"Bookends: Steve Ditko on the Shroud and Iron Man"

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Jason Sacks

Steve Ditko's work at Marvel in the 1980s and '90s seems a bit unusual for a man of his fame and reputation. Rather than choosing to illustrate some of Marvel’s best-selling titles, Ditko mainly chose to illustrate stories in more obscure comics, providing runs on some of Marvel's poorer selling books of the day such as ROM, The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones and Machine Man, along with a range of fill-ins, back-ups and other miscellaneous work. Of course, this shouldn't surprise us very much -- Ditko always followed his own muse -- but it does make his work from that era more difficult to find. Of course, the process that drove Ditko to make those decisions also makes his work more intriguing to read these days -- far from the madding crowd, the artist was able to find his own unique space to be creative. It was as if he had found his own mini-Charlton Comics inside Marvel of the '80s and '90s.

In this article I'll be looking at two stories from Steve Ditko’s return to Marvel that provide a fascinating contrast to each other. They can be seen as bookends of his work at the company in the '80 and '90s, in terms of their respective publish dates, their content, and their respective places in his long career. The first of these stories, "Walk a Crooked Mile!", starring The Shroud, was published in Marvel Preview #21 (Spring 1980). The second, "A Man's Reach...!", starring Iron Man, was published in Marvel Shadows and Light #1 (Feb. 1998).

The stories provide a fascinating contrast because on the surface they seem so similar. Both comics are presented in black and white, both are penciled and inked by Ditko, and both feature stories that are pretty straightforward battles between good and evil. Both stories also have themes with which the artist likely empathized. And both appeared as a short tale in an obscure anthology comic. However, the two stories are also very different from each other. To my eyes the Shroud tale, from 1980, shows the artist in his prime, delivering gorgeous and unforgettable images, while the Iron Man tale, from 1998, presents somewhat weaker artwork that is suggestive of the artist's recent self-published work.

"Walk a Crooked Mile" is a 15-page adventure featuring the Shroud, a dark hero with a passing similarity to Batman or The Shadow. The Shroud has vague powers based on his ability to control blackness (like the Legion of Super-Heroes’ Shadow Lass). This story, written by the team of Mark Gruenwald and Steven Grant, looks like a pilot for a series that would never be launched. A second Shroud adventure by Grant and Ditko appeared in 1991's Marvel Super-Heroes #7; that comic was a dumping ground for unused inventory stories, so the Shroud series was likely abandoned soon after the second episode was completed.

In "Walk a Crooked Mile" the Shroud is out to destroy the criminal plans of a typical Ditkoesque villain, the exceedingly odd-looking Crooked Man. It's striking how much the Crooked Man looks like he comes from Ditko central casting. Like so many Ditko villains, the Crooked Man is an evil crime boss in a natty pinstriped suit. And also like so many Ditko villains, the Crooked Man has a very strange appearance -- in this case, an odd mismatched face -- with half-moustache, a twisted mouth and thoroughly unequal eyebrows and hair.

I see his appearance as either a sign that Ditko was empowered to help plot this story or that he was given the freedom to design the characters as he chose. The Crooked Man, again like so many villains in Ditko’s work, betrays his inner evil with his odd outward appearance. Another familiar Ditko theme is man's relationship to Art, and the Crooked Man is obsessed with art. The villain states, "Let us work together to make crime an aesthetic experience -- a work of art that our public will applaud! My standards are high, yes... but let no man among you who values his life sink below them." Maybe most intriguingly, the Crooked Man's plans involve a very specific battle against modern art. One page shows an artist exhibiting his "art" -- a spike driven through a broken frame, with a hanger hanging from the spike, and a tie hanging from the hanger. "This work represents the fragility of man, crushed by an unthinking nature and an unbending society," the beret-wearing artist explains. The Crooked Man, like the Blue Beetle in the famous tale "Destroyer of Heroes" (Blue Beetle #5) is deeply offended by the art, thinking "Rubbish! Every bit of it! No taste, no style... is anything accepted as art in this age?" The Crooked Man then proceeds to steal some real art -- works by Rembrandt, Rafael and Titian, among others, while chastising the banal modern artist: "Yet this... cretin... has dared to rank his petty, miserable sewage among this company of giants -- and, tricked by the critics, you aid him!"

Steven Grant and Mark Gruenwald obviously went to great lengths to make Ditko comfortable with the story that he would illustrate. Clearly the two writers really wanted to play to the artist’s belief system, and this collaborative approach helped drive Ditko to deliver some spectacular artwork.

This tale features some of the most beautiful artwork of Ditko's late period. The art is perfect for a character who manipulates darkness because each page seems completely suffused with black. From the opening panel, in which the Shroud stands outside the Crooked Man's mansion as his enormous black cape billows in the wind, subsuming the hero in mystery, to the final page, in which the Shroud stands in a deep and all-encompassing shadow that hides every feature of his body, Ditko's artwork is a remarkable exploration of the richness of blackness -- perfectly suited for the black and white comics page. This story was published shortly after Tomb of Dracula magazine #2, which might be some of Ditko's most gorgeous return-era work. Clearly Ditko was on a roll during those days!

As we saw with his work for Warren Magazines in the mid-1960s, Ditko was a master of manipulating black and white art, delivering amazingly effective images. His work on "Walk a Crooked Mile!" provides a real sense of mystery to the character of the Shroud, who literally appears as a figure of darkness throughout the story. The Shroud is often drawn as just a dark ink blotch with a cape, which makes the hero look quite enigmatic and intriguing. There's a breathtaking sequence in which the Shroud is confronting the Crooked Man where it feels like the blackness is literally coming alive, ready to suffocate the Crooked Man under the weight of the blackness in his soul. The entirety of one of the final pages is shrouded in darkness -- even the Crooked Man's face is shaded deeply, and readers can really empathize with the sense of panic that the villain must have been feeling at his comeuppance. This page is among the most striking of the artist’s career.

Most of the pages in this magazine-sized comic had only five or six panels each, which is quite unusual for Ditko in any period of his career. Combined with the larger paper size, the smaller number of panels allows Ditko’s artwork to breathe a bit and gives the story a real sense of energy.

"Walk a Crooked Mile!" is Ditko at his finest, providing thoughtful artwork that enriches the writing, and his use of sumptuous blacks adds notable levels of intensity. Maybe it was the criticism of modern art that got him really excited to work on this tale, resulting in some of the most impressive work of his career.

Eighteen years later, Ditko delivered his final story for Marvel. "A Man's Reach...!" appeared in the debut issue of Marvel's 3-issue B&W comics anthology Marvel Shadows and Light. Coplotted by Ditko and scripted by Len Wein, this 12-page Iron Man story has an art style similar to his later polemical comics. In the Shroud adventure Ditko used blacks to deepen and amplify the presentation, giving the piece an intense dramatic effect.

The use of blacks isn’t nearly as compelling in "A Man’s Reach...!". There are a handful of scenes in which the lack of color is exploited -- there's a cool panel featuring Tony Stark charging his suit on page 30, and a very impressive shot of Iron Man being attacked by the evil villain’s disruptor weapon on page 32. However, most of this story is drawn such that color would actually enhance the artwork rather than detract from it.

It's not that Ditko's art is weak here -- each page still contains his typically wonderful sense of movement and energy, and his characters have real life to them -- but Ditko doesn't use shading to amplify or complement the story’s mood in the same way as he did in the Shroud tale. I kept wanting to see Ditko use the sensuous blackness of his ink to intensify scenes, to make Pepper's situation more frightening or the villain seem more vicious. The art style used in this narrative is less exciting to me than the style he used in the Shroud adventure. For all its beauty and energy, we all know that Ditko's art could also be a bit flat and stiff, especially in the latter stages of his career. That customary stiffness is very much on display here, typical of Ditko’s later work. The stark and seductive darkness on the Shroud story served to strengthen that tale; however, there is no sign of that rich rendering on the Iron Man tale. Even the shading is applied only as diagonal lines rather than through the use of grays and blacks.

I shouldn't complain too much about this comic, though. It is a completely serviceable and entertaining tale of Tony Stark's first years as Iron Man. The story features both a mysterious masked villain in a business suit and a strange villain with body-deforming armor, so two of Ditko's favorite motifs are very much on display here. And it's definitely fun to see Steve Ditko draw Tony Stark again, especially in the armor that he redesigned for him way back in 1963. That alone is worth the price of admission.

It's tempting to try to assign personal reasons for Ditko's differing approaches to these two stories. One could ascribe the stylistic differences to a lessening patience for work-for-hire, a lack of empathy for a comic without overt Objectivist themes, or perhaps simply advancing age changing his approach to the work. But these two stories really do feel like bookends to that era of Ditko's artwork. The 1980s began with the spectacular promise of cartooning that was as gorgeous and fascinating as any he had ever created, but his work in the ‘90s ended with a businesslike approach to a fairly pedestrian narrative. It's a tribute to the brilliance of Steve Ditko that even the later story contains so many interesting elements.

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