Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks, with each week devoted to comics from one decade. This week’s decade: the 1950s! Today’s page is from Strange Suspense Stories #34, which was published by Charlton and is cover dated November 1957. This scan is from Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 3, which is published by Fantagraphics and just came out a few weeks ago. Enjoy!
Our friends at the GCD don’t know who wrote this, but Blake Bell in the foreward to this collection hazards a guess that it’s Joe Gill, so let’s say that for convenience’s sake, okay?
This is a marvelous first page, ahead of its time in many ways. As we’ve seen with many of the comics over the past few weeks, we usually get a semi-splash page as the first panel which may or may not be part of the story, and then a simple succession of panels in more-or-less a grid. However, this is different: Ditko begins the story with four smaller panels across the top, each showing part of a whole – the broken beakers, the ominous feet, the tough-looking hoods with guns, the fearful, wide-open eye. Artists use these kinds of panels to create tension, and Ditko does it wonderfully. Even before we get to the title of the story, we get a sense of fear, paranoia, and claustrophobia. Ditko even manages to show the liquid in the beaker moving from left to right and the gun in Panel 3 pointing to the right, so even with limited space, he manages to move our eye across the page. In the final panel, the close-up might preclude implying the mood of the person, but Ditko’s worry lines above the brow and the way the pupil seems to float in the sclera gives a wonderful impression of fear.
The title is incorporated into the story, as it’s the climax of the mini-scene of the first three layers of the page – the “atomic clerk” is hemmed in by the three thugs, whose shadows we see etched on the wall. Ditko uses the light source to bisect Wade’s face, highlighting the pickle he’s in, and his eye and mouth reflect his terror. Gill and Ditko wrap up the scene with exposition – the ugly thugs surround Wade, one holding a Luger on him, which implies that they’re filthy furriners, and we find out what they want – “satellite secrets.” Wade explains that he’s only a “second-grade clerk” and he has no secrets. Ditko uses a nice triangle on the page – the two thugs and Wade – which helps move us through the panel. Wade’s panic is contrasted nicely with the steely resolve of the bad guys, and Ditko makes sure to show his arm reaching out to draw our attention to the various pages scattered behind him. Finally, Gill gives us the introduction: he was a clerk at the Pentagon, when suddenly his “obscure existence was shattered by a cloak and dagger drama rivaling a Hitchcock thriller.” Gill can’t resist piling on with the “WHY? WHY? WHY?” but that’s not the worst example of melodrama we’ve ever seen.
On the bottom row, Gill and Ditko flash back to Wade working late. Already there’s an air of drama, as working at the Pentagon means there’s a guard and gates, heightening the tension we’ve already experienced. I have no idea what Wade is holding in his hand, but it’s unimportant. As this is only a 5-page story, Gill doesn’t have time for any chit-chat, and Wade realizes someone is following him in the final panel. Because Wade has never seen a horror movie, he decides it would be wise to duck down an alley to make sure. Ditko, however, does a nice job with the perspective on the page. He manages to fit the man following Wade and a close-up of Wade in that small space, and he does it while ratcheting up the tension – the man is looming, almost as if he’s floating toward his quarry, and the fact that he appears to be glowing helps, too. Ditko once again uses the trick of bisecting Wade’s face with a shadow, so we get the sense of darkness creeping in from the right side of the panel, where we have to go. It might be silly for Wade to duck down an alley, but the artwork does make Wade’s fear palpable.
It’s interesting how impressive this first panel is laid out, because the rest of the story isn’t – the next page uses two basic rows of panels, while the three other pages are in a standard 2 x 3 grid. Gill and Ditko have done their jobs, though – this first page, with its fairly innovative layout and terse prose, lures in the reader nicely, until we’re really anxious to know what’s going on with Wade and why bad guys are after him. The resolution of the story doesn’t work too well, but we can’t blame that on the first page!
Next: The groovy 1960s, man! How will the comics reflect the changing zeitgeist? Will comics reflect the changing zeitgeist? We shall see, true believers, we shall see! Don’t be square – check out the archives, scenesters!