Wednesday, 26 May 2010


Up to now, this blog has primarily focused on reprints of newspaper strips. I'm not sure why that is, apart from the number of excellent collections that have come out recently. So today I'm going to look at four recent books featuring the work of the legendary comics artist Steve Ditko. As I've already said in a previous blog entry, I'm a huge fan of Ditko's work, and while he's best known for his work on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange for Marvel (both of whom he co-created), The Creeper for DC and Captain Atom for Charlton there is far more to him than superheroes.

First up is Stranger And Stranger: The World Of Steve Ditko. Unlike the other books here this is not a collection of Ditko's stories, but a work tracing the life and career of one of comics most mysterious creators. The book's author Blake Bell has done an exemplary job of telling the tale of the notoriously reclusive artist, from his early days in the comics industry studying under Jerry Robinson, through his breakthrough with Charlton Comics, the heady days of the early Marvel Bullpen, his departure for DC comics, up to his self-published (with Robin Snyder) Steve Ditko's Packages of the late 1990s. Bell delves into Ditko's fascination with the writings of Ayn Rand and explores how the influance of books like The Fountainhead affected the artists later career and his relationship with comic fandom. Lavishly illustrated with page after page of Ditko art from all stages of his career, and with quotes from many of the people he worked with in the industry this book is a must for anyone with an interest in comics most celebrated and yet unknown artists.

Next, also from Fantagraphics and Blake Bell, is the superb Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 which I mentioned in a previous blog entry. This book was compiled by Bell and collects Ditko's earliest work for publishers such as Prize, Gilmor, Ajax/Farrell, Timor and, of course, Charlton. The majority of the stories collected here fall firmly into the horror vein, with tales taken from titles such as The Thing, This Magazine Is Haunted and Strange Suspense Stories. Some science fiction stories are also present from the pages of Space Adventures, while Racket Squad In Action, Crime And Justice and Blazing Western give us... well, crime and western tales. Nearly all of this material predates the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in October 1954, the sole exception being a humour piece Car Show taken from a 1955 issue of From Here To Insanity. This means that much of this material is more visceral than the stories many are familier with from the early 1960s although still tame by todays standards. The reproduction is stunning, showing off Ditko's detailed artwork at its finest. Check out the infamous electric chair cover to Strange Suspense Stories # 19, a detail of which is used as the cover to this collection (see right). Or the cover to Space Adventures # 12 with is EC inspired cover (see left). And while the art is all prime Ditko, here and there he does let his influences show through. For example Die Laughing from The Thing #13 has a few layouts and panels inspired by the legendary Will Eisner, while Cinderella from The Thing #12 has a very Mort Meskin feel. This is one of the finest collections of Ditko's work out there, and while it may not be as familier as his work on Spider-Man, Doctor Strange or indeed those mystery shorts he did for Marvel books such as Strange Tales and Amazing Fantasy, it's all classic Ditko. Buy it now, and pre-order volume 2, hopefully due in August this year.

As a quick aside, Ditko's Eisner influance would also show up in his work on Marvel's Doctor Strange strip. The first Dr. Strange story from Strange Tales #110 has some very Eisneresque panels. And that distinct window in the good Doctor's Sanctum Sanatorum bears more than a passing resemblence to the one in Denny Colt's Wildwood Cemetery hideaway. But I digress...

Fantagraphics set the bar high with Strange Suspense, and IDW's The Art Of Ditko collection only just falls short of the other books high standards. Compiled by Craig Yeo for IDWs Yeo Books imprint, this collection concentrates on Ditko's work from the 1960s. With the Comics Code at the height of it's influance the stories here are tamer than those in the Fantagraphics book, while Ditko's artwork is a little less detailed, more akin to his superhero work for Marvel and DC, than his earlier, detailed horror work. Along with numorous examples of Ditko's work from Charlton titles from the sixties, there are reproductions of original art pages from his work with Marvel and DC.
One advantage this collection has over the Fantagraphics volume is that it is oversized, allowing the reader to really appreciate Ditko's stylised art.
While not quite reaching the heights of Strange Suspense, The Art Of Ditko is still an essential purchase for Ditkologists everywhere.

Finally, DC Comics have also brought out a Ditko collection , this one devoted to his work on the superhero strip The Creeper. This volume contains all of the Creeper stories Ditko had a hand in, starting with the characters debut in the pages of DC's tryout comic, Showcase.
For those unfamilier with him, The Creeper was originally introduced in Showcase #73 (1968), which told the tale of outspoken Gotham City talk show host Jack Ryder, gunned down by gangsters when he used his TV show to take a stance against organized crime made him a target. Mortally wounded by the mob, Ryder's life was saved by a scientist who gave him an experimental serum that granted him powers of super-agility. Disguising himself in a bizarre costume, Ryder took on the persona of The Creeper and sought retribution.
After that single tryout issue, The Creeper was quickly given his own title, "Beware The Creeper" the first six issues of which are presented here. Ditko walked off the title having drawn only eleven pages of that sixth issue, with Jack Sparling pitching in to fill out the issue. In fact it looks to me that Sparling may have redrawn those first eleven pages although some of the layouts certainly look like Ditko. The reclusive artist returned to the Creeper in 1975 for another tryout book, First Issue Special #7, and then again in 1978 for a series of backup stories in World's Finest Comics #249-255. All those stories are collected here along with a real treat - a story originally intended for a revival of Showcase but scrapped when that title was suddenley cancelled in the infamous D.C. Imposion of 1978. Instead the story was used in Cancelled Comic Cavalcade, an extremely limited edition collection of material left unpubished, especially compiled by D.C. for copyright reasons. Only a few dozen copies were published, although bootleg copies allegedly exist.
Ditko's art on the earlier Creeper stories is not unlike his later work for Marvel on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, while his 1970's return to the character exemplifies his looser, simpler style that would also be seen on his later return to Marvel on series such as Machine Man. The stories themselves, written by up and coming talent such as Denny O'Neil and Michael Fleisher are for the main part fairly standard superhero fare, although the earliest stories are slightly more quirky than the standard late 1960s DC superhero title.
All in all, not the most essential of Ditko's work, but certainly well worth a look.
I'll be back soon with more recommendations.
Be seeing you!

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