Friday, May 24, 2013

Easy Reader Says: "This Blog Is Easy To Read"

In my frenzy to index every comic book I get my hands on for the GCD, I recently borrowed issues of Spidey Super Stories from Barry Pearl (whose Pearl's of Comic Book Wisdom Blog can be accessed in the favorites section). Spidey was a co-production of the Children's Television Workshop, known for Sesame Street. The Electric Company was geared to young children, teaching then reading and punctuation skills while entertaining them with skits, animation and music. Included in the cast were well-known performers such as Bill Cosby, Rita Moreno and - before he rose to stardom -  Morgan Freeman. In 1974 CTW added a segment featuring Spider-Man,  although their version never spoke. If I recall correctly they used word-baloons and captions in place of Spidey actually talking. The Electric Company was a popular show, running from 1971-1977. A new incarnation exists today.

Back cover to Spidey Super Stories # 1, Oct 1974. Art by Win Mortimer and Mike Esposito, with some touch-up work by John Romita.

The Spidey Super Stories comic book debuted in the summer of 1974 to coincide with his appearances on the show, produced under the supervision of Children's Television Workshop. The early issues were written by Jean Thomas, drawn by Win Mortimer (Don Heck drew a story in issue 2) and inked by Mike Esposito. Artie Simek and Ray Holloway lettered most of the stories. John Romita drew all the early covers, which were simple, uncluttered and attactive, unlike many of the concurrent Amazing covers, which were often very busy and relied on an abundance of captions and word balloons. Romita's Spidey covers harkened back to his exceptional mid-1960s work, when Marvel relied more on strong images to sell a cover.

Spidey Super Stories # 6, March 1975. Cover by John Romita and Mike Esposito

It was fun to look through these stories. They were, of course, prepared for a younger audience, but Win Mortimer, a long-time pro who drew everything from Superman and Batman to romance stories, had a style that complimented the material. The storytelling was clear and simple, and Mortimer's poses often showed the influence of Ditko and Romita, who he clearly looked to for reference.

Back cover to Spidey Super Stories # 14, Dec 1975,by Win Mortimer and Mike Esposito.

An example of Win Mortimer's storytelling skills. While his art was not flashy and did not fit into the "Marvel" mold, he was well-suited to realistic settings and people. Nevertheless, he did a fine job molding his skills on Spidey Super Stories. Inside back cover to issue 17, July 1976.     

Here is an interesting look at Mortimer's pencils, from the back cover of Spidey # 14:

Included in many issues were feature pages such as this one, based on a similar scene that appeared in Spider-Man Annual # 4. Most of the feature pages were redrawn versions of the Ditko pages which explained Spidey's powers, as seen in Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 1. From Spidey Super Stories # 2, Nov 1974. Jean Thomas script; Win Mortimer pencils; Mike Esposito inks, Artie Simek letters.

The format for Spidey Super Stories was usually three stories per issue, with one an adaptation of an Electric Company Spidey story. The comic was 36 pages, no ads and priced at 35 cents. 

While there were no outside ads in Spidey Super Stories, the
    back page was often used to promote subscriptions. Here Spidey and Easy Reader do the honors. Art by John Romita; letters by Gaspar Saladino. 

John Romita had the opportunity to render some attractive illustrations in these ads. Spidey Stamps were similar to Marvel Value Stamps, with many drawn by Romita. Back covers to  Spidey Super Stroies #'s 18 and 24. Lettering likely by Irving Watanabe.

The inside front covers and sometimes the interior feature pages were often used to provide background on the villains and guest-stars. Here, Lockjaw, a popular character in the Spidey universe is featured. Win Mortimer pencils; Mike Esposito inks; Ray Holloway letters. Script by either Ralph Macchio or Kolfax Mingo (which sounds like a pseudonym to me). From Spidey Super Stories # 24, July 1977. 

In some respects Spidey was similar to Marvel Team-Up, since most issues had Spidey meeting a Marvel hero. Medusa, Iceman, Shanna, The Cat, Falcon, Storm and Captain America were introduced to the younger set, and issue # 16 included a team-up that never occured in the Marvel Universe....

Spidey Super Stories # 16, April 1976. John Romita cover.

No this wasn't a cross-over with the famous Steven Speilberg film. Since Jaws was such an overwhelming hit, there were a lot of covers that used sharks in that period, and the hero guesting in the cover-featured story was Sub-Mariner (although he was only refered to as Namor, perhaps because they thought it was an easier name for kids to pronounce). It was THIS long-time character who finally met up with Spidey...


Splash page by Win Mortimer and Mike Esposito.

That granddaddy of western heroes, Kid Colt, finally met up with Spidey, courtesy of writer Jim Salicrup.

In the "Spidey" universe Lockjaw can teleport through time. He takes Spidey and the Electric Company to the past to clear Kid Colt's name. Interestingly, four months prior Steve Englehart had the Avengers travel to the past for the first cross-over with the western heroes, in a story illustrated by George Perez and Vince Colletta. In that story the Avengers met Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, Ringo Kid and the Ghost Rider (Avengers #'s 142-143; Dec 1975-Jan 1976) . I enjoyed the Marvel westerns and was thrilled when Englehart added them into continuity. While there were requests in the letters pages from time to time for a cross-over, it never happened when Stan Lee was editor. At the time George Perez was an energetic, talented young artist who was recently assigned to the Avengers. While he did a fine job illustrating the story, in retrospect I would have liked to see Don Heck draw the two-parter, since he was inspired when working in the western genre. It would have been interesting to see his interpertation of the characters, since, although he drew many genre stories, he rarely worked on the starring characters..

I asked writer Jim Salicrup about this story, thinking perhaps he was influenced by Englehart's story, but he replied that using Kid Colt's appearance may have been requested by Children's Television Workshop. Salicrup thought that perhaps they noticed the Avengers story and figured it might be interesting to use Kid Colt.  Salicrup worked on Spidey Super Stories for some time, usually with Win Mortimer and Mike Esposito. He recalled that the folks at CTW were pleased with Mortimer's work and Salicrup noted that he was a gentleman. 

Other creators that worked on Spidey included Byron Preiss, Ralph Macchio, Nick Cuti, Bill Mantlo and Dave Kraft on scripts; Don Perlin and Riccardo Villamonte penciled and inked some stories. Tony Mortellaro often assisted Mike Esposito on backgrounds. Later covers featured the work of Sal Buscema, Al Milgrom, Dave Cockrum and even Jack Kirby on a cover or two!

Even Thanos got into the act! Spidey Super Stories #  39, March 1979. Al Milgrom pencils ? Mike Esposito inks ? Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.

Spidey Super Stories continued until # 57, March 1982, a solid eight year run. While researching I was surprised to learn that the Electric Company also produced its own magazine, which included 4-5 page Spidey stories in many issues, as related at

John Romita even provided a few covers:

Writers and artists on these stories included Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Steven Grant, Sal Buscema, Jim Mooney and Alan Kupperberg. This blog includes two stories; one by Sal Buscema (an origin story without Uncle Ben or the Burglar) and another by Alan Kupperberg:

The magazine ran longer than the comic, lasting into the late 1980s.   

 While rarely mentioned when discussing Marvel's 1970s line, Spidey Super Stories was an example of the growing influence Marvel characters had outside of comics. Like the earlier animated series, Spidey took the strong foundation of the Lee, Ditko, Romita era characters and simplified them for a younger audience.     

The Impossible Man pops up in a back page ad from Spidey Super Stories # 25, Aug 1977. Art likely by Al Milgrom. 

With special thanks to Gentleman Jim Salicrup and Bashful Barry Pearl.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Utah Kid Update

Blake Bell has unearthed the original stats of the Utah Kid story I analyzed two posts ago. You can read about it here (scroll down to Steve Ditko Minutiae):

As you can see the answer raises more questions, which we may never discover the reasons for. The long, winding web of Stanley Morse and his line of comics is interesting in itself, and I thank Blake for sharing the information.  

Friday, May 10, 2013

Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and that old Black Magic

As discussed in my last blog post, Simon and Kirby published some of Ditko's earliest comic art. One such story appeared in Black Magic # 27, Nov-Dec 1953.

Cover to Black Magic # 27 by Jack Kirby; letters by Ben Oda. Very likely inspired by the atmospheric 1942 movie "The Cat People" directed by Jacque Tourneur. The cat on the right is actually Yancy Streeter Barry Pearl's cat "Kirby", who enjoys wearing scarves and tee-shirts.   

Along with work by Kirby and Bob McCarty, Steve Ditko drew a six page story, "A Hole in His Head". For a young talent Ditko turned in atmospheric scenery and strong character faces, which would only improve over the years. What's interesting is the stone age creature that shows up and wreaks havoc with our cast.

Page 4 of "A Hole in His Head" by Steve Ditko; letters by Ben Oda.

With the appearance of the stone age creature, someone, either Simon or Kirby, didn't think Ditko's version was dramatic enough and replaced his figures with those of Jack Kirby.

A detail of panel 2, introducing the stone age creature. Kirby's hand is evident in the pose and musculature. Kirby's figure is likely more imposing than the one Ditko originally drew.

Panel 3 detail. Again, a distinctive Kirby pose.

Page 5 includes one unaltered Ditko creature. Can you guess which one?

Clearly a Kirby face and figure in panels 6 and 7. The hand in panel six is possibly by Ditko.

Detail of panel 3 by Ditko. Here the figure looks less imposing, although the face may have been altered. Kirby's creature is more solid and powerful looking, not unlike some of the monsters he would draw a few years later on Marvel's pre-hero line. Kirby's stone age creature in this story reminds me of "The Abominable Snowman" he drew, which, if I recall correctly, was inked by Ditko. In that same period Ditko would specialize in weird aliens and moody stories. Both men were well-served drawing their own particular brand of suspense.

The last page features the creature in only one panel. And if the story didn't frighten you, the ugly pimples that the ad refers to might! As revealed by Blake Bell, who had the stats to the story, the ad replaced a final panel, although there was no Ditko art to be seen (is this how the Missing Man started? Take a look here for the story:

close-up of Page 6, panel 1, which looks like another Kirby illo. 

This early Ditko story is an example of alterations that often occurred in comics. When editors were not pleased with the art on a particular page, figure or panel they would institute changes, often asking an artist other than the original to make the corrections.Sometimes they decided to change an ending, as in this story, and alter or delete a scene. This was often done due to time constraints, so if another artist or someone on staff was available, that person would make the change. This often led to a rather jarring stylistic jumble that wasn't always appealing.  

Whether it was Simon and Kirby or Stan Lee, editors had their own view of what sold, or of a distinctive look they wanted. Covers, in particular, were of paramount importance, and many were altered before the final product was allowed on the stands (some changes were demanded by publishers). For those of us looking from the outside, the changes don't always make sense, but the bottom line was sales, or what those in charge perceived would sell. Comic books are a business, and unless an artist is in complete control of his work there are always others who, for good or ill, will have the final word.     

Friday, May 3, 2013

Early Ditko and the mystery of the Utah Kid

One of Steve Ditko’s early published stories appeared in Blazing Western # 1, dated January 1954. “Range War” was an eight page story published by Timor publications, one of a group of imprints, including Stanmor, Gilmore and others, under publisher Stanley P. Morse. Quite a bit of his horror stories heve been reprinted over the years, and you can see examples of some of the complete comics on this excellent site, which only includes public domain material :  

Technically this was the first year Ditko’s art appeared in comics, although its dated Jan 1954, it appeared on the stands most probably in either October or November of 1953. Ditko’ s earliest art appeared in 1953, including background inks for Simon and Kirby on Captain 3-D, along with work on unpublished issues; stories for Black Magic, and likely breakdowns, possibly with Sy Moskowitz for “Hair-Yee-eee” in Strange Fantasy # 9, published by Ajax-Farrell. The first story Ditko sold, “Stretching Things” would see publication in  Fantastic Fears # 5, January 1954, at Ajax-Farrell (sold to them by Morse).

Quite a bit of Ditko’s early work was sold to small publishers such as Stanley Morse. Morse published comic books from 1951-1956, leaving comics to go into the men’s adventure magazine business, competing with Martin Goodman. Morse was prolific into the 1970's and his story, if ever told, would be quite fascinating. You can read more about Morse, as well an assortment of small 1950s horror publishers, in this excellent essay by Lawrence Watt-Evans :

Some of Ditko's earliest sales were to Morse, including “Paper Romance” in Daring Love # 1 (Sept-Oct 1953), with others sold to Ajax-Farrell. Some stories may have been produced for other companies, but eventually saw publication through Morse, which leads to the mystery of “Range War”

Blazing Western # 1, Jan 1954. Cover by Bernard Baily, who did a fair share of artwork for Morse's comics, including bizarre, nightmarish covers for Weird Chills and Weird Mysteries (long before DC, Morse had the Weird field covered!)

“Range War” is a typical western featuring the “Utah Kid” the hero of the story, and his Indian companion, Golden Eagle. The eight page story proves that Ditko was accomplished early in his career. The pacing, storytelling and composition are quite good, despite a few awkward figures and panels. Ditko was learning very quickly, and his character faces were already beginning to stand out. What makes this story odd, though, is the uncanny resemblance the hero has to an Atlas western character.

Splash page to "Range War" by Steve Ditko; scripter uknown; lettering by Ben Oda.

My first inclination was that perhaps Ditko tried to get work from Stan Lee earlier than suspected, and, for whatever reason, it was not accepted. Ditko’s first story for Atlas was in Journey into Mystery # 33 , dated April 1956 (“They’ll Be Some Changes Made”, scripted by Carl Wessler) but counting production it had to have  been drawn in late 1955. In “Range War” the hero’s name is very crudely re-lettered throughout, replacing another name.

Two examples of the crude UTAH lettering replacing whatever name Ben Oda originally lettered in. At least we know he was a "Kid". THAT narrows it down! 

Atlas comics had a character called the Ringo Kid, dressed in black, with a red scarf. black hair and (often) yellow gloves. Ringo also occasionally had an Indian companion. The Utah Kid has the same outfit. color combination and black hair. Could this have been a rejected Ringo Kid story?

"One Hour Truce", as reprinted in Ringo Kid # 12, Nov 1971. Originally printed in Ringo Kid Western # 17, April 1957. Art by Joe Maneely. 

The theory makes sense - except the dates don’t correlate. Blazing Western # 1 was dated Jan 1954. Ringo Kid Western # 1, debuted eight months later, in an August 1954 dated comic. Ringo Kid stories were usually five pages long; Utah Kid was eight pages. But how to explain the remarkable coincidences?

I passed on the scans to Michael J. Vassallo, good friend and Timely-Atlas expert, to get his thoughts on the matter. He was surprised and stymied as well. I postulated that perhaps the Ringo Kid was being prepared in 1953 but did not see publication until 1954. Perhaps Ditko was given a script to work on and, for whatever reason, it was turned down. Would Lee have given the story back to Ditko? Could Ditko have then kept it and shopped it around? Michael opined that perhaps the story had not been completed, perhaps only pencilled and lettered, and Ditko inked it later on. Obviously, if there was knowledge that the story was prepared for Atlas the characters name would have to be changed. Or is there another answer?

page 2 of "Range War". One can see Ditko's eye for detail, character and panel composition early on.

Could there have been another character in use at the time similar in look to the Ringo Kid? Was the story prepared for a different company? Interestingly, the Utah Kid was featured in later issues by different artists (Les Zakarin pencilled or inked the story in # 4. Issue # 2 was again re-lettered, although by issue 4 there are no changes. Blazing Western ran until issue # 5, and I’m uncertain if the Utah Kid was featured in every issue. His appearance pretty much remained the same, although, from the stories I've seen Ditko’s is by far the best artistically. 

    The Ringo Kid turned out to be a popular Atlas Western hero, appearing in his own comic as well as in anthologies such as Wild Western. He was drawn by a number of noted artists, including Fred Kida, John Severin, and, most memorably, the incredibly talented Joe Maneely.

Maneely was an Atlas workhorse; versatile, dependable and exceedingly talented. In 1970 Marvel brought the Ringo Kid back in reprint form, utilizing Maneely’s original covers and stories. I distinctly recall seeing the first issue on the newsstand and was impressed by the tall, thin figure who commanded the cover spot. This was something different than the typical Marvel style. Although there was no signature on the cover I looked forward to this artists work, not knowing until years later of his contributions to 1950s Atlas. 

Joe Maneely adds character, simplicity and perfect composition to this cover that caught my attention back in the fall of 1969. I particularly like how Maneely positioned the owlhoot on the right side. Ringo Kid # 1, Jan 1970; originally from Ringo Kid Western # 18, June 1957. 

Comics were a business, and a great amount of material was produced, some never published; others altered or sold to different publishers. Steve Ditko, beginning his long and exceptional career in comics, was making the rounds in the early 1950s and getting assignments. In time he settled down to a few big accounts, notably Charlton and Atlas. The question of “Range War’s” origin may be a long forgotten memory, but a detour –hopefully – of some small interest within the circle of  comic book mysteries.