Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1Edited by Blake BellFantagraphics Books, 240 pages, $39.99
I am in no way an expert where Steve Ditko is concerned. My knowledge of him and his work is pretty much equal to that of the average comics fan my age (co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, also did Creeper and Shade, big Ayn Rand fan, has a thing for drawing hands). So I don't feel I can offer some kind of quantitative analysis about Strange Suspense, a new compendium of pre-Code Ditko stories, and how it compares to his most famous and even current work.
I do, however, have a few thought that sprang to mind while reading the book that I thought worth sharing ...
1) Maybe Wertham had a point. Most of the stories in Suspense are horror stories. There's the occasional romance or gangster tale, but most fall into the Tales From the Crypt knockoffs. And boy are they gruesome. I don't mean that they're scary or unnerving. No, I mean they're gross and way over the top in their portrayal of brutality and blood. In one story a conniving husband gets his forehead branded with a hot iron and then has his limbs chewed off by rats, so that we get to watch him crawl around on his bloody stumps for a few pages before he finally expires. In another, an ugly variation on Cinderella, the three stepsisters (who all turn out to be vampires) have their legs ripped off and displayed for the mother waring glass slippers. No wonder parents and other figures of authority went apeshit over this stuff. I'd have never let any of these comics within 12 county miles of my children.
2) I have a renewed appreciation for Al Feldstein. Which brings me to my next point. As frustrated as I get over the text-heavy nature of the EC horror line and their over-reliance on O. Henryesque "surprise twist endings," it's Faulkner compared to some of the material laid out here. I don't know who wrote these tales -- I'm hoping it wasn't Ditko himself -- but there's little of the intelligence, wit or downright storytelling logic that EC editor and writer Feldstein displayed in his books. (Mind you: I'm talking about the dialogue and plotting here, not Ditko's art, which I'll discuss in a second.)
3) The monsters look cool. Ditko obviously from the get-go had a knack for caricature. His monsters and villains are far more visually interesting than his "normal" people. No wonder he gravitated towards the horror and supernatural stuff. And no wonder that Stan Lee later tapped him for all those monster stories Marvel did before the Fantastic Four came into being.
4) This is definitely early Ditko. The stories in Suspense feel clumsy and rushed at times, and show little of the grace and panache that decorated comics like Spider-Man and Shade: The Changing Man. The Mad-like "Car Show" shows that parody was never Ditko's strong suit. "Paper Romance" feels as stiff as cardboard. Passers-by who glance at the title and think "Oh boy, Ditko" should be well warned that this these pages clearly codify a "portrait of the artist as a young man," with all the stumbling about that such a label suggests.
5) That being said ... the work contained in this hardcover (and kudos to Fantagraphics on the excellent and handsome production work) constantly reminds you of just how stellar an artist Ditko would prove to be. Occasional duds aside, a number of rather indelible and striking images remain, particularily on the covers, which, after all, had to be dramatic enough to get the kids to part with their dimes. You can sense though the artist's restlessness and eagerness to grab the reader's attention. The book is filled with tight close-ups of panicked faces, skewed points of view, lots of worm's and bird's eye angles, dramatic lighting,expressionist montages and more. By the end of the book, you can see the artist start to take form over the apprentice. Stories like "Bridegroom, Come Back" feature an elegant use of page and panel composition that would help thousands thrill to the adventures of a certain wall-crawler. For historians, both amateur and otherwise, who thrill to the prospect of seeing that maturity take place, this is the book for you.