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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06 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 052 - The Art of Ditko

The Art of Ditko
By Craig Yoe
Published by IDW Publishing. $29.99 USD

I was watching a National Geographic documentary the other night, Drain the Ocean, and there was a segment on the various creatures living deep below the Hawaiian Islands. Although connected, the fauna below each island is different, and mankind knows next to nothing about these various species. Some have said that we know more about space than we do vast parts of our oceans.

It's good to have a bit of mystery. I was doing a bit of rereading of Blake Bell's Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko in preparation for this review (and the upcoming review of the Bell-edited Strange Suspense volume), and realized that while that book is a biography, we learn little about Ditko the man beyond his principles, philosophy, and artistic theories and practices. He's comics' version of J.D. Salinger, and maybe we're better for it.

Sure, he still publishes work and he still writes letters to friend/publisher Robin Snyder's The Comics (which I've never seen in any comics shop, ever, but I digress), but that's just one aspect of the man. I can only be judged so far by my reviews, or emails, or online comments. Even a Ditko is not living Objectivism 24/7. He may have a decent sense of humor, who knows?

Craig Yoe has that little bit up on almost all the rest of us, in that he's corresponded with and even met Mr. Ditko. He's had that brush with greatness, savored it, and brings that anecdote here to a book that's in some ways a lavish package for that anecdote. Ironically, it seems reasonable based on the available evidence that Ditko might likely object to his private correspondence being used here apparently without permission, but let Yoe have this moment. It's only a small glimmer of a Ditko we haven't seen, and doesn't diminish the mystery.

It's with this fannish enthusiasm of Yoe's that the reader must accept The Art of Ditko. It's not an art book: Strange and Stranger actually has more original art, and the pieces in this book are a few Marvel and Warren pages that seem to be from Yoe's own collection. They're actually out of context in the book, which is mainly Charlton sci-fi and suspense stories from the mid-to-late '50s, with some '60s and early '70s pieces as well. The contents appear to be some of Yoe's available favorites, the Marvel and Warren pages nods to work owned by those publishers. The just under 200 pages of stories he is able to show, while varying pretty widely in both story and sheer craft, do paint an effective portrait of a restlessly creative artist, or at least they cut away at about the point Ditko's creativity is subsumed by his didacticism.

Yoe's a cartoonist himself, and in his introductory essay (half of which is the aforementioned anecdote), he concisely details a handful of the outstanding stories in the book and their key storytelling choices. "The 9th Life" is the only story here written by Ditko, and it's almost heartbreakingly earnest and wistful. Here is Ditko's dream girl in his dream world, a world that reflects the values he strives to uphold, seemingly alone, in the real world. "Imagination" and "The Blue Men of Bantro" also add shadings to the picture of Ditko as a sensitive, intense cartoonist. In fact, whether consciously or not, Yoe has selected other stories here that feature men out of step with those around them, men in the wrong time or shrunken or cast out. It's also true that one isn't likely to find many stories of camaraderie and contentment in horror and science fiction, but still, the tales do serve to add a bit to the myth of Ditko as the ultimate comics recluse. Consciously, however, Yoe seems to have chosen the majority of the stories simply because they have the most Ditkoesque art in them--aliens and panic-stricken eyes and nightmare worlds of crazy physics. As such, even if the "twist" ending is expected or corny, they're still pretty fun.

Yoe is a designer as well, and while I had some issues with the design of earlier Yoe-edited volumes in his Arf series, this one is pretty, with a gorgeous cover featuring a Ditko self-portrait, part of which is in glossy black ink to pop out from the rest, with a lovely red foil "Ditko" on the front and spine. The end papers, which use a detail from one of Ditko's stories for Eerie, are a smart choice, as is the repeating motif of the inkwell, reinforcing the idea of Ditko as not a dreamy fantasist but one of the harder-working cartoonists of his time.

The only place where Yoe gets off course, editorially speaking, is with his recruitment of several grand old men of comics. Well, P. Craig Russell isn't that old, and he actually has the most insight into Ditko as a creator. Jerry Robinson tells of his experience teaching a young Ditko the fundamentals of comics art. It's nice, but as it happened about 60 years ago, it unsurprisingly lacks detail. John Romita speaks respectively of Ditko's talent and principles and how it was tough to follow him on Amazing Spider-Man due to their very different styles, but he never actually talked to Ditko. Due to their difficult working relationship on the last year of ASM, it seems almost inappropriate to have Stan Lee write the Introduction to this book, but then we readers would be denied this hilarious hot/cold opening:

"It would be dead wrong for anyone but me to write this introduction. Not because I know Steve Ditko better than anyone. I don't. Steve is one of the most private people on Earth. He doesn't grant interviews and I haven't seen him in years."

The rest is respectful comments of Steve's work and, at best, a half-truth about how Steve came to become the plotter of ASM. Stan uses "inimitable" a bit much, but then, who's going to edit Stan? Yoe actually recalls Lee's style a bit in his introductory piece, where gets hyperbolic about this decent Ditko period of output being "comics at their zenith" or that splash panel being, "an unmatched accomplishment even in Ditko's oeuvre." It's a bit over-the-top, but for the most part he does at least call attention to the better aspects of the few stories he discusses. The book would probably be even better if he had spent a little more time discussing all the stories selected and why he chose them, and cut the brief gues essays and stray pieces of original art. Just as a collection of Ditko work, however, it represents a lot of what makes Ditko great and, yes, Stan, inimitable. We'll contemplate the islands and leave the oceans undrained.

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