Classic Comics Cavalcade: Steve Ditko at Warren Magazines Jason Sacks August 1, 2014 Classic Comics Cavalcade, Columns A big part of what makes Steve Ditko such a great artist is that he's so internal, which is to say that much of what Ditko draws best is the kinds of things that generally live in a reader's head – emotions, philosophy, a complex inner life. Where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Ditko's great rivals and collaborators and oh-so-ambiguous friends (if such a word applies to the relationships of staffers at Marvel in the late '50s and early '60s) were relentlessly outward facing, external, their work and influence was important due to the way they created a world that was big and bold and bombastic. Ditko's world has always been smaller, more internal. It's not for nothing that the signature image of Kirby's work is an explosion while the signature image of Ditko's work is a crew-cutted man, in terror with sweat pouring down his forehead. That's the image that I think of when I think of Ditko, anyway, and that image has just grown in my mind in the last few years. Pretty much from the moment he left his collaborations with The Man, Ditko has been following an ever more internal landscape of exploration, a world more and more complex and obscure to the average man. He follows his own muse, but that very same muse is the reason that characters like Static and Rac Shade and Starman and even the Creeper never captured the attention of anyone other than the members of the Ditko cult (of which I proudly count myself as a member). It took tremendously skilled collaborators to understand these odd, idiosyncratic worlds that Ditko created, and turn that mental space into something special. Some of us want to shoehorn Stan's collaborations with Steve into that category, and much of the work the pair did early on with Amazing Spider-Man and on their short, glorious run on The Hulk fit that category. But the later issues of Amazing and the vast majority of Ditko's "Doctor Strange" run captured Ditko's uniquely internal way of looking at the world. In fact, his brilliant work on "Doctor Strange" can be seen as a parable for Ditko's quest for obscure knowledge to improve himself while a thoroughly apathetic world simply ignores him. (Hmmm… I think there's an essay in that topic one day!) Thankfully we have the 16 stories that Ditko did at Warren Magazines in 1966 to '68 to see Ditko's complex inner life channeled through an empathetic collaborator. Archie Goodwin, who wrote all but one of the stories, was outstanding at finding the emotional core of stories that would engage and excite Ditko. Almost all of these stories – even the most banal, really – have an introspective emotional energy that obviously delighted Ditko, because he did some of the finest work of his career on these stories. Every story Ditko drew for Warren was a delight, and a few are among the greatest comics that Ditko created in his entire long carrer. Come with me now and explore the wonderful world of Ditko at Warren. "The Spirit of the Thing"Creepy #9Art style: ink washShort plot summary: A dark figure attacks a man at an apartment house. It turns out that the figure is the ethereal spirit of Professor Jerome, seeking dark revenge.Ditkoisms: Ethereal bodies, sweating faces, horrified eyes staring at a figureComments: The first of Ditko's wash pieces for Warren, and one of his most memorable stories. Blake Bell says in Strange and Stranger that this story is only the second time in his whole career that Ditko used wash inks, and the artist does a masterful job of illustrating in that style. Ditko's use of light and darkness is on gorgeous display in this story, which of course is accentuated by the beauty of the wash work. The use of ethereal bodies is unique, and different from how they're used in Ditko's "Doctor Strange" stories. This aspect of the story also sets Ditko's collaborations with Stan Lee in a slightly different light. Also "The Spirit of the Thing" prominently features a zombie, which makes it feel really contemporary. "Collector's Edition"Creepy #10Art style: Intricate linework contrasted with a recurring Craftint insetShort plot summary: A shopkeeper finds a very, very rare and very, very powerful mystical book for an extremely demanding client. But the power of the book brings an evil end to everybody involved with it.Ditkoisms: Repeating inset panels, strange mysticism, hectoring wife, intense eyesComments: Arguably the best-remembered of all of Ditko's stories at Warren, and perhaps one of the most gorgeous stories of Ditko's entire career, this story conveys a relentless intensity with its subjective viewpoint, its obsessed characters, and, most of all, an incredible visual inventiveness. The motif of the repeating eyes on each page is incredibly creative and compelling, and the final page has a tremendous power. "Beast Man!"Creepy #11Art style: ink washShort plot summary: Ames is a hulking man who works at a carnival, fighting all comers as "The Gorilla". Ames believes that he has a gorilla's heart, placed in his body by an unscrupulous surgeon. Ditkoisms: The overwhelmingly sad face of Ames in several panels is almost haunting in its forlornness.Comments: This story starts out looking like a standard werewolf story, but takes a quick turn into a surprising psychological drama. Ames's story is familiar, but Ditko's mastery in his depiction of facial features along with some spectacular wash art helps to deliver a memorable story "Blood of the Werewolf!"Creepy #12Art style: ink washShort plot summary: A man gets laid off from his job and, on the worst drunken bender that anyone can imagine, wakes up strapped to a table in the office of a mad doctor. The doctor transfers his son's lycanthropy to the jobless man, which wreaks havoc in the man's life Ditkoisms: Fearful eyes, intense facesComments: This story is one of the weakest of Ditko's career at Warren, and as such is maybe a bit symptomatic of the decline that the magazine was suffering at that time. The wash work delivered by Ditko in this tale is still awfully nice, though, and the shot of the werewolf pouncing on a psychologist on the penultimate page of the story is gorgeous. "Second Chance!"Creepy #13Art style: ink washShort plot summary: A man is brought to Hell to get a chance to renounce a deal he made with the devil.Ditkoisms: Bizarre mystical realms, bizarre creatures Comments: This is one of the most gorgeous stories Ditko drew for Warren, and a special treat for those who love his "Doctor Strange" stories. This tale features lots of images that are reminiscent of his art in those stories. His vision of Hell reminds me a bit of the realm of the Dread Dormammu. There are mystical tendrils, worlds within worlds, giant floating eyeballs and giant insect-like creatures. All of this is illustrated in some of the finest wash art of Ditko's career. The story seems suffused in shadows, and even the first page – which doesn't take place at all in Hell – is atmospheric as can be. Though the story is slight, Ditko really embraces it. And page two of this story is as insanely scary as anything that Ditko ever illustrated. "Where Sorcery Lives!"Creepy #14Art style: ink wash with white gouache paint overlays, bizarre creaturesShort plot summary: The heroic sword-and-sorcery hero Garth rescues his beautiful love Tanya from the horrible mystic warrior Salamand the Sorcerer. Along the way he fights strange mystical creatures, and he ends up defeating the villain in a strange way. Ditkoisms: Bizarre mystical realms, extremely heroic heroes Comments: This is one of the first sword and sorcery stories to appear in American comics, and gave Ditko a chance to illustrate the story of a much more heroic protagonist than the ones he usually depicted at that time. This story features some wonderful scenes and some gorgeous storytelling, especially the confrontation on the last page. Ditko's ability to show real emotions on faces is on proud display in this story. "City of Doom!"Creepy #15Art style: ink washShort plot summary: Another sword and sorcery story, this one features barbarian Thane, who is stretched out on a spit of sand when we meet him. Birds are eating his flesh like Prometheus, but Thane is a warrior through and through. Thane escapes that trap, and is ready to seek vengeance against the Scythians, who had imprisoned him. But Thane quickly meets the mysterious Kadith, High Priestess of the strange town of Kadith. And what he encounters in Kadith will be fearsome. Ditkoisms: Heroic heroes, betraying women Comments: The scenes that take place in the Escher-like town of Kadith have a beautiful stark strangeness to them. Ditko uses camera angles that accentuate the town's strangeness, and make Thane's plight more obvious. This sort of storytelling is typical of this master artist, who would always use the perfect angle to make any scene more powerful. The story is full of moments that Ditko accentuates brilliantly to make it more dark and mysterious. The pull-back that reveals the fate of Thane's rival Ultor is gorgeous – Ditko reveals the truth of his situation slowly but logically, accentuating that horror. Though this story is nominally a sword and sorcery story, it has some very horrific elements to it. "The Sands that Change!"Creepy #16Art style: ink wash with a charcoal effectShort plot summary: While honeymooning with his wife in the Mojave Desert, artist Tom Newman takes a moment to create a new character for his publisher. He is inspired to create a giant, terrifying monster that comes to life and tries to kill the couple. Ditkoisms: This is a pretty unique story and I have trouble finding classic Ditko tropes. The wife is beautiful, though – these last four stories show that Ditko can draw beautiful women. Comments: This story was written by Clark Dimond and Terry Bisson, the only one of Ditko's time at Warren not to be written by Archie Goodwin. It's also the story that stands out the most by dint of its decompressed style. The story is basically one long chase scene, with little extra plot. But Ditko's art is so intriguing here that it's still a compelling tale. Much of the work here is almost expressionistic, made up of energy lines and quick strokes that provide a huge amount of energy in the story. Few panels in this tale have backgrounds, but that fact adds rather than detracts from this exciting story. "Room with a View"Eerie #3Art style: Intricate linework using brush and penShort plot summary: A man demands a room at a hotel after his car has broken down. One room is left, and the innkeeper tries to refuse to give out the room. But there's something horrible in the room, reflected in the mirror… Ditkoisms: Terrified man, strange mystical creatures Comments: Like "Collector's Item," this story is done in straight pen-and-ink with no ink wash applied. The dramatic artwork, reminiscent of the work of Reed Crandall (with whom Ditko shares this issue) emphasizes the stark terror of the story. The intricate linework is plain gorgeous here. "Shreiking Man"Eerie #4Art style: ink washShort plot summary: A man locked in a padded cell at an insane asylum keeps screaming and screaming, relentlessly. Colbert, an assistant at the asylum, decides to investigate why the man is screaming so much. His trail leads to an investigation of a grave robber, and a terrible secret in the asylum. Ditkoisms: Handsome protagonist Comments: Ditko delivers some very clever storytelling in this story, especially the inventive way that he depicts the way that Colbert is haunted by the screaming man. The effect that Ditko uses is similar to the work of Gil Kane, and has a strong emotional impact. As befits a story about a shrieking man, the story has a real power to it and the image of Colbert, beaten up and battered and fighting for his life, is intense. "Black Magic"Eerie #5Art style: ink washShort plot summary: In a castle town in Europe in the Middle Ages, the Wizard Valdar amuses the local Lord by performing magic tricks. But his real ambition isn't in entertaining rich men. His dream is to reanimate corpses. Valdar's former master catches up with him, and helps to bring him to an unexpected and horrifying fate. Ditkoisms: Evil mysticism; the Wizard Valdar looks like a character from Ditko's "Doctor Strange." There's also another beautiful woman in this story. Comments: Yet another story that involves a mystic storyline. Goodwin clearly was working to one of Ditko's strengths and passions in their collaborations, in this case giving Ditko a chance to draw the wizard's strange mystic spells using ink wash, and lots of chances to drawn shadowy spider webs. Valdar looks like a villain from "Doctor Strange" and his former master reminds me a bit of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. "Deep Ruby"Eerie #6Art style: ink washShort plot summary: A handsome man is approached on a city street by a street person, who is seedy and wretched. But despite his wretchedness, the horrible man has a perfect deep ruby that fascinates the handsome man. Staring deeply into the ruby causes the handsome man to become trapped inside it, where strange horrors are visited upon him. Ditkoisms: Strange mystic realms Comments: This is maybe the most surreal of all the Ditko/Goodwin collaborations at Warren, a psychedelic trip into a completely bizarre and inexplicable mystic realm. The horrors and strangeness here are as intense and downright weird as that depicted in any story by Ditko. There are strange gargoyle-like mystical creatures, a disembodied, drooling mouth, universes inside universes, and much more craziness. It's funny to imagine what a hippie might have made of this story if he bought it off the stands in 1966! "Fly!"Eerie #7Art style: ink washShort plot summary: A hitman has plastic surgery to escape a police manhunt. He hides out in a fleabag motel, where a fly buzzes around his head, driving him slowly crazy. Ditkoisms: Fear-filled eyes Comments: This is one of my favorite stories from this run, due to its simple and intense feel. The story pretty much all takes place in one small, seedy motel, but the story is still full of life and the tale is extremely intense. It's told entirely in a six-panel grid, which gives the story a great rhythm and accentuates the horror of the story. I especially love the way that Ditko draws the eyes of the criminal. It shows Ditko's brilliance that we can read the criminal's mood simply by looking at his eyes. "Demon Sword"Eerie #8Art style: ink washShort plot summary: Professor Brace is the curator at a museum and has found a strange sword in the Andes Mountains. That sword seems to bring a strange, hulking creature to life – and the creature wants to kill! But Professor Brace has a secret: the creature is a living representation of the Professor's evil side. So Brace literally goes to battle to save his goodness from the demon sword. Ditkoisms: Yet another view of bizarre mystical realms Comments: It's interesting that this story represents a literal battle between a character's good and evil. I wonder if Ditko would have illustrated this story if it were presented to him ten years later, or if he would have rejected the central conceit of the story: that men have both good and bad sides that are constantly battling. This theme seems a bit far from "A Is A" to me. "Isle of the Beast"Eerie #9Art style: "painterly" ink wash without black outlines for characters (markers?)Short plot summary: Amberson is shipwrecked on an island. On the island he meets Rochefort, who has set a trap so he can engage in "the world's most dangerous game", stalking and killing humans. But Rochefort's game will twist, and the most dangerous game will hurt him. Ditkoisms: Nobody draws a jumping person like Ditko does! Comments: This is the only story in Ditko's run at Warren to be drawn exclusively in wash, or using markers. There are no black borders on the characters or settings here, giving the story a kind of painterly look. The art gives the story a dreamlike unreality that really accentuates the horror – even if the twist ending is amazingly corny. "Warrior of Death!"Eerie #10Art style: ink washShort plot summary: Zahran the barbarian is a great warrior who lives only to kill. Facing death at the end of a brutal battle, Zahran makes a deal with Death: give him immortality and he will bring death to many others. Death agrees to the deal, but eventually Zahran's arrogance comes back to haunt him. Ditkoisms: Another wizard, though no travels to mystic realms Comments: Yet another sword and sorcery epic – the fourth and final of Ditko's run at Warren – this story features some tremendously dramatic scene-setting by Ditko. The scene of Zahran walking into a tent, lightning storm flashing around him as he enters the tent, is tremendously intense and exciting. And once again Ditko's command of facial appearances is well used here – the panic on Zahran's face when he faces his ultimate face is absolutely perfect. It's interesting how often Goodwin and Ditko returned to similar themes in these 16 stories. 4 of the 16 are sword and sorcery stories, which obviously was a genre much on the minds of the two men at the time. Perhaps Ditko was itching to draw stories featuring real heroes after illustrating so many stories about horrible people in the previous set of stories. I also found it intriguing that about half of the stories touched on mystical themes of one sort or another. If these stories were driven by Goodwin rather than Ditko, it makes me wonder if Goodwin was a big fan of Ditko's work on "Doctor Strange", and if they were driven by Ditko rather than Goodwin, they work as tantalizing hints of the kinds of stories we might have seen if Ditko had continued working on that hallowed series. But most intriguing of all was the amazing quality of the artwork that Ditko provided in these 16 stories. I think all of us reading this article are fans of Ditko's art at Marvel during this time period, but it's undeniable how beautiful his work is on all of these stories. His intricate linework on "Collector's Item" and Room with a View" suggest a depth of eye and generosity of style that was seldom seen at Marvel. His wash work on stories like "Shrieking Man" and "Beast Man" suggests an attention to shading and darkness that was only seen in some of his rare other black and white work produced ten years later. Most of all, Ditko shows an incredible professional capacity in stories like "Fly" and "City of Doom" and the brilliant "Collector's Item". Beneath all the brilliant stylistic quirks and rendering, Ditko showed himself in those stories to be a master storyteller whose control over all aspects of the artform is on display in all its astonishing glory on every page.