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the Changing Man reprints, for the first time, the original eight-issue run of Ditko's 1977 creation, along with the unpublished 9th installment (in addition, all of Ditko's 1970s mystery, humor, sci-fi and war output for DC is collected).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 When Ditko's unpublished Blue Beetle and Capt.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: 


James Robert Smith said...

Ditko could have settled the plot device of the love-interest/antagonism for a couple of reason. First, he may have realized that with the state of comics sales that the book could be cancelled at any moment and he just wanted to resolve that conflict, and/or he never wanted to follow formula too terribly much. The kick was to solve the problem in a lot less time than most writers would take. Either way, it was a nice touch.

Henry R. Kujawa said...

"a complete reprinting of his 1970s creation, Shade, the Changing Man"

I have exactly ONE issue of this book, which was intriguing, but I'm sure it makes more sense and a better read if taken in its entiretly. I must get my hands on this one of these days. These "complete" collections are a boon to fans and casual readers alike.

"it is unfortunate that current policy decrees that the stories be reprinted in their "original form", meaning without color. The problem is that Shade # 9 was originally produced FOR color, and was only published in black and white because the book never made it to the colorist before cancellation"

Does DC always shoot themselves in the foot this way? Sheesh. How much would it take to do "traditional" coloring (no excessive Photoshop airbrushing!!)? What I wish DC had done was include the FAN-produced OMAC #9 (David Morris & Dek Baker) when they collected OMAC. The fan story FINISHES Kirby's intended 3-parter, and between the art and story, somehow captures Kirby better than most attempts, and the character, BETTER than every single thing DC has ever done with him since the original book was cancelled. How tough would it have been to cut a deal?

"in 1977, the printing quality in most comics was abysmal. Fine lines wobbled, and any detail was lost"

"Printed on TOILET PAPER" was the running joke (except it wasn't a joke). I can clearly picture in my head some of Terry Austin's fine lines in an John Byrne X-MEN issue where it looked like the inker's hand was shaking while drawing-- only, it was really the printing doing it!

"What is interesting is that Ditko actually resolves this problem by the 6th issue and does not stretch it out interminablly."

This is the difference between a CREATIVE type (writer) and a corporation. One is trying to tell A STORY, the other is trying to endlessly extend the life expentency of a "property". (Put another way, DARKSEID was supposed to DIE at the end of the 1st "New Gods" storyline. It might have taken a few YEARS to tell that ONE story, but by the end, he was supposed to be GONE, never, ever to return. Unlike, say, Baron Karza in MICRONAUTS.)

"Sude; a large mechanical face with small arms and big teeth"

Hey! Was this before or after PAC-MAN ?

"its too bad DC didn't get someone more sympathetic to Ditko's ideas, with the ability to write compelling dialogue"

Is that what happened with STARMAN in ADVENTURE COMICS? (Or was that Paul Levitz' idea? For that matter, how come Ditko didn't do the FINALE that appeared in DC COMICS PRESENTS-- instead of Jim Starlin?)

And speaking of Ditko (just re-posted yesterday)...

Kid said...

Interesting as always, Nick. I was given a few Shade issues a year or so back, but didn't really take to them and gave them away. However, I may track down that Omnibus edition once I've ticked a few other wants off my list.

Nick Caputo said...

Thanks, Kid. Glad you enjoyed it. The Omnibus is worth picking up.

msven said...

I was a big fan of Shade back in the day, racing out to get every issue as it came out. The much younger me was REALLY upset when the book was cancelled. I purchased the Ditko Omnibus for our youngest son a year or two ago because he is such a fan of Ditko's work, but I admit I have not re read these stories reprinted in this volume...

It is interesting that you think the suit's power was just a scary illusion. I always thought the suit was so much more than this! The suit generated a physical embodiment of the emotional state of its wearer. (That is a mouth full!) If you hit someone in anger, the suit amplified the strength of the hit. The optics of a giant fist and insane face were not just cool, they had superhuman Force. This was Ditko's creative genius at its best. But hey, I have not read these stories in years! (And yes, I have the Cancelled Comics Cavalcade copies someplace... big ass Xeroxed books that they are. So I did read the "last story." I sought out these volumes specifically for the missing Shade issue.)

I would love to own the cover to issue #4. Its theme was a throwback to the pulps of the 1930s. Perhaps a Paul or Sanders. Of course Ditko make it his own.

Nick Caputo said...


I'm glad to hear your son is a Ditko fan. You make a good point re:the suit. I don't feel that the visual worked to great effect, though. Perhaps unrestricted by the Comics Code Ditko could have brought a more palpable sense of tension to the images instead of what I felt was a rather weak reaction.

macsnafu said...

A new post on Ditko's Shade, The Changing Man? I actually got into comics in the summer of '78, just as DC was exploding/imploding their titles. I quickly discovered Ditko and picked up all 8 issues of Shade's run as back issues. To me, it remains one of my favorite comic book runs, ever. Just about everything was working in this book. Sure, Ditko could have brought a little more to it, especially the effect that the suit had on his opponents, but what was in the comic was already so different and original compared to other comics of the time.

Nick Caputo said...


Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, this was different from so much product coming out from Marvel and DC at the time. It would have been worthwhile to continue the strip in one of their many dollar comics.

Unknown said...

Good Morning Nick - As you may or may not know -- I was close friends with Bat Lash (at SVA).
I am in the process of having to sell my comic collection and Jackie recommended I talk with you about pricing, grading -- selling. My daughter has done some legwork... but we are looking for either your expertise or a recommendation of someone reputable. Please let us know best way to do this --- thank you Sam

Nick Caputo said...

Hi Sam,

Sorry I noticed this comment so late. I'm not a expert on pricing pr selling collections so I don't know if I can help much. I've been told a few people including Michael Vassallo that Comic Link is a fair company to look into:

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