The Art of Ditko
illustrated by Steve Ditko
edited by Craig Yoe
Let’s get my one complaint out of the way: This isn’t an art book. It’s a collection of a lot of public-domain stories by the great Steve Ditko (cocreator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and iconoclastic artist of underground comics like Mr. A), but it is not a book about him or his art.
Despite that little labeling gaffe, the book does present us with nearly 200 pages of rare Ditko short stories culled from the pages of various Charlton Comics titles from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Charlton was a low-paying publisher whose books were notoriously poorly printed, but they gave Ditko and some of their other creators great artistic freedom, and the results, collected here, can be pretty astounding.
A word of warning: As I said, Charlton comics were not well-printed, and the stories in this book are scanned directly from the published comic books, not the original artwork. As a result, the lines break down, the colors bleed, and the text is often muddy. But the stories are more than readable, and the scans capture the physical product of the comics of the day nicely. Just don’t expect crisp and clear reproduction or modern coloring.
Almost all of the stories here (few of which are credited to the original authors) fall into the 4–8 page “twist ending” horror/SF genre that was so popular back then. Unfortunately, the stories themselves rarely live up to the artwork and just as rarely give Ditko the chance to shine through the entire tale. Most of these “surprises” can be seen coming from the very first panel, but they do have their charm and style, if few actual teeth. (Remember that these were published at a time when most comics were neutered by the Comics Code Authority, which forbid stories to feature sex, violence, crime, or anything of substance.)
Let’s take the first story in The Art of Ditko as an example. “A World of His Own” was first published in Strange Suspense Stories #32 in 1957. The story features an old man who buys a fascinating painting only to find that it opens to another world full of bizarre imagery and potential wealth. Ditko’s artwork for the first three pages of this story don’t accomplish much; in fact, it’s fairly pedestrian. But the fourth and fifth pages, set behind the doorway of the magic painting, show Ditko at his amazing best: bizarre angles, surreal landscapes, imaginative use of lines and shadows, and abstract faces full of emotion. It’s an astonishing sequence, weakened only by the illogical “twist” ending on page six.
“Who’s There?”, a story from The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves #38 (1967) is another beast entirely. The twist only occurs in the last panel, and it’s a gentle one. The point of the story is the intense personal trauma undergone by the main character, and Ditko crams the pages with emotional shots of a man falling apart from fear and nightmares. Joe Gill is credited as the writer, and he gave Ditko a story that played to his strengths at every level.
The next two stories—“Impossible, But…” from This Magazine Is Haunted #16 (1958) and “The Heart of Jeremy Mith” from Doctor Graves #31 (1972)—show off Ditko’s incredible layouts. Eschewing the regular six-panel grid used by so many comics of the day, Ditko mixes things up. “Impossible” features panels of multiple sizes, presenting the story from the point of view of the protagonist, the antagonist (a TV set), and the ghostly character that hosted the magazine. “Heart” is subtly weirder. The tale is presented as “from the files of Doctor Graves” (again, the host of the magazine), and every panel is shaped like a tabbed manila folder that came from a filing cabinet. Ditko really lets loose on the final two pages as the story gets more and more emotional, piling panel on top of panel to illustrate the chaos of the situation. (It’s too bad the writing in neither of these stories lives up to the artwork.)
“Routine,” from Doctor Graves #7 (1968), shows off artwork that would have been at home in any issue of Doctor Strange from the same period. Ditko presents a hallucinatory world full of surreal transformations and unearthly landscapes. Sure, the story doesn’t live up to it, but you can stare at these pages for hours.
One of Ditko’s most famous panels shows up as the opening page of “The Time Machine,” from Charlton Premier #4 (1968). The art depicts a time capsule catapulting through time, with at least eight different eras glimpsed through concentric circles along its path. It’s an amazing drawing that sets off a story that, unfortunately, was already clichéd 10 years before it was published.
One of the most affecting stories is “Little Boy Blue” from Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #10 (1958). This tale of a jazz horn player whose music creates a magic moment is both subtle and haunting, proving that Ditko didn’t need to dip into his surreal bag of tricks to tell a good story.
One story in this book is truly a revelation: “The 9th Life,” from Ghostly Tales #85 (1971). In this story, obviously written by an uncredited Ditko, a man who is dissatisfied with the modern world travels back in time to what he thinks will be a simpler, kinder place. He finds the exact opposite, and further trips through time show him even worse. Every element of this story, from the situations to the dialogue to the picture of the scales of justice hidden between panels, shows this to be a true prototype of the underground work—especially the Randian “black is black” hero, Mr. A—which Ditko would begin to produce this same year.
The rest of the stories are a mixed bag, but there’s at least something interesting in each of them.
Several pieces of Ditko's original art are scattered throughout this book, photographed in a loving way that shows off every bit of yellowed paper, crusty correction fluid, and stroke of the brush. There are also a number of essays by a few people who kind of-sort of knew or worked with Ditko, but they don’t offer any real insight into the man or his work.
And I guess that is appropriate. Ditko doesn’t talk about his work, doesn’t grant interviews, and doesn’t allow himself to be photographed. He prefers to let the work speak for itself, and that is what The Art of Ditko does. You can read these stories, revel at the artwork, and come to your own conclusions about the man who produced them and his place in comics history.
Maybe that was Yoe’s intention. But I still think the book was misnamed.
-- John R. Platt