Creepy Presents Steve Ditko
By Eleanor Sciolistein
When comic book luminary and co-creator of Spiderman Stan Lee died late last year, the outpouring of grief was more than justified. Aside from being the loveable Uncle Stan, king of the cameo in Marvel’s seemingly exponentially expanding cinematic universe, Lee was in some ways the human ‘face’ of Marvel. Having conjured up some of the most memorable and iconic characters of the twentieth century, Lee richly deserved every second of the plaudits and adulation that came his way.
But so does Steve Ditko.
Ditko and Lee’s relationship was somewhat tumultuous. Despite being the co-creator of Spiderman and Dr Strange, not to mention being responsible for much of the early Spiderman artwork (including the webslinger’s instantly recognisable mask and costume) and some aspects of the character’s plot development, Ditko became unhappy with the fact that he was receiving only an artwork credit. Believing, many would say justifiably, that his contribution to the character and its success went far beyond what he did with his pencils and inks.
Ditko’s contention that he, as much as Lee, was responsible for developing the character, story arcs and (often in conflict with Lee), the character’s overall direction, lead the two men to a falling out. Their working relationship being so strained that although they collaborated on the comic they would never meet in person. Each individual finishing their portion of the workload in isolation and at times quibbling with each other’s editorial decisions in the margins.
So far, so primary coloured Marvel superhero. “When oh when?” I hear you cry “Will we get to the horror?” Well, roundabout now.
Sometime in either late 1965 or early 66, frustrated by his relationship with Lee (not to mention the fact that despite designing Spiderman’s look, he was cut out of future merchandising for the character, worth millions) Ditko left Marvel. It would be decades before he worked for them again.
In the intervening period he worked for a broad range of other titles and companies. Luckily for fans of horror, one of those stops was at the offices of respected editor Archie Goodwin to work on the horror comic titles Creepy and Eerie.
For those horror fans who have never heard of these lines, overshadowed as they often are by the more notoriously gruesome EC comics, you are missing out. Creepy and Eerie follow the same well-trodden path as the EC comics and present the familiar anthology format, including several spooky stories in each issue, introduced by a creepy character who acts as a narrator or purveyor of these dark delicacies.
The roster of artists who worked on these titles should in itself be enough to make most fans of comic art sit up and take note. Combine that with the creative freedom they were afforded and some tightly scripted and well plotted stories and you have something really special. Over the past few years Creepy have released several hardback compilation volumes collecting works by a single artist.
The Creepy Presents Steve Ditko volume collects all of Ditko’s works on these titles and in the process demonstrates clearly why he is considered to be such a legend in the industry. Choosing to adapt his style depending upon the particular tale he was illustrating, Ditko seems to have felt a freedom to experiment within these pages.
Consequently, some tales are illustrated in the dramatically expressive style that is instantly recognisable as stemming from the same family tree as the much tamer Marvel and DC comics, whilst on other stories he deviates away from this more comfortable and familiar way of working and instead uses ink washes, sketchier or less well defined lines and in some cases greater graphic weight by using large swathes of gorgeous shadowy blacks.
The results are everything you would expect. From the imaginative use of composition and close up to the wildly psychedelic nightmare landscapes he portrays in some tales, the variation in style shows not only the richness of Ditko’s talent but underscores the quality of the writing.
Looking at The Spirit of The Thing side by side with Collector’s Edition one would be forgiven for thinking that the two tales of terror had been drawn up for our delectation by two entirely different artists.
The first, making use of the aforementioned ink washes and shadows, is an atmospheric tale full of brooding shadows and dark corners, that are equally reminiscent of Murnau’s Nosferatu (complete with silhouette ascending the stairs) and James Whale’s Frankenstein for the almost expressionistic use of long shadows to create angles. The atmospherics created by this approach lend themselves brilliantly to the content of the story.
In contrast to this more ‘impressionistic’ approach, Collector’s Edition (the first tale Ditko worked on for Goodwin) is highly detailed. Cross hatched close ups and beautifully rendered interiors allow a clarity to the story that makes it almost like watching a lost episode of the Twilight Zone. The intermittent splash panels, extreme close ups of the tortured eyes and forehead of the protagonist, give the reader a real insight into their frustration and agitation as the story progresses.
Second chance, with the delicious cruelty of its Poe or Saki like twist and narrative descent into the afterlife, allows Ditko the scope to really experiment with his surreal visions and left field compositions. It is easy to see in these pages echoes of the depictions of magical or fantasy landscapes and realms that made the Dr Strange comics so interesting.
Meanwhile, Room With A View sees him playing with use of single direction lines to create his effects. The result being a monochromatic meeting between the pop-art of Litchenstein and Van Gogh’s starry night, all whilst depicting the spooky story of a mirror that shows more than intended.
Whilst I would recommend all of the titles in the ‘Creepy Presents…’ series (the Berni Wrightson collection in particular is a joy to behold) this Ditkko collection is very special.
Firstly, because it documents a period in which one of the most seminal artists of the period was outside of the ‘mainstream’ comic companies. Secondly, it shows an artist so synonymous with the bright eye-catching colours of Marvel stripped back to black and white.
Finally, and in contrast to some of the other collections that show how an artist’s particular style evolved during their time with the company, the major selling point of this Ditko edition is its variety. The sixteen stories collected here demonstrate within a single volume the massive range and diversity of Ditko’s skill as an artist and we as readers are invited to sit back and enjoy the show as he juggles styles and techniques with almost supernatural ease, but then I guess it’s easy to work with the versatility of a master, when you are one.
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