Panning the murky old print stream for the odd glimmering nugget
Let There Be… Ditko!
Every comics aficionado has to have a favourite artist, right? Here’s mine. We’ll cover his work for all publishers and all genres, but with an accent on some lesser-known but highly worthwhile images that might otherwise escape your notice. -RG
« There’s no room for professional jealousy around the graveyard, chums… life is too short, as they say… but what comes after that short life may stretch into all eternity! »
I could carry on endlessly (or so it would seem) on any number of obscure topics, but it’s healthy, every once in a while, to take a deep breath, empty one’s mind of its flotsam and jetsam, and reach for an old favourite.
I hadn’t yet written anything about Steve Ditko‘s passing, as I figured it would get lost in the mad shuffle of tributes. That base was well-covered. Still, while I’d known all along the day would come, it was hard to imagine a world without that reclusive genius, likely my very first artistic inspiration.
I didn’t see much of Ditko’s 60s Marvel work until the late 70s pocket book reprints (the period equivalent of watching a movie on one’s cellphone), but the Charlton ghost books grabbed me at a tender age. And so…
As my candidate for Steve Ditko’s finest cover run, at any company, I submit issues 22-27 and 29-30 (curse you for the interruption, Joe Staton!), from January 1972 to March 1973, final year of Ditko’s peak period, imho.
That just about wraps it up. For further reading on the topic, I recommend you check out Ben Herman’s perspective on some of these very stories, and on Ditko’s spooky Charlton work of the 70s in general.
« Ape is real spooked, guys! He’s always imaginin’ he sees someone in there! »
Here we have an evocative Steve Ditko cover, solid evidence of his tremendous design chops, from Charlton’s Ghost Manor (no. 7, second series, October 1972). A collaboration between Joe Gill and Ditko, « The Monsters Ride at Night » is an elegant bit of storytelling legerdemain, a fairly basic yarn that retains its mystery past the conclusion and whose deliciously dusty mood lingers in the mind. Well, in mine, at any rate. Back in the late ’70s, I traded a copy of Amazing Spider-Man 121 (acquired at a garage sale in a two-for-five-cents deal) for this one. I know I came out ahead in the deal*.
Again, I had every intention of providing the whole spooky shebang right here, but seeing as how I was preceded in this particular enthusiasm by a sinister confrère, it seems unnecessary. Just dim the light, settle in, point your browser to Destination Nightmare, pour yourself a noggin of your preferred poison, and savour this fine vintage.
I’m particularly fond of the mid-tale interlude, where our esteemed host, Mr. Bones, seizes the occasion to poke around the cobwebs a bit, a narrative game that the Gill-Ditko duo excelled at. DC and Warren’s hosts (with the obvious exception of Vampirella) never got to play such an active rôle in their respective recitals.
Oh, and since we’re on the topic of early 70s Charlton ghost books, here’s one I picked up just this afternoon, in the 50 cents box of the local comic book shop in Wolfsville, NS. It clearly had been through such hardships, I couldn’t resist giving it a home.
Mechanical tentacles! Cephalopod monsters communicating by mental telepathy! Even Jimmy Olsen playing the part of a monster in an alien horror movie! Yes, it’s all this and more in this Tentacle Tuesday post (after which I’ll quit bugging you with various cephalopods until next Tuesday).
Head over to the Fourth Age blog for a further discussion (with pictures!) of the cover story from this issue, “Jimmy Olsen’s Private Monster!”, written by Jerry Siegel (ahem…) and illustrated by the aforementioned Curt Swan (pencils) and John Forte (inks).
The two-eyed, many-tentacled mechanized wonder appears again in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen no. 47 (September 1960):
In a similar line of thought (but some 15 years later), a more steampunk relative of the creature above appears in Swamp Thing.
And here’s a peek at the glorious (I’m a fan of Redondo) inside:
Here’s another file for our records of Tentacular fascination: the Boy Commandos’ intrepid gang of feisty moppets, tired of fighting Nazis, switch it up by doing battle with some tentacled robots.
I couldn’t very well have a mechanically-minded Tentacle Tuesday without mentioning Dr. Octopus, one of Spider-Man’s most famous foes! Otto Gunther Octavius, a.k.a. Dr. Octopus, a.k.a. Doc Ock was created by Steve Ditko, and first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man no. 3 (July 1963). Obviously I could feature a gallery of Dr. Octopus tentacles as long as your arm (pardon the confused anatomical terminology on my part), but I’ll limit myself to a couple.
First, The Amazing Spiderman no. 12 (May 1964), cover by Steve Ditko. The “Look who’s back!!” caption pointing to the Doc is rather mystifying, given that he was there in the previous issue.
Second, an underwater scene, because what element more appropriate for tentacles? Kudos to Doc Ock for making his perfectly watertight.
Dr. Octopus’ metallic appendages, resistant to radiation and of great strength and agility, were originally attached to a harness…. but became fused to his body after an explosion involving radioactivity (what else?) They were surgically removed, but he could now control them telepathically from a distance. Spooky.
It’s Ditquotation time! In 1974, the ever-ingenious lads of legendary English art design studio Hipgnosis threw in a subtle Steve Ditko / Doctor Strange appearance in their (re)design (for the US release) of the cover of Al Stewart‘s Past, Present & Future LP in 1974. The image it quotes hails from Strange Tales no. 137‘s When Meet the Mystic Minds! (October, 1965), where the Master of the Mystic Arts seeks a doorway to Eternity. And finds it.
« I’m going nowhere with nowhere to go* »
However, according to the designers, it first leads him to the front yard of a castle depicted on Al Stewart’s following LP, Modern Times (1975). Now you guys are messing with our poor, befuddled minds.
« If my memory serves me correctly, this was the first sleeve I worked on for Hipgnosis. Although, in the book ‘Walk Away Rene’ my good friend and mentor at that time,Terry Day (sadly no longer with us) is credited with working on it. A black and white montage. The figure was cut out physically and the back edges thinned and sanded and stuck in position with Columbia Cement. A Best Possible copy print was made, so now I have a flat print to work on, mounted on double weight mount board. Working to an elliptical guide on tracing paper, I carefully bleached to white the shape. Once washed and dried I then redrew some of the background with Photo Dye with a Sable brush, where the print had bleached a bit too far in the lighter areas. Finally, Permanent White was sprayed to make a sweet, soft edged shape. »
It wasn’t the first Dr. Strange reference Hipgnosis had inserted into an album cover: Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets (the studio’s first LP cover, actually) borrows an image from the not-exactly-outstanding Roy Thomas/Marie Severin entry, The Sands of Time, from Strange Tales no. 158. Frankly, few characters have been as lost without their creator as the poor doctor has been, especially on the visual front.
On the plus side, Al Stewart, seemingly impervious to the passage of time, remains a terrific performer and an inspired, if less prolific, songwriter. If he’s in town…
« Don’t be so sure! A guy that popular — he’d be a fool to fold up his act while he’s such a hot item!* »
I’ve been a Steve Ditko fan for as long as I can remember. In fact, I was a fan even before I actually saw his work. “How’s that even possible?”, you may ask. Well, when I was five, this neighbour from across the street was showing off a comic book he had just picked up, which was Teen Titans no. 29**. I was instantly captivated by two costumes on the cover: Hawk and Dove’s, designed by Ditko a couple of years earlier.
I do believe I had encountered a Ditko comic book just a bit earlier, a copy of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves no. 20 (June, 1970), acquired by my brother en route to the family vacation on Prince Edward Island. But that one had a (fine) cover by Pat Boyette, and I don’t recall the Ditko story within, « An Ancient Wrong ».
The bottom line is that Ditko’s been a precious part of my life for a spell. It would be easy to take him from granted, so let’s not, if you don’t mind.
Which brings us to our little tribute: running ninety covers covers would be about as practical as ninety candles on our birthday boy’s cake, so I’ll just drop a decimal and stick to a more manageable nine… I won’t even give a nod to such fickle and hollow notions as popularity, historical importance, or iconicity. I’m going with my favourites. That’s the way Steve would do it… and even if he wouldn’t, I’d still go this route.
*Jack Ryder (aka The Creeper)’s closing quip from “The Coming of the Creeper!”, plot and art by Steve Ditko, script by Don Segall (Showcase #73, Mar.-Apr. 1968, DC)
**Since it played such a crucial rôle in my Ditko inculcation, here’s the Teen Titans issue in question.
It surely won’t shock you that the most difficult decision, in such a countdown, lies in crowning numero uno. There are, after all, plenty of worthy candidates. But one also seeks to avoid undue repetition. After a couple of false starts, I opted for a long-time favourite that’s never received its due.
Here, then, is Steve Ditko (and an unknown scenarist)’s expertly-paced department store nightmare, “Halloween Scene”, from Scary Tales #7 (Sept. 1976, Charlton). It occurs to me that Mr. Ditko is about to turn 90 in a couple of days… they didn’t call him “Sturdy Steve” for the alliteration alone, as it turns out.
As a bonus (Hallowe’en comes but once a year, after all!), have a peek at the issue’s fine cover and its original art.
Well, that’s it for this year. Happy spookfest to all, and see you next time, hopefully.
I pity inanimate objects Because they cannot move From specks of dust to paperweights Or a pound note sealed in resin Plastic Santas in perpetual underwater snowstorms Sculptures that appear to be moving but aren’t I feel sorry for them all.
Godley and Creme – I Pity Inanimate Objects (1979)