mastering Magical Characters is Hard

Photo by Kevin Shirley

Magic is both a blessing and a curse, particularly for a writer. How does an author keep a character with virtual God-like powers in check? Comics and Pop Art track moderator Michael Bailey welcomed Richard Case, Barry Kitson, Brian Reber, and Roy Thomas to AmericasMart 2 on Friday morning to look back at their experience writing, promoting, animating, and managing Dr. Strange. Created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in 1963, and first appearing in Strange Tales, Strange is one of Marvel’s most powerful characters. Thomas, a Marvel veteran with writing and editing credits on the comic, pointed out that there was always the question of just what a magician could and couldn’t do. For him, the magical powers Strange possessed were a real asset because he could always use a spell to get the doctor out of trouble. Kitson loved the character and, thanks to Marvel’s openness, felt particularly free to play with him and not be afraid to use that “God-like” power.

Case pointed out in his remarks that the character and his universe presented a great “visual vocabulary,” made all the richer as different artists have made their respective contributions. In fact, he described the visual universe of Dr. Strange as a “fertile ground” for an artist. Reber commented upon the film adaptations, speaking of the addition it was making to this vocabulary with new visual elements, including the great geometric designs around the character’s hands. Case was drawn to the play of tried and true “psychedelic” effects in Strange and the mix of new digital dynamics in the films. While being intrigued by the possibilities he felt it important for digital artists to be true to the heritage of the work. Thomas summed it up by declaring that digital art in the films was basically doing riffs on the work of others. A powerful theme in the entire session was the importance of the art. Thomas described the “Marvel Method” in which the art drives the narrative/plot. As a writer on the comic, he was very sensitive to the art and felt inspired to write the character according to the messages about the character it sent him.

As the session turned to the basic nature of the character, the question of categorization came up. Was Dr. Strange horror or fantasy? Thomas pointed out that Strange’s brother was a vampire, but it was the consensus of the panel that this was not horror. What Dr. Strange was, and remains, is the examination and consideration of an extremely powerful character who must be taken seriously. This is the case because, while he can indeed do anything, he is flawed. As Kitson pointed out: Dr. Strange is powerful enough to destroy the universe and put it back together again but he’s made mistakes and he knows it. He is trying to make things right, but he continues to make the wrong decisions. He always has to “do something to make up for something.” Toward the end of the hour Thomas, thinking out loud as much as anything else asked: “I’ve wondered if Stan (Lee) played a role in the development of Strange as a flawed hero?” Perhaps so. Because without something to check the most powerful magician in the universe, there’d be no fun for us at all.

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