How Doctor Strange Helped Create Hippies

The newest member of Marvel's Cinematic Universe puts a psychedelic, mystical spin on your typical superhero.

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Nov 2 2016, 2:45pm

Photo courtesy of 'Doctor Strange'

When writer Steve Englehart and artist Frank Brunner took over the run of Marvel Comics' Doctor Strange in the early 1970s, they would get together every couple of months to have dinner and then get high, brainstorming wild, new directions in which to take the character.

Based on the latest marketing efforts for Scott Derickson's Doctor Strange—the newest superhero to join Marvel's Cinematic Universe—it appears they weren't the only ones to get high and discuss the Sorcerer Supreme. The trailers and movie posters give off a mystical, psychedelic vibe unlike any Marvel movie we've seen so far, with scenes so far-out, they appear to have been ripped from the very early issues of the classic Steve Ditko and Stan Lee comics of the 1960s. It was these same comics that helped inspire students in higher education to take drugs and discuss philosophy, religion, and Eastern mysticism, all in an effort to expand their minds—just like the good doctor himself. In other words, Doctor Strange, in part, inspired the hippie movement of the 1960s.

In Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, Bradford W. Wright wrote, "Dr. Strange remarkably predicted the youth counterculture's fascination with Eastern mysticism and psychedelia. Never among Marvel's more popular or accessible characters, Dr. Strange still found a niche among an audience seeking a challenging alternative to more conventional superhero fare."

Doctor Strange was created by Ditko and Lee and premiered in Strange Tales No. 110 in July 1963. Inspired by Chandu the Magician and other radio serials and pulp stories of the 1930s, the character transformation of Dr. Stephen Strange is much like Tony Stark's of Iron Man fame; an egotistical, selfish, and highly successful surgeon, Strange destroys the use of his hands in a car accident, promptly ending his neurosurgical career. He embarks on a quest to Tibet to find a way to repair them, but this quest becomes more spiritual when he encounters the Ancient One, a master of the mystical arts, who becomes his mentor and introduces Strange to the more mystical side of life. Strange, like Stark, learns to shed his old way of thought and embraces a higher calling: to use his newfound powers in the fight against evil.

In the 1960s, Marvel Comics became known as the reading material of choice in academic crowds, with more emotionally in-depth characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four—heroes who were more relatable than say, DC's Superman. But the world of Doctor Strange was unlike anything comic book readers had ever seen, with much of the credit going to Ditko for his psychedelic, mind-bending illustrations that veered toward something you'd see while high on hallucinogens, undoubtedly inspired by the likes of Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and other surrealist artists. Throw in mysticism, black magic, the occult, astral travel, alternate realities and dimensions, and the study of dreams, and you've got plenty to analyze.

Comic book historian Mike Benton explains in his 1991 book, Superhero Comics of the Silver Age: The Illustrated History: "The Dr. Strange stories of the 1960s constructed a cohesive cosmology that would have thrilled any self-respecting theosophist. College students, minds freshly opened by psychedelic experiences and Eastern mysticism, read Ditko and Lee's Dr. Strange stories with the belief of a recent Hare Krishna convert. Meaning was everywhere, and readers analyzed the Dr. Strange stories for their relationship to Egyptian myths, Sumerian gods, and Jungian archetypes."

'Doctor Strange' movie still, courtesy of MARVEL STUDIOS

Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and a member of the Merry Pranksters—a group who are best known to have traveled across the United States in a painted school bus in the early 60s, throwing parties and giving out LSD— is mentioned, on several occasions, in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as being a big fan of the Doctor Strange comics, tripping on drugs while reading them. Kesey eventually was introduced to Timothy Leary, who worked with Dr. Richard Alpert in the controversial Harvard Psilocybin Project, which measured the effects of psychedelic drugs on test subjects. Alpert, who eventually changed his name to Ram Dass after becoming spiritually enlightened after his own Doctor Strange-kind-of-quest, admitted his love for the old Ditko and Lee comics to a large gathering of health professionals in the 70s. He also mentions Doctor Strange in a 2012 blog post on his website, comparing people's thoughts to the thought and word balloons in those comics.

The new Marvel movie promises to evoke visuals hearkening back to Ditko's early psychedelic Doctor Strange artwork, with glimpses of the artist's technicolor weirdness in trailers, and taglines such as "Have a good trip" and "Open Your Mind" used in other promotional materials. There are even updated Doctor Strange blacklight posters for sale now, similar to those that Marvel produced in 1971.

'Doctor Strange' movie still, courtesy of MARVEL STUDIOS

Though Ditko's artwork in the original Doctor Strange comics is heralded as the pinnacle of just how strange Doctor Strange could get, Englehart and Brunner would eventually take the world of Doctor Strange to even greater heights—and dimensions.

In an email interview with Englehart, he mentions his favorite Doctor Strange comics during his run on the series: First is Marvel Premiere No. 12–14, where Strange essentially meets God; second is Doctor Strange No. 10–13, where the Earth is destroyed but Strange convinces a character named Eternity to recreate it exactly as it was before, leaving Strange the only person who knows that everyone on Earth, at one point, died.

But Doctor Strange didn't just influence college students and hippies, the trippy superhero also had an effect on the 1960s music scene. Pink Floyd included an image taken from Strange Tales No. 158 on their 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets. In 1965, Jefferson Airplane put on one of three dance concerts in San Francisco that featured bands such as the Charlatans, the Great Society, and others—collectively called A Tribute to Dr. Strange.

When Doctor Strange hits theaters November 4, you don't necessarily have to be baked to enjoy the film. But, as history points out, it might just help expand your mind while watching, as Marvel takes its cinematic universe to a whole new cosmic level.

Follow Charles Moss on Twitter.

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