March 28, 2007

Time Warp #3 [1980]

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The recent posts on Ditko's LSH stories brought quite a bit of traffic and comments, including some from the creator of Doctor Mayavale. It also brought a question about other DeMatteis/Ditko stories, and I think a piece in DC's short lived sci-fi anthology is the only one.

"The Dimensions Of Greed" is a 7-page story about two criminals on the recently colonized Mars who rob a casino, killing two guards, and go to hide in the Martian ruins. They find a hidden chamber that leads them to a device which transports them to a surreal dimension about halfway between a Doctor Strange drawing and Shade's Area of Madness, where they meet the original Martians, lumpy green four-eyed (all in a row) creatures who had left the planet years ago. The crooks try to deceive the Martians in order to steal their gems, but when they escape find they went back in time and replaced the guards they had killed during their original heist, setting an endless time-loop in progress.

Nice little story, very much in the style of old Charlton or Atlas stories Ditko worked on, and a much better look at Ditko's skills around 1980 than his LSH work, especially since he handles the inks as well. Those weird Ditko renderings of alien dimensions are always nice to see.

Ditko has another story in this issue, the 3-page "On The Day Of His Return" by the writing team of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, who would later go on to create AMETHYST and BLUE DEVIL. This one has a spaceship captain hit an uncharted spacewarp, where he finds an out-of-place cabin on a snow-covered world. The bearded fat man in red's identity is immediately obvious to the reader, but the captain takes another page to figure it out as he hitches a ride home on a reindeer drawn sleigh. Very goofy, and the little text at the end about rediscovering faith and magic is kind of amusing in how it probably runs completely opposite to Ditko's objectivism. We do get one of those great Ditko double-takes when the captain realizes he's talking to an elf.


March 26, 2007

The Legion of Super-Heroes #268 [1980]

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Since I'm a glutton for punishment sometimes, and since it only cost me 39 cents, I picked up another of the Ditko drawn LSH stories, the one with the worst reputation.

"Life after Life after Life" is a 25-page story written by J.M. DeMatteis and inked by Bob Wiacek, and it features a team of Legionnaires going up against Doctor Mayavale.

I will say this for Mayavale, he sure does have a lot of hands, which gives ample opportunity for Ditko to do some of that crazy hand-jive. That ends the entertaining part of the character. Other than that, he's a cosmic inventor who has decided, since his past lives were all good and noble, that he has to be evil in order to balance the cosmic scales. Sure, that makes sense, but how about the fact that three of the LSH members were acquaintances who had betrayed him in past lives, so he sets up robotic recreations of those betrayals (all in Earth's past) to reverse them. Search the interweb if you need a more detailed explanation.

All I can say is that I'm glad at age 10 I picked up the issue after this, or I might never have read an LSH story again. It's hard to believe from this that DeMatteis would turn out to be (a) a good writer (I highly recommend BROOKLYN DREAMS and MOONSHADOW and (b) able to explore themes of reincarnation and karmic balance in a thoughtful way. At this point his prose is just way too florid (which it often is in his later books, but he makes it work, unlike "a voice that resounds with stentorian sanity, and yet quivers in maundering madness") and the plot is just all over the place. Wiacek is also a much better inker than you'd guess from this.

Except for the hands, this is all sorts of bad. I'd say the hands are worth about the 39 cents I paid, if you paid the full 50 cent cover price you might want your money back.



March 22, 2007

Superman #400 [1984]

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A comment to one of the recent Legion posts mentioned that Ditko drawing Superboy in a few of those stories (a flashback in one, a more major role in another) was among the few times that he really got to draw one of the major players in the DC Universe. For the most part his work at DC was confined to characters he created (Creeper, Hawk&Dove, Stalker, Shade, Starman), non-series short sci-fi/fantasy stories and more obscure DC characters (Etrigan, Man-Bat (with a Batman cameo), the Legion, Black Lightning, the Spectre (heavily inked)). He did draw one short Green Lantern chapter of a larger story, but apparently Wonder Woman doesn't even appear on the pages of a Wonder Woman story he drew.

(there is some unpublished stuff, too. A New Gods back-up story, a Green Lantern image I saw once I think intended for a colouring book, a great Plastic Man image that might have been intended for WHO'S WHO)

But the best was this pin-up from SUPERMAN #400. An odd but brilliant issue celebrating the milestone by having a lot of artists not usually associated with Superman drawing stories of his legend through the future, interspersed with various pin-ups. Ditko's page may be the highlight of the issue for me (and there's some great stuff in here, including Will Eisner, Jack Davis, Jerry Robinson, Al Williamson, Jack Kirby and more). Ditko seamlessly integrates the type of images that he used in his own work like Mr. A and Avenging World, iconographic conflicts between savagery and civilization, oppression and freedom, and combines them with a great image of Superman standing as a barrier defending free people from the forces of evil. It works perfectly, both as as Superman image and a Ditko image. Makes you wonder what he would have done with the character if allowed to cut loose for a full story (his take on Batman would be interesting too. I'm sorry that when DC was doing their "Batman Black and White" mini-series then back-ups that they didn't get Ditko to do one).


--Link-- LSH blog on Ditko's Legion

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My recent posts on some of Ditko's circa 1980 fill-in work on LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES has inspired some comments on that era from The Legion Omnicom, a blog devoted to all things LSH. Suffice to say that the view that Ditko hit an unfortunate nadir in LSH history is far from a minority opinion.

March 21, 2007

The Legion of Super-Heroes #281 [1981]

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The last of the seven LSH stories Ditko drew is, fortunately, the best by far of those I've read. That's hardly a compliment, given the others (and I'm in no hurry to track down the two I don't have, one of which has a reputation as one of the worst LSH stories ever).

"Madness Is The Molecule Master" is the name of this 27-page adventure, with some pretty good Bruce Patterson inks. Solid work with some good depth and keeping Ditko's general look. This story sees part of the team going back to Superboy's time to figure out some complicated plot involving Superboy showing up with Ultra-Boy's memories and taking the identity of Reflecto and then everyone being stranded back in Smallville by the Time Trapper. It's all very involved. The important thing is that you get some nice scenes of Ditko drawing Superboy, which is pretty fun. Clark Kent's nosy neighbour is good for a few laughs. The Legion walking around Smallville, with the girls in the very revealing concoctions that passed for their costumes at the time is good.

It's unfortunate that this is Ditko's last LSH story, as this is the issue where his frequent collaborator Paul Levitz returned to the book (scripting this issue over a plot by Roy Thomas, taking over full writing a few issues later), and it improved a lot over what it had been during the previous Ditko fill-ins. He's actually pretty good with a large, colourful cast, and seeing his versions of aliens and space-ships and futuristic cities is always a treat.


The Legion of Super-Heroes #276 [1981]

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Last time Ditko drew the book it was pirates, this time it's kings and castles and wizards. What kind of science fiction book is this, anyway?

Frank Chiaramonte inks Ditko on "Lord Romdur's Castle", 25-page adventure of the LSH, where a small group of them go to a planet still at the development level of middle ages Earth to find some lost surveyors. This is the kind of mission you send the greatest super-team of their era on? Anyway, suffice to say that like most LSH books of this era it makes very little sense if you're not familiar with the characters. If you are, then it makes no sense at all. Oh, and "Romdur" is an anagram for "Mordru", one of the team's main villains, though you wouldn't know that from how quickly he's defeated here.

We do get Ditko drawing some nice horses, and a few nice fantasy scenes, and Chameleon Boy doing that bug-eyed alien is good for a laugh. But overall, seriously, if you don't already have Ditko's LSH stories I can't recommend seeking them out.



March 20, 2007

The Legion of Super-Heroes #274 [1981]

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Ditko returns to the LSH only two months after his previous issue with "The Exaggerated Death Of Ultra-Boy" another 25-page yarn of the 30th century's greatest super-team with Frank Chiaramonte on the inks again. This time we get space pirates!

LSH member Ultra-Boy is presumed dead at the hands of Pulsar Stargrave, even though there's no body, so you'd think they'd know better. The LSH mourn for him, including his girlfriend Phantom Girl, not knowing he's alive, floating in space, where he's rescued by space pirates, but lacking his memory. His powers attract the attention of the leader of the pirates, a sexy captain in a fairly ridiculous outfit even by 1981 LSH standards. Ultra-Boy helps the pirates out when the LSH try to stop them, but his faint recognition of Phantom Girl prevents him from doing anything too drastic.

Yeah, space pirates. It's sometimes amazing this book lasted through this period to get to the good stuff on the other side. Despite the story, there's actually some fun artwork by Ditko in this one, what with the goofy aliens and fight scenes. The opening scenes of Ultra-Boy floating through a variety of Ditko space backgrounds is pretty good, too, and Chiarmonte's inks are pretty effective in that part.



March 19, 2007

The Legion of Super-Heroes #272 [1981]

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More Ditko in the 30th century of the DC Universe, this time with the 25-page "The Secret Origin Of Blok", inked by Frank Chiaramonte. Not a huge fan of that combination. I like Chiarmonte's work on some pencillers, but on Ditko it comes across as a bit bland and flattening.

As the title suggests, this is the story behind the character Blok. Until the previous storyline he had been a member of the League of Super-Assassins, but had reformed and helped the Legion, and was now trying out for membership in the group, in competition with three of the blandest super-hero wannabes you can imagine, Lamprey, Nightwind and the Crystal Kid. I don't even think anyone in that group made the Legion of Substitute Heroes. During downtime during the tryouts, Blok explains that his race of rock-like beings were native to a planet colonized by humans, and lived peacefully with the humans until their sun went nova. He and the other members of the League of Super-Assassins were children at the time, and somehow managed to mis-interpret the Legion helping to evacuate their people as the Legion causing the death of their planet, and swore vengeance. If you think that's an implausible mess of a story, it gets worse if you know more about LSH history. Anyway, Blok's story warms even cynical Wildfire's heart, and then the team is called to capture some escaped criminals known, swear to god, as the Starburst Bandits, who are breaking into a zoo to steal their fire-haired flying horses. Someone was paid to make this up. The other tryouts think, with some justification, that this is a fake mission meant to test them, and are quickly defeated. I'm not sure what excuse the actual Legion members have for being equally ineffective. Blok, of course, saves the day, and is granted membership in the team.

Sorry for going off at length on the story. I was having trouble believing it myself. Surprisingly, Blok actually became a major member of the team not too long after. Ditko's art wasn't too bad, but nothing really sticks out.



"The Secret Origin Of Blok" J-6846

March 18, 2007

Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes #257 [1979]

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 One of the odder semi-regular gigs that Ditko had was his run as a frequent guest artist on DC's group of 30th century super-youths, the Legion of Super-Heroes, with seven stories over the course of two years, mostly under the editorial reign of frequent Ditko collaborator Jack C. Harris, most of them written by Gerry Conway.

This issue starts it off, with the 7-page back-up story "Once A Legionnaire", inked by Dan Adkins. Adkins is a good solid inker in the Wallace Wood vein, and works well with Ditko here, as he did a decade later with some Speedball and other stories at Marvel. This story features two of the powerhouse members of the team, Bouncing Boy, who can blow up like a rubber ball and bounce, and Duo Damsel, who can split into two identical non-powered women (and she used to be the even more formidable Triplicate Girl, before one of her bodies was killed). The two (or three) of them had recently married and left the Legion, and were now anonymous colonists on a frontier world. However, at the first sign of trouble they're forced to reveal their powers, impressing their clearly easily impressed fellow colonists, who are now going to be more reckless knowing they have super-powered backup. To teach them a lesson in self-reliance the heroes let themselves be defeated by a harmless ice-dragon, which one of the colonists then defeats. The heroes were also apparently the only ones who read the exploratory reports on the planet they were colonizing.

Not a very good story, really. I like the concept of the Legion, even many of the goofy aspects like the ridiculous powers of many members, and it had a lot of really good eras of writing before and after his, but unfortunately for the most part Ditko's brief tenure as fill-in artist didn't intersect with the well-written eras. This is one of those Ditko stories to pick up when you've exhausted all others.




March 17, 2007

Ghosts #111 [1982]

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Here's an interesting little one-time only collaboration between two of my favourite comic book creators. Sheldon Mayer is best known for his work as a cartoonist (SUGAR & SPIKE, SCRIBBLY, hundreds of funny animal stories) and as an editor (the All-American side of DC's golden age, including WONDER WOMAN, FLASH, GREEN LANTERN and the JSA). He also scripted about three dozen stories for DC's various horror and sci-fi titles of the 1970s and early 1980s. And Steve Ditko drew about the same number of stories for those books.

They intersected at the end of their respective tenures on those lines for the 10-page ghost story "Shrieeeeeek!", and it's a great little story highlighting some of neat aspects that both creators brought to their work.

A woman is frightened when she finds a live mouse caught in a trap. Her husband wants to kill it, but she decides to release it outside, only her husband then allows the cat next door to kill it. We also find out that he's having an affair with the woman next door. While driving to a meeting with his mistress, the man is haunted by the ghost of the mouse. That doesn't frighten him, and instead he tries to get the mouse to haunt his wife, hoping that'll drive her crazy, giving him control of her money. And we all know plans like that never backfire in horror stories.

Mayer's script is some nice, quirky fun, with some unexpected twists. Ditko does a great job with it, adding his own quirks in the great expressive animal and ghost styles he has intersecting. Plus he gets to draw a cemetery, which always suits his style.



March 6, 2007

Get Smart #2 [1966]

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Ditko drew five comic books for Dell right after his departure from Marvel (two each of GET SMART and HOGAN'S HEROES and one of NUKLA), most likely arranged through assignments from Sal Trapani, who inked those books, as discussed by Mark Evanier here and here, along with partially inked sample images that may have a touch of Ditko's then studio-mate Eric Stanton as well.

Dell's comics at the time were pretty generous with the page count, with very few ads (the backcover and a half-page interior), so even with the photo cover you get 34 pages of Ditko artwork in here. The interior front and back covers are a nice treat, both with single page black and white stories that are the highlights of the book, "Self Defeat" and "Hot Wire", which look really nice on the better printed glossy paper stock, and are nice cute gags that are in keeping with the show (for the record, I was a big fan of the show as a kid, though it's been over a decade since I've seen it).

The interior story is one long 32-page adventure divided into three chapters, "The Dumb Dummy" (12-pages), "Dungeon Of Doom" (11-pages) and "Double Trouble" (9-pages). It really doesn't make a lot of sense, but involves a Kaos agent creating robot doubles of people and some such. Doesn't really capture the show at all, and has some really odd bits (for some reason the Chief is called Control half the time, which I don't recall from the show).

The art is pretty snappy, though. Not quite up to most of the other stuff Ditko was up to in 1966, but getting the job done with some nice flourishes (a few nice double-takes and weird expressions, and of course those Ditko fingers). The likenesses aren't too great, with Maxwell Smart being almost unrecognizable except for a few panels, and the Chief way off. Agent 99 was closer to model, and at least generally consistent.

Can't really recommend this with so many other pure Ditko things out there, but if you ever run out of those you might want to pick this up. Has anyone read Ditko's HOGAN'S HEROES issues? Worth a look?



March 5, 2007

Sgt. Fury #15 [1965]

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There are very few examples of Ditko serving just as an inker for any penciller other than Jack Kirby (there are a few dozen Kirby/Ditko collaborations, all of them well before this issue). According to the letter column in this issue, Ditko pinched in on inking Dick Ayers' pencils for the 20-page story because regular inker George Roussos (aka George Bell) was on vacation, but Roussos doesn't return and doesn't seem to ink anything at Marvel for another two years, so take that with a Bullpen sized grain of salt.

A bit surprising that Ditko found time for this, since at the time he was plotting and doing full art on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange every month, plus doing pencils on the Hulk in TALES TO ASTONISH. Over forty pages a month.

Anyway, this adventure of Fury and the Howlers takes them to Nazi occupied Holland, where they're assigned to blow up a dike at a strategic place, flooding out a Nazi division poised to attack England. When they get there they're unable to find their contact, Agent X, but are helped by a young boy named Hans, the son of the local Mayor who's ashamed by his father's co-operation with the Nazis. Eventually they blow up the dike, with the help of Agent X, strongly implied to be the Mayor, and return to England with Hans.

Ditko does a good job inking Ayers on this, keeping the overall Kirby-designed look that Ayers did so well, with a few Ditko touches evident in some places, like the hair and the women. In fact, looking at this I can't help but think that there were points in Ditko's career (like the mid-1980s when he was doing books like INDIANA JONES and CHUCK NORRIS) where it might have made more sense to hire him as an inker with a strong compatible penciller rather than have him do loose pencils which were almost obliterated by the inks.



March 4, 2007

--Link-- P. Craig Rusell Ditko art for sale

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P. Craig Russell currently has an auction for two consecutive pages of ROM #67 [1985], the first of four issues of the series he inked over Ditko. Currently going for a surprisingly low price, and some nice large scans to look at even if you aren't buying.

Marvel Tales #135 [1982]

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Yeah, on a bit of a Doc Strange kick lately...

The 5-page "Face-to-Face With the Magic of Baron Mordo" from STRANGE TALES #111 [1963], the second Doctor Strange story, is reprinted here-in, introducing Doc's most persistent foe, the Ancient One's other student, who would figure into about half of the Ditko run of Doctor Strange.

The Ancient One's reluctance to see Mordo as evil until this point, given what we later see of Strange's origin, is kind of perplexing. Plus, just look at the guy (not that Doc looks like an angel at this point, with his far sharper features). In any case, this is where he finally makes his move to find out the last of his old teacher's secrets, sending his astral form to Tibet and using the Ancient One's servant to poison him. Doc gets worried when a message to the Ancient One doesn't get a response, so he also makes the astral journey, finding Mordo over his weakened Master. Fortunately, he's able to trick Mordo into racing back to his lair to protect his physical body, giving the Ancient One time to recover, and hopefully guard against further attack.

By the way, "How ironic that of both my pupils, only one fulfilled his promise, with the other --- Baron Mordo, threatens us so long as he lives". Um, how is that ironic? Plus, Doc's prediction that the loser of their next encounter would die isn't exactly spot on.

Still, these early 5-page quickies are fun, if less developed than the later tales when the feature got more pages. I especially like the glimpses into Mordo's dark, shadowy lair.



March 2, 2007

Romantic Story #107 [1970]

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Ditko drew only a handful of romance comics in his career, though oddly enough one of them includes what may be his first published story (DARING LOVE #1 [1953]). Another few are presumably as much horror stories, appearing in HAUNTED LOVE. But this one, the 7-page "Nothing But Tears" from ROMANTIC STORY #107 [1970] is pretty much a straight romance, so straight as to be boring. A young girl moves from Pennsylvania to New York City to pursue her dreams of a modelling career, only to find that her three month modelling course didn't prepare her for reality. And no, I'm not sure what kind of models are hired for bar mitzvahs, either. Bonus points for Ditko including the unwashed hippies straight out of one of his fanzine morality play things. Anyway, Mona ends up taking a job washing dishes, and having trouble keeping that when she gets sick, and accidentally walks into traffic in her fevered state. Fortunately the guy who hit her, the impossibly clean-cut Roy Damion, ends up being her saviour, as he has his older cousin Mrs. Pollack nurse Mona back to health while he's off on business, and then gets her a job as a receptionist and eventually marries her.
You know, with most of the Ditko stories from Charlton being horror and ghost stories, I kept waiting for a twist while reading this, Damion being the leader of some sort of cult or something. The story certainly needed it. Serviceable job by Ditko, with a few nice touches on some of the incidental bits (the hippies, the other woman at the "modelling agency", the by-stander at the accident who suggests she get a lawyer). Doesn't make me that anxious to track down the other Ditko romances of the era. Anyone think any of these are worth getting:

TIME FOR LOVE #13 [1969]
I LOVE YOU #91 [1971]
HAUNTED LOVE #4 [1973]
HAUNTED LOVE #5 [1973]

"Nothing But Tears" D-47

March 1, 2007

Marvel's Greatest Comics #27 [1970]

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"If Eternity Should Fail" is the 10-page Doctor Strange reprint in this issue, from STRANGE TALES #138 [1965]. The second page is shown here, with a great 2/3 page shot which is probably the ultimate of the signature other-worldly mystical dimension that Ditko defined in this series and which later artists would repeatedly imitate to capture some of the same feel. Just an amazingly organic hodge-podge of techniques defining the feature perfectly. "Inconceivable", Doc says in the script, and I think that does mean what he thinks it means.

Anyway, the story this time has Doc having found out how to reach the mysterious Eternity from a probe of the Ancient One's mind going to a journey by way of his amulet. Finding Eternity, yet another brilliant Ditko design, a creature containing the cosmos within him, he only gets some advice for his battle with Mordo and Dormammu, that he already possesses what he needs, but then returning to Earth he finds that the Ancient One has been taken by Mordo. So the issue ends with Doc facing down his foes.

As I've said before, this run of Doctor Strange is just a visual delight with every page, full of both the grant designs that define Ditkoesque and a lot of great small things (Mordo's spirit warriors rising out of the ground, the mystical portal screen that Dormammu appears in).


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