Art, in its various forms, reflects the attitudes and conditions of its time. We often see this with fictional characters who change and adapt along with society. Captain America was created in the 1940s to convince Americans to go to war against Hitler, for example, but today — in the age of Edward Snowden — Captain America's stories are often parables about government surveillance.
Doctor Strange was a product of his time as well, but you could also say that the Sorcerer Supreme had as much of an influence on the '60s as they had on him.
Tip Of The Spear: How The Birth Of Doctor Strange Anticipated The Counterculture
The early '60s, in which Doctor Strange was created, marked the beginning of massive social upheaval. The assassination of JFK, racist violence in the South leading up to the Civil Rights Act, and the escalation of the Vietnam War all shook Americans out of their tranquil 1950s mindsets. As Bob Dylan's ballad suggested, the times very much were a-changin'.
In 1963, a few years before the counterculture movement really began, Stan Lee and Illustrator Steve Ditko created Doctor Strange, a figure steeped in themes of Eastern mysticism and cloaked in spiritual magic. It turned out to be a prescient creative decision.
War, violence, and bigotry were issues that gripped the country and inspired many to take up the task of change. Many people who lived during the '60s often brag about how they were able to survive it, and in many ways, it's no exaggeration.
By the end of the decade — as Vietnam turned into a bloody quagmire, and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down — millions of young Americans embraced Dr. Timothy Leary's message to "turn on, tune in, drop out" with LSD. Others sought to escape from a bleak reality through alternative spiritual practices, especially after the Beatles (who had evolved from mop-top heartthrobs to musical ambassadors for the psychedelic wave of love and peace) famously traveled to India, searching for enlightenment.
In The Comics, Doctor Strange Underwent A Similar Journey Of Transformation
In the origin issue of Strange Tales #115, Dr. Stephen Strange — a selfish, arrogant, greedy surgeon — severely damages his hands in a car crash. Unable to continue making a fortune, he falls into a state of bitter depression ... until he hears of a mystical figure known as the Ancient One who can cure any ailment with magic.
Leaving behind the scientific assumptions that made him wealthy as a doctor, Stephen Strange travels east to the Tibetan mountains, where the Ancient One overpowers his skepticism and teaches him the mystic arts, as depicted in this scene from Marvel's new Doctor Strange film:
Strange Tales #115 featured many themes of Eastern mysticism — finding one's real nature through enlightenment and transformation — long before they took off in the wider counterculture. Only by shedding his previous identity (along with Western materialism) could Strange discover his true place in the world and achieve cosmic wisdom.
It is easy to understand why the '60s generation felt an immediate connection to him; their collective awakening was already a core element of Doctor Strange's origin.
Ditko's mind-bending, otherworldly artwork also played a factor, convincing readers that Marvel Comics was on board with the drug culture. In the below BBC documentary In Search Of Steve Ditko, former Marvel editor Ralph Macchio recalls:
"I said, 'Steve, I know you're not into hallucinogens and all that, where did that come from?' He said ... 'I just put a lot of thought into what another world would look like.' And this is what came out of his head."
Sales of Strange Tales kept increasing throughout the decade. In 1968, right after publication of its highest-selling issue, the title was rebranded as Doctor Strange.
There were Marvel superheroes who were perhaps more socially conscious in the '60s — the X-Men fought for equality in the face of bigotry — but as far as the decade's spiritual dimension, Doctor Strange was the character for the moment and a true symbol of the counterculture.
With All The Discord Facing Us Today, Is Doctor Strange Newly Relevant?
We are living in a time of massive change and massive tension, much like the 1960s. Interest in mysticism is not on the rise as it was back then — we're the most secular generation ever — but nevertheless, a new way of looking at the world seems to be emerging.
If there is one lesson that we can learn from Doctor Strange, it's the importance of opening your mind from a narrow point of view. It allows him to glimpse entirely new dimensions in the comic books, but in real life, it allows us to see new dimensions in ourselves and in each other.
The '60s generation took hold of that message and achieved some of the greatest victories in the history of our society. What will we do with it?
Doctor Strange opens in theaters on November 4th.