Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Confessions of a Ditkomaniac (Part One)

(In DITKOMANIA #33, Oct. 1992, I wrote a short essay titled "Confessions of a Ditkomaniac" that detailed how I became a fan of comics creator Steve Ditko. What follows is the first part of a new essay series where I'll discuss in more detail my transition from a faithful Marvelite, who didn't think much about Ditko's work, to a devoted reader of Charlton comics, to a fan and supporter of Steve Ditko's self-published and self-copyrighted works. The following essay will take us up to the end of 1983, when I turned 13 years old. Part Two, when it is written, will pick up from 1984 to however long it takes to get me to the present day. And now, without further ado, Part One... )

I was born in November 1970 and began reading comicbooks in the late 1970s. Back then, one could find new comics on the spinner rack at the local drugstores, as well as new comics featuring reprints of old comics there. Thus, I recall buying Avengers #170 (April 1978) and Marvel Triple Action #44 (Oct. 1978) -- which reprinted Avengers #52 from 1968 -- when they were both newly released, when I was only 7 years old. My copies of the hardcover books Superman from the 1930s to the 1970s and Batman from the 1930s to the 1970s are inscribed “March 1978” on the inside covers. My copy of Shazam! from the 1940s to the 1970s has “Feb. 9, 1979” written in pen on the inside cover. At right you can see my 4th Grade school photo, from late 1979 -- only a month or two before my 9th birthday, and already exhibiting signs of fannishness.

      The fact that comicbooks have publication dates printed on them (even if the cover-dates are usually four months ahead) makes it easier to discover how old you were when you bought them, if you recall buying them when new, and sometimes it can be surprising how young you were. The dates and reprints also helped propel my interest in history, providing me a timeline in my mind of when things happened (the aforementioned "from the 1930s to the 1970s," for example), and I eventually learned that what I knew about decades in comics' past could be related to other areas of history. But that would be years later.  Prior to the age of 13, I had virtually no interest in history -- only comic books and their history.

      I started out as a DC reader (especially JLA), given the prominence of that company's superheroes (Superfriends was one of my favorite TV shows as a child), but by 1979 I became mainly a Marvel reader. Since a friend of mine decided that he would collect the Avengers series (with the goal of obtaining every back issue, via our discovery of a local comics shop), I decided that the title I would collect would be Captain America. (#255 of that series contained my first printed letter to the editor. It was cover-dated March 1981, meaning that it appeared on the stands in December 1980, shortly after my 10th birthday. The letter contained references to the depiction of Cap's origin in previous issues, showing that I already had acquired a lot of them, despite my youth.)

      But this post is about Steve Ditko, and how I became a Ditko fan. As I said earlier, old comics were being reprinted back then, often in paperback format. My first exposure to Ditko was probably in Volumes 1 and 3 of the late 1970s Pocket Book series reprinting early issues of the Lee-Ditko Amazing Spider-Man run. I had the first volume at some point, but may have traded it away early on. I did get the third book (reprinting ASM #14-20) and read it with interest, and have my worn copy to this day. (Or at least I thought I did. When I went to make a scan of the cover for this blog entry, I couldn't find it on my bookshelf, so the image at left was taken from eBay.) I also acquired a few of Stan Lee's trade paperback volumes of that era, including Origins of Marvel Comics (which reprinted the first Spider-Man story and two early Doctor Strange tales) and Marvel's Greatest Superhero Battles (a 1978 book which included a 3-part Ditko-drawn Doctor Strange storyline). I also saw some of Ditko's old Hulk work in paperback reprint form. I liked Ditko's work in some of these comics, though not all. I remember at the time thinking that some of the characters looked too “wimpy.” As a newly-born Marvelite, my preferences ran more toward Sal Buscema. John Byrne, George Perez and Jim Steranko (as well as some of Jack Kirby) rather than Steve Ditko.

     I was aware of the importance of Ditko, however, because of those reprints.  Also, my older brother had pointed out to me that one of my new comics, Incredible Hulk #249 (July 1980), contained new Ditko art (filling in for Hulk's regular artist Sal Buscema) and told me that Ditko had drawn comics for Marvel back when he was my age.  So, Ditko drawing for Marvel again was evidently important because of the work he'd done there in the past.
     This was actually the second new Ditko comic that I'd read. The first was Daredevil #162 (Jan. 1980), another fill-in issue, written by Michael Fleisher and pencilled and inked by Ditko. The thing that I recall most about this story was how, as a reader, I got sucked into the story. Daredevil only appears in costume at the beginning and end of the book, and as a young reader I usually found long sequences of non-action and talking heads, accompanied by yellow caption boxes of text, to be boring. But here I found myself becoming engrossed in reading the story. Ditko's art wasn't drawing attention to itself in a flashy way; it was drawing the reader into the story. I remember noticing this during one of the locker room scenes; in the one shown below, we (the reader) are actually in the locker looking out in one panel. The thought balloons create an intimacy between the reader and the character, too (a technique that many of today's creators have unfortunately abandoned in their attempts at a more cinematic approach to comics storytelling).

      The third new Ditko comic I read as a kid was Machine Man #18 (Dec. 1980), the penultimate issue of the series. I was unfamiliar with its Alpha Flight guest-stars, but the look of the two silver-haired twins somehow seemed very much in keeping with the artist's style, although I was unaware of Ditko's recurring theme of duality at the time. (Years later when I saw the smiling "twins" of Ditko's self-copyrighted heroes Masquerade, I was reminded of his Northstar and Aurora for this reason.)

     The issue's villains, too, seemed strangely familiar. I assume that I must have seen some of the late 1970s Modern Comics reprints of Captain Atom and E-Man by this point (the latter of which contained Ditko's Killjoy strip in the back-up slot). I gradually began to associate Ditko's artwork with a particularly strong personal style, one that could be recognized across titles, across publishers, even across the years. I was still not particularly a fan of that style yet, though.

(Above: The Modern Comics reprints of Captain Atom #83, cover by Ditko 
and Rocke Mastroserio, and E-Man #4, cover by Joe Staton. 
 Note that they still have the yellow K-Mart price-tag stickers on them!)

(Above: The opening panels on page two of MACHINE MAN #18, Dec. 1980.
 Masked henchmen working for a mysterious villainess named 
Madam Menace are interrupted by Machine Man.)

(Above: Although there would still be one more issue published, the story
ends on a somber note with no "next issue" blurb at the bottom, 
in a scene reminiscent of the brooding Avenger called The Vision.)

     I bought Marvel Tales #138 (April 1982) when it came out, which reprinted the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man by Lee and Ditko. I very much enjoyed the issue, especially the scene where Spider-Man is unable to cash a check written out to him, but for some reason did not keep buying the comic. I wouldn't buy another issue of Marvel Tales until a year later, when #150 (April 1983) reprinted the first ASM annual. Perhaps I stayed away from the Marvel Tales reprints because I figured that they were reprinting material that had already been reprinted in the Pocket Book paperbacks and I'd wait to get that instead. Whatever the reason, this failure of mine to buy the Lee-Ditko ASM run as it was being reprinted every month, easily available at the local 7-11s and other convenience stores, reveals my general lack of interest in Steve Ditko's work -- even his most celebrated comics -- during this early period in my comics collecting.

     By the time I was 10 years old, in mid-1981, I had subscriptions to four Marvel titles: Amazing Spider-Man (beginning with #219), Avengers (#209), Captain America (#260), and The Incredible Hulk (#261, I think). A fifth Marvel title, Team America, was added to my subscriptions in 1982. I was getting to be a bit of a Marvel zombie at this point, rarely even looking at comics published by other companies (I made an exception for JLA #200; March 1982).

     By 1983, however, I was burning out on Marvel. Even the format was beginning to get tiresome: usually 22 pages of continuing story with a “Next Issue” caption at the end, followed by a page of letters. My exposure to the older Marvel comics made me wish that today's comics were more like them. Two pages of letters, not just one. (I began buying a couple DC titles like New Teen Titans and All-Star Squadron by this time.  At least they had two pages for the letters!) Or perhaps a text story instead of letters, as some of my oldest Marvel comics had. My earliest issue of Tales of Suspense (#54) had a lead Iron Man story, a 5-page fantasy tale, a 5-page “Tale of the Watcher” and a text story. What happened to those days? I wondered. And could they happen again?

     I recall looking at an Overstreet Price Guide in a bookstore at the time and seeing an ad for the new Red Circle line of comics, presenting a whole new group of superheroes called The Mighty Crusaders. And the names of the artists involved with this new project included that of Jim Steranko. I wondered where he had gone. So I made a note to keep an eye out for Red Circle.  I didn't know it then, but 1983 would become the year that Everything Changed.

     To start with, as noted above, I was getting tired with buying the same old Marvel comics every month.  I was now 12 years old, and writing and drawing my own home-made comics.  I knew that Marvel owned the copyrights and trademarks to their characters, so I would have to come up with my own characters.  I began to think seriously for the first time that my goal in life would be to try and become a comic book artist -- or rather, a comic book creator: someone like John Byrne, who was both writing and drawing The Fantastic Four.  Byrne had written a wonderfully nostalgic article for FantaCo's The Fantastic Four Chronicles about his desire to take the comic back to its roots.  "I began doing every thing I could to recapture what I remembered," he wrote.  "I find that I can read it again with something of the same feeling I had 20 years ago."

     My collecting of old Marvel comics, and reading of reprints, had led me to want to explore comics of the past more.  Since I never had much money to spend on comics, I had amassed most of my collection from the cheap bins of local comics shops.  But now bored with Spider-Man and the like, I wanted to see what came before.  Flipping through the "5 for $1.00" boxes at a short-lived shop called Comics Galore, I found 1970s issues of Marvel titles that had reprinted 1950s and early 1960s fantasy, horror, and monster stories -- some of them by creators whose names I was familiar with, such as Kirby and Ditko.  And since it was still a Marvel comic, it made the transition to reading such fare a little easier.  The first one that I bought was Weird Wonder Tales #8 (Feb. 1975), and the first "pre-Marvel" non-superhero story that I read was the first story inside: "The Last Laugh."  It had no credits for who wrote or drew it, but to me the art looked vaguely like Jack Kirby's.  (The Grand Comics Database says that Mort Meskin pencilled it and George Roussos inked it.)

     The last story in the issue was written by a familiar name (Stan Lee) and drawn by an unfamiliar one (Joe Maneely).  It was written in the second person, like its title ("You're Gonna Live Forever"), which was a novelty to me.  I began writing my own little horror stories like this, with twist endings, and occasionally using the second person, too.  I had heard of old-time radio shows in the pulp chapter of Steranko's History of Comics Vol. One (which I had acquired a year or two earlier) and began buying audio tape cassettes of shows like The Shadow and Suspense.  I was already a fan of the 1960s B&W Twilight Zone series, which some of these twist-ending tales reminded me of.   Stephen King's horror novels were very popular at this time; the first one that I bought was the paperback of Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas.  I bought it at the local drugstore and brought it into the house in a paper bag, taking it straight to my room without mentioning it to anyone, like it was forbidden knowledge.  Steranko's pulp chapter had also mentioned H. P. Lovecraft, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Nick Carter.  I was soon buying back issues of EQMM (and had a subscription by May 1984), Nick Carter Killmaster paperback novels (beginning in Dec. 1983, at age 13), and a couple paperback book collections of Lovecraft.  An adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" on the 1940s radio show The Weird Circle (which was broadcast on a local radio station) caused me to seek out Poe's work, and then earlier writers.  Although I still wanted to be a comics creator when I grew up, I now added a new goal: prose writer, specifically one like Lovecraft and Poe.

     So what does all this have to do with Steve Ditko?  Well, it sets the stage to show how a 12-to-13 year old kid in 1983 could suddenly become a major Ditko fan, and eventually going from being a faithful Marvelite to a faithful reader of (you knew we were getting there eventually) Charlton Comics.  I continued to buy back issues of Weird Wonder Tales and related titles like Chamber of Chills.  Some of these comics reprinted 5-page fantasy tales by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  These were slight fantasies whose sole purpose almost seemed to be for the surprise at the end.  And yet they always were charmingly done, and their simplicity and open panels were a welcome relief from the claustrophobic, detailed art of the 1950s horror stuff.  One of my favorites was "Beware of the Giants," reprinted in Weird Wonder Tales #21 (March 1977; one of the last of Marvel's 1970s "pre-Marvel" reprint comics), which had originally appeared in Amazing Adult Fantasy #14 (July 1962; yes, the issue right before the debut of Spider-Man).  I won't spoil the ending here, but it was typical of the altered sense of reality that these tales dealt in -- an expectation of innocence in the reader, that magic really exists just around the corner.

     I don't know how, but I already had in my possession two 1970s Charlton ghost comics, and both of them had Ditko covers.  Shown below on the left is my tattered, read-to-death copy of Ghostly Haunts #24 (April 1972) and an upgraded copy (not the same copy I had back then, which is in worse shape) of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves #32 (June 1972).  How I acquired these is a mystery, but I had them and so eventually I read them.  And you know what?  I liked them.

      I recognized Ditko's art, of course, and it seemed to me that he was more of a force in these Charlton comics than he had been at Marvel where he was doing fill-ins and lesser-known characters.  Even back in the 1960s, he had taken a back seat to Kirby, doing mostly 5-pagers while Kirby was doing the 13-page lead stories.  For Charlton, he not only drew the covers of their main titles, but he did the lead stories in many of them.  Of course I didn't realize all that immediately.  In fact, with these two issues, which were my first exposure to Charlton ghost comics, I was just as impressed by Pat Boyette and Pete Morisi (PAM), who drew the other stories in these two issues, as I was by Ditko.  "No Smoking Allowed," drawn by Boyette in the Dr. Graves issue, was a particular favorite of mine -- just a great story well-told.  The individual personalities of the artists was allowed to shine at Charlton in these ghost comics, unlike under the assembly-line approach at Marvel (aside from writer-artists like John Byrne and Walt Simonson).

     So, I decided to buy some more 1970s Charlton ghost comics out of the "5 for $1.00" bins at Comics Galore.  I liked those ones as well, so then I took a big chance for a cheapskate like me.  I noticed that there were a LOT of those Charlton comics in the bins, so one fine day in 1983, I bought nine dollars worth of them -- a large sum for me at the time.  (I was only 12, soon to be 13 years old.)  Unfortunately, as I flipped through the issues, I found that most of the issues I'd bought were from the late 1970s/early 1980s and instead of Ditko, PAM and Boyette, there was a lot of foreign-looking art that didn't give me that same old-fashioned thrill.  I was disappointed and set the stack to one dusty side of my room, thinking that I had wasted nine bucks.  (I'll return to that stack shortly, though.  See below.)

     Now that my interests had expanded beyond learning the histories of my favorite superheroes, I began to take more of an interest in the history of the medium as a whole.  Thinking that my future lay in comics, I had also begun buying some of the prozines that were around to learn more about the behind-the-scenes of making comics.  One of the first I bought was The Comics Journal #83 (Aug. 1983) which contained the second part of a huge Dave Sim interview.  I recall being disturbed by the adult content of the issue, such as the use of a profanity in the title of Harlan Ellison's column, and ended up throwing the issue away a few months later.  I was looking to recapture the feeling of a more innocent time, not to move in the other direction, toward premature adulthood.  More preferable was Comics Scene #11 (Sept. 1983) which contained an article by Frank Lovece about old-time artist Dick Ayers, and a preview of the splash page of The Shield story that he drew for Mighty Crusaders #3 -- one of those Red Circle Comics that I'd heard of.  I bought #3 at Comics Galore when it came out and showed it to a friend.  He pointed out that the heroes looked like rip-offs of Marvel's -- that the Fly and Fly-Girl were stand-ins for Yellowjacket and the Wasp, that Comet looked like Cyclops, that The Jaguar looked like the new Avenger named Starfox, and most obviously The Shield was inspired by Captain America.  I eventually learned that in each of these cases, however, it was the Red Circle hero who had come first.

     I liked this Red Circle line, finding the format of no ads, "new" heroes, and multiple stories per issue to be a refreshing change from the sameness of the 22-page Marvels.  They were a smaller company, one that you could root for.  When I saw that Alex Toth had drawn the covers of The Black Hood #2 (Aug. 1983), whose name I'd seen in the Overstreet Price Guide, I bought it hoping that maybe the comic would be worth something someday.  Instead, it was worth something to me immediately because of the overpowering style of The Fox back-up story within that Toth wrote, drew and even lettered.  He had a unique voice and style, and was even more of a "complete" creator than those I had admired and aspired to be like.  Toth instantly became one of my favorites, and for the past couple decades I've usually listed him as my third all-time favorite comics creator (after Kirby and Ditko).

     The issue also contained a Black Hood story drawn by a familiar hand, Pat Boyette.  Had it been a Marvel or DC comic, I might have been critical, thinking that the title character didn't look "right" (i.e., conform to a house style), but as with Charlton, it looked right for this circumstance since there was nothing else to judge it by -- this was, after all, the first Black Hood solo story I'd ever read.  The issue was preceded by a fine editorial by Bill DuBay titled "A Whisper of Fairy Dust," where DuBay reminisced about reading comics as a child.  "Comic books were designed to brush young lives with a few enchanted granules of fairy dust!" he wrote. "From their very inception, they were meant to be a momentary friend in an isolated moment of loneliness, hurt or need."  If ever I were to compile a collection of my favorite essays about reading comics, this essay (along with the previously-mentioned Byrne essay) would be in it.

     DuBay's essay helped clarify in my mind another aspect of these comics that I had been discovering that made me like them: they seemingly weren't aimed at fandom.  They were aimed at readers, perhaps (as in the case of Charlton) the general reader -- the person who doesn't "collect" comics, but reads them and then goes on with his or her life.  The type of person who will read a novel, but doesn't feel the need to buy everything by a particular publishing house (or bad-mouth the products of a rival publisher).  The kind of readers that comic books had before comic shops, before conventions, before fandom took hold of the industry and brought with it overly hyped "events" pandering to its own kind.  I decided that I was not a "superhero fan," as I had been for the previous five years.  I was a fan of the medium, and I would read all types of comics.  And I began to do just that.  

     Comics Scene #11, like the other prozines of the time, contained numerous ads for intriguing direct-sale comics -- most of which I'd never see at my local shop: Judge Dredd, American Flagg, Jon Sable, and so on.  However, the issue did have a short item on the news page about a comic I could find at my local convenience store, but never would have dreamed about buying.  The item reported that Bob Bolling was taking over Archie & Me beginning with #141.  They made it sound respectable to buy an Archie comic, something that I had never done before.  (At the time, I didn't realize that Red Circle and Archie were in fact one and the same company -- Red Circle being Archie's direct-sale-only superhero imprint.)  I'd read some back issues that my little sister had -- during a time when I was trying to get her to start collecting comics, too -- but I had never bought an Archie comic myself.  So, I decided that if I saw a copy of Archie & Me #141 on the spinner rack, I would buy it, to see what all the fuss was about.   I didn't see #141, but I did see #142 (Dec. 1983), and I recall being a bit nervous as I approached the cashier, wondering if he would make a comment about me being "too old" for such material.  I made it home safely with the comic, however, and was amazed at how different Bolling's Archie stories were from others I'd read.  Two of the stories took place at night, or rather one in the breaking dawn, and one could almost feel the morning dew on the grass as the rays of the sun broke through in the distance.  Bolling -- like Toth, like Kirby, like Byrne -- was a creator, writing and drawing these stories himself, putting pieces of himself into them.  I soon decided to start buying Archie & Me regularly, and in fact to try all of the Archie titles, even the digests. 

     And now, here's where Ditko comes in again.  One of the other Red Circle comics that I bought early on was The Fly #3 (Oct. 1983).  Ditko pencilled all three of the Fly stories in the issue (one of them was a short-short of 2 pages) and it looked great!  The comic's editor was Robin Snyder, who also edited Shield (soon-to-be Shield/Steel Sterling, thereafter simply Steel Sterling) and some of the issues of Blue Ribbon Comics.  In the letters page (titled "Under the Gun") Robin mentioned that "beginning with issue 5 Steve Ditko will be plotting the Fly series and I'll be adding the dialogue."  (More on that in Part Two of this essay series.)  I also bought #4 when it came out, but didn't like it as much.  However, changes were in store for Red Circle as the direct-sale-only line was discontinued and replaced by the Archie Adventure Series line, available on newsstands (and one of my local source of comics, the neighborhood 7-11).  The change eliminated the two titles that DuBay edited (Black Hood and Comet), and Alex Toth was gone with him.  But I didn't know all that just yet.

     One of the other prozines that I had bought in late 1983 -- in fact, my favorite one -- was called Comics Collector and was edited by Don & Maggie Thompson of The Comics Buyer's Guide.  The second issue was the first one I bought; cover-dated Winter 1984, it was released in late 1983 and contained several articles about old comics, including one by Ron Goulart about the 1940s incarnations of the Red Circle superheroes.  An article by Ed Gorman on the then-new indie comic Ms. Tree made it seem like a profile of comic-strip creators, or an early profile of Siegel & Shuster, in the way that creators Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty controlled every aspect of the series, much different than the way things were done at the Big Two nowadays.  It made it seem like the independents were a way of starting the history of comics over from scratch, and this time giving the creators (instead of the companies) the reins.  Also of interest was an article by Lawrence Watt-Evans about EC Comics of the 1950s, a subject on which I had previously read and knew nothing.

     Even better was the third issue of the magazine, dated Spring 1984, which I also bought when released.  This contained another article by Watt-Evans on 1950s horror comics, including the non-EC ones, and an article by Will Murray titled "I Remember... Vandoom, Master of Marvel Monsters."  Murray's article, of course, was all about those "pre-Marvel" fantasy stories, but written from the perspective of one who had lived through that era.  He concluded his article by writing the words shown at right.  As when Steranko in his pulp chapter had expressed regret that today's youth would never hear The Shadow every week on the radio as he had (prompting me to seek out the show), I felt regret while reading Murray's words that Marvel had gotten so big and that there weren't any fantasy anthologies like in the old days.

     And yet, that wasn't quite the case, was it?  In fact, Charlton Comics was still publishing their ghost comics (as well as war comics) in 1983-84, albeit almost entirely consisting of reprints.  I must have seen them on the spinner rack, but if I had, I ignored them, even though I had liked most of the ones I'd bought in the back issue bins.  Speaking of which, there was still that stack of Charlton ghost comics that I had bought for nine bucks and never really gotten around to reading.  One day as I was getting ready for school, I noticed that the comic at the top of the stack dealt with time travel, a subject of great interest to me.  I reminded myself to read that story when I got home from school.  When I finally did so, hours later, I discovered that the entire issue consisted of reprints of Mysterious Traveler stories from the late 1950s (though ones not drawn by Ditko). The stories reminded me of The Twilight Zone; the last story in the issue ("Man Alone!") seemed like a prototype for the X-Men, where a college student who is able to move objects with his mind is invited by a telepath to join with others like himself.  "There you will learn to use your powers to benefit mankind!" he is told.

     I began to read more of the $9.00 stack and found that I enjoyed them after all, even some of the ones with the scratchy-looking "foreign" art.  Murray had said that back in 1962 "there were monsters lurking at the drugstore."  Yes, there was no longer a Tales to Astonish or Strange Tales, but Charlton was still publishing the all-reprint titles of Ghost Manor and Scary Tales and the like, and finally I decided that the next time I saw them in the spinner rack, I would plunk down my sixty cents (more than what I was used to paying for a Charlton, remember) and give their latest issues a try.  My subscriptions to the Marvel titles were going to expire in 1984 and I was probably not going to renew them, given my boredom with current Marvel.  Instead, I would spend 1984 time-travelling into the past, buying Charlton and Archie Comics at the local drugstores and pretending it was 1962.

     I'll pick up the narrative to this story in Part Two, which will begin with comics cover-dated January 1984, the first month that I began buying Charlton comics new off the stands -- and which marks my first exposure to Steve Ditko's 1950s Charlton art!