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 “Paper Romance!” from Daring Love #1, which was published by Gillmor Magazines (an imprint of Key Publications) and has a cover date of September 1953. These scans are from Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 1, my copy of which was published in 2009 by Fantagraphics. Enjoy!
Back in the day, Our Dread Lord and Master spotlighted (spotlit?) Steve Ditko’s very first comics work, so I figured I’d show you the first story of his that was ever published (he sold “Stretching Things” before he did two other stories, but it was published after those two stories). “Paper Romance!” isn’t quite as Ditko-esque as some of his other stories, but it’s still a good-looking story. And, of course, it contains what we all think of first when we think of Ditko: SEX. Wait, isn’t that what we think of?
The story (there’s no writer credited, and I can’t find who wrote it) is simple: Liza, a nice if somewhat oversexed farm girl, has a nice boyfriend named Seth, but she dreams of an exciting stranger to sweep her off her feet. She sees an advertisement in the newspaper that says people can send letters to that office and they will be forwarded to someone of the opposite sex and “who knows what that might lead to …” Was that as creepy in 1953 as it is today? Anyway, Liza starts writing letters, and she gets responses from some dreamboat named Tom Hamilton. She flaunts this in Seth’s face even as she continues to have some pretty steamy make-out sessions with him. When she agrees to meet Tom, it turns out that he’s really … Seth! He read the first letter and decided to answer as “Tom” because he could never speak the words he really felt but he could write about them. So Liza realizes that Seth is really the dude for her, and presumably they go off to have a lot of kids that they can raise to be good Objectivists or something. All is well!
Let’s check out this Ditko art, though. This is pre-Comics Code, of course, but it’s still somewhat surprising at how steamy it is. This first example isn’t too risque, but we’ll get there, fret not:
I love Panel 3, with the leaves dappling Liza and Seth’s bodies with black and shadowing their faces. It makes the scene a bit more disturbing, especially as Liza is resisting. She’s playfully resisting, as we see in Panel 4, where she’s almost insane with desire, but it’s still a weird little inking choice by Ditko, making the story the slightest bit darker than the writing implies.
Okay, here is where it starts getting a bit weird. Liza lies on her bed, legs apart, as she reads about “Tom Hamilton.” Luckily, we can see where both her hands are, or we might start getting ideas. It’s a wildly sexual pose, and look at Liza’s face – her eyes are slitted and her mouth is open slightly. Her back isn’t arched, but her breasts are thrusting rather high in the air, and although the 1950s were famous for torpedo bras, I doubt if Liza is wearing a bra to bed. Ditko even gives us nipple shadows, which he’ll do again below. In Panel 2, Liza sits by the window, and it’s even more explicit, as she can only gasp about how Tom is everything she’s ever wanted. Ditko draws her nightgown clinging to her, accentuating her naked body underneath, and the light source highlights her breasts and pelvis. Luckily for everyone, her left hand is behind her back, not in front of her, because you’ll notice where it would be if Ditko drew it in front of her. WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!?!? WERTHAM WAS RIGHT!!!!
Well, now Ditko is just fucking with us. I mean, really. And boy, Liza really has a firm grasp on that pitchfork!
Seth is awesome. Note in Panel 1 that he’s not exactly looking Liza in the face, probably because he can’t tear his gaze away from her other assets! And I know that sometimes a pitchfork is just a pitchfork, but Liza could have laid it down instead of making sure it’s standing up straight like that. Damn, Liza enjoys making out. What do they feed those farm girls?
So that’s “Paper Romance!” Ditko would soon turn to horror and other more manly stories, but let’s just appreciate this for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go take a cold shower.
Next: More Ditko! Will it be pre-Marvel Ditko? Oh, you better believe it! And, as we move into a different artist, don’t forget about the archives!