The great myth of Doctor Strange’s first origin, by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, is that a previously “proud, haughty” surgeon who “cared but little for (his) fellow men” was transformed through sacrifice, study, and, eventually, enlightenment into a fully realised human being. There’s absolutely no doubt that Strange’s experiences with the Ancient One in “India, land of mystic enchantment” left him a far more humane and responsible adult than before. But how complete was Stephen Strange’s transformation as a person? The evidence in the early Defenders tales is that he had as yet a considerable way to go in becoming as emotionally intelligent as he was now mystically proficient and dutifully responsible.
In the first decade or so of Strange’s adventures, we are shown all manner of evidence of his compassion and bravery. Yet Strange’s few intimate relationships are ones in which he stands in a position of unquestionable authority above those closest to him. Whether it’s his lover and student Clea or his manservant Wong – both tellingly given but the one name in the DS stories – Strange is always the boss no matter what other role he fulfils. Beyond that, Strange belongs to no community of equals, has no network of friends, possesses no close individual relationships unrelated to his magical responsibilities. To the often incapacitated and always-distant Ancient One, Strange happily assumes the role of adoring and respectful disciple. But even there, the relationship between the two exists in the context of a strict hierarchy of rank and privilege.
In some ways, this situation is little different from the life Strange led prior to the car accident that brought his career as a surgeon to an end and inspired his journey towards mystical power and responsibility. There too Strange was the ultimate authority, isolated from intimacy and sure in his status as “the best … the greatest!!!”. If his years as student to the Ancient One and then Earth’s magical defender had seen him become warmer to a degree towards his fellow human beings, it never saw him step down from his pedestal and regard others with the fullest degree of empathy.
There’s plenty of evidence in The Defenders’ second appearance that Strange longs to share his burden as the planet’s supernatural guardian with others. As can be seen in the scan above, Strange now feels confident that he could, in the case of extra-dimensional invasion, “summon The Hulk”. That word “summon” is surely important here, for it doesn’t speak of a relationship of equals. Instead, The Hulk exists to Strange solely in the context of serving as a henchman when the worst of conflicts arise. At no point does Strange recall that The Hulk’s last words to him expressed a determination not to serve as part of a “team”. Consent has clearly not crossed Strange’s mind here. Indeed, when faced with the Omegatron, Strange deceived The Hulk into serving his cause. That The Hulk is a childlike creature incapable of rational decision-making registers not at all: Strange has defined the ends and means alike, and others exist to do his bidding. The question of what he might be to them never seems to cross his mind.
And yet, there’s something terribly sad about Strange’s selfishness too, as if he’s reaching out to escape isolation and loneliness and yet empathetically unable to do so in a personal and reciprocal manner. Never once does he appear to consider how terrible The Hulk’s existence is and how blighted Bruce Banner’s life has become. Heaven knows, The Hulk could do with a powerful friend who didn’t just turn up every once in while to demand service before immediately disappearing again. Instead, Strange remains certain that his judgement of need and duty is the only one that could possibly count. The Hulk is no more than a mighty fighting comrade to be called in and waved away. Nor has the idea that The Hulk ought to have the right and ability in return to be able to call upon the great Doctor Strange in return ever appeared to have crossed the latter’s mind. It’s a cold, egocentric understanding of relationships and responsibility that Strange inadvertently holds onto, and it leaves him seeming less the sole grown-up in the room and more a profoundly dysfunctional child-man. Well-meaning but arrogant and inadvertently abusive.
Strange’s relationship with Prince Namor is no more intimate or fair-minded. Again, the Sub-Mariner is considered a useful ally for apocalyptic times, to be called into play in the name of some greater good and then, albeit gratefully, dismissed. Unlike The Hulk, with his childlike mind, there are less unfortunate and disturbing issues of consent here, but there’s no doubt that Namor deserves the right in return to call upon Strange’s assistance and never receives it. At that point of continuity, the Sub-Mariner was struggling with amnesia and striving to find his lost father while in exile from Atlantis. There were a host of things that Strange might have done to lessen Namor’s pain and frustration. As with The Hulk, he might even have attempted to simply be a friend to his comrade. Whether the Sub-Mariner would have welcomed such attempts at intimacy is beside the point: Strange never once tried to help.
Yet contrary to his reputation, Prince Namor never hesitates to help Strange in these first three Defenders tales. He respects and trusts the sorcerer and, regardless of his own troubles, always speeds off to Strange’s side. That he eventually tires of this profoundly one-sided relationship is hardly a surprise, and to nobody’s discredit but Stephen Strange’s. Even in The Day Of The Defenders, Strange’s tactlessness in blithely ordering Namor into conflict rather than asking for his cooperation raises the Atlantean’s hackles. While Strange dreamily takes comfort at the beginning of Nightmare On Bald Mountain! in the prospect of Namor as a team-mate, the fracturing of their relationship had already begun.
It’s not only the Sub-Mariner that willingly comes to Strange’s aid in these first adventures. The Hulk races, as best he can, to help out in Nightmare On Bald Mountain! too. If he’d had to be conned and then baited into battling the Omegatron in Marvel Feature #2, the second Defenders story sees both The Hulk and Bruce Banner risking all to save the Earth and Strange alike. As with the first Defenders tale, the presence of the two powerhouses proves largely, if not this time entirely, unnecessary and Strange’s magic once more saves the day. At no point in the story are we showing Strange thanking his comrades for their aid against Dormammu and his disciples. But then, Strange didn’t express any gratitude to them after the destruction of The Omegatron either.
The second Defenders adventure ends on a wonderfully telling note where Strange’s cold and formal relationship with the Hulk and Namor are concerned. Thinking the two other Defenders have perished in an avalanche, Strange immediately delivers a short and formalistic eulogy. No sign of emotion breaks through in either Roy Thomas’ script or the art by Ross Andru and Sal Buscema. Not even the sight of each of his supposedly deceased comrades digging their way to light and air can inspire anything of spontaneity and intimacy from Strange. Perhaps the three silhouettes of The Defenders in the story’s final panel – above – mark a moment where Strange’s reserve and self-appointed authority finally gave way to personal warmth, to recognisable fondness and gratitude.
But I doubt it. Not yet. Stephen Strange had come a long way. But he still had a long way to go.