Monday, February 4, 2013

Charlton Chews

Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archives Volume 2: edited and with an introduction by Blake Bell (1956-57; collected 2010): This second volume of the Fantagraphics Steve Ditko Archives takes us through a year in which Ditko recovered from tuberculosis and drew like a fiend, racking up over 400 pages of work, mostly for bargain-basement Charlton Comics. The co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange strove to develop a personal style very early on, as this volume shows. The art is distinctly Ditko from the get-go.

But it's also a Ditko experimenting with what works in terms of storytelling. He plays with detailed rendition and exquisite linework, especially on covers and in opening splash panels. And the broad nature of what Charlton was publishing -- very short stories in a variety of genres, all of them terribly written -- gave Ditko pretty much free rein to work on everything from how to draw a horse's legs (he still doesn't have it at this point, though I'm not sure he ever did; Kirby didn't either) to how to draw fantastic vistas of space and time and other dimensions.

A story about a painting that's a gateway to another dimension shows us the Ditko who will be, less than ten years later, on Marvel's Doctor Strange. On that great character's adventures, Ditko would become one of a handful of the greatest depictors of the weird and uncanny in comic-book history. It's a bit of a paradox.

Ditko was (and is) perhaps the most humanistic and normative of superhero illustrators, his characters not puffed up like steroid-addled beachballs, their faces and clothes lived in and life-like. But he also had a penchant for action conveyed through body language and positioning, and an eye for the weird and unusual conveyed in a few simple lines. He was the comic-book world's version of Magritte with his surreal juxtapositions and commonplace elements arranged in impossible ways.

The writing on almost all of these stories is pretty terrible, as noted -- Charlton was the Yugo assembly line of American comic books of the 1950's and 1960's. But the sheer volume of pages required by Charlton (and the sheer volume required by Ditko to survive at Charlton's miniscule page rates) did give Ditko a chance to develop, experiment, and become the artist he soon would be. Highly recommended.

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