Thursday, November 3, 2011

Happy Birthday, Steve Ditko!

That's right! It's Steve Ditko's birthday, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate the birth of Spider-Man's co-creator than with a big ol' gallery of his artwork. But, much as I love his Spider-Man, and much as I'll always be blown away by the surrealist landscapes he created on Dr. Strange...

click to embiggen ... then trip your ass off!
...I honestly don't think those books represent his best work.
click to embiggen
Okay, maybe Dr. Strange. Anything that could inspire such 70s blacklight poster insanity as seen above simply HAS to be among anyone's best work. Just because.

But his early work on 1950s horror comics was often more detailed and imaginative. And in his work for smaller publishers like Charlton, Ditko felt the freedom to experiment more wildly, and the results were often quite stunning. So it's that work I want to salute tonight: the early, the weird, the obscure Ditko. I'll try to keep my comments to a minimum for once, and just let the art speak for itself. Let's start at the beginning, with a few samples of the great man's earliest, pre-Code artwork...

There's a heavy EC Comics / Wally Wood influence on Ditko's sci-fi work in this era, which was both aesthetically and (no doubt) commercially pleasing, but it also shows Ditko's range. As instantly identifiable as his style later became, it's odd to see. Though I can see bits of the Ditko style peeking through in each of these, I might not have picked them out of a line-up as his work. This next one (obviously post-Code) even betrays a gift for delicacy I didn't think he had in him:

That's a late-50s illustration, I believe, but it looks like something Michael Kaluta might have done in the 70s. Beautiful. Of course, I can see things that might have influenced Bernie Wrightson on those covers to This Magazine is Haunted 21 and The Thing 17, too. So the great man's influence on the next generation of comics artists may have been more widespread than I know.

(And how great are some of those Charlton series titles? I've praised "This Magazine is Haunted" before, but having a monster comic called "The THING!" is also pretty brilliant. Even "Unusual Tales," mundane as it sounds in comparison, has a nice ring to it.)

It was also at Charlton that Ditko's interest in surrealism first surfaced. This side of Ditko was given more commercial expression on those Doctor Strange landscapes at the top, but it all started here...

Holy crap will you look at that last one?! I'm not even sure what he's trying to do there, but my god! It's like some kind of Grant Morrison nightmare! The print sections of the body are the most stunning to me, I think. "Strange, different, and unusual," indeed!

Compare those to these early Marvel covers he did around the same time:

Those are plenty good, don't get me wrong. That second one, in particular, is a nice exercise in minimalism. But they're far more conventional, and don't take nearly as many chances as those Charlton covers did. Of course, the creative freedom offered by Charlton came with a price: low pay, and (in the long term) a less stable source of income. So Ditko took more work from Marvel, turned in less inspired work, and eventually became disgruntled with his lot in life. After leaving Marvel, he went on to DC, where, though it often feels as if his work was less valued, he turned in slightly more energized super hero material:

That last one there is a great example of one of Ditko's "face" pictures, covers or splash pages filled with giant looming faces. Here's one of his earliest:

...and one done in the next phase of his career, the 1970s:

That's a rare moment of brilliance from Ditko in this era. Having become disillusioned by his mainstream comics work, he took what almost seem like odd jobs here and there, doing covers like the one above and popping up on comics like Marvel's ROM and Micronauts toy tie-in books, but mostly just chugging away doing more low-paying work for Charlton. His art had become far more stylized and simplified by this time, often lacking the detail, experimentation, and shading that made his earlier work so compelling. Sure, you'd occasionally get something really good out of it, like this 70s Charlton horror cover:

But for the most part, his best years were behind him.

Not to end on a sad note, though, I'll leave you with two kinda cool pieces of Ditko's later work. First, a very rare Ditko illustration of Superman, from one of that character's many anniversary issues in the 80s:

Sure, it's not great, and the fashions on that all-American family Supes is protecting in the background show just how out of touch Ditko had gotten with modern society. But, man, those are some great leering bad guys on the left!

And finally, I'll leave you with one of my all-time favorite Ditko pieces, his own self-portrait:


  1. Always have loved that self portrait... the mask over the face, yet the see-thru cranium.