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Year of the Artist, Day 8: Steve Ditko, Part 3 – Strange Suspense Stories #34

10-13-2013 11;33;47AM (2)

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Steve Ditko, and the story is “The Desert Spell” from Strange Suspense Stories #34, which was published by Charlton and has a cover date of November 1957. These scans are from Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 3, my copy of which was published in 2012 by Fantagraphics. Enjoy!

I wanted to show a few panels from this story because it shows some things Ditko was doing in the 1950s that not many others were doing, as far as I can tell (I’m woefully ignorant of a lot of olde-tymey comics, so forgive me if everyone was doing stuff like this). “The Desert Spell,” which was probably, once again, written by Joe Gill, is a five-page story about a Nazi who took some kind of serum that put him in suspended animation, and now he’s woken up. He dreams of restarting the Nazi empire (from a tank in the middle of the desert, which would probably be somewhat difficult), but once he gets the tank working, he accidentally drinks more of the serum and falls back into suspended animation. Tough luck, Ratzi!

Anyway, here’s some of the artwork in the story:

10-13-2013 11;33;47AM

We see that Ditko is slowly becoming more “Ditko-ish” in his faces, as our Nazi friend might not have the triangle-shaped head that a lot of later Ditko characters have (did Ditko design Phineas Flynn?), but he has the thin, straight nose and prominent cheekbones that many Ditko characters have. It’s also a good choice of Ditko to draw concentric circles to indicate the sun, and the colorist (no colorist is credited) does a good job lightening the colors moving outward until the yellow almost matches the sand in the desert, blending the sun and the sand and creating a hellish landscape. Note that Ditko places one of the circles over the Nazi’s forehead, so that the actual sun and the Nazi’s heat dizziness become one. The central image, though, is interesting, because it appears that Ditko used Duo-Shade, which helps make the Nazi’s face darker than the other parts of the amalgamated panel, making the Nazi look both more evil and more affected by the heat. I think it’s Duo-Shade because of the thin vertical lines on the Nazi’s face, which is fairly characteristic of Duo-Shade. Whatever Ditko is using, I haven’t seen it used too much in the reprints of 1950s comics I own (of course, as I noted, I don’t have access to a lot of them), and it’s just another example of Ditko trying different things to tell a story.

One the next page, we get this nice layout:

10-13-2013 11;35;17AM

I know this is a wild generalization, but page layouts in the early days of comics weren’t often that innovative – even someone like Kirby didn’t experiment too often with them. Most artists stuck to parallelograms – rectangles or squares – as did Ditko, but even within that, he tended to try some different things. Here, he places the Nazi in a center circle, grinning fiendishly, as his dreams of a new empire spin around him. It’s certainly not the most radical design – we still read it in a simple, left-to-right manner – but just the fact that Ditko chose to put the Nazi in the center re-orients us and makes the layout look more interesting than if it weren’t there. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that Ditko doesn’t use panel gutters in this drawing, as he does through the rest of the story (and, indeed, almost all the time). By using thin black lines to separate the panels, he turns it into a dream sequence more easily – all these images blend together in our Evil Nazi’s head, and it’s an effective way to depict it. Others did this back in those days, of course, but it wasn’t too common. Ditko understood how it would change our reaction to the scene.

For such a short story, “The Desert Spell” is artistically interesting. Ditko knew what he was doing!

Next: Well, I’d certainly like to check out some of Ditko’s 1960s Marvel work, but you’ve all seen that, so let’s jump over it, shall we? That will be fun! Of course, if you like early 1960s Marvel, you can find some in the archives!


I’m pretty ignorant of the period as well, but those panels definitely look revolutionary to me. I haven’t often seen coloring that dark in comics that old–the whole thing reminds me a bit of Daredevil: Born Again. An interesting element in that last panel is that it, at least to me, has an overarching swastika- shaped layout. It really emphasizes the Nazi’s dreams of the future.

[…] Year of the Artist, Day 8: Steve Ditko, Part 3 – Strange Suspense Stories #34Comic Book Resources, on Wed, 08 Jan 2014 14:01:35 -0800Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today's artist is Steve Ditko, and the story is “The Desert Spell” from Strange Suspense Stories #34, which was published by Charlton and has a cover date of November 1957. […]

I want to see a sequel showing what happens when the nazi wakes up again. Preferably ending with him accidentally taking the serum again. And so on.

When I was a kid I hated Ditko artwork, now I can see he’s brilliant.

Ryan: I don’t think it’s the way Fantagraphics reprinted it – from what I can see, they’re pretty faithful to the original material, so I have to think this was close to how it was originally shown. It is pretty keen, though. And good point about the second panel!

Ecron Muss: When I first started buying comics (I was 17), I too didn’t like Ditko. It took me several years to figure out how good he was. To be fair, I wasn’t a huge fan of Kirby for many years, either. I like to think I’m a bit smarter these days! :)

Greg and Ecron: I have similar feelings about Ditko and Kirby. Neither of them drew particularly “pretty” and both had rather idiosyncratic styles, but my God are they brilliant storytellers.

I also had a similar hangup about Gene Colan, but I’m slowly getting over it.

Stephen, I remember actively disliking the art of Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, and Barry Windsor-Smith when I started reading comics as a young kid. I didn’t get it. Now I really do – I really get the sense of them loving the medium and the craft when I see their work.

This series is helping to illustrate a little of how their craft developed over the years. Another great post. Those few panels are so powerful and show how a few smart choices can drive a story so much further. Well chosen and described, Mr. Burgas!

Thanks, Derek!

Hi Greg.
The first “This time we shall conquer the world!” panel in your sequence screams “German expressionism” to me. I’m not an art expert, but I’ve seen film posters from the 1920s and 1930s like ‘Testament of Dr Mabuse’ and stills/clips from ‘Nosferatu’ (c’mon, most people reasonably immersed in popular culture must have seen that famous sequence of Max Schreck’s shadow on the stairs!).
Page 2 in your sequence, bottom left panel: an obvious Ditko fist on the Nazi; and pg 2, bottom right panel: this has very distinct Ditko faces in the queue of ‘extras’.

I don’t know too much of the intricacies of Ditko’s pre-1960s Marvel superhero work. I know he did ‘The Thing’ and other Charlton pre-code stuff, some of which you’ve already shown; then the Strange Suspense Stories/ Mysterious Traveler stuff. Post-Comics Code did he do this exclusively before the Marvel Monster stuff, or did he moonlight across Atlas/Marvel and other companies before 1960? RST

On idiosyncratic artists, everyone:
I didn’t get Joe Kubert until relatively recently (mainly because he stuck to war and non-superhero stuff. As a UK reader, my war comic demands were sated by Battle, Warlord, and all the other Brit-war stuff) – but he’s an absolute story-telling master, one of the best. Similarly, it took time to appreciate Colan, Barry Windsor-Smith and the like – all special talents, too.

Pete: Good point about the German Expressionism. I didn’t think of it – I think I was too focused on how he shaded the face – but it’s well spotted. I have to think Ditko was influenced by that, but I’m not sure how widely available it was in the 1950s – the movies of the time might be more popular today than they were in the 1950s! But Ditko being Ditko, I think he probably knew at least a bit about the movement.

I’m not sure about Ditko’s bibliography and when it happened prior to Spider-Man. A quick look at Wikipedia shows that he was working on Strange Tales, Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, and the like in the late 1950s, but I’m not sure how much work he was doing at that same time for other publishers.

I’ve thought about Kubert. I don’t own a lot of his older work, but I think I have enough to track his development. We shall see!

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