Monday, February 18, 2013

The Mystic Eyes of Doctor Strange

Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but amongst comic book scholars there are few topics I can think of which are as divisive as the shape of Dr. Strange's eyes (unless it's the colours of the stripes on Captain America's shield). It's well-known that when Dr. Strange first debuted, Steve Ditko drew his hero's eyes as partially-closed or slanted. Slanted eyes are usually employed by artists to indicate Asian characteristics, as with Dr. Strange's mentor, the Ancient One. Ditko drew Dr. Strange this way for his first eight adventures, then graduated him to a rounded-eye design which emphasized the sorcerer's Caucasian features.

Of course, all the obscure by-ways of 1960s Marvel Comics have been referenced and retread to some extent. Dr. Strange's slanted eyes have been restored to him by various fan/artists such as Erik Larsen and John Byrne (above). This is a means by which the fan/artists express their support for the author's original intent,* a way to reflect the way the character was originally depicted (and possibly "correctly" depicted) and demonstrate how much the character has changed over time. Thus, a depiction of Dr. Strange with slanted eyes is "retro," an homage to his roots, a celebration of Steve Ditko's vision... even though Ditko changed his mind about how to express Dr. Strange's eyes after just eight early stories.**

But let's not think of Stephen Strange's eyes as a mere fetish. What could the slanted eyes possibly mean within the context of Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange? The obvious conclusion to draw would be to assume Steve Ditko originally intended for Doctor Strange to be an Asian man. If Dr. Strange were Asian, it would rewrite our understanding of racial diversity in 1960s comic books as he'd predate Luke Cage by almost 10 years as the first non-white "Marvel Age" leading character. This may not change how we feel about the 1960s Marvel Comics themselves, but it would validate how we feel about being fans of the 1960s comics.

Further, we've always viewed the origin of Doctor Strange as the tale of a "man of the western world" who ventures into "the mysterious east" and gains "enlightenment." He begins his origin as a self-absorbed surgeon, loses his vocation after suffering a debilitating injury, journeys to Tibet just to demand the Ancient One cure him, but ultimately discovers a higher calling when he realizes magic is real, the Ancient One is waging a constant war against the evil forces of magic and the Ancient One needs a disciple. Our belief that "the east" is a land of mystery, magic and enlightenment is a little cliche, just a touch patronizing. Why should the east seem anymore mysterious, magical or enlightening than the west... except that most of our heroes originate in the west?

Ah, but if Dr. Strange were Asian... now the story isn't about a man braving a foreign culture to discover a new way of living, now it's the story of a man discovering his own heritage. In this scenario, Stephen Strange would be a westernized Asian man whose ego has grown healthy in the decadent world he's been brought up in, but his own ego and determination eventually leads him home, where he rediscovers the values of his ancestors. Say, that's not such a bad tale. I guess there's no reason we couldn't consider it a valid interpretation of Doctor Strange's character...

...Except for one thing: Doctor Strange is not Asian.

Although the Doctor Strange stories from Strange Tales#110 & 119 each featured Dr. Strange's slanted eyes, his origin story (#115) introduces Stephen Strange with rounded, Caucasian eyes. And so his eyes remained...

...Until, most curiously, he began his tutelage under the Ancient One. For some reason, studying magic in Tibet caused Stephen Strange to metamorph into an Asian man. Or, at least, a Caucasian man with Asian eyes. Perhaps it's simply a mark of how Stephen changed, having become so inwardly transformed by his reeducation that it took on a physical manifestation; magic could be like that. Truly, after his experiences in Tibet, Stephen Strange could never blend in with his own culture again; he couldn't hold a normal occupation, live in a normal house, love normal women... perhaps it's right that Stephen was physically transformed and in a way other than what he wished. Stephen asked the Ancient One to heal his hands: instead, he opened his eyes... by closing them.

I do not have a solution of my own to this riddle. But just thinking of Stephen as an Asian man... it changes how I feel when the Ancient One calls him, "son."

This article was inspired by a series of articles penned by Colin Smith at Sequart; please read them for yourself here!

*= Likewise when Byrne overruled the assertion of the Hulk's skin being gray in his first appearance as a colourist's error, making the gray skin canon. He could not, however, convince us about what colour the spider on Spider-Man's back should be.

**= It would be interesting to review Dr. Strange's appearances and see if he's been drawn with slanted eyes in more than eight non-Ditko stories. I would guess he has.


Colin Smith said...

Lovely article, and I say that not having noticed your kind link at the end when I thought of adding this comment. (Thank you all the same!)

I do think it's fascinating that the Lee/Kirby Doctor Droom origin - which of course preceded Strange and in some ways acted as a first shot at the concept - ends with the character declaring that his eyes are changing. Adapting a mystical role in a line of succession from a stereotypical 'Eastern' guru obviously caused changes which we'd not expect today! I can't find my copy just at this moment, but I seem to remember the language Lee uses to describe the change would raise eyebrows today!

Of course, you'll know that story far better than I. But it is such an odd matter, and the fact that it occurs in both the Strange and Droom tales suggests both character's pseudo-Asian appearances was Lee's suggestion.

I'm completely torn about whether I wish Strange had been an Asian man. Both routes seem to offer particular and enticing possibilities. Thank you for making the early-morning cogs in my brain turn so :)

Aphidman said...

Maybe a sorcerer can change the shape of his eyes if he wants to, just like non-sorcerers can change their haircuts or (if male) facial hair. One of the perks of being a master of the mystic arts. (“I’m feeling kind of Asian this morning.”)

Here’s an idea for a story: “A Quiet Day in the Life of Doctor Strange.” On a day with no super-villain threats or cosmic calamities, Stephen Strange makes breakfast, checks his email, fends off Mormon missionaries, does his taxes, changes the oil in his car, stands in line at the bank, removes a virus from his laptop, orders pizza, and watches “Downton Abbey” in ways that only a sorcerer can.

~P~ said...

I always thought of it as more that his eyes were "heavy lidded" as one who might inhale "herbs" and "incense" and/or be at total one-ness with himself and the multiverse around him would have.

Also, since his eyebrows (and the muscles around the eyes) are always arched up at the far ends, thus would his eyes seem more slanted.
(Like Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy when he would cock up one eyebrow - it always looked like that eye was more "asian".)

Still, Mr. Colin Smith is correct in that Dr Druid's (DR DROOM) eyes made a physical alteration when he became "empowered".
(I've got the original issue [Amazing Adventures # 1] and it is a weeeird and bizarre thing to occur.

So who knows... maybe Stan equated "enlightened" to "asian". Or at least mystic : asian,

Good article.

Michael Hoskin said...

Having received two comments about Dr. Droom, I can see I should have said something about him; I'm beginning to ponder a follow-up article.

Ptor, I likely should have discussed the eyebrows as well because they likewise lose some of their slants as Stephen's eyelids open up. They're still arched, but not quite as severely as in the first 8 tales.

Eon said...

I really like the idea of "a man discovering his own heritage". Definitely less patronizing than a Caucasian man entering the eastern world and betters the native at there own game.
I hope they cast an Asian actor in the Dr Strange movie.