A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Tag: Steve Ditko

Random Notes: TV Comics, Back Issues and a 1990s Flashback

Sons of Anarchy #1

* Lots of TV shows (of the prestigious variety!) have been making the jump into comics, with Boom! putting out a very cool Sons of Anarchy series and Marvel taking Dexter on a tangent with a series by the character’s creator Jeff Lindsay and a second coming soon. That’s in addition to The X-Files: Season 10 series that’s more like the sort of thing you expect to see in comics. Sons of Anarchy is a show I’ve only tangentially watched, but I enjoyed the comic quite a bit.

Dexter #5

Marvel’s Dexter series was quite good and a lot better than the last few seasons of the Showtime series. I read the first Dexter book a few years back after Showtime dropped a copy in the gift bag from a Dexter TV show party at Comic-Con and really enjoyed it. Turns out there’s a long-running series of books that take Lindsay’s original idea in a different direction. Lindsay is enjoying doing comics (at least he said so on his Reddit blog). It’s always interesting to see creators from other fields tackle comics, and I think comics could benefit from more novelists jumping into the fray to counter the overdone screenwriting influences and the decompressed storytelling it inspires.

As for The X-Files: Season 10, I still think writer Joe Harris is doing a good job and it’s cool that creator Chris Carter is pitching in, too. I don’t think this show will ever quite re-capture the same zeitgeist it did in the 1990s, but it is nice to revisit the characters and ideas in comic book form, which has a bit more kind to the series than the big-screen sequel of a few years back.
Grendel #1

* I visit my old stomping grounds in Arizona once or twice a year, and finally managed to make time for a visit to All About Books and Comics. I used to frequent the store during summers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and always enjoyed the depth of the back issue selection in particular. I’m happy to report that hasn’t changed a bit, and a good portion of the store was devoted to selling inexpensive packs of classic comics runs from the past 30 years or so. I snagged a batch of Captain Canuck originals and the first 10 issues of Comico’s Grendel series, as well a lengthy run of the original Power Pack run — all for a great price. I briefly chatted with owner Alan Giroux about the old days and how much we both like shops that stock lots and lots of back issues. I am grateful that Los Angeles has so many great comics shops, but one that stocks back issues like All About is at this point just another item on my want list.

Shade: The Changing Man  #1

* Also in Arizona, I found some boxes of old Star Trek and V paperbacks from the late 1980s and early 1990s, along with a few relics from the speculator age of comics: three sets of X-Force #1, three sets of X-Men #1 and polybagged black cover and green cover copies of Spider-Man #1. I also found a poster from Atomic Comics’ 1993 Mega-Jam, signed by a ton of creators, including the late Steve Gerber. I don’t remember where it came from, as I didn’t attend the event, but it’s totally extreme, dude. And just to show I don’t have completely horrible taste, this box also included most of Steve Ditko’s 1970s DC Comics series Shade: The Changing Man. That was some funky, weird, cool stuff.

New Comics! And a Look at X-O Manowar #1

A couple quick notes:

First, an apology to all the folks who commented on the last few posts I put up. I had the settings emailing the wrong address for moderation, so I was unaware they were waiting for me to OK. I’ve updated the settings, so that shouldn’t happen again.

Second, for someone who’s kicked the superhero habit, I sure have a big pile of books on my desk. Take a look:

Some of these are comp copies, some are more indie-style comics that I’ve bought. I have bought a few superhero comics to sample, as well. The real difference is that it took about three months for the stack to get this big, when it used to take two or three weeks’ worth.

X-O Manowar #1

Anyway, there’s some interesting stuff in here. Let’s start with X-O Manowar from the revived Valiant Entertainment. This is the first release from a publisher with ambitions toward making a dent in the superhero audience dominated by Marvel and DC. It’s a polished comic book, but it also is aggravating in that it’s a great example of everything I think superhero comics are doing wrong these days.

This is an extra-size issue, with 29 pages of story in it. The story, by Robert Venditti of The Surrogates fame, is done well but it’s awfully decompressed. It’s an origin story, of course, that is essentially the same as it was in the original X-O series, though with a lot more details added in.

For those who didn’t read the original Valiant series, this series follows a barbarian from 402 AD named Aric who is abducted by these spider-like aliens and held in suspended animation for centuries before escaping to present-day Earth with possession of the aliens’ greatest weapon, a living suit of armor.

The biggest problem is not enough happens in this issue. We get lots of backstory on Aric and the problems he has in the fifth century, but we get barely a glimpse of the alien suit and we never get to see Aric wear it, use it or any hint that the action will move to the present day. In short, we get almost no idea what the series is going to be about or even what its style will be once we get out of the origin. Plus, I’m not certain what the story gains from all the extra info about Aric’s past. He’s essentially supposed to be Conan in Iron Man’s armor, and a historically accurate portrayal of the fifth century seems unnecessary.

The art by Cary Nord and Stefano Gaudiano is clear and well-drafted, with good coloring from Moose Baumann. But it also doesn’t stand out as particularly stylish or energetic, and that is perhaps a function of the pacing of the story itself.  

In contrast, the original X-O Manowar #1 (Feb. 1992) begins with Aric’s escape from the spider aliens, and shows his arrival on Earth, his first encounters with modern people and technology, and he gets to use the suit a lot to kick some alien ass. That issue also was drawn by the outstanding Barry Windsor-Smith, so it has some real flair to the art and drama to the storytelling that a lot of the contemporary Valiant titles lacked.  Even looking at X-O Manowar #0 (Aug. 1993), it manages to tell in a single issue the story that this new series only gets started on, with a lot more action. It boasts some early Joe Quesada art, and also is a particularly nice-looking book. The hardcover edition that came out a few years back is a great way to check these stories out. It also includes an early issue of the series penciled by Steve Ditko.

I doubt I’ll be back for another installment of this book — it’s just easier to wait and pick up the trade if I hear this turns out well. I am interested in Harbinger #1, as that was my favorite of the original Valiant titles and I’m curious to see if it’s any good. I do hope Valiant does well — it would be good to have another solid publisher in the business, especially if they are successful enough to eventually branch out with some new characters, titles and series.

The Fascinating, Frustrating Enigma of Steve Ditko

I love books about comics, the comic-book industry and the people who make comics. I wish there were a lot of them, because I think it’s worthwhile to document these events and people while we still can.

Which brings me to Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics, $39.99), in which author Blake Bell examines the life and work of one of comics’ greatest enigmas.

Almost anyone interested in superhero comics knows Ditko was the artist who co-created The Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Stan Lee. Those who go a bit deeper will know that Ditko also created some cool characters at DC Comics in the late 1960s and 1970s, including The Creeper, Hawk and Dove and Shade, The Changing Man. A few more willl remember him for doing layouts on the cult 1980s Marvel series Rom, and a dedicated few will have perused Ditko’s independent creations such as Mr. A. But given that Ditko has refused to be interviewed or appear in public for decades now, little else is really known about this artist, who created some of the most unnerving and interesting comics in the medium’s history.

Bell does the best job of any attempt I’ve ever seen to bring together everything we know about Ditko’s life and work. The result is fascinating, frustrating and eventually presents a sad portrait of an immense talent that withdrew from the world and denied it of his work and himself of the audience, acclaim and success that was easily within his grasp.

Unlike Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and most of the artists that broke into comic books in the so-called Golden Age, Ditko always wanted to work in the field. He was part of the first generation of comic book fans, specifically seeking out work and a career drawing and writing stories like those they had admired as children and fans. Both the quantity and quality of Ditko’s early comic book work surprised me. The glimpses Bell offers of the 1950s stories for Charlton and the company that would become Marvel are fascinating and have a quality that makes the idea of tracking down the best of those tales very attractive.

Where the tale of Ditko’s career starts to go off the rails is in the early 1960s, when he starts subscribing to the philosophy of Objectivism as put forth by author Ayn Rand primarily in the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I got about as far into Rand  as I did with L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth, and stopped reading the book before getting through even 100 pages of her preachy, boring and profoundly awful worship of fascist ideals.

The specifics of Rand’s philosophy aside, Ditko obviously found something in it that, at the very least, obsessed him. Obsession is a common theme with comics — fan is short for fanatic and everything about comics from the collecting to continuity to trivia to cosplay evokes some level of obsession. Whether there’s a direct connection, I doubt we’ll ever know because there are so few details about Ditko’s life, even in a book as relatively thorough as Bell’s.

To read about how Ditko’s strict adherence to Objectivism infected his work, of how he sought to inject Randian ideas into first Spider-Man and then series like Hawk and Dove, The Creeper, The Question, Blue Beetle and Shade and then walked away at the first sign of conflict is sad. It’s even sadder to see how much he pored into his Objectivist-inspired works like Mr. A while passing up repeated opportunities for commercial success at nearly every opportunity the moment they demanded even the slightest compromise of his ideals is even sadder.

It’s almost impossible to imagine, given what little we know, that Ditko hasn’t spent most of the last 40 or so years in the same studio with little to no contact with the outside world. No mention has ever been made of him having sustained a romantic relationship (though Will Eisner said in Eisner/Miller that Ditko has a son), or enjoying much of anything outside of ruminating over Rand or drawing comics. 

Could Ditko be a first-generation fanboy, an 83-year-old whose life was spent obsessing first over comics and later over a juvenile political philosophy that only makes sense within a self-imposed bubble? Is he that cut off from the world, that afraid of compromising even the slightest ideal that he’s completely shut himself off from the world around him? Is he happy with his life and his work? Or does he have regrets?

It’s not like Ditko has been completely silent, though he mostly has put his side of things out in letter and essays that disallow any kind of direct questioning. I was similarly annoyed and frustrated by Ditko’s lengthy essays in The Comics newsletters (passed on to me by Batton Lash shortly after I served as a judge for the Eisner Awards a few years back). He’s also written letters of protest to various magazines and writers, though he never makes himself available to answer questions. I found it odd that Ditko has no problem lambasting Stan Lee in writing but, according to an episode Bell recounts, got along famously with Lee at their last meeting to discuss a potential comics project sometime in the early 1990s. Does Ditko lack the courage to voice his convictions in a public forum, where he and his ideals can be tested and questioned?

I truly hope not, but it’s hard to argue that Ditko’s adherence to Objectivism hasn’t cost him dearly. He’s passed up chance after chance to continue to make comics with impact, that speak to and entertain a wide audience while bringing him more personal acclaim and financial success than he’s found doing his small-press rants.

Nothing would make me (and, I’m sure, Bell) happier than for Ditko to come forth and answer some of these questions. Unfortunately, that seems highly unlikely, leaving only the chance that some clues to his life and work will come to light only posthumously.

Comic du jour: Giant-Size Man-Thing #1 (Aug. 1974)

I bought this comic recently at flea market pretty much only because of the title. In general, swamp monsters and 1970s horror comics have never held much interest for me, but this was a lot more fun than I expected.

I imagine a lot of that comes down to writer Steve Gerber, who gives the story a kind of hip, tongue-in-cheek quality that keeps things lively. How else can you describe a story in which some occultists worship The Golden Brain, which falls into the swamp and emerges as a blank slate in a perfect body and joins a sort of hippy commune based on alternative energy sources. The cultists, who lost the brain during a scuffle with the Man-Thing, are ruled by a guy name Yagzan, who looks a lot like Richard Nixon. (And yes, there’s a bit of serendipity with a Nixon lookalike in an issue cover-dated with the month he resigned as president.)

There’s also a hip city radio reporter named Richard Rory, who looks a lot like Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Roy Thomas. Of course, Yagzan conjures a muck monster to fight with Man-Thing and the Man-Thing wins out, with Yagzan during to stone or something and sinking into the swamp. All of this is pretty fun, with fun art from Mike Ploog and Frank Chiaramonte and that color palette that only existed in the 1970s from Petra Goldberg.

All in all, a cool story, but there also was a great trilogy of backup tales reprinting monster tales from pre-hero Marvels drawn by Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. I get why some folks really love these little oddball gems — they’re simple and fun diversions — even though I’m not likely to spend the big bucks on Marvel Masterworks or Omnibus editions because while the art is good, the stories just remind of other versions that I think work better (even though these comics came first).

For example, the ending of Ditko’s “Ice-Monster Cometh” reminds me of the gorilla gag at the end of Trading Places, while the plot device in “Goom! The Thing from Planet X,” in which the rampaging alien turns out to be a child, falls short of many similar tales told later on in the various incarnations of Star Trek. (I’m thinking in particular of “The Squire of Gothos.”) And I can’t help but evoke in my mind the bass player for U2 when the scientist in “I Was the Invisible Man!” introduces himself as Adam Clayton.

All in all, a cool comic with a funny name.

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