Even twenty years ago, few would have expected Doctor Strange to be the focus of a highly-anticipated blockbuster film starring an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s caliber. Although the character had been the focus of several solo comic series and even starred in a made-for-tv movie in 1978, the Master of Mystic Arts usually enjoyed little more than second-tier status. With his odd hairstyle and penchant for saying things like “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!”, the Doctor seemed doomed to C-list status.
Even that would have been a step up from his origins. The brainchild of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange debuted as a backup feature in 1963’s Strange Tales #110. The main feature in that issue? A tale that pitted Fantastic Four member the Human Torch against C-level baddies the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete.
Despite that ignoble beginning, Strange soon captured the imagination of college kids who tuned out to Ditko’s increasingly psychedelic visuals and Stan Lee’s unnatural dialogue. Over the years, Strange became one of Marvel’s consummate supporting figures. He had his own adventures, but was often most memorable when showing up to advise on some larger existential threat.
Since his 2016 solo film (and Marvel Cinematic Universe debut), Doctor Strange seems to have settled into an advisory role in films such as Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. But after six years, he's now returning to theaters as the main character in a movie that promises more reality-bending adventure than its predecessor.
Here are a few great comic book stories to catch up with as you prepare to check in with the Doctor when Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness releases in May.
Although he’s credited as the writer of Doctor Strange’s first stories, Stan Lee only provided added dialogue to pages that Steve Ditko plotted and drew on his own. This creative freedom allowed Ditko to get experimental with the character—not only with his psychedelic visuals but also with the structure of his plots. Where most stories lasted one issue at the most, Ditko launched a 17-part epic, spanning from Strange Tales #130 – 146. The tale involves many of the key aspects of Strange’s early supporting cast, including his teacher the Ancient One, his arch-enemy Baron Mordo, and even frequent love interest Clea, while introducing the cosmic entity Eternity.
Marvel distinguished itself from its competition at DC in part by making heroes out of weird loners. As successful as that approach certainly was, it did undermine attempts to put some characters on a team, as guys like the Hulk and Doctor Strange don’t always play well with others. Rather than give up on the concept, writer Roy Thomas decided to make that the focus of The Defenders, a team that wasn’t a team. Although the Defenders have gone through many incarnations, the original group with Doctor Strange, Hulk, Namor, and the Silver Surfer remains the most potent. That’s especially true of their first appearance in Marvel Feature #1, in which Strange must convince his antisocial partners to help him stop a doomsday device called the Omegatron.
With his Greenwich Village base of operations and mind-bending adventures, Doctor Strange became the hero of choice among hippies of the 1960s. But no counter-culture figure worked on the character until Steve Englehart took over writing chores. Like his contemporaries Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin, Englehart used superheroes as a form of consciousness-raising, mixing social commentary with the usual tights and capes fisticuffs. With Doctor Strange, this approach allowed Englehart to push the Master of the Mystic Arts further into the surreal. That includes the first of many controversial Doctor Strange stories, in which Strange goes back in time to essentially create the universe.
One of the all-time great Doctor Strange stories, the graphic novel Triumph and Torment finds Strange participating in a gathering of wizards and finally earning the title “Sorcerer Supreme.” But with the victory also comes a challenge, as Strange must accompany runner-up Doctor Doom on a mission to rescue the latter’s mother from her imprisonment in Hell. Few people can handle Strange’s arcane dialogue better than writer Roger Stern, but the real standout of Triumph and Torment is the art. Future Hellboy creator Mike Mignola provides pencils, experimenting with the dynamic block figures that he’ll later perfect, matched by expressive inks and moody color washes by Mark Badger.
Most MCU fans would be quite surprised by the Doctor Strange they find in comics. Where Benedict Cumberbatch plays Strange as an arrogant jerk, quick with a cutting quip, the comic book Strange is more sincere, making stark observations instead of snappy one-liners. That begins to change with Strange Origin, a retelling of the hero's earliest days. Writer Greg Pak and artist Emma Rios give us a more cynical Strange, initially unimpressed with the magical milieu he's called to join. More importantly, Pak and Rios reimagine Strange’s partner Wong from the racist caricature of his early appearances to a fully developed figure in his own right, setting the stage for Benedict Wong's great big-screen portrayal.
Although recent series like Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home have pushed the multiverse to the forefront of the MCU, alternate realities haven’t been nearly as important to Marvel as they have been for DC. But when Marvel decided to embrace the concept for its 2015 mega-crossover Secret Wars, Stephen Strange was right in the middle. That’s particularly true in the lead-up series New Avengers, written by Jonathan Hickman. Together with his fellow members of the Illuminati–the greatest minds of the Marvel Universe, including the Fantastic Four's Reed Richards and Professor X of the X-Men–Strange tries to prevent the multiverse from imploding when alternate Earths begin to collide with one another. Epic in scope and bleak in tone, New Avengers shows just how far Strange will go to save the world.
To prepare for the release of the movie in 2016, Marvel Comics gave Doctor Strange a new series by top-tier writer and artist team Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo. Eschewing the sometimes heady nature of previous Doctor Strange comics, Aaron and Bachalo lean into witty fantasy and over-the-top visuals. Although Bachalo’s crazed visuals match the psychedelia of Ditko’s time with the character, this Strange will sooner grab a mystical ax than have philosophical conversations with invading entities. As a result, Aaron and Bachalo give us a truly strange Doctor Strange, retaining all the wit of the Cumberbatch version while going in directions too bizarre for Hollywood blockbusters.
Stephen Strange isn’t the first Sorcerer Supreme, nor will be the last. Over the years, everyone from Doctor Doom to Brother Voodoo to Strange’s love interest Clea has claimed the title. But in the 2015 run by writer Donny Cates and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta, the god of mischief Loki became the next Sorcerer Supreme. While Loki seemed to handle the job well, Strange knows better than to trust a trickster. Taking a tour through all of the Marvel Universe’s mystical corners, meeting with everyone from the Vishanti to the Sentry’s evil half the Void, Strange must look into his own heart of darkness to regain his title before Loki’s plan comes to fruition.
The core appeal of Doctor Strange comes from the tension between medicine and mysticism. While some stories certainly do make use of Strange’s medical credentials (see the excellent, but hard-to-find story Doctor Strange: The Oath for a great example), the science too often gets left out of the character's stories. Not so with Doctor Strange: Surgeon Supreme, written by the great Mark Waid and penciled by Kev Walker. For the first time since becoming the Sorcerer Supreme, Strange heals his hands and returns to his previous life as a surgeon. Mixing exciting horror visuals with medical drama, Surgeon Supreme provides a unique new direction for Marvel’s greatest magician.
Magical schools have long been the rage in popular culture, so it’s a little surprising that Marvel didn’t jump on this idea sooner, given the prominence of Xavier’s School for the Gifted in X-Men. Like that venerable mutant training ground, Strange Academy allows Doctor Strange and the magicians of the Marvel Universe to train the next generation of sorcerers. Bringing the whimsy and childlike excitement of his Wizard of Oz and Rocket Raccoon books to the world of magic, writer Skottie Young teams with the dynamic Humberto Ramos to create one of Marvel’s most exciting books. With a staff consisting of beloved lower-tier characters like Brother Voodoo and Magik, and a student body that includes Nico Minoru of the Runaways and Dormammu’s son Doyle, Strange Academy boasts one of the richest casts in modern comics.
When Doctor Strange is murdered by a mysterious attacker, the universe falls into chaos and only one person can help: Doctor Strange. More accurately, a sliver of Doctor Strange’s essence stored away many years ago for just such an occasion. Writer Jed Mackay and artist Lee Garbett have a lot of fun contrasting the modern, more down-to-earth version of the hero to his younger version, deadly serious and given to saying things like, "Zounds!" Furthermore, it’s an exciting adventure that reaffirms Strange’s status in the larger Marvel Universe. The story is still currently ongoing, but the collection linked above will get you started.
In addition to bringing Doctor Strange back to the screen, Multiverse of Madness also marks the MCU debut of America Chavez, aka Miss America, played by Xochitl Gomez. Chavez first appeared as a member of the alternate reality team the Teen Brigade in Vengeance #1 by Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta. Since then, she’s only become a more important figure in the multiverse, thanks in part to her ability to punch star-shaped holes in reality, through which she can travel to other universes. Her first solo series America begins to rewrite Chavez’s past, as she learns that her origin may be even more complicated than she once expected. At this point, it's unclear what role Chavez will play in the MCU, but this series by Gabby Rivera and Joe Quinones provides a good primer for moviegoers meeting her for the first time.
To deal with fissures in reality, Doctor Strange will be joined in Multiverse of Madness by Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Trailers suggest that the reunion between the heroes will be fraught with tension, a dynamic true to the comics. The duo came into conflict during the Avengers: Disassembled storyline, in which Strange realizes that Wanda's hex powers have reality-altering properties. Overwhelmed by grief and madness, Wanda uses those powers to create a new reality in House of M, which seems to give everyone what they want. But when Wolverine recovers his memories, he and Strange must lead other heroes in putting things right. The creators of WandaVision borrowed more than a little from House of M, making it essential reading before Wanda’s return to the big screen.