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s earliest art appeared in 1953, including background inks for Simon and Kirby on Captain 3-D, along with work on unpublished issues; stories for Black Magic, and likely breakdowns, possibly with Sy Moskowitz for “Hair-Yee-eee” in Strange Fantasy # 9, published by Ajax-Farrell.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.