Now that Marvel is rolling the dice on the American public falling in love with Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange, it’s important that we look at how creator Steve Ditko (and numerous Strange writers through the years) came up with the idea for the Sorcerer Supreme. We all find inspiration in things that we loved as children, so it’s no surprise that comic book writers of the '60s were drawing mucho inspiration from pulp comics and radio serials of the 1930s and '40s. One of the most popular pulp comics at the time was The Shadow, a story about a fabulously dressed mystery man with the powers of an Eastern mystic. Sound familiar? There are more ways The Shadow inspired Doctor Strange, and they’re going to change the way you look at the Marvel hero.
Of all the things Doctor Strange stole from The Shadow, the most important piece of the puzzle is his backstory. Admittedly, there’s nothing original about a rich playboy who is kind of a jerk traveling to Asia to learn how to do hero stuff, but in the case of Shadow v. Strange, it feels very familiar. In the 40-plus years since Doctor Strange was sprung from the skull of Steve Ditko, writers have been retconning the sorcerer in order to make him less pulp hero and more swinging '70s magic dude, but there are some character traits that can’t be erased. Keep reading to find out all the things that Doctor Strange and The Shadow have in common.
The abundance of Eastern mysticism in the origins of these two characters is something that permeates pulp comics, and all of the stories they would influence. The Shadow had the Temple of the Cobras in Mongolia; meanwhile, Doctor Strange goes to the Himalayas to try and convince the Ancient One to heal his hands but ends up learning mental karate. It's not out of the question that when Steve Ditko (or any other comic writer who grew up pulps like The Shadow and The Phantom) needed to come up with a quick backstory for his character that he simply thought back to the Shadow's origins and called it a day.
This similarity is so on the nose that it's either a flagrant rip off or it's just incredibly racist. The origin story where Lamont Cranston is trained by the Tulku, a wise, bald, Asian mystic was most famously told in the 1994 Alec Baldwin-starring disasterpiece The Shadow, but if you've seen Doctor Strange or read any of his origin story you know how similar Stephen Strange's meeting with the Ancient One is to Cranston's. Why make the origins so similar? Surely there are other ways to learn super mind magic than to find an Asian castle on the side of a mountain that plays home to a bald magician. Maybe Doctor Strange could have been bitten by a radioactive hypnotist.
We've all got to hang our hats somewhere, but this is another one of those similarities where you feel like someone should have headed Steve Ditko off at the pass. The Shadow, or Lamont Cranston when he's not shadowing around, lives in Cranston Mansion in New York City. Where does Doctor Strange live? Oh just in the Sanctum Sanctorum, a mansion in New York City that also has a terrible name. Ugh, come on, Ditko!
Of course, the magic guys are going to have similar magic abilities, but this plays into a theory of how the character of Doctor Strange was created so try to keep up. It seems like when Steve Ditko was working on the character for Doctor Strange he didn't think that it was going to make it past the five-page story that he passed to Stan Lee in the '60s. At the time, no one cared about who was influenced by who or if characters were referencing pulp figures from the '30s, so why would Ditko hesitate to essentially say, "It's The Shadow, but times 10?" While The Shadow can cloud men's minds, Doctor Strange can literally do all of the magics. Point to Doctor Strange.