The new photographs of actor Benedict Cumberbatch in character as Marvel’s Doctor Strange have predictably taken the internet by force. The likeness is both sartorially and follicularly true to the character’s stippled roots.
Since the character’s comic book debut in the early ‘60s and into the present, Doctor Strange has featured some variation on the mustache and goatee combination. And it’s not just a matter of illustrators’ preferences. His facial hair is an even more important piece of characterization than his cape because it anchors him in a subversive cultural tradition that emerged during the Victorian era. Without it — odd as it is to say — Doctor Strange would be less grounded in reality.
Named after the tuft on a goat’s chin, the goatee has had a long and strange history that dates back to pre-biblical times. Appropriately enough, the facial hairstyle first gained recognition with ancient depictions of the Greek god Pan, the half-goat, half-man party animal that made Dionysus look like a prude. Because its most prominent advocate was a drunk, fornicating woodland deity, early Christians came to equate the goatee and goat-like appearances with evil. That’s why Satan looks like he does. Basically, the monotheists lazily switched out the pan pipe for the pitchfork and called it a day. The ultimate supervillain was born.
Because of its associations, the goatee became a countercultural statement. Artists and iconoclasts, everyone from the painter Van Dyck to Abraham Lincoln, sported variations — magicians more than most.
The stereotypical connection between magical performers and goatees began in the 19th century with a family of — you guessed it — magicians. The Herrmann family of French conjurers consisted of Alexander, Compars, and later Alexander’s wife, Adelaide. Alexander and Compars (also known as Carl) were a famous magician duo that toured Europe with shows featuring many spectacles. Eventually the brothers, who used their Prestige-esque similarities to dress alike and style their mustaches into distinct waxed goatees, parted ways allowing Alexander to perpetuate their brand of magic throughout the world.
But mythology and one French magician aren’t solely responsible for Cumberbatch’s new look. The truth is that the trend became a trend and then became a fixture in the magic and occult communities for a reason. Researchers from the University of Warwick conducted a study in 2012 that proved that the downward pointing triangles face shape seems inherently evil to people. The fact that those results surprised no one is indicative of the fact that we’re innately aware of our natural reaction to such things. On some level, the people who choose to have goatees are making a decision to come off as unnerving. It’s an issue of self-selection.
When he created Doctor Strange in 1963, artist Steve Ditko combined that unconscious threat and that history of magician symbology into Marvel’s very own wizard. And here we are half a century later till conjuring up the same imagery.