17 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 055 - Strange Suspense

Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1
Editor - Blake Bell
Designer - Adam Grano
Publisher - Fantagraphics Books. $39.99 USD

"That's pretty," she said.

"No, he's great," I explained. "Steve Ditko. He co-created Spider-Man, but he's this really principled guy and never sued for any profits from them. He just does his own stuff now, very much influenced by Ayn Rand and Objectivism."

She said, "No, I was serious. It's a really good drawing. I love the colors of it. It's intense."

This is a friend of mine, who happened to spy the desperate figure on the cover of this book. Here I was, sensing a slight and rushing to the defense of Ditko, and she honestly appreciated his artwork. It struck me that as much as we longtime comics readers think we know what to recommend to others when it comes to superhero comics, kids comics, and graphic novels, it's always a crap shoot. Now, she didn't actually read the book, just noticed the cover, so I'll stand by my guess that this isn't the best introduction to Ditko's work, or the best introduction to horror/suspense comics, either. Still, over 50 years since this image was created, it still has power to it.

Strange Suspense is the first of "The Steve Ditko Archives," which one surmises will encompass mainly work for publishers outside of Marvel and DC. Unlike the recent, The Art of Ditko, which was a more personal, idiosyncratic collection spanning around 20 years, this volume reprints seemingly all of Ditko's work, in chronological order (or in order of completion, where that information was available), from late in 1953 to mid-1955. There is about a six month gap between the cover for This Magazine Is Haunted #21 and the cover and story, "Car Show," for From Here To Insanity #10, a period in which Ditko was recovering from tuberculosis.

Bell doesn't have the benefit of being able to choose the best work. This is warts and all stuff, a young artist learning with every six pager. Bell helpfully points out Ditko's style at this point is a mix of Mort Meskin, Jerry Robinson (an early mentor) and Joe Kubert, and certainly the Kubert influence is quite pronounced in several stories like, "Range War," a Western involving poison. There's a romance tale as well, but the bulk of the work here are horror/suspense stories, many of which find bad people meeting a just, if grisly, fate. In structure, many are like EC Comics work around this time, down to the lettering, but many lack the elegance or solid O'Henryesque twist endings. "Triple-Header" is a good example. A guy on a jungle hunting trip overhears his buddy and wife conspiring to do away with him, so he poisons them first, before winding up killed by native headhunters. There's no irony here in the way he dies, just a mild one in that death finds him through other means.

A lot of the stories are like that, and Bell mentions in his Introduction the oft-told fact that Charlton (the publisher for most of the stories here) kept their printing presses running twenty-four hours a day, as it was less expensive than turning them off, and so one can conclude quantity was more important to them than quality. They had to keep feeding the hungry presses, an ideal situation for a developing cartoonist, though not so much for the contemporary reader who has read or seen many good iterations of Tales from the Crypt-type stories. That said, It's interesting to see aspects of Ditko's well-known style in a science fiction story like "You Are the Jury," the female character and aliens very much like what Ditko would bring to later work like Tales to Astonish or Amazing Fantasy, followed by stories such as, "3-D Disaster Doom Death" and "The Night People" done in an alternate, almost as compelling style that Ditko would wholly abandon within just a couple years.

We find Ditko at this point thoughtful but only occasionally inventive, such as the use of captions resembling strips of film in a movie-related tale. Sometimes he doesn't get the most drama out of his scenes, and his huge-eyed monsters are often silly, rarely unsettling. There is some juvenile pleasure to be had in the fact that these stories all predate the Wertham/Comics Code era, so there's quite a bit of blood, some severed limbs, and grisly comeuppance. And although still oscillating between styles and influences here, there is substantial growth between, say, the Feb '54 horror version of "Cinderella" and the June '54 "Rumpelstiltskin," the latter also from a prolific period for Ditko, drawing four to five stories a month. While the number of lackluster scripts do make this volume one that may take a few fits and starts to finish, even in its infancy, Ditko's art is increasingly potent.

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