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 Desert Spell” from Strange Suspense Stories #34, which was published by Charlton and has a cover date of November 1957. These scans are from Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 3, my copy of which was published in 2012 by Fantagraphics. Enjoy!
I wanted to show a few panels from this story because it shows some things Ditko was doing in the 1950s that not many others were doing, as far as I can tell (I’m woefully ignorant of a lot of olde-tymey comics, so forgive me if everyone was doing stuff like this). “The Desert Spell,” which was probably, once again, written by Joe Gill, is a five-page story about a Nazi who took some kind of serum that put him in suspended animation, and now he’s woken up. He dreams of restarting the Nazi empire (from a tank in the middle of the desert, which would probably be somewhat difficult), but once he gets the tank working, he accidentally drinks more of the serum and falls back into suspended animation. Tough luck, Ratzi!
Anyway, here’s some of the artwork in the story:
We see that Ditko is slowly becoming more “Ditko-ish” in his faces, as our Nazi friend might not have the triangle-shaped head that a lot of later Ditko characters have (did Ditko design Phineas Flynn?), but he has the thin, straight nose and prominent cheekbones that many Ditko characters have. It’s also a good choice of Ditko to draw concentric circles to indicate the sun, and the colorist (no colorist is credited) does a good job lightening the colors moving outward until the yellow almost matches the sand in the desert, blending the sun and the sand and creating a hellish landscape. Note that Ditko places one of the circles over the Nazi’s forehead, so that the actual sun and the Nazi’s heat dizziness become one. The central image, though, is interesting, because it appears that Ditko used Duo-Shade, which helps make the Nazi’s face darker than the other parts of the amalgamated panel, making the Nazi look both more evil and more affected by the heat. I think it’s Duo-Shade because of the thin vertical lines on the Nazi’s face, which is fairly characteristic of Duo-Shade. Whatever Ditko is using, I haven’t seen it used too much in the reprints of 1950s comics I own (of course, as I noted, I don’t have access to a lot of them), and it’s just another example of Ditko trying different things to tell a story.
One the next page, we get this nice layout:
I know this is a wild generalization, but page layouts in the early days of comics weren’t often that innovative – even someone like Kirby didn’t experiment too often with them. Most artists stuck to parallelograms – rectangles or squares – as did Ditko, but even within that, he tended to try some different things. Here, he places the Nazi in a center circle, grinning fiendishly, as his dreams of a new empire spin around him. It’s certainly not the most radical design – we still read it in a simple, left-to-right manner – but just the fact that Ditko chose to put the Nazi in the center re-orients us and makes the layout look more interesting than if it weren’t there. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that Ditko doesn’t use panel gutters in this drawing, as he does through the rest of the story (and, indeed, almost all the time). By using thin black lines to separate the panels, he turns it into a dream sequence more easily – all these images blend together in our Evil Nazi’s head, and it’s an effective way to depict it. Others did this back in those days, of course, but it wasn’t too common. Ditko understood how it would change our reaction to the scene.
For such a short story, “The Desert Spell” is artistically interesting. Ditko knew what he was doing!
Next: Well, I’d certainly like to check out some of Ditko’s 1960s Marvel work, but you’ve all seen that, so let’s jump over it, shall we? That will be fun! Of course, if you like early 1960s Marvel, you can find some in the archives!