When Marvel Comics creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko conceived of Doctor Strange in 1963, their goal was to produce cheap, disposable entertainment and little more. They could not foresee the lasting cultural impact of their world-building, nor that it would be written into the corporate DNA of a future entertainment empire. Indeed, when Messrs. Lee and Ditko created their master of the mystic arts for a 13-page back-up story in Marvel’s Strange Tales #110, they didn’t dwell upon the cultural stereotypes, oriental exoticism, and grift ingrained in their storytelling. Cultural awareness — let alone sensitivity— wasn’t the norm for comic book creators of their day. As such, concerns over misrepresentation simply didn’t come into play, and Doctor Strange would eventually join an older, larger narrative that makes magic somehow plausible while erasing the authenticity of one culture in order to entertain another.
For those unfamiliar with the comics, Dr. Stephen Strange— prior to his indoctrination into the mystic arts-- was a gifted, if narcissistic, surgeon who at the peak of his career lost his ability to practice after a tragic car wreck severely injured his hands. Desperate to regain his skills and social standing, Strange squanders his wealth and resources on any hope of a cure. Desperate and mired in alcoholism, Strange travels to the far East chasing the rumor of the Ancient One, a Tibetan mystic who might possess the ability to restore Strange’s medical skills. Upon reaching Kamar-Taj, the Ancient One’s secret monastery, the wizened mystic confirms there is no cure for Strange’s injuries.
However, the Ancient One sees great potential in Strange and offers to school him in ancient magics if he agrees to forsake his selfish, materialistic ways and become a protector of the weak and innocent. Following an astoundingly brief period of study (frequently observed in those of a particular privilege tutored in the East), the mantle of Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme is bestowed upon Strange. Soon thereafter, Dr. Strange establishes his sanctum sanctorum nestled in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he protects humanity from those evil forces lurking in neighboring dark dimensions.
Western popular culture overflows with fantasy storytelling that serves to codify a distorted vision of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. It’s a narrative that can be traced back to the early nineteenth century literary fads and theatrical frippery of the Spiritualist movement. History is sketchy regarding Spiritualism’s point of origin, but many historians credit the enigmatic Fox Sisters for sowing the seeds of the tenacious belief system; astounding followers with their ability to communicate with the dead via disembodied knocking and rapping. Even after middle sister Maggie confessed it was all a hoax in 1888, the Spiritualist movement continued to gain momentum. As for the Fox Sisters, they died penniless and maligned by a society that once celebrated them as harbingers of a new era.
In order to remain viable, Spiritualism needed to structure a doctrine beyond the cheap theatrics of mediums, mesmerists, and levitators, so occultists looked to the East for exploitable resources. Rising from the tide of well-heeled followers and society notables came former Russian aristocrat Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891). “Blavatsky,” according to former Blondie bass guitarist and Fortean Times contributor Gary Lachman, “and the people around her, made some remarkable, often unbelievable, claims. For example, Blavatsky claimed to be able to manifest and command ‘elementals’, the sylphs, salamanders, gnomes, and undines of magical legend. She was also said to be able to manifest spirits of a more human type, at seances and other magical gatherings.” Foreshadowing Dr. Strange’s mentor, Blavatsky declared her occult powers came from the tutelage of a cadre of Tibetan mystics with whom she regularly convened upon an astral plane.
“The two best known of these enigmatic characters were called Morya and Koot Hoomi,” says Lachman. “It was at the Masters’ behest, Blavatsky said, that she was sent to the West to stop the modern world’s drift into materialism. To claim to have magical powers and to have entered Tibet was bad enough. To claim to have been sent into the modern world by mysterious Hindu Masters in order to battle with the repressive religion (Christianity) and a narrow-minded soulless science was, one has to admit, pushing it.”
In her lifetime, Blavatsky published numerous influential works on the occult including Isis Unveiled and founded the Theosophical Society in 1875—a world-wide organization with an active membership to this day. Indeed, many credit Blavatsky with the genesis of the New Age movement. Sadly, not unlike the Fox Sisters before her, Blavatsky would ultimately fall from grace. Shamed and diminished in the public eye after a report declared her a fraud (as well as a Russian spy), Blavatsky continued to publish her brand of anti-materialist, hybrid-Asian philosophy until her death, but discussion of her own superpowers and the influence of her Tibetan masters were absent from her later texts. Not so for the texts of Western popular culture, in fact, the Ancient Tibetan master trope remained viable and eventually wound its way into popular entertainment and the stories of Doctor Strange.
It wasn’t just narrative tropes that gave permission for cultural appropriation. Live performance and the Art of the Con further informed the identity of Marvel’s master of the mystic arts. As you might have surmised, much about the occult is performative and has always made for some lively theatre. Few performers were as influential to the imagery of Doctor Strange than Alexander the Crystal Seer AKA Alexander the Man Who Knows. Born Claude Alexander Conlin (1880-1954), the native South Dakotan was a latecomer to the supernatural trade but took note of the salesmanship of his predecessors and plied his mystical craft through sold-out performances and numerous best-selling books.
Clad in turban and flowing satin robes, Alexander claimed he was one of the few Westerners to master the yogic magic of Indian gurus and fakirs, a questionable scholarship he shared with Blavatsky. “Part of Alexander’s genius was to realize that his audiences would be more willing to explore that ambiguity if he associated his initiation into these powers with Oriental mystique,” says Chris Noto-Jones. “The chances were good that nobody in his audience had ever been to India or even met anyone from India; public information about India was heavily exoticized.”
Like Blavatsky before him, Alexander also fortified his brand through publication. “[M]y personal favorite is the 1924 title Oriental Wisdom, its Principals and Practice,” says Noto-Jones. “in which he explains how ‘the Orient has always been looked upon as the Great Fount of inner knowledge’ where discoveries about the nature of the mind and the universe have been made that have yet to be accounted for in Western science. That is, according to Alexander ‘Oriental Wisdom’ should not be seen as anti-scientific, but rather as a repository of science-in-waiting or not-yet-science —Oriental Wisdom was knowledge that looked like magic only for as long as it took scientists to understand and incorporate its principles and practices.” It is precisely this mystification of ancient knowledge that comprises the DNA of Doctor Strange and the volumes of exoticized imagery we consume without consideration for the damage it does to other cultures.
“Perhaps the greatest genius of his life’s performance is that it was such a successful commercial enterprise —a grand grift,” says Noto-Jones. “In the end, Alexander’s performance of ‘Oriental Magic’ became enmeshed in the sale of an entire counter-cultural worldview, which professed to expand the scientific world into new (and ancient) realms. One of the most important things I’ve learned, I think, is that these kinds of claims are easy in a cultural climate that already mystifies the Orient.”
The early 20th century delivered a colorful cabal of run-ups to Doctor Strange as White characters empowered with mystical abilities derived from a fabricated vision of the East became a staple of American popular entertainment. Every Sunday, Lee Falk’s Mandrake, the Magician arrived on the doorstep courtesy of the Sunday Funnies, Fred Guardineer’s Zatara could be found between the pages of Action Comics, and the airwaves were alive with the radio adventures of Chandu the Magician.
It is with Chandu that our magic carpet ride through the distorted history of oriental exotism begins its descent. Making his radio debut in 1931 from the Mutual Broadcasting System, Chandu the Magician was the creation of Henry Earnshaw, Vera Oldham, and RR Morgan. The series ran for six years before cancelation and saw resurrection in 1948, but not before it was realized for the silver screen in the 1932 Fox Film Corporation feature starring Edmund Lowe and Bela Lugosi in the role of Roxor, the evil magician. In 1934, Chandu would return to cinemas for a 12-part Sol Lesser movie serial in which Lugosi flipped from the villain’s role for that of Chandu himself.
Chandu’s backstory is more than a little familiar by this point. In the 1932 film’s opening sequence, we learn that after three years of study in a secret Southeast Asian Temple, Captain Frank Chandler has mastered the mystic arts in record time. Sayeth the Yogi: “In the years that thou hast dwelt among us, thou hast conquered the will of the spirits and thou hast found thy reward in the powers proclaimed by Shiva. Thou shalt look into the eyes of men and they shall be as straw in thy hands. Thou shalt cause them to see what is not there even unto a gathering of 12 times 12. My son, I proclaim thee one of the sacred company of the Yogi and bestow upon thee the name of Chandu…”
With a dramatic flip of his cape, Chandu proceeds to demonstrate his newly confirmed skills starting with the classic Indian rope trick. Upon willing the rope to stretch to the ceiling, a fellow yogi deftly shimmies up its length and disappears into darkness. Chandu then manifests an astral form that hovers above as he walks through a path of fire unscathed. Finally, the Yogi Master confirms Chandu’s training is complete and they can teach him no more. Chandu eventually returns to the West where he employs his mastery of black magic to right wrongs and rout evil at every turn.
Corroboration that Lee and Ditko took inspiration directly from Chandu is murky, but the circumstantial evidence abounds. Contrary to his customary bravado, upon the character’s debut, Lee bestowed much of the credit for Dr. Strange’s creation on Steve Ditko, stating in a 1963 Comics Reader interview, “Well, we have a new character in the works for Strange Tales (just a 5-page filler named Dr. Strange) Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme.”
Evidently Lee didn’t harbor a great deal of faith in the character’s future. “The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him—'twas Steve's idea and I figured we'd give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much.”
Strange’s early stories were aimless, one-off tales about ghosts or haunted houses and offered little in the way of action, suspense, or emotional impact. The character was on the chopping block until Ditko convinced Lee to allow him to plot the stories. Thanks to his lengthy tenure in post-Comics Code comics like Strange Suspense Stories and The Thing!, Ditko knew his way around tales of magic and mysticism, as Noto-Jones notes: “Stephen Strange was part of a Ditko tradition that carried back to the 1950s; the glory-craving bastard whose journeys in a snow capped East led him to a comeuppance from a wise and ancient mystic.”
Doctor Strange’s debut struck a quieter chord with readers than his Marvel Comics predecessors, but he would ultimately amass a sturdy following… perhaps for reasons beyond the creators’ intent. “This series was indeed strange,” says Sean Howe in Marvel Comics, the Untold Story. “Steve Ditko contributed some of his most surrealistic work to the comic book and gave it a disorienting, hallucinogenic quality. Dr. Strange’s adventures take place in bizarre worlds and twisting dimensions that resemble a Salvador Dali painting. They involve mystical spells, trances, astral travel, and occult lore. Inspired by the pulp-fiction magicians of Stan Lee’s childhood as well as by the contemporary Beat culture, Dr. Strange remarkably predicted the youth counter culture’s fascination with Eastern mysticism and psychedelia.”
For over 58 years of publication, the Doctor Strange comic has amused and entertained, but it also helped to embed a counterproductive fascination with Eastern mysticism and diminish the authenticity of other cultures in the minds of readers. This is frequently the case with White privileged storytellers who see their job as catering to an audience with whom they share a common cultural background.
Considering the troubling history of Oriental exoticism from Blavatsky to Alexander and Chandu, film studios now have a golden opportunity to retool the narrative. The Doctor Strange film took several progressive steps forward by offering audiences a reality inspired by culturally authentic characterization, design, location, not to mention the brilliant casting of artists of color like Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo and Benedict Wong as Wong. Representation and equity, even in a fantasy context, matters more than words can say. Sadly, the film’s credibility was knocked back several paces thanks to the confounding whitewashing of the Ancient One with the casting of Tilda Swinton in the role— a studio blunder deserving of its own lengthy exploration.
Messrs. Lee and Ditko never anticipated the scrutiny their creations might one day face, nor how their ideas would impact the future of popular culture. In their stories, Lee and Ditko invoked a long tradition of toxic alchemy to create Doctor Strange’s world, a world we now seek to cast anew. It’s time for ardent fans of the medium, indeed fans of Doctor Strange in particular, to take a look back at the character’s racist genesis and explore how we can amend the narrative going forward. As contemporary storytellers seek to shed old narratives steeped in Oriental exoticism it behooves fans of comics and film to scrutinize the backstory of properties like Doctor Strange so we may foster the kind of cultural agency and authenticity we all deserve.
(A tremendous thank you to Jim Jewell for his editorial assistance and insight.)