Saturday, March 03, 2012

Wizards, Workings and Walk-Ins

I don't get asked much who my favorite superhero is, but the answer's a no-brainer: it's Doctor Strange.
Where I sit, I have a vintage day-glo poster of Doctor Strange to my left, a statue of the Doctor behind me and a small figurine in front of me. The effect's been badly diluted, but the Steve Ditko/Stan Lee Doctor Strange stories of the early 60s are my single favorite comic stories of all time, even more so than the Jack Kirby material you're all so sick of hearing about.

The dilution is the problem, though; Ditko left the strip after a 17-issue epic that pitted the Doctor against the dread Dormammu, a storyline that seemed to show not only how amazingly creative but just how incredibly paranoid the artist was (as with Kirby, Ditko plotted or co-plotted most of the Marvel stories he drew).

It shouldn't surprise anyone that after leaving Marvel (Ditko also was the co-creator of Spider-Man), Ditko lapsed into an ultra-right wing moralism based in the teachings of Ayn Rand. The character Rorschach in Alan Moore's Watchmen is based not only on Ditko's post-Marvel creation, The Question (based in turn on his even more radical self-published character, Mr. A), but in many ways on Ditko himself.

Doctor Strange was handled by a succession of different creators after Ditko, most notably writer Steve Englehart and artists Gene Colan and Tom Sutton, but no one brought quite the conviction to the character that Ditko did. No one seemed to live the character like Ditko. And modern fanboys have always looked kind of sideways at the Doctor, with his prodigious mustache, flamboyant sense of style and Greenwich Village townhouse.

But in the Sixties, the Doctor lit up all the right minds like a Christmas tree. As you see above, psychedelic rock legends Jefferson Airplane, The Charlatans and The Great Society headlined a tribute to Doctor Strange in the heady days of the SF scene, before it all went bad with runaways and bathtub speed. Pink Floyd were big fans-- namechecking the Doctor in "Cymballine" and lifting some art from a Doctor story for the cover of A Saucerful of Secrets--as were T.Rex and other luminaries.

The psychedelic landscapes that the Doctor found himself in were a huge part of his appeal with the hippie generation, who automatically assumed that Ditko too was experienced. Comics historians have always scoffed at these claims, but I'm not so sure.

Ditko did become Mr. Objectivist in the late 60s, but before that he was no stranger to the demimonde, having shared a studio with legendary fetish artist Eric Stanton, who was himself addicted to painkillers and deeply connected to all sorts of underworld and Bohemian characters through his work for various pornographers. Exactly the kinds of people who would have been toying with psychedelics in the late 50s and early 60s.

Ditko didn't just share a studio with Stanton-- he collaborated with him on his fetish art as well, some of which retains its power to shock today.

Of course, there are all kinds of experience and Blake Bell's outstanding biography of Ditko shows an artist who was deeply invested in the unconscious and irrational realms his entire career, and often seemed to skirt the boundaries of schizophrenia in his work. But as we'll soon see, I think an old friend of ours might have had an outsized influence on Ditko's interdimensional escapades as well.

So let's get to it...

The sixth story in Doctor Strange's run in Strange Tales was a distinct break from the rich and shadowy occultism that the series had traded in (Strange was originally called the "Master of Black Magic"). In "The Possessed" Strange travels to Bavaria to investigate a series of possessions of burghers by interdimensional walk-ins. The entire story is an anomaly in the Ditko canon; playing out like a lost episode of The Outer Limits that the Doctor unwittingly wanders into.

What's fascinating about the story is that the burghers are oblivious to what's going on around them-- they see the effects of the walk-in invasion but not the cause. In fact the most frightening thing to them is the appearance of Doctor Strange, who's come to fight the walk-ins.

This all plays out like something out of John Keel: a walk-in sees the Doctor and recognizes him as a threat. He wanders off in the woods where a camouflaged portal acts as a doorway into the other dimension- there he transports and takes physical form as an insectoid alien, not at all unlike a Grey.

The Doctor sets a trap, leaving his body in his astral form and waiting for one of the walk-ins to take possession. Here we see the Doctor fighting these creatures psychically, drawing on the Theosophical and Rosicrucian roots that gave rise to the superhero genre in the first place.

And again, straight out of Keel, straight of Vallee; aliens as djinn, daimons, and any number of discarnate entities who interact with humanity on psychic planes. This would be a thruline with Doctor Strange; epic battles with forces that are often invisible to mere mortals but have profound influence over their lives nonetheless.

Given the Bavarian setting, it's fascinating to see the entities take control of the political class, using them to rabble-rouse against the mysterious occultist who's come to rid their village of the invisible forces taking control of their lives. The Ausländer becomes the obvious target for the witch-hunt, being directed by the real villains. Another thruline in classic Marvel Age comics, and in Kirby's Fourth World stories as well.

And the benediction here is particularly fascinating: the Doctor decides not to explain to the villagers that he had battled invisible entities from another dimension, letting it all be passed down as rumor and folklore. Anticipating Keel and echoing Fort, the Doctor says, "for the history of Man is rich in legend, in which folklore is closer to the truth than any suspect."

All of this has other antecedents as well. In other words, the plot here just reeks of Jack Kirby. Let's do some digging...

Doctor Strange was a refinement of a Lee/Kirby character called Doctor Droom, whose origin story was a dry-run for Strange's; the trip to the Himalayas, the magical ordeal, the ancient lama and so on.

In fact in many ways "The Possessed" is a rewrite of "The World Below" (Amazing Adventures #2), in which Droom travels to Atlantis to battle the merpeople who are planning their own invasion of Earth. As with Doctor Strange, Droom defeats the invasion with the powers of his mind, though in a considerably less interesting fashion.

Droom also hypnotizes the surface people who've seen the merpeople, preferring that the uninitiated stay ignorant of the horrors that await them out there in the hidden world. Good idea, I should say.

Droom would only appear in a handful of stories, but they too were essentially a dry-run for Doctor Strange. As with Spider-Man, Stan Lee was looking for something a bit weirder -- or should I say a different kind of weirdness-- than what Kirby was serving up. The basic architecture of the character speaks to a lot of the themes that Kirby was writing about well before he went to work for Stan, but at the same time there seems to be some sense of interference as well; a classic three-legged race.

Alien walk-in, from the same issue that introduced Dr. Droom

Kirby brought his weird sci-fi/occult sensibility to Marvel, a synthesis that bore fruit on Thor and later, The Eternals. We recently saw how early Kirby was nursing this obsession (Kirby was doing books like Black Magic and Strange World of Your Dreams with partner Joe Simon in the early 50s) and as soon as he left Marvel one of the first stories he did was about a psychic cult trying to contact aliens (which we looked at here and here).

So it shouldn't surprise us that in the same comic (Amazing Adventures #1) that introduced Doctor Droom we also see a Kirby/Lee story about an alien (named "Torr", of all things) who takes possession of human beings.

Bonus factoid: the human Torr is taking possession of is one John Carter, also the pen name of the author of Sex and Rockets, the first major biography of Jack Parsons, named in honor of the Rocket Man's favorite superhero, the Warlord of Mars.

Even more stunning is that not only does Torr master the art of soul transference he also intends to unleash a hallucinogenic drug on the Earth as part of his schemes for conquest. This is 1960, mind you.

This is the mind of Jack Kirby; these are the kinds of insane ideas that got him blacklisted in the comics industry until only Stan Lee would give him any work. He did several stories like this for DC in the years prior, and gave the editors there endless headaches.

Droom would later be reincarnated as 'Doctor Druid', but the basic details would remain the same. Doctor Druid would be given some hair and a goatee in his reincarnation, perhaps because a bald occultist with an intense stare associated with the Himalayas reminded people a little too much of this guy.

Lee and Kirby were probably unfamiliar (at least consciously) with the Great Beast in 1961, but by the early 70s their inheritors certainly knew all about him, hence the makeover.

But I'd venture to guess Crowley would have gotten a kick out of "The Posssessed" since it was a illustration of exactly the kind of contact he constantly sought after in his various workings. I bet you Jack Parsons certainly would as well.

Parsons would have especially appreciated this Jack Kirby story; "The Fourth Dimension is a Many Splattered Thing." In it a store owner discovers an interdimensional gateway appear in a backroom, allowing a shadowy figure to steal random objects.

The poor guy follows the figure through the gateway and finds himself lost in a netherworld where Euclidean geometry, gravity and all of the rest of it is a fantasy. Many comics historians have cited this story as an influence on Ditko for his own other-dimensional realms in Doctor Strange.

And what does the initiate end up with following his ordeal? A Scarlet Woman- from Mars, no less.

Looking at the two interplanetary lovebirds I can't help but be struck by the resemblance to Jack Parsons (birthname: Marvel Whiteside Parsons) and Marjorie Cameron. We've looked exhaustively at Jack Kirby's uncanny knack for knowing things he shouldn't have known and for his endless bizarre allegories- is this yet another one here?

Either way, both Doctor Droom and Doctor Strange have a clear ancestor; Doctor Fate, created in 1940 by Gardner Fox (no stranger to the occult himself and later writer for Doctor Strange) and Howard Sherman.

"The lost Book of Thoth"

I was particularly fascinated by the Golden Age Doctor Fate when I was a kid because he lived in Massachusetts (Salem, to be precise) in a windowless and doorless tower. Sherman had a knack for dark, shadowy artwork but occult heroes don't do well with the fanboys so he eventually was dumbed-down into just another superhero.

But Doctor Fate's origin bears attention- Gardner Fox was one of the very first popularizers of Ancient Astronaut Theory, over a quarter-century before Chariots of the Gods? Not only that, but Fate's origin brings full circle to "The Possessed"; this strange nexus of aliens and the occult, to be exact. Not something you see a lot of in comics, or in pop culture in general. Certainly not "mainstream" UFOlogy, such as it these days.

In the origin (which you can read here), young Kent Nelson accompanies his scientist father to the pyramids, which the archaeologist believes were built by an alien race. When his father is killed by the release of an ancient poison gas during the opening of a tomb, an alien wizard awakes from suspended animation and teaches Kent the ways of the occult. How about that?

I bet Jack Parsons loved that story too. I'm damn sure Jack Kirby did.