Dr. Strange first appeared in issue #110 of Strange Tales, Marvel’s longtime paranormal anthology series, as a bonus story at the end of a comic about The Human Torch fighting a glue gun-toting supervillain. The five-page mini-story was written by Ditko himself and introduced Dr. Strange as a mysterious man with the ability to project consciousness across time and space.
“The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him,” Lee responded to a fan letter in 1963 about Dr. Strange’s creation. “‘Twas Steve’s idea and I figured we’d give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much.”
Though Lee would eventually give Strange his signature voice, what Ditko’s comic lacked in narrative strength, it more than made up for with its visuals. Ditko’s take on the astral plane was a psychedelic acid trip that gave readers a sense of Strange’s abilities and the sorts of adventures that would define him as a character. Even more important, though, was Ditko’s decision to draw Dr. Strange as (stereotypically) Asian.
Looking back at Ditko’s early drawings of Dr. Strange, it’s difficult to argue that he wasn’t (at the very least) inspired by Hollywood’s racist caricatures of Asian people that were incredibly common in the late ’50s. Two years before Dr. Strange’s creation, for example, Mickey Rooney used tape to slant his eyes, wore full yellowface, and prosthetic teeth for his role as the bumbling Japanese character Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany‘s.
“To say the character and performance don’t hold up today is an understatement,” movie critic Jen Yamato wrote in a 2011 Movieline retrospective of the film on its 50th anniversary. “At the time the caricature may have been accepted and written off as merely colorful comedic slapstick, but many decades of social progression later, it’s clearly downright racist.”
Rooney’s portrayal of Yunioshi may stand out for its brazen offensiveness, but putting white actors in yellow face rather than just hiring actors of Asian descent was an all-too-common Hollywood tradition. Popular characters like Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu were portrayed by white actors as a matter of tradition and nearly always involved some combination of yellow makeup, eye slanting, and the exaggeration of eyebrows.
“At the time the caricature may have been accepted and written off as merely colorful comedic slapstick.”- Jen Yamoto
Nerds of Color founder Keith Chow told me that while there’s a debate as to whether or not Ditko realized the impression that his design choices would give readers, Strange’s look was very in line with the artist’s approach to drawing Asian people.
“The way Ditko drew Strange was consistent with how he drew other Asian characters in the ’60s,” Chow wrote in an email. “Was he a racist caricature? Well, he was definitely conceived to be another in a line of exotic Asian mystics.”
While no reference is made to Strange’s race or ethnicity in his early stories, he’s consistently drawn with slanted eyes and dramatic, convex eyebrows that bear a striking resemblance to those of Dr. Droom, another character that Lee and Ditko created in 1961. In one of the first issues of Marvel’s Amazing Adventures, Dr. Anthony Droom gains magical abilities similar to Strange’s after being literally transformed into an Asian person by a wise, “oriental lama.”
Recycling old story ideas like Dr. Droom’s was a huge part of the massive comics boom that took place in the early ’60s. It would have been easy and made sense for Ditko to take Droom, a relatively unknown character, give him a different name, and pass him off as an entirely new concept without anyone noticing.
“Was he a racist caricature? Well, he was definitely conceived to be another in a line of exotic Asian mystics.”- Keith Chow
But readers did notice Dr. Strange and soon began to write to Marvel, Ditko, and Lee with questions about who the new hero was and where he came from. And so, in the winter of 1963, issue #115 of Strange Tales dedicated an entire eight pages to Dr. Strange’s history.
“With three published stories of Dr. Strange already under our belts, we have been overwhelmed by a flood of letters reminding us that we forgot one little detail…we forgot to give you his origin,” the issue’s note from the editor proclaimed “Well, never let it be said that we don’t try to correct our nutty mistakes.”
This new story established that Strange had once been a successful New York City surgeon who traveled to India in search of a magical cure for the career-ending nerve damage he suffered from after surviving a car crash. The story also prominently featured a drastic redesign of Strange’s face that left him looking like a grizzled Gary Cooper, complete with wide, expressive eyes and an angular, lantern jaw. This new Dr. Strange was the sort of handsome, courageous, leading man who could and would star in his own ongoing solo comic series.
Because now, he was white.
As Ditko continued to draw Dr. Strange in subsequent stories, he would often go back and forth with how he chose to style the character’s face depending on how far the “camera” was away from him. As longtime Marvel writer Kurt Busiek pointed out earlier this year, tighter shots of Strange typically showed him with traditionally white features while wider shots continued to give him slanted eyes and forked eyebrows.
From Busiek’s perspective, to argue that Strange was always white is to willfully ignore the visual language that comics use to tell their stories.
There are two obvious reasons why Marvel might have gradually stripped Strange of his racist, Asian features in favor of a more Caucasian aesthetic, and neither of them is all that difficult to imagine. It’s possible that Ditko might have seen the problematic error of his ways and chosen to right his wrongs by making Strange white and calling it a day. More realistically, though, it’s likely that Marvel saw the opportunity to capitalize on Strange’s growing popularity and felt that an Asian superhero wasn’t ready for primetime. Ultimately, Keith Chow told me, the choice to whitewash Dr. Strange was made in order to “humanize” a character who otherwise would not have been relatable.
“Only when Marvel decided to give him his own book and story did they decide, ‘Oh, Strange is really a white guy,'” Chow said. “Which tells me that Asians can only exist in the comics if they’re caricatures. Once they’re given any kind of humanity, they must be white.”
Marvel, like every other comic book publisher in the early ’60s, wasn’t great about creating stories with heroes of color saving the world. As embarrassing as that might be for Marvel to own up to today, it’s one of the harsh realities studios have to confront when they take source material from less socially enlightened times and attempt to adapt them for modern audiences.
For all that’s been written about Marvel’s mishandling of race in its upcoming Doctor Strange movie, one has to wonder if the studio ever considered simply making Dr. Strange himself an Asian American man. A story like Doctor Strange is, at its core, about a man who finds himself in a foreign land where he’s challenged to overcome his personal differences in order to realize his destiny and save the world. There’s no reason that this character has to be white and if canon is really as important as hostile fanboys make it out to be, then Strange should have simply been portrayed by an Asian actor.
“The fact that Marvel had Benedict Cumberbatch pegged for the role before the movie even got started shows they had no intention to cast a POC actor in the role,” Chow lamented. “The fact that Strange could have been an Asian American character is an opportunity forever lost.”