When I wrote about Batman’s tögal practice (click here for that post), several people wrote to tell me about Dr Strange, a Marvel Comics character from the sixties who also studied esoteric practices in Tibet. So I ordered it up through inter-library loan and waited. For a while. Finally, a copy of The Essential Doctor Strange arrived, having come all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska. This is, I think, the farthest distance from which I’ve ever received an inter-library loan book. Now that the book has arrived, however, I must confess to being a little disappointed. The plots are, well, a little strange, even by comic book standards. But no matter, Dr Strange has studied in Tibet, and that makes him interesting to me.
Dr Strange is a master of black magic, but he uses the dark arts to protect mankind, warding off villains such as Baron Mordo and Nightmare (a character who bears a striking resemblance to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). He learned these skills studying at the feet of The Ancient One, at a hermitage deep in the mountains of Tibet. If it weren’t for the repeated references to Tibet, however, it would be impossible to tell where these classes take place. Neither the setting nor the practices these figures engage in bear any resemblance to anything you might actually find in Tibet. Even the mystic writing in Dr Strange’s books is just some odd circles. At least when The Green Lama chants his mantras, the artists take the trouble to get the script right (I’ll be posting about the Green Lama just as soon as inter-library loan gets the book to me). For Stan Lee, Doctor Strange’s main author, Tibet seems to be nothing more than an exotic location in which an American hero can learn about black magic. Not much new here.
But Tibet is not the only place mentioned repeatedly in the Dr Strange comics. The other is Greenwich Village, New York City. This is where Dr Strange himself resides (at least, when he’s not traveling through other dimensions in a ethereal body). Dr Strange’s house also bears a certain resemblance to The Ancient One’s Tibetan hermitage, particularly in its odd spider web windows. The implication seems to be that Greenwich Village is the new Tibet, home of oddball mystics and the occult. Dr Strange was first published in 1963, and at that time Greenwich Village must have seemed remote and exotic to many Americans. It had beatniks, Bob Dylan and LSD. What better place to imagine as the American abode for the mysteries of Tibet?