Doctor Strange made his debut in Strange Tales #110 (July 1963), conceived and created by artist Steve Ditko. Despite his smaller status for mainstream audiences, he has still appeared in multiple animated series, along with a surprisingly good (albeit dated) 1978 television movie starring Peter Hooten.
Despite the mystical influences, Doctor Strange has a pretty straightforward origin. As you’ll probably gather from the trailer (at the bottom of this post), a cocky surgeon injures his hands in a car accident and travels the world looking for a cure. Instead, he starts on a path that sees him transcend his physical body, opening up a world of mystical arts and doorways to worlds he didn’t realize existed. In the comics, he has become an integral part of the wider crossovers and epics, particular as a member of the Defenders, New Avengers and the mysterious Illuminati.
The following is a list of suggested reading to get you started. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it will definitely give you a flavour for the character in time for the film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, out later this year. A strange taste, if you like.
Doctor Strange: The Oath
When Doctor Strange is shot, he begins an investigation into his own attempted murder. Joined by the trusty Wong and the mysterious Night Nurse, they begin a journey that may result in the greatest medical discovery in history: a cure for all illness. Delving into Strange’s past, the dynamic team of Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martín (The Private Eye) set the stage for the next chapter in the strange life of Doctor Strange.
Cleverly weaving in Strange’s origin story into the larger narrative, the 5-issue collection is a great modern suggestion for people who want an introduction and to hit the ground running at the same time. Casual and comedic cameos from the entire Marvel Universe, the Night Nurse alone will be a good entry point for people who have seen the Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Magic and mystery blend together in some damn fine storytelling, with gorgeous art from Martín against a highly topical skewering of the major pharmaceutical companies as well. If you only pick up one book, this could be it.
Doctor Strange: A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time
While not exactly starting at the very beginning, this variously named collection brings together Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s collaborations on Strange Tales Vol. 1 #130-146 (from 1965 and 1966). Apart from featuring some of the classic villains like Dormammu and Baron Mordo, it also includes the first appearance of Eternity, an omnipotent being that would appear across hundreds of Marvel cosmic titles over the decades.
The struggle between good and evil in these books reminds us of the bigger scope that Doctor Strange plays with, and while Stan’s dialogue bubbles definitely tend towards the hokey, Dikto’s art is phenomenal, embracing the psychedelic in a way that moves on the page. Indeed, a fan-made opening sequence for the movie shows how dynamic these images are fifty years later. This is available in the Official Marvel Graphic Novel Collection, along with the Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange Vol. 1, and the Doctor Strange Omnibus Vol. 1.
Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom:Triumph and Torment
Released as one of the Marvel Graphic Novels back in 1989, it’s significant for featuring the pre-Hellboy work of artist Mike Mignola (alongside inker Mike Badger) when he was about a decade into his career. Written by Roger Stern, it’s an attractive read for new and existing fans, as it features a self-contained pairing of doctors that simply can’t be replicated on screen due to complicated licences and rights.
The story is a terrific one too: each year Doctor Doom battles Hell for the soul of his mother, and each time it ends in a stalemate, at least until he enlists the aid of Doctor Strange, who owes him a favour. You don’t get much more epic than that. So not only do you have the cool premise of Doctors Doom and Strange battling it out with Mephisto, you’ve also got Mignola’s stunning artwork combined with Badger’s dramatic inking, a point of difference from the contrasting shadows that Mignola became known for in his later work.
Doctor Strange: A Separate Reality
The tables are turned in this 1973-4 storyline, as the Ancient One – Strange’s teacher – is close to the end. It’s a kind of “pupil becomes the master” storyline, as Steve Englehart was coming straight off of his success with Captain America. The story goes that artist Frank Brunner suggested he’d like to work with Englehart to editor Roy Thomas, and as Marco M. Lupoi suggests in the introduction to the Ultimate Marvel Graphic Novel collected edition, the duo found inspiration in their inebriation.
Like Ditko before him, Brunner embraces the surrealism of Doctor Strange. At one point in the series, they take a leaf out of Alice in Wonderland, not only chasing a literal rabbit, but featuring a hookah-smoking caterpillar to boot. Brunner’s art, supported by Dick Giordano’s pitch-perfect inks, is filled with abstract pieces, haunting images of death, life, and rebirth, and a deep dose of the cosmic. The story elevates the previously supporting character into something a little more interesting, interconnecting a series of concepts and standing the test of time as one of the greatest Doctor Strange stories of all time.
Doctor Strange: Season One
The origin story of Doctor Strange is arguably not as iconic as Marvel’s Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk in the popular arena, but nevertheless it has afforded the publisher multiple opportunities to dip back into the well. One of the most recent is this 2012 original graphic novel, part of a series of one-shots that retold Marvel origins for modern audiences.
Greg Pak and Emma Rios’ story isn’t necessarily essential reading, although both creators attached to the character is a drawcard in and of itself. Yet it is new-reader friendly, specifically designed to be a jumping-on point for the character, or as Greg Pak put it in a 2012 interview with MTV, you pick up this book “because you want to see a charming jerk learn what it is to be a hero.” Rios’ art, coupled with Jordie Bellaire’s luscious colours, is a dream team as well, bringing Rios’ confidence with the magical and mystical (seen later in Pretty Deadly) to the forefront.
Doctor Strange: Way of the Weird
The newest entry on this list, as it is the current ongoing Doctor Strange series at the time of this article’s publication. Jason Aaron had already been doing wonderful things with Thor and his creator-owned book Southern Bastards as he launched this post-Secret Wars/Battleworld take on the good doctor, complete with a battle axe on the cover.
The first arc is everything that existing fans loved about the character, as well as a great modern starting place for newbies. Aaron shows us the world through Doctor Strange’s eyes, from the out-of-this-world mystical realms he travels through to the care he feels for every soul that he encounters. Artist Chris Baccalo turns perspective on its head, exploding the inner world onto the page as the colour of the world drains away to vividly highlight the demons and creatures that are in Strange’s everyday life. Combining romance with mystery, it’s a terrific story in comics for any character.