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 1960s! Today’s page is from Strange Tales #117, which was published by Marvel (although the indicia lists “Vista Publications”) and is cover dated February 1964. I borrowed this and several other comics over the next few weeks from Howard Harris, my comics retailer, who was nice enough to let me take them home and scan them. Enjoy!
Stan Lee is on board as writer once again, but Ditko co-plotted, according to the GCD. Lee’s prose for this splash page is the usual hyperbole – “Fast becoming one of the Marvel Comics Group’s favorite features” and “A tale of strange mystery, told the magical Marvel manner,” but there’s nothing wrong with a little hyperbole, right? It’s a Ditko splash page, so let’s consider it!
“The Many Traps of Baron Mordo” begins with a nice, balanced page. Mordo stands in the middle, arms raised and the halo around his head. I’m always curious about these strange bland jumpsuits a lot of villains in ye olden days used to wear – did it have anything to do with the conformity of Communism, even if the characters themselves weren’t Commies? I don’t know, but they do look comfortable, don’t they? You can picture Mordo chillaxing at the crib sipping a gin and tonic in his all-in-one jumpsuit. Ditko gives him a wildly unpleasant face – widow’s peaks are naturally evil-looking (sorry, anyone with a widow’s peak), and Mordo has those manic eyes and thick eyebrows, the flat nose, the slightly open mouth, and the creepy Van Dyke. The tufts of hair sticking out from both sides of his head make him look creepy, too. Ditko swaths him in shadows, making his face darker, and he places him in front of Strange’s weird, red window that is a stroke of genius (I assume Ditko designed Strange’s brownstone and originally put the red window there) because it always casts a weird light over the loft. Mordo is casting two spells, one that creates smoke and the other that creates lightning, so the visual effect is quite nice.
Then there’s Strange. His body is trapped in some kind of crystal, and Ditko’s thick, precise lines make it look more like a prison than we might expect. Ditko’s body looks strangely unperturbed, but perhaps that’s because his spirit is the thing getting upset. Ditko gave him a nice blue costume with that orange sash, creating a nice iconic look. The physical Strange is off-set by the ghostly Strange, who’s trapped in a spirit bottle created by Mordo’s lightning spell. Spirit Strange is grumpy, and his rage as his pounds against the side of the bottle is palpable – Ditko draws his face pinched with anger, while Strange’s body looks on coolly. Ditko (or whoever colored this) uses a nice palette – Strange is blue and orange, while spirit Strange is bright yellow – all powerful and vibrant colors, while Mordo’s pea-soup green jumpsuit makes him look schleppy. Stephen Strange wouldn’t be caught dead in something so unfashionable!
Ditko places Strange’s body higher than Strange’s spirit, which is necessary due to their placement on the page. The prison on the left has to be higher than the one on the right, because our eye will travel that way. Ditko could have easily put them on the same level, but that wouldn’t have flowed as well. The drawings and the text form a nice “X,” taking us around the page easily and depositing us on the second page. Well done, Mr. Ditko!
Next: Controversial war comics? Why not? What would the Sixties be without controversy? There’s certainly nothing controversial about looking through the archives!