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Steve Ditko:

Strange Suspense and The Art of Ditko

Do you remember Creepy Worlds, Sinister Tales, Uncanny Tales, Out of This World, Secrets of the Unknown, Suspense, Astounding Stories? I’ve been thinking that probably my first exposure as a boy to the weird worlds of Steve Ditko would have been through those cheap-and-cheerful Alan Class anthologies which used to clutter the shelves of British newsagents when I was growing up. Printed on poor paper using old imported plates or matrices that were steadily eroding and fading as they were used over and over again, they had interchangeable titles and contents, came with no date, and gave you a whopping “full 68 pages”, admittedly the insides in black and white, of vintage twist-ending shorts compiled from various American sources, including Charlton, for a shilling or twelve old pennies. Alan Class kept reprinting them, fainter and fainter, for thirty years, 1959-89, by the end charging 55p.

Fast forward some forty years and here are two books reprinting some of Ditko’s earliest and finest four-colour forays, now in the public domain, reproduced faithfully and directly onto quality stock in fancy volumes, shot digitally from their original ink-smudged pulpy pages. Charlton’s printing presses were notorious for also being used to crank out blurry breakfast cereal packaging and as many comic books as it took to keep their machines rolling 24-hours a day, regardless of colour registration or trimming quality. Those same strips are now lovingly enshrined into these two deluxe hardbacks with added sparkling, jewel-metallic lettering - Strange Suspense offers 240-pages for $39.99, The Art of Steve Ditko 208-pages for $29.99. How times have changed.

For Strange Suspense, Blake Bell, author of the art book/biography Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, also from Fantagraphics, provides an intro to set the scene. Intriguing extras here include a page from “Hair Yee-Eeee” from Strange Fantasy #9 (December 1953), a wacky shocker signed only with “SS” and attributed possibly to Steve Ditko and Seymour Moskowitz. The crazy premise for this tale is that Mama’s boy Pat Patrick has long golden locks which can feel pain when he goes for his first haircut! It’s one I’d have liked to see, frankly.

Instead, Strange Suspense rightly kicks off with what is considered Ditko’s true solo debut piece entitled “Stretching Things”, a five-page horror yarn that took some time to get into print in Fantastic Fears # 5 from cut-price outfit Ajax/Farrell. I’d read this before in a fanzine and it does still pack some punch. An embittered sufferer of brittle-bone syndrome, a bit like the Samuel Jackson character in Unbreakable, finds that a cure softens his flesh, bones and face into malleable rubber, like Plastic Man or Mr. Fantastic. “I must let the world pay me the fortune it owes me”. Murdering his doctor, he finds he is unable to snap his freakish, warped facial features and distended limbs back to normal. His inevitable comeuppance has him melting into a “thin, shivering pool of a shapeless body”. The panic-stricken staring eyes of his half-dissolved head, all that’s left, surrounded by a growing puddle of gloop, add a chilling final shiver. Laying logical inconsistencies in the plot aside, this is respectable demonstration job and opened doors for the young wannabe cartoonist. Ditko is quoted by Bell from letters during 1959 to Mike Britt:

“The first story I did, I took around as a sample and was able to get work… and turned out some real junk for their Black Magic magazine. That stuff was really bad.”

Ditko was maybe being a bit harsh on himself, although I feel his two examples from Simon & Kirby’s horror comic Black Magic represented here are only adequate. Perhaps he was compromised by having to fit in with Simon & Kirby’s studio system and possibly by having less freedom to interpret the script and compose the panels and pages as he wished, certainly compared to “Stretching Things”. It says something of their standards that Black Magic‘s publisher Prize was perfectly happy to drop the final scripted panel of “A Hole In His Head” to squeeze in an extra advert: “Don’t let ugly PIMPLES ruin your look”! That might have worked nicely at the end of “Stretching Things” too!

In fact, Ditko’s first story to see print was a typically over-written romance for Gillmor’s Daring Love #1. I may be mistaken, but the copy they have reprinted this obscure item from seems to have been tampered with, as I couldn’t help notice that heroine Liza’s nipples seem to show through her dress in several panels. A first Western is also included here, though neither genre is entirely suited to Ditko’s emerging signature approach.

It’s Ditko’s arrival in 1953 at Charlton, starting from a publication date of February 1954, on The Thing, This Magazine Is Haunted and Strange Suspense Stories (which gives this tome its title), that begins a life-long association. “I quit looking for work. The old Charlton Press was very good to me. I had all the work I could handle and a free hand in any way I wanted to do the story.” He could really cut loose on their fabulous, eyeball-grabbing covers and the longer, 7- or 8-page shockers, many scripted by the prolific, if not profligate Joe Gill. Examples of Ditko’s initial sci-fi in Space Adventures and crime in Racket Squad in Action are also offered, and as a final treat, Bell serves up the atypical humour cover and a 3-page parody of a “Car Show” from Charlton’s MAD imitation, From Here to Insanity, dated June 1955. Apart from this later oddity, the rest of the book here spans the first 14 months of Ditko’s publishing career, from September 1953 to December 1954.

And key to the dates of these comics is that these prefigure the clampdown by the Comics Code, adopted on October 26th 1954 and censoring comic books to be published several months in advance from early 1955. So here we are getting Ditko working without any of the constraints of taste and decorum imposed by the Code. The year 1954 was when the moral panic over horror comics came to a head with the Senate Sub-Committee hearings in April 1954. Bell explains that, alongside all this furore, by mid-1954 “...Ditko contracted tuberculosis and went back to his parents’ home in Johnstown [Pennsylvania] to recover. He would not recover and return to New York City until late 1955, where his first work for Marvel Comics would appear before a return to Charlton.”

Starting in 1950, Ditko’s greatest teacher while studying at The Cartoonists and Illustrators School (what is today The School of Visal Arts) had been the outstanding Batman artist Jerry Robinson (more of him shortly). Will Eisner’s revolutionary Spirit tales were also a major influence. A number of their stylistic tropes would be personalised by Ditko and become distinctly his own. The very first panel of “Stretching Things” demonstrates his forté for conveying mental states and personal back-story succinctly, as he plays out behind the bed-ridden victim a grey-toned collage of memories, from his boyhood on crutches to a hospital bed and then wheelchair. No Ditko night street is complete without scraps of newspapers floating by on the breeze. On the fourth page we have the very first of a number of recurring aerial shots looking down through a skylight window. His genius at visualising uncanny otherworldly demons and dimensions, a triumph in his later Doctor Strange series for Marvel, is already in evidence, for example in “Library of Horror” where a failing horror writer sells his soul for the chance to visit the nether realms to find inspiration. It’s interesting to notice how in this issue of The Thing, appropriately #13, Ditko makes unusual extensive use of “Zipatone” effects, sometimes graduated light-to-dark, sometimes with bold, even oversized, dots, to add shades and textures. It’s a practice he uses less in #14 and tends not to repeat in later stories. Perhaps the pressures to produce his line artwork made him decide to abandon this fiddly technique. Another quirky conceit in The Thing is that on a couple of stories the capitalised lettering deliberately switches to upper- and lower-case for word “Thing” when it appears on the page.

In Strange Suspense, Ditko already shines as a masterful designer of sinister mansions, ornate gateways and demonic doors and furnishings, carving his initials into one bedboard on page 124.  And finally, there’s no mistaking those trademark Ditko faces, leering with evil or sweating and wide-eyed with terror, often lit or looking up from below. Like the ghastly visage on the book’s cover of a man strapped into an electric chair. It is a pleasure to follow Ditko’s youthful artistic progression and there is a noticeable refining and streamlining of his drawing, going for greater clarity and impact. By the time we get to The Thing #15, the last issue he drew entirely, some of his characters have become suitably grotesque, such as the blinded surgeon who stitches his murdered assailant’s eyes into his own sockets or the venomous wiry husband and overweight wife plotting to bump each other off for the life insurance. These morality fables are seldom subtle or surprising, regularly reaffirming that “you reap what you sow” and concocting apt punishments, whether being burnt alive in an oven or devoured by ants. There are a few novelties such as cruel, dark takes on familiar fairytales “Cinderalla” and “Rumpelstiltskin”, and one tale narrated by a bride’s wedding gown, but it’s Ditko’s artistry that elevates these mostly standard comic book nasties.   

In fine condition, these pre-Code rarities would cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, maybe two arms and two legs (which is the price one unfortunate but nasty husband chewed by rats pays in the yarn “The Evil Eye”). So the $39.99 ticket is good value, and this is a weighty, hard-packed, deluxe package, billed as Volume 1, so perhaps a whole series is being prepared. Although in many ways, Craig Yoe’s The Art of Steve Ditko already makes for a natural sequel volume. Considerably larger in page dimensions and with bonus extras, this is similarly devoted throughout to Ditko’s underappreciated Charlton production. Yoe’s emhpasis is on post-Code material from the Fifties to the Seventies, with the one exception of a pre-Code 1954 science fiction short from Space Adventures #11. The latest story here, Mr. Ober’s Nightmare from Scary Tales #8, shows Ditko still at the top of his game in 1976 when it comes to delineating terrifying nether-realms. In fact, Yoe’s choices of 28 crisply re-mastered reprints have been very intelligently made to demonstrate through the years Ditko’s singular creativity and sheer consistency in exploring and expanding comics. Charlton gave him that vital free rein and he would cut loose to sometimes stunning effect. As he wrote in one of several letters to Yoe in 1998, quoted here, “I still believe the comic potential hasn’t been actualized the way it could have been… So my focus isn’t stuck on what is being done now, but what could be done.”

As well as these closing snippets from his correspondence with the artist, Yoe provides a revealing first article, in which he describes inviting Ditko to meet Jim Henson and visit the Creature Shop, home of The Muppets, and later visiting Ditko in his tiny studio: “Papers were piled high. There were stacks of reference material, ready of Steve to draw upon, and Ayn Randian philosophical magazines, from which the artist drew inspiration.” Yoe has also commissioned an intro from Stan Lee, in which he opens that “Steve Ditko and I co-created one of the world’s most popular superheroes, as well as comicdom’s greatest magician.” The reprints are interspersed with full-page classic comic book covers and short essays. In one from his former teacher at SVA, Jerry Robinson recalls: “[Steve] was in my class for two years, four or five days a week, five hours a night. It was very intense.” Former Rom Space Knight inker P. Craig Russell also writes, singling out the influence on him of Ditko’s black-and-white Warren horror magazines Creepy and Eerie: “Those Warren stories explored a range of virtuosic techniques from intricate pen and ink cross-hatching, to ink wash work, which in its range of velvety blacks can only be described as voluptuous.” And the book’s crowning design device is the striking use between stories of twelve whole pages of original Ditko artwork shot straight from the ink and board, ranging from some key Marvel splashes and Captain Atom and Nukla covers to his solo Mr. A and a pair of those very wash pages from Eerie. In fact, one blown-up panel from these creates the book’s luscious transdimensional endpapers. 

Both of these volumes come highly recommended. Pure Imagination has put out some of this material in their black-and-white Readers series, and Dark Horse are now archiving those Warren mags too. Even so, amid all this book-as-object “hardback-itis”, I’ll confess that part of me wants to dig out these and more Ditko stories the way I first experienced them: in glorious muddy grey-and-white on fading newsprint, lurking in those musty British Alan Class anthologies, read by torchlight under the bedclothes as they fuelled my childhood nightmares.

Posted: February 1, 2010


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