Year of the Artist, Day 188: Steve Ditko, Part 7 – Heroes, Inc. #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 “Cannon” (it’s untitled, but that’s good enough) in Heroes, Inc. #2, which was published by CPL/Gang Publications and is cover dated 1976. These scans are from Cannon, which was published by Fantagraphics and came out in March 2014 (and is well worth your money). Enjoy!
In 1969, Wallace Wood published Heroes, Inc., which featured three stories, two of which were drawn by Wood and the third of which was drawn by Ditko. That story featured Cannon, Wood’s manly-man government agent, whom Wood would use in a strip drawn for the military from 1970-1973 and the collection of which I reviewed here. After that strip ran its course, Cannon languished until 1976, when Wood and CPL/Gang Publications were able to produce a second issue of Heroes, Inc., which once again featured a Ditko-drawn story, this time with Wood on inks. Wood’s inking is superb no matter who pencils the story, so these two should be an interesting mix. Let’s get to it!
Cannon checks into a hotel in a “small, sleepy South American port” and is immediately drawn into a web of intrigue! He hears screaming, busts down the door, and finds the sailor menacing the scantily-clad female. Ditko’s rather stocky characters clash mightily with Wood’s fine inking line, and the results give us a muscular Cannon, a hirsute sailor (Cannon manscapes, yo), and a slightly thick but still sexy woman with lush hair. The design of the woman looks Ditko-esque, but Wood’s inking makes her hair and camisole smooth and silky. It’s intriguing.
Of course, as this is a Cannon comic, the woman is probably not to be trusted, and it turns out that she’s set a trap for our hero. This story is 14 pages long, but it feels stuffed because of layouts like this. Ditko, as I’ve noted, knows how to lead us around a page, and Cannon’s battle against four assailants becomes a primer on their weapons, as he finds himself attacked by guns, knives, arrows, and a whip. Once again, the very angular Ditko is softened a bit by Wood, who hatches lightly on Cannon’s body to define his muscles and makes sure to ink in swirls on Erika’s lingerie. Erika is dangerously tiny-waisted in that final panel, but both Ditko and Wood were probably 48 years old (they were both born in 1927) when this was drawn, so their ideas about female beauty was a decade or two behind the times. Wood drew some hippies in the Cannon strip, but here, Erika is definitely drawn as if she’s from a different era. I also like that Ditko moves one strap of the camisole down off her shoulder in a kind of casual seductiveness. Erika can’t help being sexy, man! Note the four assassins, too. It’s not the last time we see them, but this is the last (and, of course, only) time we see their faces (well, with a small exception that I’ll show below).
Erika takes Cannon to, yes, “a Bavarian castle … in the middle of the jungle,” because that’s how the Fourth Reich rolls. This is a wonderful drawing – Ditko, I assume, drew the basic castle, giving it a very solid and utilitarian design, while Wood came in and added some nice touches. The hatching along the tallest tower and on the far right side of the structure gives it a more ancient look, speaking to the Nazis’ attempt to connect to a Germanic past that never existed, and Wood turns the jungle into a lush paradise, contrasting even more with the pile of stone in the middle of it. I imagine the helicopter’s rotors are Wood’s contribution, although I can’t be sure, and his light touch gives the ‘copter a good sense of motion.
They’re in a castle, so of course there’s a medieval torture chamber, where Erika believes she can break Cannon (ha!) of his love of his country (double ha!). In Panels 1 and 3, Erika is very Ditko-esque – Wood certainly inks underneath her breasts quite a bit to highlight her rack, but the slight blockiness of her design is very Ditkovian. The torturer in Panel 2 (who may or may not be “Lash” – he looks similar enough to be him but different enough to raise doubts) and Cannon’s grim visage in Panel 3 is a good Ditko face, too. Wood, as he does, adds texture to everything whether it’s torture devices in Panel 1 (look at that lovely chain!) or, you know, Erika’s boobs. Wood doesn’t show the stripes on Cannon’s back (on the next page, when we actually see Cannon’s back, they’re not there), but the sweat and the smudges on his face in Panel 3 show that he’s enduring quite a lot. Of course, he doesn’t break – he pretends to, but he doesn’t, because he’s motherfucking Cannon!
In the middle of the story, we get three pages on which Cannon fights the four assassins who captured him earlier. It’s really marvelous storytelling by Ditko and Wood – on this first page, Cannon escapes his captors, and Ditko gives us some nice choreography in the first two rows. The sweep of the knife, taking out three bad guys and leading directly to the popping light bulb, the guns blazing in the darkness, and Cannon’s retrieval of the gauntlet all let Ditko show his skills, while Wood’s inking remains impressive, especially in Panel 3, where the muzzle flashes have a gritty immediacy. The final panel shows the “specialists,” and it’s a really nice panel. The main bad guy – he turns out to be the person Cannon was searching for as his primary mission – is in silhouette, even though Ditko and Wood make sure to show his monocle, gleaming evilly as all monocles should (I mean, if you wear a monocle, you’re pretty much totally evil, right?), while in the foreground, we see the hands of the specialists holding their weapons. I mentioned above that we don’t see the specialists’ faces again, as this is how they’re depicted from now on (again, with that one exception – it’s coming!). It’s an interesting way to show that they are so closely identified with their weapons that their faces are unimportant. See more below!
As awkward as it can be (Panel 1, for instance), the device is pretty neat. The “weapons” chase Cannon rather than the men, even though the men shout things about where Cannon is going. While they are chasing him, we get to see his progress – in Panel 2, we don’t see Cannon, just the two bad guys he chucks down the stairs. He fools the specialists into thinking he’s jumped into the moat, and then uses his borrowed gauntlet to knock out “Archer” before confronting Lash. There’s more nice inking, with Wood adding more rough strokes to the castle’s stones and either he or Ditko does nice work with the blacks, as the specialists are in silhouette in Panel 2 and the blackness encroaches on Cannon in Panel 8 as he faces off against Lash. It adds to the claustrophobic nature of the castle, which probably features narrow hallways and small, hidden places.
Cannon dispatches the rest of the specialists, and it’s a really nice sequence. Ditko breaks the protocol a bit to show Lash in Panel 2, which is a very nicely designed panel. The whip wraps around Cannon’s gauntlet in Panel 1, but Cannon is too strong for Lash, so he pulls the bad guy toward him. Ditko angles the panel really well, as Lash is in the upper right, Cannon in the center, and “Blade” is in the lower right, so the movement of the panel takes us in a straight line from Lash to Cannon to Blade, with each segment becoming larger as the line of sight comes “closer” to the reader. The fact that Blade is about to throw his knife makes Panel 3 work, as Cannon spins Lash toward the knife in time for it to kill him rather than our hero. Lash has a gun for some reason (isn’t he good enough with a whip to not need a gun?), and Ditko moves us easily to Panel 4, where Cannon uses the gun to shoot Blade. “Gunner’s” hand in Panel 5 leads us across and down as Cannon leaps away from the spray of bullets, and then we get the nice use of silhouettes as Cannon strangles Gunner. The use of silhouettes, of course, allows for some shocking violence without showing too much, as we don’t see Gunner’s face when Cannon pulls on the rope, but we can imagine it. The way Ditko draws this showdown with the specialists is really nicely done, full of quick, tense moments that show how deadly Cannon can be.
Cannon kills the head Nazi and Erika, of course, and before he can even get congratulated for a job well done, he’s off on another mission. Wood never got around to doing more Cannon stories, however, so this serves as his epitaph. Ditko, of course, moved on, and tomorrow we’ll check out more of his art with yet another inker, someone who is much rougher than Wood’s finer style, so the difference is interesting. Don’t be afraid to come back, and don’t be afraid to check out the archives!