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 “Where Sorcery Lives!” from Creepy #14, which was published by Warren and has a cover date of April 1967. These scans are from Creepy Presents Steve Ditko, my copy of which was published in 2013 by Dark Horse. Enjoy!
Ditko had already shown an interest in esoteric and sword-‘n’-sorcery work before this, which might be why he co-created Doctor Strange at Marvel. I don’t own any of his Doctor Strange stuff, which bums me out. Someday! When he moved over to Warren, Archie Goodwin wrote him some sword-‘n’-sorcery stories, apparently at Ditko’s request, and “Where Sorcery Lives!” is one of them. Let’s check it out!
The first page sets up the big conflict, as Garth, the “heedless barbarian,” dares invade the domain of Salamand the Sorcerer. Salamand is a necromancer, because of course he is, and he destroyed Garth’s village but he couldn’t kill Garth! Okay, where did the name “Garth” come from? Is it just something that sounded tougher in the 1960s? Anyway, there’s some interesting racial coding in this story – Garth is a big, blond, corn-fed man who looks like he just stepped off of a U.S. Army recruiting poster. Salamand, of course, is named to imply a salamander, which is of course mythologically linked to the occult and fire. Salamand is also older and balder than the virile Garth, but he’s also an Asian stereotype, with the angled eye slits and the long, thin, mustache (which is perfect for twirling, even though he doesn’t do it in this story). Obviously, this is from an era where stereotyping was still fairly acceptable, but I have no idea if Ditko (or Goodwin, I suppose) consciously designed Salamand and Garth to reflect a colonialistic attitude and an Orientalist perspective. This story came out at the height of the Vietnam War, and Goodwin, at least, was fairly socially conscious, so I wonder if that has anything to do with it. Goodwin and Ditko could simply be reinforcing the stereotypes that stretched back to Flash Gordon, at least, without really thinking about it. At least Salamand speaks just like a grade-Z villain and not in any obviously racist way, but it’s still kind of annoying.
This is the next page, and it’s a good one. That second panel is great, as Salamand shows that he has way crazy power, but Garth isn’t backing down. Actually, all of the panels are pretty great, when you get right down to it. Notice the bodies in Panel 3 – Ditko’s use of light tones makes their predicament seem worse, as the … stuff they’re wrapped in seems more taffy-like than hard, which implies that they’re writing in agony as their breath is choked off. Panel 4 is another good one, as Salamand reveals that Garth’s babe, Tanya, is still alive. If we hadn’t noticed before, we see that Salamand’s eyebrows resemble clutching claws (what the heck is up with that?) and Ditko puts a skull in his eye, just to freak us out even more. In Panel 5, his use of ink washes again help create a smoky atmosphere in which Salamand becomes a spirit. Washing helps Ditko make the setting hazier, implying a poisonous, wrathful landscape. In a regularly inked page, it wouldn’t have the same tone, but Ditko nails the eerieness of Salamand’s stronghold.
Garth kills a weird, Seussian scorpion, and then falls down a pit, where we pick up the story:
This is another tremendous page, as the winged guardian and the “general” appear out of a noxious cloud of black smoke, which Ditko inks heavily in contrast to the more ethereal (yet still dangerous) vapors we’ve been seeing in Salamand’s domain. He does a nice job leading our eye – Garth’s gaze upward in Panel 3 takes us to the creature and its rider, but the page is still angled down and to the left, moving us on a slightly tilted axis down to Panel 4. In that panel, Garth leads us from his word balloon back up toward the creature with the arrow he’s about to shoot, and in Panel 5, the creature continue to fly right to left, as it’s been doing in the previous two panels, but Garth’s word balloon helps move us to the next page. It’s not bad. The skeleton shows one of the weaknesses of Ditko’s work, however – he never quite got over the stiffness in his figures during action scenes. Unlike someone like Kirby, who mastered fluidity early on, Ditko never quite got it, which tended to work with an awkward character like Spider-Man (both in the fact that he was a teenager and a neophyte hero), but doesn’t work wonderfully for other comics. It’s a minor complaint, because Ditko was good at everything else, but it’s not surprising that his work started to look old-fashioned later on in his career, as artists became more adept at depicting the human body in motion.
Garth, of course, defeats the vile creature, destroys the evil skeleton, and makes it to Salamand’s stronghold. There he finds Tanya, with the “pallor of death” upon her. This is the first good look we get of Tanya, and is anyone surprised that she’s blonde? Not only that, but in a world where Garth walks around wearing a loincloth, she’s demurely dressed in a long-sleeved, ankle-length dress. In the very next story, a different “barbarian” named “Thane” comes across a dark-haired, scantily-clad, curvaceous beauty whom he agrees to help. Needless to say, she betrays him. Even Goodwin and Ditko couldn’t escape female stereotypes!
That bottom panel is pretty cool, though. Again, the use of light washing helps create an ethereal quality to Salamand’s magic. When I have seen Ditko’s Doctor Strange work, the magic is solid bands, with the borders clearly inked. How much cooler that book would have looked if Ditko could have used this method!
Ditko does a very nice job with the final confrontation. In the top row, we get extreme close-ups of Salamand and Garth as they contend with each other, and Ditko really sells it. Panel 3, with the skulls in Salamand’s eyes cockily grinning as the sorceror fights on, is excellent, and we see the strain on Garth in Panel 4 very nicely. Panel 5 works well, as the sword that dispatches Salamand comes from the right, so our eyes move right across the sorceror’s bent body, along the sword, and on to Panel 6, where we find out that Tanya has managed to break the trance and stab Salamand in the back. Her final statement finishes “… my trance was broken and I was free to act!” Notice, again, how well the wispy magic that Salamand employs works very well in the context of the story, as it looks so inconsequential in Panels 2 and 4 but Ditko contrasts that with Garth’s face, which shows how much he’s struggling. The non-physical aspect of Garth’s battle is highlighted very well because Ditko is able to use a light wash instead of hard inks.
So that’s part of Ditko’s career. At this point, he was 39 years old, and he was about to start working at DC. Like Kirby, we’ll check out his 1970s work later in the year, because like Kirby, I own a lot more of his art from that decade that these earlier decades. And it will be interesting to contrast them, as Kirby became more dynamic while Ditko tended to become more old-fashioned. But tomorrow, we’ll start with a new artist! Who will it be? Well, that’s a good question. Come back tomorrow and find out! I promise, he’s much more modern. You can still get your fill of olde-tyme artists in the archives!