Last week, Marvel kicked off an all-new Doctor Strange series with a more grounded, approachable take on the most powerful magician in this reality. But they also published a collection of the character's 1980s stories on the same day. Looking at both releases shows just how much the Sorcerer Supreme has changed as time's gone on.
Doctor Strange: Don't Pay the Ferryman bundles together a bunch of adventures from before the title character was an A-list character. Though he was a stalwart presence on the publishing rolls, Stephen Strange was definitely treated as an outré outlier. He wasn't a member of the Avengers yet — though he was the de facto leader of the Defenders non-team of loners and weirdos — and guest appearances by him definitely meant that things were taking a turn towards the bizarre.
The first story in the collection is a tangent off of a larger Rom-centric event but still shows how many writers and creators used Strange in those days. It picks up after the married members of Marvel's science fiction adventure team got abducted to Hell by archdemon Mephisto. The two Fantastic Four heroes are out of their depth with Marvel's answer to Satan so in flies Dr. Strange. The opening sequence features a stark moment where Reed and Sue's super-mutant son Franklin blasts Mephisto to smithereens:
The rest of the chapter is a serviceable bit of plot expedition that sets up the rest of the larger arc, which has Dr. Strange saving and sheltering a young empath named Topaz who's lost touch with her emotions. That theme of emotional detachment pops up in another story in the collection. That tale sees the Doctor get called in when an old friend who's gone numb inside summons a succubus just so he can feel something again.
The most chilling part of this story comes after Strange saves the day. His friend Darryl Berenson remains in the grip of the malaise that had him seeking out necromantic relief and ultimately finds his own mode of escape.
The awful end of that story — combined with Topaz' continuing plight — gets Stephen Strange wondering about his own emotional connections and whether his duties as Earth's chief mystical protector has made him unable to connect with people.
The proceedings here were a lot more fantasy-inflected, which was the order of the day for old-school Dr. Strange. But they also feature a few elements which have become increasingly common for modern-day Marvel, like a sequence where Strange's estranged girlfriend Morganna briefly steps into his role of Sorcerer Supreme.
The fact that the switch-up gets played mostly as a narrative gimmick and not a wholesale status quo shift shows how different things are on the comics landscape. That difference extends to the way that Strange himself is being written. He doesn't have the angst of this previous iteration, which was great in its own way.