Steve Ditko: The Lord Of Horror
|Eerie #135, 1982. All Steve Ditko reprints with 10 of the 16 stories he did for Warren Publishing including the best 3: Second Chance, Collector's Edition, Deep Ruby. |
In 1953 Steve Ditko began his career as a professional comic book artist specializing in horror stories for Charlton Comics and other publishers. Could Ditko's exceptional talent for horror eventually earned him a place at the greatest of all the horror comics' publishers, EC Comics? The tantalizing possibility was foreclosed in 1955 when the newly created Comics Code Authority swept away the era of horror stories in comic books.
But 11 years later Steve Ditko and the spirit of EC Comics did finally meet. In 1965 Jim Warren reincarnated the EC horror tradition with his magazines Creepy and Eerie. Ditko came on board in 1966 allowing us to see Steve Ditko horror stories standing along side those of former EC artists Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Reed Crandall and Johnny Craig. What a nice example of cosmic justice.
Ditko's 16 stories for Creepy and Eerie compose one of the highest peaks of his career. Yes, he had done excellent work for the pre-Code Charlton comics but his art then was still a bit crude since he was just starting out. When Ditko arrived at Warren Publishing he was at the height of his artistic ability, just having finished his magnificent run on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange for Marvel Comics. His Warren stories also benefit from Creepy and Eerie being published in back and white, not color. This means that Ditko like all the Warren artists put much more textured shading and detail into his stories to compensate for the lack of color. Thus Ditko's Warren stories have a richer, more fully illustrated look than most of his fantasy and super hero work for Marvel and Charlton.
Aside from their superior art Ditko's Warren stories stood apart in another way from his earlier work; they were not encumbered by the Comics Code. His Marvel and Charlton art was superb but still constrained by the restrictions placed on Code approved comic books. The unregulated Warren magazines sought to capture the bloodthirsty feel of the pre-Code comic era and Ditko took full advantage of this. His Warren stories display a vivid brutality that he had held in check since 1954. Below is a concise breakdown of Steve Ditko's 16 stories for the Warren magazines.
#9 1966 "The Spirit Of The Thing" 8 pages
A college student submits to hypnotic experiments by his professor which allow a person to project his spirit outside of his body. The student and the professor get into a wicked game of musical chairs with each others bodies.
The art is interesting here because the the ethereal spirits remind us of the "ecto-plasmic" spirits frequently drawn by Ditko in his Doctor Strange stories for Marvel. Ditko also treats us to a few panels of a misty shadow world Doctor Strange would find familiar. The Doctor Strange stories are justly famous and we like to see Ditko use elements from them in his work for other publishers.
#11 "Beast Man" 8 pages
A brutish looking carnival boxer thinks he has a bad heart and could die if he doesn't quit boxing. His shady manager apparently arranges a heart transplant for him, but the heart comes from the carnival's recently deceased gorilla.
This is one of the most cleverly plotted of all the Ditko Warren stories, courtesy of Warren's top writer, Archie Goodwin. Ditko's art nicely captures the look of a second rate circus with its motley characters. Ditko certainly never objected to drawing stories with gorillas in them as his long run on Charlton's Konga title will attest.
#12 "Blood Of The Werewolf" 8 pages
Carl Holt is kidnapped by an old bald headed doctor. Holt awakens in the doctor's office and discovers the doctor intends to switch his blood with the blood of the doctor's son who is a werewolf.
This story is more frightening than many. A genuine feeling of fear is transmitted through facial expressions, a Ditko trademark. Holt always looks absolutely terrified and the doctor looks appropriately sinister. Ditko had previous experience drawing old, bald, sinister guys with his Spider-Man villain, the Vulture. The two werewolves look really scary, proving that Ditko could draw monsters with the best of them.
#13 1966 "Second Chance" 8 pages
A criminal dies and goes to hell. Satan explains to the criminal that he can remain in ordinary hell which isn't to bad if he will agree to dissolve a faustian pact they made earlier. If the criminal refuses he will ultimately be consigned to the "pit," the really nasty part of hell.
It sounds like a comedy but this story is an effectively spooky variant on the classic "deal with the devil theme." Ditko's ability to draw bizarre mystic dimensions that were the mainstay of his Doctor Strange stories is showcased here. His depiction of hell is equal to any place ever visited by Doctor Strange and the splash page, which includes Adolf Hitler, is as wild as anything Ditko ever drew.
#14 1967 "Where Sorcery Lives" 8 pages
Garth the barbarian sets out to kill an evil wizard for destroying his village and kidnapping his girlfriend. Since it's mandatory for barbarians to always defeat the evil wizard in sword and sorcery stories this is one of the few times in the amoral Warren universe where the good guy wins.
In the mid 1960s Lancer Paperbacks began releasing the Robert E. Howard Conan stories with the great Frank Frazetta covers. I'm guessing Jim Warren wanted some Conanesque stories included in his magazines to ride the bandwagon. At any rate this is the first of three Ditko takes on the sword and sorcery genre. He handles the stock elements competently enough. The barbarian is sufficiently athletic and the captured girlfriend is reasonably pretty, although Ditko has never been confused with Alberto Vargas. The evil wizard was no stretch for Ditko, he could have stepped out of any Doctor Strange story.
#15 1967 "City Of Doom" 8 pages
Thane the barbarian battles an evil priestess, cannibals and the bloodsucking Lovecraftian tentacled monster they serve.
This second Ditko sword and sorcery story for Warren is interesting since instead of the obligatory wizard as the villain we have a living city ruled by the above noted monster. Ditko manages to give the city a subtle organic look (who else could do that?) The sword fights are vigorous and Ditko's city-ruling monster wouldn't disappoint H.P. Lovecraft.
#16 1967 "The Sands That Change" 9 pages
A comic book artist and his wife visit a part of the Mojave desert considered taboo by the local Indians. When the artist draws a monster for the new comic strip the desert brings it to life. Surprise, surprise.
This story looks different than all of other Ditko's Warren stories. Ditko forsakes his customary nice use of detail and gives us a nondescript monster, a bleak desert and pure black night sky backgrounds. Stories set in deserts are supposed to have a harsh simplicity and this one certainly does.
#27 1969 "Collector's Edition" 8 pages
Colin Danforth, dedicated collector of occult books relies on Murch, a grimy bookstore owner to supply him with rare editions. When Murch turns up the most highly prized occult volume of them all, he decides to keep it. Danforth is not amused.
This is the perhaps the most intricately drawn of all the Ditko stories for Warren. In my opinion its only rivals for the best of Ditko's Warren output are "Second Chance" and "Deep Ruby". Using a pen instead of a brush Ditko put an exhaustive amount of detail into every panel. Ditko's inspired use of facial expressions and Archie Goodwin's excellent writing expertly capture the flavor of an obsessed collector who will do anything to get what he wants. In his earlier horror and fantasy stories for Charlton and Marvel, Ditko drew lots of mysterious curio shops and bookstores with their sinister owners and this story with Murch among his crumbling bookshelves is the culmination of Ditko's interest in stories with old bookstores.
#3 1966 "Room With A View" 8 pages
A man checks into a "Norman Bates" motel and insists on the one remaining room, against the advice of the desk clerk. The room has a haunted mirror that produces unhappy results.
Even with such a simple setting as a man in a hotel room Ditko is able to build suspense that ends with a shocking final panel. The story has 34 panels and Ditko manages to squeeze the pivotal mirror into 20 of them.
#4 1966 "Shrieking Man" 7 pages
A young psychiatrist goes to work for the director of an insane asylum which houses an inmate who been screaming constantly for 10 years. The psychiatrist is perplexed when he discovers his boss refuses to try to cure this patient.
A remote asylum with its incorrigible lunatic, its mysterious director and flashing lights in a nearby graveyard all make for a good mystery story. The art highlight is the screaming maniac. Ditko makes him plenty scary but also a bit sympathetic. The last panel that shows the maniac with a relaxed look on his face after he exacts his revenge is a nice touch.
#5 1966 "Black Magic" 8 pages
A court magician in the Middle Ages tires of jester's tricks and aims for something bigger; raising people from the dead. His former teacher warns him not to.
Here we have a sorcery story without the sword. The magician would have been at home in any Doctor Strange story. Predictably the magician's aged teacher looks like Doctor's Strange mentor, the Ancient One. Other stock characters include a hunchback flunkey and a pretty but insane lady raised from the dead. A straight forward competent story with no special features to recommend it.
#6 1966 "Deep Ruby" 6 pages
A jeweler walking home from work is approached by a filthy hobo who entices him to examine an incredibly beautiful ruby. The jeweler finds himself sucked into a nightmarish world inside the ruby.
This story is one of the crown jewels of Ditko's artistic legacy at Warren along with "Second Chance" and "Collector's Edition." Ditko's talent for rendering exotic dimensions is extravagantly displayed here allowing this story to equal and maybe surpass its closest rival in that area "Second Chance." Ferocious flying demons and a giant slavering mouth suspended in space give are some of the highlights. I hope they paid Ditko a little extra for this one.
#7 1966 "The Fly" 6 pages
A contract killer holed up in a hotel room is pestered by a buzzing fly. He imagines himself into a human fly.
Another simple story with a limited setting like "Room With A View." Ditko does the best he can but you can only go so far with a man, a fly and a hotel room.
#8 1967 "Demon Sword" 8 pages
Professor Brace brings back an ancient sword from South America and puts it on exhibit in the museum where he works. When asleep the sword turns into the darks side of Brace's psyche into a demon who uses the sword to butcher a museum guard and two of its directors. Brace must find a way to correct this socially embarrassing situation.
An unusually clever plot combined with excellent artwork make for one of Ditko's better Warren stories. The demon looks really vicious and Ditko treats us to a frantic sequence with the demon and Brace's good side apparition battling each other through some more of Ditko's mystic dimensions.
#9 1967 "Isle Of The Beast" 6 pages
A big game hunter on his private island uses chemistry to turn himself into a beast to better enjoy hunting human prey. When he hunts a ship wreck victim he finds the tables are turned.
Another variation on the familiar Warren plot of the victim becoming more than dangerous than the original monster.
The art here has much more of the softly textured look derived from using a brush instead of a pencil. An unsettling highlight is the big game hunter's trophy room full of human heads.
#10 1967 "Warrior Of Death" 8 pages
A fierce oriental warrior makes a bargain with the Grim Reaper that makes him an unwelcome rival to the Reaper, who then reneges on the deal.
This final Ditko sword and sorcery story escapes the mold of his previous such stories with no wizards, monsters or damsels in distress. Instead we have the unusual idea of a the barbarian warrior serving the Grim Reaper as a perpetual killing machine. The art here is more mundane than the other two S&S stories, but the more interesting premise more than compensates.