Tuesday, January 19, 2010

STRANGE SUSPENSE: THE STEVE DITKO ARCHIVES Vol. 1

STRANGE SUSPENSE is a recently published hardcover collection from Fantagraphics featuring 34 of the 35 stories drawn by Steve Ditko published from 1953 to 1955, primarily for Charlton Comics after a few for other publishers, plus the 20 covers he drew for Charlton in that era.

The stories included being public domain, they're all readily available online, and all but a few have also been recently reprinted in black and white, along with other early Ditko work, in various books from Pure Imagination.  So this won't be a review of the actual stories and art (if you want to know what I think of each story, check over here, and you can read them all there as well) (since, as far as I know, neither Ditko nor anyone who wrote the stories is participating in the book financially, there shouldn't be any guilt about reading them for free online).  For the stories, I'd say about a third of them are just plain bad, of no interest apart from the drawings, a third are mediocre but solidly readable examples of comics from that era and a third have something more there (though sometimes that something more is lifted from other sources), though none would be considered a masterpiece on the strength of the words.  The art is consistently better than the writing, of course, and while it's often rough around the edges, especially in the first half, it's always interesting, especially if you're interested in Ditko's full career, as there are hints of his influences (some very heavy Eisner-esque moments early on) and his future (several horror landscapes beg comparison to his later Doctor Strange work, and you tell me if Rumpelstiltskin doesn't remind you of some later Ditko designs).  The covers are generally superior to the story artwork, though that might be mostly a function of better reproduction, and those include some genuine classics.

So apart from the actual quality of the stories, this book is an adequate but unexceptional presentation of the material. There's a limit to how good a reprint can be if the source material has to be actual printed comics from the 1950s, though what's possible overall has improved tremendously in the last decade.  Late in the last century a reprint of this quality probably would have been considered state of the art.  In 2010, I'd say it's solidly average, maybe give it a 6 or 7 out of 10.  Most of the choices made were right.  The paper is a nice thick non-glossy white that holds the colours well and not even a hint of what's printed on the other side of the page bleeds through.  The binding is a thing of beauty (an old annoyance of mine), I really wish someone would use this to show some other publishers what a properly bound hardcover looks like.  The 7x10 page size is a bit on the small side, but still close to what the original comics were printed at.  I suppose I'm spoiled by some larger reprints done recently (the Pure Imagination reprints of the same stories have about a 20% larger image area), and I know that given the print quality of the source material against modern printing technology there isn't really any extra detail that would come out in a larger print size, but still, I'm getting old and big letters are easier to read than small letters.

But, overall, it's pretty much just high quality scans of the printed comics with minimal digital tweaking to get rid of the most obvious artifacts of their low quality source (the age and grain of the newsprint and the ink bleeding through from the other side of the page).   There doesn't seem to be any attempt to adjust anything else, even obvious colour registration errors, but I understand why there wasn't, and in a way am glad there wasn't a minor effort made to do that, since if you're going to do those kinds of corrections, you really do need to go all the way.

Other than those 224 pages of comics and covers, the only supplemental material in here is the 6 page introduction by Blake Bell (the original solicitation mentioned "short essays by some of the comic book industry giants - Daniel Clowes, Gilbert Hernandez, etc.", but unless they were so short as to be microscopic they aren't here).  There's nothing much of interest in there that adds to the book, although the introduction does include the first page of the one Ditko story from the era not included in this collection, as well as an interesting alternative version of the final page of one story, where the last panel (which had no art, just a caption and a space for a newspaper clipping) was replaced in the printed version by an ad and pages from a few other stories of the era that might (or might not) have Ditko's hand in them.  Anyway, the full introduction is available in the Amazon preview of the book, so you can judge that for yourself.  One odd omission, as far as I noticed there's no mention anywhere in the book of Bruce Hamilton, the only known writer of any of these stories. Seems a shame to reprint his story and not include his credit (especially as it's one of the three best stories in here), or any of his account of working as a freelancer in comics in those days which adds a lot of background.

I'd say overall, if you really want to read the stories and appreciate the more important bits of Ditko's art, go with the Pure Imagination reprints (though they have their own flaws).  If colour is important to you, go with the scans available at the links above.  The quality varies, but the full comics add a nice measure of context to the stories, seeing them with the original surrounding stories and ads, and my versions, well, they're easy to find and they're free, what do you expect me to say about them.  If colour is important and you don't like to read comics on your computer screen, then I guess this is the book for you.  Or I guess you could print out the scans from those other sources, but it's probably easier to get this book.

So, overall, as I said, the book is adequate by the standards of the day.  I'd give it maybe a 6/10.  If the material in here wasn't so readily available elsewhere in forms I prefer I'd probably bump that up to an 8/10.

2 comments:

  1. I liked the book. It's a handy thing for me to have all these early stories in one hardcover book. (I usually don't like to read comics on computers for some reason.) It's an interesting thing about the lack of restoration, etc. If you compare it to one of the Marvel Masterworks books, the color on the Masterworks is all re-done and pops out at the reader -- which I personally find too distracting & consequently have a harder time reading them than I did the old 1970s color reprints of those stories (in various reprint comics Marvel put out back then). On the other hand, if someone is used to the Masterworks (and DC Archives) they might be a little shocked at the more purist "warts & all" approach of the Strange Suspense book. Ultimately, I think the Strange Suspense book probably did the right thing by siding with the unretouched historical artifact approach rather than trying to snag new readers by redoing them with nice coloring.

    One interesting thing to wonder about is whether the evaluation of Ditko's early work will change as the result of that work now being easily accessible. Back in the 1980s, I would hear about how great this pre-Code Ditko stuff was, but rarely got to see any of it, which made it take on more of a "legendary" reputation. Now the material is available, will it still be considered as great as it used to be?

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  2. Anonymous2:05 pm

    I think so. Ditko came out of the gate running and the quality of the work shines through. While it may be rough atound the edges in places, Ditko was learning quickly, and his talent grew rapidly.

    Nick C.

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