So while web-browsing recently, I learned that back in June, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige gave an interview where he was asked: “So you’re removing the sorcerers from the phony Tibetan mysticism that Stan Lee used because he probably didn’t really research Tibet in any real way?”Feige’s response was that the “phony mysticism” was part of what made Strange interesting—and pretty much every post on the interview seems to repeat the description of Strange’s magic as “phony mysticism.”
I think the interviewer is wrong and the “phony” word is inaccurate. Which is unfortunate since several websites quoting from the interview have parroted it.
First off, nothing in the Silver Age Lee/Ditko stories—and I’ve read them a lot—implies that what Dr. Strange does is a version of Tibetan mysticism. It’s always referred to as “black magic” which is a Western term (back then “black magic” was often used in pop culture to describe “magic” rather than as an indicator of evil). Stan and Steve never tried passing it off as some sort of real-world system or ancient Eastern wisdom (at least in anything I’ve read), so the interviewer’s question is based on a false assumption. Even when the creators showed Strange can hold his own in a fight, it’s just presented as superb physical control and training, not eastern “martial arts” (though later writers would specify that yes, he’s a martial artist).
And that makes “phony” the wrong word. “Fictional” would seem more the thing, the same way that JK Rowling’s magic system is fictional rather than a “phony” Hermetic magic or Bram Stoker’s vampire lore is “fictional.” You could apply “phony” to Marvel’s Brother Voodoo or Golem characters (particularly the Golem—the use of kabbalism and golem lore was a real mess) perhaps, but I don’t think Strange.
If the creators ever considered basing Strange’s magic on real-world occultism, I think they made the right choice not to. As Len Wein said when he was asked to develop Brother Voodoo, real world magic doesn’t work very well for super-hero comic books as it’s not primarily designed for fighting super-villains.
That’s not to say Lee and Ditko didn’t employ Asian cliches (as discussed at the link above). The Ancient One is the ancient Asian mystic stereotyped, Tibet is simply name-dropped because it’s a mystical Eastern place where mystical things happen and people can study mysticism—Stan and Steve had no interest in Tibet as an actual place any more than they had in Tibetan mystical beliefs.
But as far as the magic goes? Fictional yes, but phony no.
(Cover by Steve Ditko, all rights to current holder).