Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Joe Sinnott's Unknown Charlton Work

You never know what you'll find when rummaging through old comics. My brother John and I recently visited our friend Barry Pearl, who had acquired a collection comprised of titles from various publishing houses. Barry allowed me to take several 1970s-era Charlton comics, aware of my fascination with the oft-ignored company. A perusal of the contents in Fightin' Army and Haunted Love revealed the usual contingent of talented freelancers: Don Newton, Pete Morisi, Sanho Kim, Charles Nicholas, Wayne Howard, Jack Keller, Vince Alascia, and, of course, prolific writer Joe Gill, but when I took a closer look at the cover of Career Girl Romances # 63 (June  1971) I was puzzled. I suspected the pencils were by Art Cappello, a long-time member of Vince Colleta's studio, whose work, specifically on Charlton's vast array of love titles, was abundant in this period. No surprise there, but it was the inking that threw me. The rich, precise line was indicative of Joe Sinnott's handiwork; renowned by both fans and professionals as one of the industry's finest talents. For years Sinnott added luster to Jack Kirby's pencils on the Fantastic Four. When Kirby left Marvel he continued on the FF, and was also assigned to The Mighty Thor (John Buscema, one of Marvel's top artists, replaced Kirby on both titles). 

(An aside for those of you unacquainted with the details of comic book production, and I know of at least ONE person out there! The rest of you can move on to the next paragraph! In order for pencil art to reproduce clearly it must be completed in black (or more commonly called india) ink, using tools such as a brush, quill or radiograph pen.The artist who draws the story may also ink it, but often, due to time constraints, a different hand completes the job. Depending on his skill set and compatibility with the penciler, an inker can either compliment or weaken the finished product. An excellent example of the former is this page from Fantastic Four # 49, April 1966. Jack Kirby's powerful pencils above and Joe Sinnott's exquisite inks below.)   

Career Girl Romances # 63 appeared on the stands concurrently with those assignments. Many fans were largely unaware that Sinnott was also a prolific artist for Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact (a comic produced for Catholic schools and published bi-weekly during the school year) at the same time he freelanced at Marvel in the 1960s. As far as I knew his last work for Charton had occurred a decade earlier, penciling romance stories and several issues of Gorgo by way of Vince Colletta's studio.  

The cover that started the investigation. Sinnott's crisp inking is evident in both foreground figures and background foliage. 

I meticulously examined the details employed on trees, clothing and shrubbery. True, there were other professionals with similar styles, but this looked "exactly" like the best aspects of Sinnott's signature work as evidenced in Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America and other Marvel titles in the early 1970s. I put on my Sherlock Holmes cap and began the search for an answer.

I first sought out one of the top experts in identifying comic art, my buddy Michael J. Vassallo (aka Doc V). In an instant message I detailed the info and sent a scan of the cover. Mike replied that he actually SAW Joe Sinnott and his son Mark that very day at a Convention in White Plains and was in agreement with my analysis. I mentioned that I was going to email Mark, who I had met on numerous occasions. I also inquired if he was on Facebook. Mike notified me in the affirmative and suggested I contact him there. I did both and waited patiently. A day later Mark replied to my email, confirming Joe's involvement. He explained:   

"My dad did a couple of covers with Art Cappello for Charlton in the early 70s. That is one of them. Art and my dad were very good friends."

Mark was aware of Career Girl Romance, and knew that Joe inked at least one other Cappello-drawn cover, Romantic Story # 111, and possibly more. All were signed "Art Cappello", leading many to assume he completed the artwork without assistance, but as I've discovered, a sole signature does not guarantee a one-man operation. With the likelihood of further undocumented contributions by Sinnott, my next step was to check every Charlton romance cover, beginning in late 1970 and into the entirety of 1971.

In this period Charlton was the largest purveyor of romance comics, with DC close behind (Marvel's foray into the market at this time was minimal, with just Our Love Story and My Love contending for sales). My first area of research was Mike's Amazing World of Comics, a website where one can search for every title published by either month or date of publication. This would help me identify what titles were being published. I could then study the covers via the Grand Comic Book Database, or, if I needed to look at a larger scan (often essential when not having the physical comic available) an alternative such as Ebay was invaluable, since many dealers provide enlarged photos for potential customers to view. This led to my finding eight more covers signed by Cappello that Sinnott clearly contributed to (with a ninth discovered by Dennis F. Rogers). 

Listed below are the results of my research, followed by some observations and commentary. If further unknown Sinnott embellishment surfaces I'll be sure to update the information here. All images are from the invaluable Grand Comic Book Database.

Mark Sinnott confirmed Joe's inks on Career Girl Romances # 63 and was aware of his involvement on the above cover from Romantic Story # 111, February 1971. He also noted that there might be others, so the search was on. 

The distinctive Sinnott style is most noticeable on hair and faces, particularly the man's ear. Teen-Age Love # 74, January 1971.

An awkwardly arranged layout doesn't give Joe much to work on, but his style is still apparent on faces and clothing. Love Diary # 70, January 1971. 

Thanks to the astute eye of Dennis F. Rogers, who pointed out this cover in the comments section. After finding a large scan to study on Ebay I agreed with him that Sinnott was the inker. There is very little to go by on the main figures, but the background sea, beach and sand have patterns that identify Sinnott's involvement. I Love You # 70, January 1971.   

Career Girl Romances # 61, February 1971. Charlotte Jetter lettering.

Just Married # 75, February 1971. The woman's jacket with its fluid lines, coupled with the building details confirms Sinnott's participation. Joe inked a total of four romance covers in this month.

Sinnott's details on buildings and trees display his craftsmanship. Teen Confessions # 66, February 1971.

One of Cappello's better efforts, it includes a soldier in the foreground, providing Sinnott with a figure he can embellish with gusto. Sweethearts # 115, March 1971.

With a title like "The Hippy and the Cop" what more needs to be said? Except that Cappello also drew the interior story, which was inked by Vince Alascia. Charlton should have assigned the art to Pete Morisi, who actually WAS a cop and moonlighted as a freelancer for the company! Just Married # 77, June 1971.

Cappello swiped other artists from time to time, such as the two background figures, whose poses are taken from a John Buscema panel or cover (possibly one inked by Joe!). Secret Romance # 13, June 1971

In a six month period (January-June 1971 publication dates) Joe Sinnott inked Cappello on a total of ten covers. After that period Cappello either did the inking on his own, or was assisted by Sal Gentile, who, in addition to being an artist, was also editor of the Charlton line.

One of the pleasures of researching comics is the accidental discovery that something has been staring you in the face all along. Romance comics are often ignored by the superhero-based fan mentality, although historians such as Jacque Nodell on her Sequential Crush blog (highly recommended. Hi Jacque!) https://www.sequentialcrush.com/ have focused a sharper light in that direction. While comic book aficionados admire Joe Sinnott for his embellishment of Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four and
Captain America, along with enhancing the work of craftsmen such as John Buscema, Gene Colan, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith and many others, and deservedly so, they often overlook his solid work as an artist going back to the Atlas era, on titles such as Kent Blake of the Secret Service, Arrowhead and countless war, western, crime, horror and fantasy fillers. Another area of Sinnott's oeuvre that escapes notice is his contributions to the pages of Treasure Chest. In an interview in Comic Crusader # 9, circa 1970, he explained: "I've also done the life stories of notables such as J.F.K. - Eisenhower - MacArthur - Pope John - Babe Ruth - Gene Tunney - Wright Brothers , and many others for Treasure Chest." Stories which he is justly proud of. 

Sinnott's beautifully rendered cover art to Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact Vol 25, #16, May 14, 1970. This was Joe's last cover for the comic, although he continued to illustrate interior stories until the company ended its 24-year run in 1972. While inking Fantastic Four, Captain America and other titles for Stan Lee at Marvel Comics from 1965 onward, Joe's true passion was in doing the complete pencil and ink job when crafting the "straight stuff," as he calls it. He was able to fulfill that ambition in the pages of Treasure Chest.

Joe's acclaim at Marvel comics is certainly justified, but his efforts go beyond the pages of superheroes. On a personal note, as anyone who has met him knows, Joe is one of the most sincere and humble professionals I've had the pleasure of spending time with; his warmth and charm is genuine. He is a man who truly loves his work.

Joltin' Joe Sinnott with Michael J, Vassallo at the White Plains Con, May 4th, 2019. Photo courtesy of Mike. With thanks to Mark Sinnott and Barry Pearl.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Corner Candy Store

Thor stops to ponder the latest headlines. Or perhaps he's reading Dick Tracy. The newsstand includes reproductions of Marvel comics on sale at the time, a subtle form of self-promotion. Take notice of the bound bundle on the ground, to be discussed later. Jack Kirby sold newspapers as a kid, so it should come as no surprise that he would remember such details. Journey into Mystery # 127, February 1966.  

During the 1960s and 1970s (and indeed several decades beforehand) candy stores and newsstands were a mecca for children who lived in Brooklyn and other New York City neighborhoods. Comparable to a modern day Starbucks or CVS, you could literally find one on every block. From what I've gleaned through reading accounts from people in my age group, this trend was echoed throughout cities and towns across the United States, and had worldwide counterparts. These establishments drew kids in for many reasons, not the least of which included candy, soda and baseball cards, but for me, and quite a few other youngsters, the product I was most obsessed with (which should be absolutely NO surprise to those who have read this blog in the past) were comic books. 

Every week my older brother John and I, either together or separately, would saunter the streets of Bushwick (a borough of Brooklyn), pursuing our twelve-cent treasures. John bought every Marvel superhero comic, along with a smattering of DC, Tower, Archie/Mighty Comics, Dell and Gold Key titles, whenever finances allowed (I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that John actually paid for the comics. Being the younger sibling by seven years, I benefited from his purchasing power, which he acquired by selling pretzels). While we went to a variety of stores, the closest, and most convenient -just a block away from my house -was owned and operated by a gentleman named Angelo.

The Central Avenue station in recent days. Angelo's store was on the right, somewhere near or before the gate, in the shadow of the elevated M train, which connected residents to Coney Island and Manhattan. On trips with my Mom or brother, either before our departure or upon our return, it was routine to stop in and check out the latest comics. 

I'll attempt to recreate the interior from memory (with help from my brother John), interspersed with other observations and recollections, in hopes of capturing the flavor of those days. The store was long and narrow. Newspapers were placed outside on a makeshift stand and customers could pay through a window-slot. When you entered the register was to the right; a metal display rack prominently showcased TV Guide on the counter, which was a guaranteed point-of-purchase seller, since practically everyone who owned a television bought the weekly periodical. 

TV Guide for the week of August 19-25, 1967. As Jack Doyle opines in his essay Lucy and TV Guide 1953-2013: "By the 1960s TV Guide was the most read and circulated magazine in the United States." You can read the entire piece here: https://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/lucy-tv-guide-1953-2013/

I'm pretty sure all the assorted candy, chocolate bars and sugary substances, which included Tootsie Rolls, Good and Plenty, Mallo Cups, Mary Jane, Candy Cigarettes, Wax Lips, Sugar Dots (all guaranteed to land you a trip to the dentist), along with cough drops, trading cards and the popular Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum (for the price of one cent!) were below the counter. 

Bazooka Joe was an inexpensive treat and kids loved the comic strip that came with it. I learned about inflation when Topps raised the price from one to two cents (and comics increased from 12 to 15 cents in 1969, an astonishing financial hurdle) Image from the Topps archive blog: http://toppsarchives.blogspot.com/2014/05/premium-time.html  

Topps baseball cards were essential items for almost every child, but "non-sport" cards were also commonplace. It was addictive to buy a pack of cards, often at the cost of a nickel a pop, which consisted of 5 cards and a stick of rock-hard gum. Since cards were randomly inserted it sometimes took a while to complete a collection, although trading with friends helped. A few of my favorites included Batman (at the height of the ABC-TV show in 1966), Marvel Super-Heroes (the Grantray-Lawrence cartoon was then in syndication), the Monkees, Dark Shadows and Planet of the Apes. 

A 1966 Topps Batman card with art by Norman Saunders and Bob Powell. A prolific and talented comic book artist, Powell provided layouts which Saunders completed in paint. Quite a few familiar artists plied their trade at Topps, including Jack Davis, Tom Sutton and Wally Wood.   

Like many kids my age, I raced home from school to watch Dark Shadows, the supernatural soap opera which initially aired weekdays at 3:30. Of course I collected the card set and even had the display box that I asked for at a newsstand. That's long gone, unfortunately.  

  The November 28th, 1970 edition of the Sunday News featuring Dick Tracy by Chester Gould. The Sunday edition was usually bought after attending church. Image courtesy of Michael J. Vassallo.   

In my household The New York Daily News was required reading for my father (also named Angelo). My brother John has often recounted that he had to scour the neighborhood for the paper when Angelo's was sold out (don't come home without it!). I always loved the comic strips and read many of them every day, but Sunday was particularly special, since they were in color and consisted of either half or full pages. Candy stores received the "guts" of the Sunday paper three or four days in advance (minus the main news section, which was inserted on either Saturday nights - the "Night Owl" edition - or Sunday mornings). The comics section was in effect the "cover" of the Sunday paper, with each component placed inside it; this gave me a sneak peek at the latest Dick Tracy adventure, which I anxiously anticipated. For years Dick Tracy was the headlined feature and the first thing consumers saw, an indication of just how popular comic strips were for all ages. Waiting for Sunday to arrive, not only to read the latest exploits of my favorite detective, but also the serialized adventures of Little Orphan Annie and Dondi, often felt like an eternity!

Segueing back to Angelo's store... Located towards the rear was a counter with a few swivel seats, where customers sat down for a snack and perused the latest headlines or sports scores. I'm not certain, but Angelo may have had a fountain and perhaps fresh Ice Cream. In those days small establishments did not have refrigeration units (it was solely the providence of supermarkets if I recall correctly); instead they sold bottled soda in a cooler filled with ice. You had to dip your hand into it and fish out the selected item, which placed you in a state of ecstasy on oppressively hot summer days. 

This scene is perhaps SLIGHTLY exaggerated by Lee and Kirby, but since the entrance bears a resemblance to Angelo's I think it fits perfectly here. Fantastic Four # 11, February 1963. 

The wall along the left side had wooden racks that housed the latest comic books. That area of the store piqued my interest the most. Comics were distributed to stores on a Tuesday, packaged in a wire-bound bundle which often included TV Guide and an invoice on top, obscuring all but the corners for identification. A major point of contention for anxious youths, who had no understanding - or concern - for business operations, was that the proprietors, or their help, had to inspect the contents and check everything off before the product was placed on sale. When they were busy, or just didn't care, we were told to come back later; instead we usually headed off to the competition, hoping for a more efficient outcome. One of our least favorite owners was a cantankerous old man (everyone was old to us back then!) who seemed to take perverse pleasure in berating us, proclaiming: "You went to the other store first, didn't you?" He was the only person I knew who kept comics behind the counter, which meant that he had to take the extra time to hold up each individual title and ask us: "You want THIS one?," which we would either accept or reject. The only visible comics were those placed high above our heads, hanging on a wire. In retrospect his behavior may have been completely justified. Perhaps too many comics were pilfered by hooligans in the past. 

From what John and I recall Angelo was pretty good at putting the comics out quickly. In later years I was given the ultimate honor: allowed to cut open the fabled bound wire and put the comics on display. Angelo even dubbed me "The Comic Book Kid!"

Angelo's likeness is unclear after all these years; I originally thought this image of the gruff-looking newsstand vendor with the stogie, as illustrated by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, was similar, but my brother John offers a description which rings true "I remember more of a fairly good looking tough Italian gentleman in his late 40's to early 50s, who had a mustache." Batman # 199, February 1968. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database. 

Metal shelves took up the rear, populated with a multitude of magazines; Time, Newsweek, Popular Mechanics, Esquire, along with the forbidden Playboy and other "girlie" titles. There were also plenty of Men's Adventure mags, quite a few which were published by Martin Goodman, who ran Marvel comics. Some famous names got a start writing for those publications, including Mario Puzo, before he became acclaimed as author of The Godfather. We ventured into this area to check out Mad, Creepy, Eerie or Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Male, August 1969, previewing Mario Puzo's bestseller The Godfather, which would gain further notoriety when it was adapted into film by director Francis Ford Coppola in 1972. Cover painting by Mort Kunstler. Image from http://www.menspulpmags.com/2015/08/  where you can read much more about this and other pulp mags.  

Like every candy store, Angelo's also sold wooden airplanes, spinning tops, rubber balls, (Spalding, pronounced "spaul-deen" by New Yawkers, or Pensie Pinkie) and other inexpensive toys. In those days we didn't have hand-held devices or computer games to play with; they were far in the future. On the other hand you didn't need much money to have fun. 

EVERY kid had a Spaldeen or Pensie Pinkie in his possession! Which one was better continues to be a point of contention to Brookynites. Pensie Pinkies were cheaper, but both were used to play stickball, punchball, stoop ball or just plain bouncing. 

While Angelo's candy store was our primary source for comic book purchases, many similar shops populated Bushwick. We often went elsewhere to track down comics Angelo didn't carry, particularly Gold Key titles. The one company that was absent from almost every store in my neighborhood were the line of  Charlton comics. 

While this photo was taken in 1940, the store on the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Starr Street remained in business at least into the early 1970s. This was another candy store that my brother and friends bought comics at, since it was conveniently located across the street from the park and close to my school. Image from Brooklyn's Bushwick and East Williamsburg Communities by Brian Merlis and Riccardo Gomes, an excellent history of the neighborhood. Thanks also to my friend Sunita Shiwdin, who gifted me with the book. As owner of Mahalo New York Bakery, Sue's store evokes the best aspects of the Mom and Pop stores of the past. If you live nearby, or are traveling to Queens, stop by her shop for delicious cupcakes and extraordinary treats, all freshly baked. Her made-to-order cakes are truly out of this world. And while Sue doesn't SELL comics, she does have a mini-library with donations from yours truly and my buddy Barry Pearl, including books, fanzines and comics to enjoy while you're having a snack. You can learn more about her store here: http://www.mahalonewyorkbakery.com/ (End of free plug. Now can I have a cup of Coffee?)

Yours truly at Mahalo New York Bakery, reading a copy of Ghosts # 92, September 1980, sporting a Don Heck cover. Coffee, Cupcakes and comics. Who could ask for more?    

 One fine day in June, 1971, Steve Ditko's cover to Haunted # 1 appeared out of the blue in Angelo's store. Charlton comics finally began to receive distribution in Bushwick. I was familiar with the company from issues of Captain Atom and Thunderbolt in my brothers  collection, possibly purchased at a discount store on Knickerbocker Avenue (the main shopping thoroughfare). The comics were often stacked in piles and consisted primarily of old Hot Rod titles, which I had no interest in. A copy of Ghostly Tales surfaced at my Barbershop and the local used bookstores sold a few. Even at a young age I was a devotee of Ditko's work and immediately snatched this comic off the rack!   

Luncheonettes also often carried comics, magazines and paperbacks. I discovered All in Color for a Dime when I stopped with my Mom at a huge luncheonette on the corner of Knickerbocker and Myrtle Avenue. Somehow I managed to coerce her to part with the $1.50 to buy the book. A treasured item, it remains in my collection to this day. 

My beat-up copy of All in Color for A Dime, the book that propelled my interest in comic book history.  

 Once we moved out of Bushwick into Ridgewood, Queens I lost track of Angelo's. In the 1970s, and into the early 1980s I frequented a candy store located about seven blocks from my apartment. The owner was a pleasant man named Walter, who treated me (and everyone) with kindness. Whenever I came in for new comics he would bring the stack out from the back and read each title out loud. I would tell him what I wanted and sometimes put books out for him. Walter told me he originally tended bar just a few doors down from the candy store where I met him; he became the owner (I believe) in the early 1960s. Walter lived only a block or two away from me and I sometimes saw him and his wife when they walked home. When my brother started to work in Manhattan he discovered that new comics were sold two weeks in advance and bought them regularly on his trip home. We also found out about a store that specialized in comics and related ephemera, the Little Nemo Shop on Ascan Avenue in Forest Hills. 

The site of Walter's store as it stands today on the corner of Woodard Avenue and Woodbine Street in Ridgewood. I believe it has been a grocery store since he closed up but the physical structure outside is pretty much the same as I remember it, without the 7 Up, Coke and other signs that were displayed.  When you walked in a metal rack several rows long was directly on the left side. On the right was another section that held some of the higher priced and over-sized comics (Marvel Treasury Editions and DC Dollar titles). To the right of the comics was a section that had newspapers and magazines. The store also had a huge candy counter and a few swivel seats where you could sit (in earlier years he made egg creams and sold fresh ice cream). There was no such thing as hand-held devices back then, so people actually had to use a phone booth when they needed to call someone. Like many stores in that period Walter had one in his store. I also recall that Walter had a few older paperbacks for sale, such as the Man From Uncle.     

In my teenage years I began collecting my own comics, and despite other options I made it a point to stop by Walter's store, often buying a few westerns or reprint titles. One day I learned Walter was robbed and assaulted. Shaken up by the event, he closed the business and sold the store. I never encountered either him or his wife afterward; he most likely moved out of the neighborhood. I often thought about Walter and hoped the remainder of his days were peaceful. He was a good man.  

I bought this copy of Marvel Tales # 137 (March 1982) in Walter's candy store, explaining to him that it was a reprint of Amazing Fantasy # 15, the original which he probably had for sale back in 1962. If only he had kept a few for resale 20 years later. Jack Kirby pencils; Steve Ditko inks.       

Eddie's News Stand, located on Forest and Putnam Avenue in Ridgewood, was one of the last neighborhood candy stores I frequented. It remained in business, I believe, until a few years ago, but I took this recent photo (February 2019) to preserve its memory, since it may soon be gone.

I clearly recall buying this issue of Sgt. Fury at Eddie's, the final issue of an 18 year run. In a nice touch, the last issue reprinted the first issue. Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos # 167, December 1981.     

 Walter's closing symbolized the end of an era for me. Into the late 1980s there were a few neighborhood candy stores that still carried comics, but they were rapidly dwindling away. Not as profitable as they once were - and taking  up valuable rack space - comic books were largely discarded from newsstands. The growth of the direct sales market, where publishers sold comics to specialty stores on a non-returnable basis, escalated in the 1980s, but It also meant that comics were becoming marginalized. Children in particular found other interests and were often ignored by the publishers. Less places to sell magazines eventually affected all periodicals to a large extent. In Manhattan, where newsstands were once ubiquitous, they now are barely part of the landscape (and many only sell soda, candy and Lotto). In my Glendale, Queens neighborhood I can canvas Fresh Pond Road or Myrtle Avenue and find hardly a trace of magazines, let alone comics (only a few large stores, such as CVS or Stop and Shop supermarket carry a small selection of periodicals, and the Archie digests are the sole comics item). It is indeed a different world.  

The candy stores I frequented in those bygone days were populated with distinct characters that embodied their surroundings. Comic books were part of that landscape, one magical fragment that has stood the test of time. I hope I've provided a glimpse into that era, when a candy store was more than just a place to buy comics: it was a gathering of friends on their way to a movie, the park or after a game of stick-ball. Like Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" with great longing and beautiful simplicity, there was at times a truthfulness to those childhood days that I continue to cherish.   

One of the last times I may have bought a new comic book in my neighborhood was at a stationary store on Eliott Avenue in Maspeth, accompanied by my friend Frank. As we perused the spinner rack I noticed one of Charlton's new titles. Perhaps it was prophetic that a comic book from this company, which relied on sales by the average consumer, often boys and girls reading westerns,war, mystery, romance, hot rod and other genre material, would have their final titles sold in the waning days of the candy store. Charlton Action # 11, October 1985, Steve Ditko art. 

Special thanks to my brother, John Caputo and my cousin, Jack Sanzone, for their recollections. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Stan Lee:The Final Chapter (1922-2018)

Copy written by Stan Lee promoting the nascent line of Marvel Heroes.  House ad appeared in Fantastic Four # 14, May 1963. Art by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko; lettering by Artie Simek; colors by Stan Goldberg.  

With the passing of Stan Lee the Marvel Age of Comics has ended. The triumvirate of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Lee initiated an exciting, innovative and freewheeling atmosphere at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s. Lee had worked for decades as editor, writer and art director for publisher Martin Goodman's comics, previously known as Timely, followed by Atlas (before becoming Marvel) and produced countless successful, long-running titles, from Strange Tales to Millie the Model. In those years he collaborated with a plethora of talented artists: Syd Shores, Bill Everett, John Severin, Russ Heath, and one of the most prolific and versatile of them, Joe Maneely, who died a few years before the superhero boom. It was Jack Kirby, however, who rejoined Lee after Maneely's passing in 1958. He along with a small group of artists, notably Steve Ditko, began to revitalize the line, producing dynamic, entertaining and moody fantasy stories, featuring over-sized monsters and weird thrillers. 

Lee utilized tropes he honed initially in romance and humor comics, incorporating them into the new superheroes that slowly overtook the monster titles. As co-creators of that era, Kirby and Ditko were no doubt instrumental in bringing a wealth of creativity and concepts to the table. Lee, however, led the charge as promotional wizard for the Marvel line. He infused everything - cover copy, replies to fan letters, editorial pages - with a child-like enthusiasm, making him the perfect company cheerleader. Most importantly, Lee conveyed a  bemused, self-deprecating mockery in a period when other editors echoed the tone of a stern school principle. From this framework Lee molded the "Marvel Comics Group" into an entity which was not only successful in terms of the bottom line (which was the primary concern of publisher Martin Goodman) but was critically acclaimed by older fans and cognoscenti of the medium.     

There are those who have questioned Lee's persona, opining that it was all an affectation. I don't believe so. I think Lee was a big kid who never quite grew up. My conclusion is based on personal correspondence, which often displays the same jocular writing style. From 2009 or so I began to email Lee (thanks to my pal Michael J. Vassallo), sometimes on serious questions related to the field, other times in a more humorous vein. Lee always replied to my emails promptly, and they were clearly his words, not those of an assistant. That raised the bar in my respect for him, because he could easily have ignored, or had someone else reply, to my missives. I thought I'd share a few here in tribute to the man.

In this email dated March 27, 2008, Lee replies to a question I asked about how important he felt letters pages and fan interaction were:    

  Stan often seem the most energized when I sent him satirical letters. In this one, dated June 21, 2009, he follows up on a joke I made about one of my favorite goofy villains, Paste Pot Pete:    

My email to Stan on learning about Disney purchasing Marvel, dated September 8, 2009:    

Stan's reply: 

  Since Stan often employed humor in his stories so I inquired as to what comedians he admired (December 16, 2009):

 From March 6, 2010. My comment on a cameo video (was this really at the Academy Awards?) and his reply:

From June 22 & 23rd, 2011, I questioned Stan on some of the editors who he looked up to in the comics industry and received a serious and illuminating response:

I'll end with another aspect of Stan Lee that I admired, his forward-looking attitude. I wrote him lamenting the superhero movies and my belief that they would replace the comics themselves. His reply, from May 24, 2012: 

 And there you have a glimpse of Stan Lee, not under the lights of a camera or surrounded by throngs of fans at a comic con, but in one-on-one personal correspondence. I think these words gives a glimpse of his true personality, one that echoed throughout his career and brought a buoyancy to the countless comics he authored over the decades. 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Steve Ditko's Shade, The Changing Man: A Look Back

The Steve Ditko Omnibus Volume 1 starring Shade, the Changing Man reprints, for the first time, the original eight-issue run of Ditko's 1977 creation, along with the unpublished 9th installment (in addition, all of Ditko's 1970s mystery, humor, sci-fi and war output for DC is collected). A little background is necessary: when DC had a downturn in sales, management demanded massive cuts throughout their line. Contents of the completed comics (minus coloring, which was the final level of production before heading to the printers) were compiled in order to retain copyright ownership. Totaling at a massive 942 pages, 40 xerox copies were printed in two volumes as Cancelled Comics Cavalcade and sent out to contributors. An additional copy was reserved for Bob Overstreet, publisher of The Comic Book Price Guide. A few have surfaced on the secondary marketplace and can be found online. 

While the compilation and preservation of Ditko's work is laudatory, one aspect that troubled me, and which I believe is worth addressing, is the  decision to print Shade # 9 in black and white. When Ditko's unpublished Blue Beetle and Capt. Atom stories surfaced in fanzines, the addition of color in a small press publication was cost-prohibitive. In this instance the concern was of an editorial nature: to present the material without alterations (akin to a DVD release of an uncut film). However, I believe it has the exact opposite effect, since Shade was earmarked for color; the only reason it lacked hues was due to production being called to a halt. Color would invariably have enhanced the work and rendered it closer to what the artist had originally intended.                  

  House ad promoting Shade, incorporating Ditko's cover art to issue # 1, appeared in May-June 1977 dated DC comics. Lettering by Gaspar Saladino. 

The Comics Journal # 33, April 1977 heralded Ditko's new character. Was this intended to be the original cover to issue # 1? A presentation piece? Promotion art for fanzines or conventions? It includes a hand-lettered title by the artist, emphasizing the word "Changing." Perhaps the logo was a preliminary design Ditko suggested to DC? This issue also includes a review by Mike Catron: "Shade: Ditko's new book shows potential."

Gaspar Saladino was one of the top letterers in comics, often sought-after by editors at both DC and Marvel to craft attractive cover copy and logos. Saladino created the "Shade" title, while Bill Morse devised "The Changing Man." 
 DC had planned to feature Ditko's name above the title, but since this was a collaborative effort and not a sole creation, the unerringly ethical artist  vetoed that idea. From The Comics Journal # 32, January 1977.

It's clear that these stories look infinitely better on higher grade paper. In 1977 the printing quality in most comics was abysmal. Straight lines wobbled and pages bled through consistently, making it difficult to appreciate the art, and sometimes hard to read. Here we see Ditko's illustrations reproduced with a much sharper texture, achieving a more rewarding experience.

An example of DC's hardcover reprinting of Shade. Unless otherwise noted, images are taken from the original publications.  

Ditko created the character of Shade, who fits into his concept of a hero and a moral ideal. As with many Ditko protagonists, Rac Shade is a man wanted for crimes he did not commit and pursued by both criminals and the law. He wears an outfit that gives him the ability to alter his appearance based on his opponent's fears. Like his later character, Static, the device could be used for good or evil, depending on the wearer. Although there is a base on earth, much of the story takes place in other-dimensional realms. 

Ditko adds conflict to the strip in Shade's relationship with Mellu. "The Forms of Destruction," Shade the Changing Man # 2, September 1977. Michael Fleisher dialogue, Bill Morse lettering, Liz Berube colors.   

Ditko's plot is thick with characters and concepts - perhaps a little too dense in places - but he devises a number of interesting twists and turns throughout the series. Shade's love interest, Mellu, is a strong, independent woman. A Government agent, she blames Shade for the crippling of her parents, but harbors a modicum of doubt over his apparent guilt. While others may have played this plot-line out interminably, Ditko wisely resolves it in the 6th issue. 

   A trio of bizarre villains crafted by Ditko. From top to bottom, Form, Sude and Khaos.  

Ditko's visual concepts stand out in his design of villains such as Form: a woman who can change into a misty substance, Sude: a large mechanical face with arms and enormous teeth, and Khaos: a distorted figure who represents anarchy. 

  Ditko's use of lighting for dramatic effect is evocative of cinematographers such as Karl Struss and reminiscent of his friend and fellow artistic powerhouse, Wally Wood. Image from DC's hardcover edition.  

While Shade has a lot to offer, there are a few drawbacks. I find Shade's visual signature of "changing" his appearance and frightening his foes lacking in drama. A big fist and a scary face can only go so far. One of the most inventive designers in comics, Ditko's costuming of Shade lacks his usual flair (his villains, as seen above, are much more dramatic visually). Michael Fleisher wrote the dialogue for every issue, which is at best workmanlike (the author stated in interviews that he didn't particularly care for the assignment). while I've enjoyed his solo writing on strips such as Jonah Hex, it's unfortunate DC didn't employ an author sympathetic to Ditko's philosophy; someone who could have invested as much into the dialogue as Ditko did his plotting and artwork.

Shade was reprinted in other countries, including Brazil and France. O Mutante cover from Shade # 6, May 1978. Super Heroes image is reworked from the splash page of Shade # 3, November 1977. 

This was essentially Ditko's last hurrah at DC in terms of investing effort in his own concepts. As the article by Joe Brancatelli below reveals, Ditko was growing disgusted with the policies of the major companies, who wanted their product to fit into a comfortable niche. This was anathema to Ditko, who thrived on seeking out new concepts to explore. After the cancellation of Shade most of Ditko's new creations would go the independent route, his work for DC and Marvel concentrating primarily on pre-existing characters. Speedball, created in 1988, was an exception, although a number of hands were involved in the character's development, which lead to a retreading of the teenage superhero motif.  

Joe Brancatelli's column, The Comic Books, from Creepy # 93, November 1977:
                                       DITKO—AS ALWAYS 
 It always seems that no matter how often the four-color comic book business goes into a creative nosedive, Steve Ditko is there with-a new concept, a new character or some new idea. Lately, Ditko has been plying his trade at DC, plotting and drawing a book called. Shade, The Changing Man.. Three issues into the book, Shade doesn't look to be another Spider Man. or another Dr. Strange, or even another Mr. A, but it is easily the most intriguing comic on the market. It's got everything a classic Ditko series has: a character, who is unalterably good, somehow finding himself in combat with organized society; an underlying battle between good and evil; philosophic musings about society, corruption and idealism; and a bunch of typically Ditkoish characters, plot twists, strange and exotic dimensions and artwork. And if the art itself isn't quite up to Ditko's usual exacting standards, it's -improving immensely with each issue.
Unfortunately, the coloring on the book is atrocious ("I always give them color guides," Ditko says, "and they never follow them.") and Ditko's work has never prospered on the smaller pages of today's comic books. "I've plotted up to issue 15 of the book," Ditko says, "but I don't know anything about the book except for the fact that (Mike) Fleischer is writing the sixth issue. I don't know anything at all about sales, either. DC doesn't tell you anything. For all I know it could be a big bomb." Always fiercely outspoken about industry matters, Ditko claims DC editors have been forcing Shade into the standard superhero niches at every opportunity. "I always try to do something different. I never wanted Shade to be just another costumed superhero. I'd have done it differently, but they (DC) want to stay with the hackneyed old stuff. "You look at the long-range prospects of the character and you know Shade isn't the kind of book you can do in 17 pages an issue. But after a while, I just blank out after I take the book in to the office." "You learn," he says bitterly, "that all they ever want is a half-assed reprint of the story you did for them last week. You learn that if you want to survive you have to put up a wall and stay away from all the comic people before they make you as dull and repetitive as they are."

Shade the Changing Man was not only a victim of economics but an example of the limited 17-page format that plagued creators (including Jack Kirby) in the 1970s. Less than a decade later high quality, longer, complete stories (called Graphic Novels) became part of the comics landscape. Unfortunately, the formats that would have been perfect for Ditko's work were reserved for fan favorites such as Frank Miller, John Byrne or Alan Moore. If you were not the current flavor-of-the-month Marvel or DC had no intention of spending money on what they believed to be a money-losing proposition. It took over 30 years for DC to publish a collection of Ditko's work for the company, including Shade. That is to be commended, but imagine if the artist was given the opportunity years ago to complete the Shade saga? What might that have looked like? 

  Ditko revisited Shade for the final time when he agreed to provide an illustration for Who's Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe # 20, October 1986. 

The Steve Ditko Omnibus starring Shade is available for purchase at Amazon: