Monday, May 14, 2012

#31DaysOfDitko Dave Sim reviews 1950s Ditko

Crack open your three volumes of my Steve Ditko Archives series, because Dave Sim (creator of Cerebus and Glamourpuss) is going to seriously break down some 1950s...

“The Library of Horror”
THE THING #13 (April 1954)

The really interesting thing about this one, and something that I had never seen before, is the similarity of Steve Ditko’s early drawing style to Joe Kubert’s work. It’s particularly noticeable in Ken’s posture in panel 2 on page one, Allen’s face in the next panel, Ken’s figure in the last panel on page 4, the panel where Ken and Marion Welles meet for the first time on page 5.

 If you had showed me those panels on their own I probably would have guessed Kubert (around the time of the first run of TOR). As far as I know Joe Kubert was in the business before Ditko but certainly not much before Ditko. Does Ditko count him as an influence? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Creators who enter the field around the same time that you do tend to have a magnified presence in your life that isn’t apparent to others. The fact that Bill Sienkiewicz was the first person to make a splash in comics who was younger than me made my Bill Sienkiewicz phase inevitable. I remember Jeff Smith telling me that he sensed that kind of relationship with Mike Allred since they both arrived on the comic-book radar screen at the same time and were both working in a brush style that was further over in the direction of “cartoon-y” relative to everything else that was coming out. I don’t know too many people who would think of Jeff Smith and Mike Allred as sharing a context but as soon as its pointed out to you, you go, “Oh, right, of course.”

Ditko and Kubert. How could I have NOT seen it until this story?

I’d have to say the best panels in the story are panel 3 on page 6 and panel 4 on the same page. Of all the “otherworldly” panels this one shows the nascent Ditko style to the best advantage and shows what’s coming up ahead.

The story itself limps around a little bit with Ken being the only one (including the reader) who really doesn’t get what’s going on and, consequently, is also the only one who ends up being surprised by the ending. Too many “gods out of the machine” on the last page to qualify as “playing fair” with the reader, a basic necessity in twist ending horror stories.

Same Kubert look on “The Vanishing Martians” (MARVEL TALES #147 June 1956). Absolutely amazing.

“Build Me A Machine!”
ASTONISHING #53 (Sept. 56)

This is an interesting one, particularly with the extensive use of extreme close-ups which would become something of a hallmark in Steve Ditko’s work. Page one panel one, page two panel one and panel 4, page 3 panel 5, page 4 panel 3 and panel 6. Most especially panel one on page two, though: so extreme a close-up he can only get one eye into the panel for each character! It’s also interesting to see the extent to which spotted blacks have gone the way of the dodo in his work since the Kubert look of two years before. These guys had to be productive and that must have always been a question mark: why am I composing these pages with proper balances of black and white when someone is just going to put lousy colour on top of them anyway? And, by lousy colour, I mean unbalanced colour – a huge swath of purple in the upper left corner with everything else done in pastels, so your eye is drawn to the huge swath of purple no matter what the artist has done in balancing the areas of solid black.

Of course, these guys all came from the same background (Raymond, Foster, Caniff) so looking at the work of their own heroes, they would always get drawn back to doing good drawings. But they did end up having at least two different drawings styles: a spotted blacks style and an open style. This is Ditko’s open style. Coming from a background where all of my decision-making was in black and white I’m terrifically impressed when someone can put together a page with seven (count ‘em seven) panels like page 3 of this story composed entirely of single brush strokes and with only a handful of spotted blacks and have it WORK. I don’t know what colour they had on panel 5 on this page (Screaming Crimson? Chocolate Brown? Deep Purple?) but there’s the argument against spotting blacks. Even with the colour knocked out of most of it (as Blake has done here) the panel is like a compositional black hole sucking your eye into the bottom left corner.

Not a bad shock surprise ending although saving a crucial piece of information until the fifth last panel is a bit of a cheat, still it’s like the Superman origin story told sideways.

“The Faceless Man”

The open style again and this time unmistakeably Steve Ditko and you can see his thinking starting to come through in terms of “How do you make your artwork immune to the ill effects of lousy colouring?” Something he would use pretty extensively over the years is cranking up the wind machine. The key point of the story is the unsettled nature of the title character so the best way of portraying that is to crank up the wind the moment he steps outside, to have it mussing his hair and causing his tie to flap around him and leaves to be blowing past. Even the most unsympathetic colourist can’t un-do any of those things. The leaves need to be coloured (although I bet a lot of them just had a flat colour dropped over them), the tie needs to be coloured (you can picture Ditko begging, mentally, PLEASE give me a solid yellow on the tie or something that stands out – I wouldn’t bet the farm that the tie wasn’t done in more than one colour depending on the panel and a colour that just blended in with the surroundings) and the reader is instantly going to see the page as having an unsettled mysterious quality.

The mussed hair is a little more problematic. For what the colourists and separators were getting paid you were still more likely to just get a blob of colour as a giant halo around the guy’s head (close enough for government work) but you can still see Ditko working to minimize that risk by doing a) very clearly defined locks of hair b) to use very few of them c) to make sure they’re all curling in different directions and d) that they are rendered as sharply defined brush or pen strokes with the open areas for colour kept as far away from the hair ends as possible. It’s interesting the extent to which this became part of Ditko’s iconography – Ditko Hair.

It’s a pretty good story, good twist ending and you can see Ditko responding to it with his best drawing chops.

“Mystery Planet”

Okay, now we’re back to some serious black spotting. I’d have to guess at who he had been looking at. Judging by the machinery in the first panel I would say Wally Wood’s EC science-fiction stories…

(I had a mental question a while back about Wood’s legendary space ship interiors. Didn’t Wayne Boring do basically the same things in Superman? I checked some of my old Superman Annuals and, sure enough, there they were. What was the earliest Wayne Boring space ship interior and what was the earliest Wally Wood interior? Of course Wayne Boring’s aren’t a patch on Wood’s when Wood really decided to go nuts on the submarine pipes and dials and tanks and things. The only person who really tried to compete with Wood on that – and ended up kicking his ass around the block -- was Frazetta with one of his FAMOUS FUNNIES Buck Rogers covers, but it would be interesting to see who was first into the pool with the concept.)

Panel 5 on page 2 is very uncharacteristic of Ditko and shows what I think is a Dan Barry influence—particularly the hatching on the goggles and the thin lines of white painted through them. The space ships – both the angles they’re shown at and the thin motion lines have a Dan Barry quality to them as well. Ditko ordinarily didn’t go that thin with his motion lines.

Page 6 panel 3 – ordinarily Ditko would not go that close with a foreground figure in an action panel and seems to have done so to prove he can do Dan Barry glossy highlights in the alien eyeball with the best of them. Which he can. Dan Barry was huge at this time with what he was doing on the FLASH GORDON daily strip. Julie Schwartz’s avowed ambition in the mid-50s was to make everything he edited at DC look as if it was pencilled and inked by Dan Barry.

The rest of it is one hundred percent primo Ditko.

Silly-ass story though, I must say.

“There It Is Again”

The really nice thing about Steve Ditko and the reason that I’m looking forward to Blake’s omnibus volume is that just when you think you have him pegged (open line style/fuller spotted black style) he’ll suddenly throw you a curve ball like “There It Is Again”. Just turning to it as the next story in the pile brings me up short.

What the HEY?!

First of all it looks SO different from the works I’ve just been looking at so I flip through to see if it’s just the splash page. No, the whole story, all five pages are like that. What to call the style? Ditko Iconic – that might fit the bill nicely. It is unmistakeably Ditko but it’s as if some Aristotle of The Ditko Style has found a way to strip it down to its bare essence so that it’s just made up of distinctively Ditko touches but with virtually no enhancement. That’s the challenge – how few things can you have in each panel and still have it be unmistakeably Ditko? After reading the story, it becomes obvious that the style has been tailored to the story. Ditko himself has read the script and gone,

“What the hey?”

Joe Gill writing? That would be my guess. Basically what the writer has done is to take Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN as an archetype and strip it down to five comic-book pages, 30 panels. Just picture trying to do that.

So what Ditko has done is to say, “Okay, successful or unsuccessful, that’s what the script is – FRANKENSTEIN in 30 panels. Now, how do I DRAW that?” That is, how do you take the weird effect that stripping FRANKENSTEIN down to 30 panels is going to create and play to it and enhance it? Obviously, you strip your own style down, flatten everything out. Go Iconic or go home. The creature is seen once from behind (panel one) eight times head on, twice in profile and twice in three-quarter rear view. His creator, by dramatic contrast, twists and turns in every panel where he is depicted with the creature, all exaggerated Ditko hands and gestures. And that’s pretty much it. And if you had to strip Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN to a core iconic image (and where else but comics would the occasion come up?) that would do it. Why over-think something that’s pulling you in the opposite direction thematically? FRANKENSTEIN in 30 panels, here we go. The result is gorgeous.

If Michael Chabon gets around to writing a fictitious history of the comic-book field in the 1950s as a companion piece to KAVALIER AND CLAY, that would be a good way of expressing the entire decade: FRANKENSTEIN in 30 panels.


This one interested me because of the splash page where panel one is rendered -- almost exaggeratedly -- in Ditko’s open line style. He’s darkened up the hair on three people in the crowd but the rest of them are pretty much done in basic outline. And then he goes on to spot blacks through the rest of the story.

What the hey?

I mean it would be a bit of a time saver rather than having to spot blacks through (let me count them here) fourteen people but Ditko’s a master of knowing exactly how little solid black you can get away with and still look as if you’re doing primo Milt Caniff or Joe Kubert. You will find very few examples of overt time-saving devices in his work at any point in his career.

So, the only thing I can come up with is he might be turning the tables on the colourists who have been ruining his best stuff by presenting them with an unsolvable problem.

“Here, colorist: the crowd scene is rendered in single line weight and I’ve spotted blacks not only through the rest of the page, but the rest of the story. Now, HOW are you going to colour that first panel and how are you going to colour the rest of the page?”

It’s a theory. If that is what he was doing, I’d be willing to bet that he wasn’t very happy with the results he got back. There is just no way that an artist could sabotage a colorist to the same extent a colorist could sabotage an artist.

I’m really glad that I never had to deal with the peculiar vagaries of Sparta colouring on my comic book pages.

“The Man With the Atomic Brain”

This one was really good. You can tell by looking at the artwork whether Ditko was fully engaged with the material and he is definitely fully engaged with it here.

It’s definitely “in tune” with his own sensibilities, having the same set-up as a super-hero origin story but with the unique difference that the super-hero, while ostensibly being admired is actually secretly despised and feared (“You must come with us! It’s for everyone’s safety!”). Needless to say, a devoted reader of Ayn Rand like Ditko is going to take to this treatment of the super-hero like a duck to water. This is really the earliest example that I’ve seen of what I would call the High Density Ditko style that he used on Spider-man – nine-panel grid, three tiers of three panels each with each panel pretty much filled – not a lot of use of white space.

His attention drops dramatically with the mystical/Utopian ending but right up to the big revelation scene he’s firing on all cylinders. I particularly liked panel 2 on page 4 “The Dead Ancient City of Kora”. Nobody does “one-panel weird” like Steve Ditko does “one-panel weird”.

The other thing that I (ahem) marvel at is the dramatic transitions from panel to panel. “I’ll transport myself to where they’ll never find me…the Moon!” And sure enough there’s the earth in the background and there’s Ted in the foreground hovering over the Moon with a couple of curved motion lines to indicate he has gone from the one to the other. In one panel.

As Arnold Stang might’ve put it: A fella could get a nasty whiplash he doesn’t watch out.
Come back tomorrow to read Dave Sim review some 1960s Ditko! In recognition of the debut of my latest book, Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives vol.3 this month, May is "31 Days of Ditko" where I post highly entertaining content re: the co-creator of Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Mr. A, half of #BeforeWatchmen, and many more.

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