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 Matchstick and the Moth” in Marvel Comics Presents #83, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated August 1991. Enjoy!
In 1991, Ditko drew a few stories in Marvel Comics Presents, and I happen to own them because some dude named Barry was writing and drawing a Wolverine story as the main feature. I don’t know whatever happened to that guy or that story …
The two earlier Ditko stories were inked by Terry Austin, which was a decent fit, but this story, which features the Human Torch going up against a few low-rent criminals and a supervillain called the Moth, who can somehow put his flame out. It’s inked by … well, I’ll just let you guess, shall I?
I’m not sure if this is a good enough page to clue you in, but Erik Larsen inked this (he also scripted it over Ditko’s plot). Ditko and Larsen – who was born about six months after Spider-Man debuted in Amazing Fantasy – make a good team – Larsen’s exaggerated cartooning smooths out Ditko’s hard edges quite well, but it doesn’t overwhelm the Ditkovian design of the characters, as the Moth is clearly a Ditko female in the grand tradition of Ditko females. She has a tapering chin from slightly wider cheeks, a large mouth, thin eyes, and arched eye brows. She’s a fairly standard Ditko woman, but Larsen softens her just a little, rounding off her chin just a bit, giving her some lustrous hair, and giving her clothing a somewhat rougher, more lived-in feeling to make her a bit more approachable. Johnny’s face, too, is a bit more rounded and cartoony, which paradoxically doesn’t make him less realistic, but gives him a bit more humanity. Santiago Oliveras, who colored this story, does a really nice job with the shading, which also helps soften the Moth a bit.
The criminals, of course, are going to betray the Moth, and Johnny overhears them. Once again, Larsen does a nice job blending his style with Ditko’s, as we see the Moth in Panel 2 and the criminals in Panel 3 are pretty well defined “Ditko” characters, while Johnny in Panel 6, despite his Ditko-esque attributes, is a bit more of a Larsen character. Larsen’s hatching along the cheekbone, and especially on Johnny’s nose “modernizes” him a bit (that kind of nose-hatching was very popular among the Image founders and other artists like them). We still get the angular Ditko touches, like Johnny in Panels 4 and 5, but it’s interesting to see the way Larsen tweaks the art.
Johnny tries to stop the bad guys before the Moth gets back, but when that doesn’t work, he tells her what’s what and she, of course, doesn’t believe him. Once again, we see both the influence of Ditko and Larsen, and it makes a nice brew. Ditko’s stiff figures in Panel 1 come with the territory, but we get his nice, menacing bad guys in Panel 3, and Ditko is really good at drawing menacing bad guys. The Moth in Panel 4 is pure eeeeeevil, and it’s probably the most “Larsen” panel in the book, as the hatching around the eyes, nose, and lips really screams Erik Larsen. But the Moth’s basic shape in that panel is still Ditko, so it once again makes a strange but enticing blend. Oliveras, once again, does a good job with the shading, coloring the Moth yellow, which could be from the Torch illuminating her a bit (so it’s not too “unrealistic”) but also makes her look terrifying. It’s a well done panel.
The Moth, of course, discovers that the other two were betraying her, so she turns against them and gets a gutful of lead for her trouble, but she also helps save Johnny when the bad guys get the drop on him, so she can go out like a hero. We get a nice little fight, with Oliveras once again providing nice, bright colors as the Torch dispenses swift justice, then the tragic fate of the Moth. Larsen’s inking is once again fairly evident, as we once again get the smudge on the nose as the Moth drifts away, while we get good shading as she sinks downward. Johnny’s flames, which hang like diamonds around his face in Panel 5, seem like a very Ditkovian touch, a relic from a bygone era when comics weren’t subtle, even though by this time, a colorist could have just added some smudges of orange and gotten the same effect. The thick blacks in Panel 6 are nice, as the panel contrasts from the bright palette and even tone of the rest of the story. Goodbye, Moth – your mysterious power will never be explained!
Ditko continues to work, but I don’t own anything he’s done recently, as he’s gone way beyond the mainstream and I wouldn’t even know how to buy his comics. I will never like Ditko as much as I’ve come to like Kirby, but there’s no denying his influence on comics history, and it’s cool that he’s still out there, plugging away.
Tomorrow I’ll start a new artist, one who is really the only artist working today who can be called the true heir to both Kirby and Ditko. He’s just the bee’s knees, I tells ya! Some of you have been clamoring for him, but your wait is over! You won’t find him in the archives, but you can still head over there and spend some time!