Tuesday, May 15, 2012

#31DaysOfDitko Dave Sim reviews 1960s Ditko

Yesterday, we posted Dave Sim's review of 1950s Ditko. Today, we're back with 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.

“Beware!!! Of the Little Toy Men!!”

I tell you, folks, Ditko is just full of surprises. In this case, the sudden use of hatching and cross-hatching which hasn’t cropped up before – here starting with the pin-stripe suit on the character on the splash page, a tradition which comes far more from the Alex Raymond end of things rather than the Milt Caniff end of things Ditko usually inhabits. I’d have to call this style Hatched Iconic because of the laborious line-work. He’s still stripping down his rendering to an iconic level of composition but then he seems to be coming back the other way and adding hatching to give the image greater weight and density.

This batch of pre-Spider-man Marvel stories raise some interesting questions – was the reduction to an Iconic splash page an editorial decision on the part of Marvel or an individual decision on the part of Ditko? It’s a good one in terms of “branding” – you couldn’t mistake the splash pages on Marvel mystery stories prior to 1961 for anyone else’s splash pages. The story titles on a bunch of them are all in the same typeface as well. Dry transfer lettering? An Artie Simek template font that anyone with a ruler and some tracing paper could duplicate? Marvel, thy name is economy!

Past the splash page the story pages are definitely High Density Ditko, the nine-panel grid and no skimping on the foregrounds, backgrounds and full figure shots. High Density Plus with the addition of the hatching and cross-hatching. One of the saddest of all possible situations, the story has a great set-up, visual, imaginative as all get-out -- it’s almost as if Ditko felt compelled to acknowledge that and went the extra mile on every page and every panel with lots of extra detail and cross-hatching and bringing his best game to the table -- and then the whole story just falls flat as a pancake in the last three panels. I think Ditko and the other guys had to be philosophical about that at the time. Give them four and a half out of five pages that they were psyched to draw and they would just ignore the lame ending.

“The Icy Fingers of Fear”
“Why Won’t They Believe Me?”
“Witch Hunt”
“The Last Man on Earth”
“Journey’s End”

This batch of five stories, all from the same issue (sporting one of the greatest pre-super-hero Ditko covers in Marvel’s history – even the colouring is great!) interested me because they’re all in the same category as “There It Is Again!”

All are scripted by Stan Lee and it’s as if he cracked the Ditko code and figured out the exact overall story tone that was required to get a Ditko Iconic job. I suspect there’s a story behind all of these ending up in the same issue.

Looking on the bright side, I can envision Stan Lee, as I say, cracking the Ditko code and writing four High Iconic Ditko stories to appear in the same issue. Looking through a more jaundiced lens, Stan Lee had no idea what was going on and over a period of time just ended up with four High Iconic jobs and decided What the hey! And put them all in the same issue. The job numbers that appear on the splash pages aren’t completely sequential (V-391, V-392, V-393, V-395, V-396) but pretty close. It might be something as simple as a deadline crunch and Ditko picked out the five scripts that he thought he could draw the fastest.

If we assume (as I do) that solo Steve Ditko is the REAL Steve Ditko, I suspect these stories gave him his first taste of iconic story-telling and told him this was where his creative heart was and where he needed to go when he opted for a smaller audience and complete creative freedom.

“Why Won’t They Believe Me?” actually delivers the goods. Good build-up, good red herring on the second to last page and good actual twist ending. “The Last Man on Earth”, nah, “Witch Hunt”, nah, “Journey’s End” yeah.

I’ve just spent the last half hour flipping through all of them, admiring the artwork, the composition, the story-telling, the pin-stripe suits. If you’re a major league Ditko fan, you couldn’t go wrong bidding on a reading copy of AMAZING ADULT FANTASY #7 on eBay.

“Inside the Flying Saucer”
STRANGE TALES #92 (Jan 62)

Another High Iconic Ditko story. I love this one for the brush strokes that delineate the skin of the aliens. Evidently all it takes is a number four sable brush, some India ink and nerve and self-confidence like tempered steel.

“The Ultimate Weapon”

“There is a chance the Cold War will STILL be raging even by 1970” the story begins. Ditko doing his best caricature of Nikita Khrushchev: a caricature which is really the whole point of the story and which dominates most of the five pages. The shot of him on page two panel 3 certainly recalls the day when the most pressing concern for all humanity was that this hysterical lunatic had his finger on the nuclear button.

Could the United States bluff him or call his bluff? Interesting that this story came out the same year that the Kennedy Administration did just that a few months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“The Most Dangerous Weapon”

Same basic theme but with more of a High Iconic treatment: the premise of the story is that there is a museum which houses the only weapon remaining on the face of the earth in the year 2,050 (the comma is an interesting touch).

The more unlikely the story – and what could be more unlikely than there existing only one remaining weapon on the face of the earth? -- the more Iconic the Ditko treatment so, again, everything gets stripped down to the bare essentials after pages 2 and 3 have set up the premise that the only weapon remaining on the face of the earth is about to be stolen. Pages 4 and 5 are virtually just “talking heads” and Ditko has the good sense to realize that it needs to be played that way. It’s a straightforward science fiction story with an unlikely premise that changes into a parable about the nature of power and how weapons factor into that. When Stan Lee switches from the one to the other, Ditko switches as well. There isn’t much of a message, but watching Ditko switch from straightforward narrative to Iconic narrative is worth the price of admission. He gets a lot done with just some edging of shadows once he’s dispensed with all pretence of doing backgrounds.

Blake also included a couple of GHOST MANOR covers (a Charlton title) one of which appears to be Wally Wood (or one of the Legion of Substitute Woods, Dan Adkins or Ralph Reese or somebody) inking Steve Ditko. Whoever it is does a pretty good job considering that you can’t really “jazz up” Steve Ditko without losing the value of it being a Steve Ditko piece. “What can I do and what can’t I do in order for this to still look as if it was done by Steve Ditko when I’m finished?”

The answers are: a) not very much and b) just about everything you can think of, respectively. The cover to issue 19 is particularly difficult since the arms of the man and woman holding the chalice are distorted dramatically, so you still have only four brush strokes (or thick speedball nib strokes) to get the man’s jacket right on an arm that’s roughly twice as long as it’s supposed to be. Yikes! It’s either Ditko inking himself or someone who guessed right on the folds and, as a result, didn’t have to worry about having to guess as accurately elsewhere.

Then there’s a page from STRANGE TALES #74, pg. 4 (Apr 60) which looks like John Severin inking Ditko which (no surprise) turns out to be more John Severin than Steve Ditko.

(Ed. Blake note: Severin didn't ink this page, but Ditko was certainly studying Severin and apeing his inking style during this period, which we discuss here)

Severin is scrupulous in getting the details right – he cut his teeth on Kurtzman’s war stories where getting the details wrong was a good way to cut your own throat with Kurtzman -- so he must have blanched visibly when he saw the Steve Ditko-pencilled .45 automatic in the bottom panel. “What in the HECK is THAT supposed to be?” I can hear him saying to himself. Our best evidence suggests that Steve Ditko saw a .45 automatic once -- many, many years ago – memorized the parts he liked, reduced them to a handful of iconic Steve Ditko shapes and mannerisms and never looked at the real thing again. Didn’t really need to. An actual .45 would look as out-of-place in a Mr. A story as an actual skyscraper would in Spider-man. There are some things that Ditko makes look better than authentic and the .45 automatic is one of them (skyscrapers, too!)

And that brings us to THE AVENGING WORLD (1969). It’s not hard to see why Steve Ditko ended up disappointing his legions of fans who assumed that he was basically in the same category as most of his contemporaries: living out the spirit of adventure he had been infected with early on in movie serials, Zorro, Tarzan, etc. Nothing wrong with doing Nikita Khrushchev as long as you make sure you have a space ship in there somewhere. I don’t know if this is why Blake sent me this one, but I commented elsewhere that – not having seen the material for close to thirty years – I was struck by Ditko’s insight and prescience in documenting “The Neutralist” (“No! I won’t stand up for or be against either side! According to my scales, I don’t see any difference between two extremes! It’s not up to me to judge which side is right or wrong! You can fight among yourselves – I’m neutral! It doesn’t affect me no matter which side has its way!”).

To say the least, this is no way to win friends and influence people in the ultra-liberal comic-book field where the “Neutralist” is known as the “Wise Moderate”. Jules Feiffer did a less critical, more affectionate treatment of the same thing, calling it “The Radical Middle” – tweaking the lion’s whiskers rather than, like Ditko, pulling them all out in one big clump.

And, as can be seen on pages 2 and 3, he still does a great pin-striped suit.

All of this (except maybe the pin-striped suit) ties in with Ditko’s new essay -- “An Issue, Question” -- in Robin Snyder’s monthly newsletter, THE COMICS, which I’m going to be discussing somewhere up ahead on the Blog & Mail. For now, unless you’re Steve Ditko’s mother or something, that’s gotta be enough Steve Ditko for anyone.

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