Axel-In-Charge: Unmasking the "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Fantagraphics continues to bring out nifty collections of olde-tyme comics, allowing us whippersnappers to check out what the four-color stuff looked like back before the Internet, cell phones, video games, Alan Moore, and the wheel. This time around, we get Strange Suspense by Steve Ditko, whom you may have heard of. It’s $39.99, but man! are these some cool comics.
This book collects short stories written and drawn by Ditko when he first broke into comics, back when he was in his late twenties (Ditko, presumably, turned 82 a few months ago). It was just before the Comics Code Authority drove companies like EC out of business, and Ditko was going a bits nuts with various stuff, mostly horror and mostly for Charlton. These stories are from 1954 with the exceptions of the first one and the last one, which are from ’53 and ’55, respectively. The CCA was adopted on 26 October 1954, so all of the stories but the last one are pre-Code (and the last one is a humor story). Ditko therefore had no restraints, and the stories show it. This is pretty wild stuff.
What’s impressive about this collection is Ditko’s versatility. Yes, the stories are mostly horror, but Ditko also throws in the aforementioned humor story, a romance (a fairly racy one, for the time), some westerns, a crime story, and some space epics. He even retells two fairy tales (“Cinderella” and “Rumpelstiltskin”) with some nasty twists. He goes from the West to Egypt to London to the jungle, and while none of the locations are perfectly sketched out (the panels are mainly packed with characters, so there isn’t room for backgrounds), Ditko gives us enough to show his chops with setting a scene. His best work comes from the character work, as we get strange demons and fantastic space aliens and giant worm monsters and people who look … well, not like real people, because they’re often bizarre-looking, but definitely distinctive. He puts his characters through the wringer, too, as he was allowed to do back then. While the horror stories pretty much fall into a fairly standard trope – we get a character or characters who are really not that nice put into a situation where they think they have the upper hand, but then, of course, they discover they’re really in a pickle and are dispatched horribly – Ditko does such a marvelous job with the design of each panel that even though we know people are going to get their comeuppance, it’s a true pleasure to watch it happen!
We really get a sense of a master at work in this book, even though it was so early in Ditko’s career. As I’ve read more Golden and Silver Age comics, I’ve become more appreciative of Ditko even more than Kirby (sorry, King), and this book is a good primer on why. Ditko’s people are more disturbing than Kirby’s, from his eerie grinning Rumpelstiltskin to his truly creepy giant worm. He gives us almost subhuman bad guys and exotic evil women, all caught in the grip of cruel fate. Kirby’s more lantern-jawed heroes wouldn’t fit in this twisted mileau of Ditko’s, which, despite the weirdness going on, feels more “realistic” than Kirby’s work. If Kirby shows humanity at its pinnacle, Ditko isn’t afraid to show humanity at its nadir. As I’ve read more work from the 1940s and 1950s, I’ve been impressed with the energy of the work even if much of it was fairly crude. There’s nothing crude about Ditko’s work here, and even at this early stage of his career, you can tell why he went on to become a legend. Yes, some of the stories are a bit goofy – in one, a modern character’s great-grandfather was somehow alive in the time of the pharoahs, while in another, Ditko suggests one can get to Jakarta by sailing down the Amazon river – and the coloring is a bit odd occasionally, but this volume is still wildly entertaining.
I’ll just stop writing now and show a few more art samples from the book. I realize this is a bit steep, money-wise, but it shows what a master Ditko was and what he could do when he was allowed to cut loose. It’s totally worth the price!
Tomorrow: Yeah, I’ll be taking a break, even though I have a few more of these to do. I usually give myself a week or so of lag time before I start posting these, building up a backlog so I’m not so pressed for time. Well, I’ve used that all up and this weekend has been really rough, so I’ve started the next review but I’m nowhere near finishing it. Oh well. I’ll get a few under my belt and fire them up again, possibly on Christmas but more likely the day after. I’d like to get them done before the end of the year, just because these are all from 2009. We’ll see!
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