In the late 1960s, Stephen’s comic wasn’t doing so well and Marvel wondered if the audience would prefer him to be a more traditional superhero, complete with a mask and secret identity. In Doctor Strange #177 (1969), by writer Roy Thomas and artists Gene Colan and Tom Palmer, the sorcerer assumes a new masked appearance in order to bypass an enemy’s spell. Then in Doctor Strange #182, a convoluted series of events leads to him gaining the new secret identity of “Dr. Stephen Sanders” to use when he’s not fighting magic stuff. This new superhero style set-up didn’t save the book, however, and it ended with the very next issue. The now masked Doctor Strange then appears in Sub-Mariner #22 and Incredible Hulk #126, and in the latter adventure he decides to retire, forsaking his magical powers to become medical consultant Stephen Sanders.
This retirement doesn’t last long, though. In Marvel Feature #1 just months later, Stephen reassumes his mystical powers after having to face Baron Mordo again, who is impersonating him as the masked Doctor Strange. The Ancient One helps Stephen get his magic back immediately, undoing the fake Stephen Sanders identity in the process. In the same issue, Doctor Strange becomes a founding member of Marvel’s original Defenders team, alongside the Hulk and Namor the Sub-Mariner (you’ll see a very different Defenders team on Netflix next year).
In 1973, in Marvel Premiere #10, the Ancient One finally dies when he asks Doctor Strange to end his life before a great evil can use his body to threaten Earth. As a result, Stephen Strange assumes his master’s mantle as Sorcerer Supreme. This means he’s recognized as the most formidable magic user on the planet, and is entrusted with the protection of Earth’s dimension (though the Vishanti later make him prove his worthiness of this title in the 1989 graphic novel Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment). The next year, he got his own solo series again, and in Doctor Strange vol. 2 #4, he gains the gift of an “ageless” life, ensuring that he’ll never get older (though his hair and beard still grow, which seems weird to me, but that’s magic).
Despite some really creative stories, the sales on Doctor Strange volume 2 later fell and the series ended in 1987 with issue #81. Stephen Strange then starred in a new Strange Tales anthology series for a while. Under writer Peter B. Gillis, he winds up destroying many of his magic talismans in order to prevent an evil force from usurping them. He then leaves New York to act more clandestinely as Dr. Stephen Sanders again, allowing the world (including Wong) to think that he’s dead and altering their minds so they won’t recognize him. After several adventures, he returns to his true name and home, revealing himself to Wong and his friends. Are all wizards so fickle and casual about altering their friends’ memories and perceptions?
Entering the 1990s
In any event, Stephen gets a new solo title in 1988: Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme. Stephen is now part of an ensemble cast that includes Wong, Wong’s love Imei, Sara Wolfe (great-granddaughter of a Cheyenne shaman), and the mystic woman called Topaz. Starting with issue #5, he gains an apprentice, the other-dimensional minotaur named Rintrah.
Comics, people. Anything can happen
The new series started a bit slow, then got seriously weird as it entered the 1990s, with stories relying on soap opera style twists. For instance, just after dealing with an ex publishing a tell-all book about him, Stephen reveals to his friends that he has a secret dead brother named Victor who died from being hit by car. As if it’s not odd enough this guy was never mentioned before, Stephen adds that he had the body frozen in hopes that he could restore Victor to life one day (wow, what the hell, Stephen) but then, after becoming a master of mystic arts, he unknowingly and accidentally resurrected the guy as a vampire (no, seriously – what the hell, Stephen). Not long after that, Strange meets an evil version of himself from Counter-Earth, who call himself Necromancer and dresses in the short-lived masked costume that Stephen briefly used. And then of course, Lilith, queen of demons, showed up, prompting Doctor Strange to push several mystically inclined heroes and warriors into action (Blade, Ghost Rider, others) in the crossover event Rise of the Midnight Sons. Comics, people. Anything can happen.
After these odd stories, it seems like Marvel just didn’t know what to do with Doctor Strange for the next few years. He loses the title of Sorcerer Supreme and, now seriously de-powered, relies on different teams of heroes and fighters to handle situations for him, as seen in the pages of Secret Defenders. He regains the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, then loses it again and magically creates two constructs to act in his stead while he recovers: the human construct Vincent Stevens, who becomes a wealthy and corrupt businessman; and the magical, aggressive monster simply called Strange. Weird, right?
Stephen regains his Sorcerer Supreme mantle, now relying on Earth elemental magic and gaining a very hippie, clean-shaven, pajama-wearing look. This new take on Stephen is tossed out the window by new writer Warren Ellis with issue #80 in 1995. Ellis shifts Doctor Strange’s power source to “catastrophe magic” (which later writer Todd Dezago also called “chaos magic”), relying on the movement and positions of stars and other celestial bodies. Sadly, after a very promising start, Warren Ellis left just a few issues later, and Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme ended with issue #90 in 1996.
Wong’s relationship with Stephen also changed during this time. In the midst of a serious battle, Doctor Strange makes a pragmatic decision to save the maximum number of people possible, but this means being unable to prevent the death of Imei. Heartbroken, Wong leaves Strange’s side for a while. When they reunite, it’s an uneasy alliance, but they eventually mend fences and are now friends and colleagues rather than master and servant.
For the next several years, Doctor Strange bounces around as a guest star in other books, occasionally getting his own special or miniseries. During crossover events, he is a major player or a good exposition deliverer. By 1998, he’s back in his traditional outfit, then sports a darker version of it in the 1999 miniseries Doctor Strange: Flight of Bones. That same miniseries also upgrades Stephen’s mustache to a van dyke beard!