Monday, July 18, 2005

THE STEVE DITKO READER v3

Recently released is THE STEVE DITKO READER v3, another 160 page collection of Ditko's work for Charlton in the 1950s (plus one later gem) from Pure Imagination. This is also the third major Ditko reprint book of the year, following one from Marvel and one from Vanguard and it the one I was most looking forward to.

Ditko's work of that era is always worth a look, and this is a nicer and more varied sampling than the other recent books have provided. About half of the stories hadn't been reprinted before, and even among the others the reprints aren't always easy to find (books published by Eclipse or Robin Snyder in the 1980s). I have them, but then, I'm probably insane...

I've listed all the contents below. I'm going to try to try to spread out the reading of this rather than taking the whole thing at once, and will add a few comments on each story as I read them.

The cover is actually from a 1960s fanzine, not a Charlton comic, although it's very much in the spirit of his covers there, with a classic sci-fi theme, ray-gun wielding hero, dangerous beasties and a fanciful background. Fun stuff, and it looks really nice in colour (I assume it was black and white in the original, as it was in the prior reprint where I first saw it).

"Avery and the Goblins" from THE THING #13 (Apr 1954) - Among Ditko's earliest stories, maybe a dozen stories into his career, already showing most of his distinctive touches. This is a clever haunted house stories that gives him a chance to do some heavily moody work evocative of one of his influences, Will Eisner. Heavy shadows, lots of smoke effects. I especially liked what he did with some of the goblin's doors, which show the same design sense he would refine a decade later in Doctor Strange.

"The Payoff" from STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES #20 (Aug 1954) - One of the reasons I prefer this book to the Vanguard book is that it gives a wider range of the genres Ditko did in that era, rather than just the sci-fi/fantasy. This is a spy thriller set in Eastern Europe back in the early days of the Cold War, about a female spy trying to sell a smuggled vial of a deadly plague. Very smart and swift story, still very early but you could see the Ditko hands developing.

"Von Mohl Vs. The Ants" from STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES #20 (Aug 1954) - A story about an ant invasion of a plantation in Africa, and how one greedy landowner tries to turn it back. Oddly, one of the few short stories I remember reading in junior high was about the same thing, and while I don't remember it clearly, I suspect that vast tracts of this story are lifted from it. Either that or maybe ants attacking plantations was a common theme in pulp fiction. Anyway, insects are a Ditko specialty, so he does well with them here even if they aren't of the giant variety, and an overall nice sense of place on an exotic locale.

"What Happened" from OUT OF THIS WORLD #3 (Mar 1957)

"The Supermen" from OUT OF THIS WORLD #3 (Mar 1957) - An old favourite of mine from previous reprints, this is a story about some scientists who begin to mutate to an advanced mental state thanks to a radiation leak. One of the better surprise endings of these kind of stories, and a few very uniquely Ditko storytelling tricks along the way. Plus any story where people mutate to big-headed geniuses is worth having.

"They Didn't Believe Him" from MYSTERIES OF UNKNOWN WORLDS #3 (Apr 1957)

"A Forgotten World" from MYSTERIES OF UNKNOWN WORLDS #3 (Apr 1957) - Kind of an oddly written story. It's about a man who wanders into an underground civilization that's extremely hot, and winds up under a death sentence. Seems to be going somewhere but then has a disappointingly abrupt final page ending. Nice art, including one of those Ditko women with the odd hair. By the way, I love the title lettering on some of these stories. I wonder if Ditko did that himself or there was someone at Charlton was good at those. The actual story lettering is usually solid but unspectacular at this point (before their "A. Machine" era).

"The Man Who Could See Tomorrow" from UNUSUAL TALES #7 (May 1957) - This story is missing a page, unfortunately. It's pretty easy to extrapolate what happens in the missing page, and I'll see if I can get a copy of that page. Anyway, this is another of those short fantasy stories that are more about the technique that Ditko employs, with a lot of very evocative looks at the eyes of the lead character in some extreme closeups.


"The Man Who Painted on Air" from UNUSUAL TALES #7 (May 1957) - Amusing little story about a down-and-out promoter who finds an artist capable of making paintings in the air before him, which quickly dissolve. The promoter decides he can exploit this and plans a major show to which he invites all sorts of national leaders, before suspecting that something might not be kosher. Gives Ditko a good chance to draw some unusual situations and angles, and kind of has a plot that foreshadows something in an early SPIDER-MAN.

"The Flying Dutchman" from OUT OF THIS WORLD #4 (Jun 1957)

"Director of the Board" from STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES #33 (Aug 1957)

"The Mirage" from MYSTERIES OF UNKNOWN WORLDS #5 (Oct 1957) - A clever little jail-break story about an escapee who has to cross a vast desert to get away. There's some nice writing in here, and Ditko's art reinforces the theme of this convicts determination to be different from other failed escapees, and how that leads to his eventual downfall.

"All Those Eyes" from OUT OF THIS WORLD #6 (Nov 1957)

"The Man Below" from TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER #5 (Nov 1957)

"Above the Topmost Peak" from TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER #5 (Nov 1957) - An interesting short about a mountain climber, with a kind of predictable but well done ending. The most interesting thing in this tale is the use of the "Mysterious Traveler" narrator. In his book he's always around in the background of a few panels, sometimes in interstitial linking panels, but in this story for some reason he's this giant head floating in the background of every single panel, making for a very visually arresting story out of one that otherwise would have been routine.

"The Sultan" from TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER #5 (Nov 1957)

"Night of the Red Snow" from UNUSUAL TALES #9 (Nov 1957)

"Free" from STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES #35 (Dec 1957) - Odd 3-page short notable for a different art technique, a detailed stippling pattern used for the shading on the underwater scenes. There are a few times he would use such a look in his later work, but not much. It's always interesting when Ditko experiments with techniques, like his later ink-wash work.

"The Strange Fate of Captain Fenton" from MYSTERIES OF UNKNOWN WORLDS #6 (Dec 1957) - Adventures out at sea, which are always fun. I love the way Ditko draws boats. This features a cruel captain who eventually faces karmic justice from an unexpected direction when his ship capsizes and (abandoning his men) he winds up among a tribe on a Pacific island, apparently fulfilling a prophecy.

"Mister Evriman" from TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER #6 (Dec 1957) - Unfortunately missing a page in the middle, although not one crucial to the story (the page numbering is changed, too, which makes me think this was edited in a prior reprint). This story is about TV quiz shows, very much a product of its time when TV was sort of between the big new thing and a taken-for-granted part of everyday life in the US. Ditko got a chance to draw some interesting faces in this one as part of the plot.

"When Old Doc Died" from TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER #6 (Dec 1957) - Another one of my old favourites, this tells the story of a small town doctor and what happens when he goes up to heaven and beyond. I especially like how Ditko varies the linework during various parts of the story for the different settings, and there's a clever story that Ditko is able to fully realize, as a lot of this story depends on some facial expressions.

"The Old Fool" from TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER #6 (Dec. 1957) - Another old favourite from a prior collection, and good thing too because this version is missing the final page. Frustrating, to be sure. Anyway, this is a vignette about a strange old hermit living in a small town, and how the Mysterious Traveler reveals his secret to us. An oddly touching story.

"Tomorrow's Punishment" from TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER #6 (Dec 1957) - Mystic objects abound in stories of this era, and this is a good example, with a mirror that tells the future. Great bit in the opening where a thief buys the mirror, with some other odd objects in the antique shop, the kind of stuff Ditko does so well. Anyway, the thief uses the mirror to decide which jobs he and his men will succeed in, but of course as happens in these things eventually greed and arrogance collide and it all comes to a bad end. Some very clever visual bits which bring to mind another story involving mirrors that Ditko would do later, but much more proficiently.

"Mystery Planet" from STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES #36 (Mar 1958)

"The End of Edward" from TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER #9 (Sep 1958)

"The Shining Stallion" from BLACK FURY #17 (Jan 1959) - Ditko did relatively few westerns in his career, maybe a dozen stories, under 100 pages. A shame as his style really does seem to fit the material, so it's always good to see one of those few examples in a reprint. This particular story features the title character, Black Fury, an untamed stallion out on the western trail who carried a book from a surprisingly long time. In this story, an outlaw tries to capture him in a fenced off corral, but of course he escapes. Fun stories in small doses, I'm not really sure how the book lasted a dozen years except for the usual, y'know, it's Charlton.

"The Great Escape" from SPACE ADVENTURES #27 (Feb 1959)

"With the Help of Hogar" from FANTASTIC GIANTS (Sep 1966) - A great later story, also the longest story in the book at 10 pages, this is a nice one to finish the book with as an example of the definitive form Ditko's work took in his most prolific period following those early years of development with a similar type of story. This is the story of a meteor that lands in Africa, which an evil and ambitious witch-doctor forms into a giant monster which comes to life thanks to a mix of radiation and lightning. Interestingly this is written entirely in captions, so there are no bubbles covering the artwork, which shows of some of Ditko's strengths even more than most.

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