Trouble with Comics

It was just another comic book art job.
Steve Ditko on Amazing Spider-Man.
The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2 - Unexplored Worlds

Writers - Joe Gill, Various

Artist - Steve Ditko

Editor - Blake Bell

Publisher - Fantagraphics. $39.99 USD

This second volume of Fantagraphics’ chronological (in terms of creation rather than publication) reprinting of comics by moralizing maestro Steve Ditko finds the young cartoonist rebounding from a battle of several months with tuberculosis in 1956 to emerge into the beginning of a great period of prolificacy. Ditko found work at Timely/Atlas, which would eventually become Marvel Comics, including his first collaboration with Stan Lee, but the majority of the work here was produced for Charlton, which paid less than the industry standard but at least paid on time. 

The other benefits for Ditko were steady work and very little editorial interference, so that he was able to refine his style and storytelling skills quickly. If one story didn’t come out quite the way he wanted, there was always another script ready for him to start drawing. 

Although it’s unclear who wrote these stories, it’s certain that Charlton regular Joe Gill wrote many of them. He was their lead writer, and at a rock bottom rate of $2 a page, Gill had to keep the work coming to make a living. This quantity-over-quality approach results in most of the stories here being, in Gill’s own words, “shitty.” Most of them are science fiction or horror stories with slim premises just deep enough to warrant the four or five pages they’re given. The best ones have a predictable, O. Henryesque twist ending, not unlike the work Stan Lee was writing for Marvel at the time, and the worst ones seem to cut off abruptly or with slapdash, even nonsensical endings. It’s possible Ditko may have written a few, but if so, his Objectivist philosophizing and intense outsider ethos have yet to emerge in his writing. There may be a tale or two here that does find a character who wants to get away to a better world, like the vaguely pedophiliac “The Man Who Stepped out of a Cloud,” but if this isn’t unlike some later Ditko-scripted stories, well, it’s also logical that a script monkey for a third-rate comics publisher like Gill or other Charlton writers might share those fantasies.

The value in this volume is not in the stories themselves, which are not just generally poor but irritating in large doses, but in tracking how Ditko’s art develops. Amid the stock characters of hapless dullards, five o’clock shadow Everymen and saturnine businessmen and the typical rocketships and ray guns of the day, Ditko gains confidence and consistency in his depictions, and an ability to pack more information into fewer images and to guide the reader’s eye across the page for maximum impact. His ability to convey otherworldly horrors flowers as well, especially in a story like “A World of His Own,” which benefits from a terrifically colored sequence where Ditko alternates panels of yellow, gray and orange, the figure within the same color as the background, as if with a filter used in film. It’s not a steady progression but a fascinating one, as taking these stories in order, one sees Ditko constantly experimenting with line weight to mixed results, the amount of effort put into creating texture with ink sometimes diluting the power of the composition. Still, there’s a good deal to enjoy in seeing how Ditko solves problems and attempts to add drama and imagination to the hokey stories.

—Christopher Allen