Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Richard Kyle's Graphic Story World

The name Richard Kyle casts a long shadow over comic book fandom. His first article was published in Richard Lupoff's Xero # 8 (April 1962), "The Education of Victor Fox", and it was a far-cry from the often-gushing pieces many teens fashioned when writing about their favorite characters or comics. Kyle's twenty two page examination of Fox comics took a hard look at the publisher's lowest common denominator output, claiming his business practices stained the entire industry. Kyle's writing displayed a level of craft and critical thinking that raised the bar considerably for others to follow. Kyle continued to write articles, essays and reviews for fanzines, notably Bill Spicer's Fantasy Illustrated/Graphic Story Magazine, but in 1971 he crafted his own publication, one that aspired to cover the field of comics in all its permutations.

Kyle's statement of purpose appeared on the cover heading to the first issue of Graphic Story World. His fanzine offered a potpourri of comics related news and articles from the very start; a stark contrast from the majority of publications that focused almost entirely on superheroes and the current Marvel and DC offerings. 

Kyle's twelve page newsletter packed a lot into its first issue. Along with news from the mainstream comic book publishers, with particular emphasis on Jack Kirby's current DC endeavors, Kyle included information on the latest conventions, fanzines, undergrounds (which were unencumbered by Comics Code restrictions since they were not sold through traditional outlets), foreign publications, animation and a column on Gil Kane's Blackmark illustrated novel by noted interviewer and author John Benson.  

Kyle's editorial on the back page emphasizes his interest in comics as an international art form. From the start Kyle saw the medium's unlimited potential. As early as 1963 he came up with the phrase "graphic story" and "graphic novel" as a means of expressing a larger canvas. It would take a decade or two, but his expression was eventually adopted into the language of comic book fans and publishers. Today authors writing articles about the business employ the terminology and bookstores often have a "graphic novel" section.     

Graphic Story World # 3, October 1971, Jim Jones cover art. With it's third issue Kyle expanded GSM from twelve to sixteen pages. In his editorial he explained "There's just too much happening in the graphic story world to be covered adequately by a twelve page magazine." Those extra pages were filled by a new column, Graphic Story Review, focusing on a variety of comic related books commented on by a host of authors, including Kyle, and an article by Fred Patten on the french humor strip, "Asterisk."     

Yesteryear: Whatever Happened to..?, authored by Hames Ware, originally began as a small column in the first issue. A particular favorite, Ware tracked down many largely forgotten artists of the golden age era, updating fans on their current activities (many had left the business). Ware had the distinct ability to identify artist's styles and was instrumental in giving them recognition and credit. Ware co-edited Jerry Bails' invaluable Who's Who in American Comic Books, now available as an online resource:     

GSW # 4 (December 1971) was the last issue to be labeled a newsletter. In just two months Kyle added an additional ten pages. Clearly, he needed more room to cover all his interests in the world of comics. This issue introduced a new column on comic strips by Shel Dorf and expanded its international, news and review sections.      

Issue # 5 of Graphic Story World (February 1972) included a new sub-heading, "The MAGAZINE of the Graphic Arts" (my emphasis). On slicker paper and clocking in at a whopping forty pages there was something to please all tastes in the comic art community. Some of the features included a look at Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner; French artist Jean Giraud (aka "Moebius"); John Benson's interview with artist Roger Brand. In addition Kyle devoted more space to ongoing columns, including Hames Ware's Whatever Happened to?, which added a section on artists who had died and those recently discovered.    

Graphic Story World # 6 (July 1972), was eight pages shorter than the previous issue, but didn't lack for content. In addition to the regular columns, artist Dan Spiegle was interviewed. A distinguished craftsman, Spiegle's comic book work for Dell/Western's TV/Movie related titles didn't get much coverage in the fan press. In the "Round Table" letters section artist Fred Guardineer, who had been the focus of an earlier article by Hames Ware, updated fans on his present activities. On a personal note, many years later the name Fred Guardineer came up in a conversation with my Uncle Joe. Aware of my interest in comics, one day he mentioned that a guy he worked with in the Babylon, Long Island branch of the post office used to draw comics. His name: Fred Guardineer. Sometimes it IS a small world. 

Graphic Story World # 7, (September 1972). Norman Mingo, widely known as the artist of countless Mad magazine covers, painted his version of the Owl, a character created by writer Jerry De Fuccio and artist Mart Bailey. In this issue an article by David L. Miles details the genesis of De Fuccio and Bailey's superhero concept and their unsuccessful attempt to sell the Owl as a comic strip. 

Every issue of GSM had plenty of convention coverage. In addition to the EC Fan Addict Con, there were reports on the New York Comic Art Convention, San Diego's Con and the first (and last?) American International Congress of Comics, which took place in New York and included a mix of European and American artists, organized by the National Cartoonists Society. 


Graphic Story World # 8, (December 1972). Kyle's editorial in this issue explained that the magazine would soon separate into two distinct publications. New features included "The Wonderworld Forum", which addressed comments from fans and pros on all aspects of comics, and the first - and last - column by prolific fan Tony Isabella, reporting on upcoming releases from Marvel, DC and Skywald. Recently hired to work as an editorial assistant for Marvel, Isabella had to bow out. He would go on to write and create features for Marvel (Captain America, Ghost Rider, Iron Fist), DC (Black Lightning) and other companies in the decades ahead.       

Issue number 9, now re-titled Wonderworld (August 1973), incorporated further changes. In his editorial Kyle explained that the magazine would henceforth consist of graphic stories (represented by "Penn and Chris", an adventure strip by Dan Spiegle and "The Victims", a French translated story) alongside the usual features and columns. Kyle noted that the magazine was selling well on newsstands; in itself surprising, since fanzines were almost exclusively bought through mail order subscriptions and the handful of stores that specialized in comics at the time. The move from a bi-monthly to quarterly schedule was announced, as was the upcoming publication of Graphic Story Quarterly, described as:

 "America's first professional magazine devoted to all aspects of the graphic story - comic books, newspaper strips, underground comix, the growing field of magazine strips, hardcover books and paperbound editions, the international graphic story, yesterday's comics world - and tomorrow's."   

This, in addition to a Graphic Novel by George Metzger, Beyond Time and Again, and another new title, Quest, "the world's first graphic story magazine for the mature reader.." 

Kyle's focus in Graphic Story World/Wonderworld had been expanding from issue to issue, starting out as a discussion on comic art content to inclusion of graphic stories.
His future plans pointed to new, extremely ambitious directions, and an argument could be made that he was overreaching by attempting to fit too many ingredients under one title. Perhaps these problems would have been resolved with time.
Unfortunately it is a question that will remain unanswered.

Wonderworld # 10 (November 1973) was the final issue. It included a variety of features, from Max Allan Collins' article on Mickey Spillane's comic book background to Mark Evanier's report on the 1973 New York Comic Art Convention, along with art and stories by Jack Davis, Dan Spiegle and unpublished work by master artist Alex Toth (some strips and features promised in the previous month's editorial were either truncated or failed to appear). The promise of future issues and new publications (Graphic Story Quarterly and Quest) was not to be realized, but Kyle did publish George Metzger's Beyond Time and Again, perhaps the first book of its kind to be labeled a "Graphic Novel", in 1976.

What went wrong? According to Kyle GSM/Wonderworld was selling well. In Bill Schelly's book, The Golden Age of Comics Fandom, Kyle gave his view of the magazine:

"It was deliberately somewhat over-serious in tone, as I - a little heavy-handedly, I think - tried to bring comics criticism into the literary mainstream. When my entire subscription list was destroyed in a flood, I discontinued publishing. Illness in my family made it too costly to begin again." 

This author would argue that Kyle's fanzine/magazine was far from ponderous, particularly before it grew to encompass graphic stories. A publication that distinguished itself, focusing on all aspects of comics - as the early issues did - alongside a separate publication for graphic stories might have worked out better. Nevertheless, Kyle's ambition is to be admired. He produced an intelligent magazine that was informative, attractive and diverse. Kyle left the world of fanzines and went into business as the owner of a bookstore in California. In 1983 Kyle commissioned Jack Kirby, an artist he greatly admired, to produce an autobiographical story. "Street Code" did not see publication, though, until 1990, when Kyle briefly revived Argosy magazine. The story appeared in its second issue.

Richard Kyle passed away on December 10, 2016 at the age of 86. His legacy lives on in the superior work he left behind.              


Monday, November 7, 2016

Dr. Strange: The Early Stories (Circa 1963-64)

The following analysis concludes my two-part examination on the early Dr. Strange stories. Please note: this is heavily revised and updated from its original presentation in Ditkomania # 73, June 2009.  

Strange Tales # 111 (August, 1963), Dr. Strange’s second episode, introduces another recurring menace, Baron Mordo. It is quickly established that Mordo was a disciple of “The Master” and intends to use his powers for evil. Although the two battle in spirit form, they continue to throw punches in a traditional manner. Ditko was still exploring new ways to develop the strip's language. 

Strange and Mordo initially didn't hurl spells but took to fisticuffs! Terry Szenics letters; Stan Goldberg probable coloring. Strange Tales # 111, August 1963. 

The feature went on hiatus for two issues (ST #'s 112-113), ostensibly to gauge reader interest, returning in Strange Tales # 114 (November 1963). In the interim Lee looked to reader reaction coming from letters and through fanzines, of which he took an active interest (as noted by his then secretary Flo Steinberg). Satisfied with the response, and perhaps with some prodding from Ditko, he decided to resume Dr. Strange as an ongoing series, although not without an unfortunate shifting in personnel. 

The artwork in # 114 is considerably weakened by the absence of Ditko's precise inking over his pencils. Since Marvel was a small operation in that period, Stan Lee often called on his freelancers to roll up their sleeves when a crisis arose. Being a reliable professional Ditko stepped into the breach from time to time, hurriedly inking other artists when necessary (in one famous example he completed background art, along with production man Sol Brodsky, on Daredevil # 1). Credits on the Dr. Strange story in ST # 114 inaccurately have Ditko named as solo artist, when in fact George Roussos is the inker. The lack of an inker credit indicates a last-minute decision. In comics, the letterer receives the penciled art, which is then passed on to the inker. If Lee was aware that George Roussos was going to ink the story he would have written his name on the original art for the letterer to copy. While Roussos was a fine artist in his own right, his often rushed work (by his own admission) led to unexceptional results. In this period Ditko almost always inked his own pencils to great effect; they were sorely missed on the Roussos inked Dr. Strange stories.    

George Roussos' heavy-handed inking did not enhance Ditko's pencils. Notice that Mordo and Dr. Strange continue to spar with their fists. "The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo!" Sam Rosen letters, Stan Goldberg colors, Strange Tales # 114, November 1963.  

Beginning in Strange Tales # 115 (December, 1963) the feature expanded to eight pages*, allowing Ditko to open up with a full splash page and less cramped panels. At some point (perhaps as early as the third installment) Lee took an active hand in the plotting. Lee likely felt an origin for Dr. Strange was essential. Ditko tended to avoid giving characters a back story, believing their identity was formed by their beliefs (Mr. A., The Missing Man and "Killjoy" are a few examples). Lee used origin stories to define characters. Ditko returned to complete art (pencils and inks) on this episode, continuing in that position until issue # 120, with George Roussos' brushwork reappearing in the next four stories (Strange Tales #’s 121-124). 

Lee's editorial note on the splash page offers a lengthy explanation on why Dr. Strange began without an origin story and alludes to "a flood of letters." Although the blurb is consistent with Lee's hyperbolic writing, there may be a shred of truth in his comments. With this story the strip was lengthened by three pages (soon raised to ten pages, the standard length of a co-feature) and in a few months Dr. Strange was the cover-featured guest-star in Marvel's top-selling title, The Fantastic Four. While clearly on the periphery of the traditional Marvel hero type, Lee was beginning to incorporate the character into his comic book "neighborhood".   

“The Origin of Dr. Strange” takes us back to a time when Stephen Strange was a brilliant surgeon motivated by greed and ego. A car accident damages the nerves in his hands making him unable to operate. Devastated by the loss he wanders the streets, lost in self-pity. Overhearing rumors of an "Ancient One" who possesses mysterious powers the desperate Strange journeys to Tibet in search of a cure. Sensing a glimmer of humanity within the man, the Ancient One creates an illusion to detain him. Mordo, who we met in earlier stories, is also a student of the mystic arts, seeking wisdom for his own dark purposes. Mordo’s plans are eventually uncovered by Strange, but a spell renders him mute. It is at that point that Dr. Strange decides to study the mystic arts and thwart Mordo's schemes. 

The hero with an affliction was a Stan Lee trope (Tony Stark's weak heart; Matt Murdock's blindness; Don Blake's lame leg; Professor Xavier confined to a wheelchair, etc...).     

There are signs that point to Lee’s plotting this story. The theme of a character facing an epiphany, learning from past errors and rising above their failings was often a staple of Lee's stories, as exemplified in the origin of Spider-Man. Ditko’s solo heroes were self-assured and clear in their recognition of good and evil. Dr. Strange is a hero with total conviction in his abilities; prepared to face every obstacle in his path. It is telling that under Ditko's watch the ordinary, flawed Steven Strange is never mentioned again. 

Dr. Strange's antecedents may include Lee Falk's Mandrake the Magician, one of the earliest comic strip characters of its type, and the radio series Chondu the Magician (Lee recalls the opening quite vividly). This author has listened to a number of these shows and notices an influence. Ditko and Lee were both of an age when radio was a daily form of entertainment. The "theater of the mind" stimulated one's imagination in visual ways unique to the medium. Both men have referenced radio programs, and likely listened to thrillers such as Light's Out, Inner Sanctum and Suspense.

    In his fourth installment Ditko decided to revise Dr. Strange's pseudo-Asian features.     

  Distinguished screen star Ronald Colman played many heroic roles and may have been the visual inspiration for Ditko's "new look" Dr. Strange. 

Stephen Strange’s trip to Tibet in search of an ancient wise man was derived from the movie version of James Hilton’s popular novel, Lost Horizon (1937) which starred Ronald Coleman. The plot was used in an earlier attempt at a magical hero, the “Dr. Droom” feature in Amazing Adventures, which Lee likely plotted. As postulated by comics’ historian Barry Pearl, Ditko, who inked the initial story over Jack Kirby pencils, may have observed a weakness in the concept and decided to create something more original. Ditko later reworked characters such as The Hulk and The Blue Beetle with superior results.

"I Am the Fantastic Dr. Droom!", Possible Stan Lee plot and Larry Lieber script; Jack Kirby pencils; Steve Ditko inks, Artie Simek letters, Stan Goldberg colors. Amazing Adventures # 1, June 1961. "Dr. Droom" appeared in only five episodes, occupying the back pages of Amazing Adventures (#'s 1-4 and 6) and abruptly faded into obscurity. The stories were typical fantasy fare that failed to define the character or make him unique in any way. Whether consciously or not, Ditko, who inked the tale, put all the ingredients together a short time later on Dr. Strange.   

The elderly and all-knowing mystic was a staple of books, movies and radio. This prototype would be further developed as "The Ancient One" in the pages of Dr. Strange.  

While the early Dr. Strange stories began to establish a style and provide the hero with offbeat protagonists (Baron Mordo; Nightmare), there was a tendency to tread familiar ground that typified the monster line, including aliens (“The Possessed”, ST # 118) and haunted houses (“The House of Shadows”, ST # 120). Ditko has stated that these were Lee plots, as was the use of Thor, who made a cameo appearance in hopes of enticing fans to follow the strip (“The Challenge of Loki” ST # 123). Ditko claims Lee was having problems coming up with ideas, hence the use of outside writers (golden age writer/artist Don Rico penned one story). Ditko also blames Lee for utilizing George Roussos as inker; Lee rarely had his artists produce a complete job (Ditko was the exception) feeling they would be more valuable and productive with others handling the inking.**

                 "The Posessed!", Strange Tales # 118, March 1964, Sam Rosen letters.  

             "The House of Shadows!" Strange Tales # 120, May 1964, Sam Rosen letters.

"The Challenge of Loki!", Strange Tales # 123, August 1964. George Roussos inks, Artie Simek letters.

Three examples of Lee plotted tales. While they are entertaining enough, the first two are typical of the fantasy stories that permeated the pre-hero monster era; the latter features two guest-stars from a popular Marvel title. Lee often mixed his characters together, creating a fictional world where anyone could interact. While this concept was popular with fans, Ditko had his own ideas - he wanted to deviate from comic book cliches and seek out unexplored territory, unencumbered by the baggage of outside continuity.         

In Ditko's words:

“He (Lee) was ready to drop Dr. Strange because of his difficulties and I told him that I should be inking and could do Dr. Strange because I was the only one who understood Dr. Strange’s potentials..”   (He Giveth and He Taketh Away, The Avenging Mind, 2008)

Judging by Ditko's accounts he likely began plotting the stories on his own starting in Strange Tales # 126 (November, 1964), which coincides with his return to full time inking, although he wasn't officially credited until Strange Tales # 135. As he took over the reins he developed an ongoing serial that cemented the ideas he had been formulating for over a year. Ditko conceptualized a unique visual vocabulary that went beyond mundane traditions: mystic gestures, ornate dimensions encompassing open spaces and unknown pathways; out of body conflicts taking place in never-never lands or above the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians. It was a breathtaking display of what an artist with a brilliant and constantly probing mind can bring to life with paper, pencil and ink.

Ditko upped the ante when he began solo-plotting Dr. Strange, creating new characters, including the flame-headed despot Dormammu and the intriguing alien female Clea. "The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!" Stan Lee dialogue, Artie Simek letters, Strange Tales # 126, November 1964.   

Ditko’s run on Dr. Strange is one of the most imaginative in comic book history. Lee stepped up to the plate by providing suitable dramatic dialogue, wisely leaving his predilection for humor to other, more appropriate features. While Dr. Strange developed slowly, the seed had been sown in the very first story. Ditko was always methodical in devising characters and stories he had a hand in, constantly seeking a fresh approach. While countless writers and artists have been involved with Dr. Strange over the decades – quite a few extremely talented in their own right - they have all dipped into the vast cauldron of originality Steve Ditko left them.

(Special thanks to Frank Mastropaolo, Batton Lash, Robin Snyder, Barry Pearl and Rodney Schroeter for their analysis, insight, inspiration and enthusiasm.)

* By Strange Tales # 120 the page count grew to nine pages, where it remained until issue # 126 when it expanded to 10 pages, the standard page count for co-features in the anthology titles.

** Ditko’s other assignments from Lee in the time period covered in this article (Strange Tales # 110-125, cover dated July 1963-Oct 1964) includes the monthly Spider-Man and the first Annual; a three issue stint penciling Iron-Man (Tales of Suspense #'s 47-49); assisting on backgrounds in Daredevil # 1; penciling the Hulk in Tales to Astonish # 60 and inking over Jack Kirby in Strange Tales Annual # 2; a back-up story in Fantastic Four Annual # 1 and the Giant-Man story in Tales to Astonish # 50. In addition Ditko was doing full art on Gorgo and Konga stories for Charlton.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Dr. Strange: The Beginning

This is an expansion and revision of an article that originally appeared in Ditkomania # 73, June 2009.  

Just four months after Spider-Man’s debut Steve Ditko created a new hero, who, in many respects, was more offbeat than his teenage adventurer. Nestled in the back pages of Strange Tales, which headlined the "Human Torch” feature, Dr. Strange made his debut. Under the supervision of editor Stan Lee and artist/collaborator Jack Kirby (with assistance from Larry Lieber, who scripted many early stories) the Marvel Comics Group published a steady stream of superheroes in the early 1960s. In that period Steve Ditko continued to draw five page fantasy fillers in the back of the anthology titles. After four years of working on these stories perhaps it was time for a change* . In his essay “He Giveth and He Taketh Away” (The Avenging Mind, Robin Snyder, 2007) Ditko stated:

"On my own, I brought in to Lee a five page, penciled story with a panel/page script of my idea of a new, different kind of character for variety in Marvel comics.”

Stan Lee made his own statement two months before the feature began. His letter appeared in The Comic Reader # 16 (February 1963), a popular early fanzine, and is in line with Ditko’s later recollections.

"Well, we have a new character in the works for STRANGE TALES. Just a 5 page filler named Dr. Strange. Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him. ‘Twas Steve’s idea, I figured we’d give the new feature a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one out too much. Little sidelight. Originally, we decided to call him Mr. Strange, but thought the “Mr.” was a bit too similar to Mr. Fantastic—now, however, I remember a villain called Dr. Strange just recently in one of our mags. I hope it won’t be too confusing! Oh, well…”

For those unearthing the history of comics this is an important document; one of the earliest records of Lee discussing a specific series and the first known example of Lee describing the gestation of a strip and crediting Ditko with the initial concept.

Ditko takes exception to Lee’s categorizing the story as “nothing great” and the comment “we can make something of him." Does Ditko have a legitimate complaint? An examination of the first story might be revealing.

Strange Tales # 110 (July 1963), introduces “Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic!” (the sub-title only appeared on the splash page of the first four stories before it vanished; replaced by the phrase "Master of the Mystic Arts" in Strange Tales # 120, perhaps due to Comics Code Authority concerns). Ditko opens with an image of the title character; dark haired, Asian in appearance and garbed in a tunic bearing a symbol. He completes the outfit with an amulet, high collar, gloves and sash. Lee's copy is properly somber, informing the reader that Dr. Strange is a new series and different from others of its kind. The three panels that begin the story exemplify Ditko's storytelling acumen; the point of view has the reader peering inside a window, observing a restless and disturbed man in his bedroom. The use of rain creates an appropriately gloomy and tense mood. 

Ditko's rendition of Dr. Strange was unlike any other Marvel superhero; there were no bulging muscles or brightly colored costumes. Instead Ditko created a more natural and mysterious figure. Strange Tales # 110, July 1963. Stan Lee dialogue, Terry Szenics lettering, Stan Goldberg colors.  

Page two opens with the man entering the abode of Dr. Strange, requesting his help. The caption tells us we are in Greenwich Village, a specific area in New York City notorious for bohemian lifestyles. This was likely Stan Lee's addition, based on his earlier use of real locations in Marvel’s stories (The Fantastic Four resided in New York City; Peter Parker in Forest Hills, Queens). The man describes his recurring nightmare to Dr. Strange, who matter-of-factly states he will enter his dream. We next see Strange going into a trance as his astral form leaves his body and takes off into the night. 

Ditko establishes both the oddness of the character and his unique powers in this four panel sequence. Clearly a more cerebral hero than Thor or The Hulk!  

On page three Dr. Strange, in his spirit form, travels to Asia, seeking advice from an aged mentor who he calls “the Master” (in his third appearance he would be rechristened "The Ancient One"). 

Dr. Strange's mentor represents wisdom and knowledge, passing on his abilities to the next generation. 

Dr. Strange returns to the troubled man and, leaving his physical body once again, enters his dream. There he encounters a cloaked and chained figure floating in the void. 

  From the very beginning Ditko began to establish visual signatures in Dr. Strange. 

On the fourth page Dr. Strange confronts a shadowy figure on a horse who he recognizes as Nightmare, “my ancient foe." This creates a sense of history and background for the character.  

Nightmare would be Dr. Strange's first recurring foe under Ditko's reign. Others included Baron Mordo and Dormammu.   

As if the good doctor didn't have enough problems, his vulnerable physical form is threatened in the real world. As Nightmare gloats, Dr. Strange contacts his mentor. 

On the final page, Dr. Strange is protected by his amulet, which opens into a mystic eye, mesmerizing the attacker. Dr. Strange escapes the Dream Dimension and returns to his corporeal form. There he discovers the truth about the man he was attempting to aid. 

Dr. Strange's amulet, opening into a mystical "all-seeing" eye. It was an eerie visual; a symbolic light shining upon darkness and evil, one that Ditko would play with throughout his career.   

Ditko introduces many elements that will be expanded upon on in the months ahead. While the splash employs four panels for a more dramatic opening, Ditko used space economically on pages 2-5; aware of page restrictions he filled each page with nine or ten panel grids. Ditko introduces the hero, his mentor, a protagonist and gives the readers a taste of the hero’s powers: astral projection and the use of a mystic amulet. 

What are Stan Lee’s contributions? Lee provided strong, dramatic dialogue, adding atmosphere to the characters and situations. In his capacity as editor, Lee wisely gave Ditko the freedom to experiment; in an unyielding corporate environment he would undoubtedly have faced stronger opposition. Lee had a keen sense of how best to utilize talent and he did not hold Ditko back. Perhaps Lee felt the conclusion was weak and Dr. Strange needed a more dramatic springboard to showcase his abilities.

Ditko manages to pack more into five pages than many of his peers with four times that length at their disposal. Lee may have wanted more action but Ditko’s introductory tale sets the stage for future developments. 

The story ends with Dr. Strange beckoning the reader to join him in future adventures. I hope you join me next time as I continue to explore the early Dr. Strange stories. 

For those of you who would like to read these stories in unexpurgated form (and aren't independently wealthy) Marvel has recently collected every Ditko Dr. Strange story in hardcover. It's well worth investing in: 

* Ditko’s last back up stories appeared in Oct 1963 dated comics, around the time of Strange Tales # 115. As enthusiasm for superhero material increased, Lee expanded the page count on all his anthology headliners, with only a single five page thriller (written and drawn by Larry Lieber) tenaciously holding on to the closing pages.    

Friday, October 21, 2016

Charlton Press

Charlton's comics line was always on the fringes - never to be confused with any other company, with a look, feel and smell all their own. Despite the indifference of management, their low budget fare had a distinctive charm and, from time to time, they took a swing at bat and hit it out of the park. 

If DC, Dell, Harvey and Archie were the Saks or Macy's of their period, Charlton was akin to Woolworth's or John's Bargain Store (those of you of a more tender age won't get the reference, but they were precursors of modern day 99 cent stores). Finding a Charlton comic book could be a chore - at least for this kid from Brooklyn - even though candy stores could be found on every other block in the mid-1960s. My brother John managed to wrangle a few, usually hero types like Thunderbolt, Capt. Atom and Blue Beetle. They were often stacked on a shelf in a far off corner of those aforementioned stores, or sometimes found in one of the local used bookstores. In a few years, though, Charlton managed to improve their distribution. I can pinpoint the exact month, thanks to Mike's Amazing Word of Comics site:

In April, 1971 I bought The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 26 and Ghostly Tales # 86 at my local candy store. From that point on the mystery titles, especially those adorned with Ditko covers, became a regular part of our comic book purchases.  


I came across the above comic in a barbershop circa 1969. When I peered inside I was reintroduced to a familiar, idiosyncratic and appealing style of art that drew me in completely from day one. Although there was no signature on either "The Eternal Oak" or "Phantom Surfer" I had no doubt the artist was Steve Ditko. Ghostly Tales # 71, January 1969. Jim Aparo cover art.     

 Charlton occasionally tried to jump on the superhero bandwagon, as it did in the mid-1960s, inspired by both Marvel comics' success and the popularity of the Batman TV show, but their Action-Hero line had its own personality. Charlton had a tangible charm, and the editors, including  Pat Masulli, Sal Gentile, Dick Giordano, George Wildman, Bill Pearson and Robin Snyder, came off as unpretentious men who were very much aware that they weren't competing with The New Yorker or Esquire. Their letters pages were unique in comics. They often praised (and were not afraid to name) their competition, always made note of their artists accomplishments and, refreshingly, admitted that some of their stories and art didn't always make the grade. 

It has often been noted that Charlton’s page rates were low, but editors gave artists the freedom to experiment and often fashion a script to suit their own preferences. Joe Gill was their primary writer, and while no one (including Gill) would categorize him as a great literary talent, he could at times turn in a solid story that displayed skill and humor. While there were a few notable writers at Charlton including Steve Skeates, Denny O’Neil and Nick Cuti, Gill remained a Charlton perennial until its demise.
One of Charlton’s high points was its array of diverse artists, some of whom remained with them for decades. Many were both proficient and versatile; drawing stories in every genre, from romance to war. While it's beyond the scope of this essay to highlight every cartoonist who worked for Charlton (over thirty years worth!) I'd like to pay tribute to a selection of grizzled veterans (and some rookies) who worked in the trenches and got little respect or attention, but deserve their moment in the sun.             

When one thinks of Charlton, the team of penciller Charles Nicholas and inker Vince Alascia (often credited as "Nicholas Alascia") come to mind. Their efforts were simple, clean and competent, and rose above that level when sparked by inspiration. I've grown to appreciate the good work they produced throughout Charlton's line.  Both men were veterans of the field, having worked for Fox, Fiction House, Ace and Avon, among others. Alascia, in particular, had a long run inking Timley's Captain America over Syd Shores' pencils.  

An attractively designed and offbeat romance cover by the team of Charles Nicholas and Vince Alascia. Brides in Love # 8, June 1958. Image from Comic Book Plus:

Nicholas's off-kilter layout adds a sense of mood to this page. "Let The Buyer Beware!", Vince Alascia inks, Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 20, June 1970.

Charles Nicholas was occasionally rendered by other inkers, one of the most distinctive being Wayne Howard, who added a Wally Wood inspired gloss. "Who'll Die Tomorrow?", Haunted # 12, May 1973.  

Nicholas' art was prominent in practically every genre at Charlton. He drew countless war, romance, crime and western stories for over two decades. Jon D'Agostino's slick inking adds texture to his pencil's on this exciting splash. Billy the Kid # 51, August 1965. Image from Comic Book Plus:    

Maurice Whitman produced fine work beginning in the 1940s, notably at Fiction House. He toiled at Charlton extensively in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing everything from Atomic Mouse to Fightin' Marines, and was particularly impressive on covers. Often neglected in the pages of comics history, Whitman was a very talented artist who later went on to work for Warren and DC.

An inventive Maurice Whitman cover from Strange Suspense Stories # 36, March 1958.

There was a time when dogs and horses headlined their own comic books - and artists like Maurice Whitman could draw then with great craft! Rocky Lane's Black Jack # 21, January 1958.    

Dick Giordano’s accomplishments have been well documented, but his importance as both an artist and editor at Charlton is worth noting. Giordano began drawing for Charlton in the 1950s on many genre stories. He also produced an enormous amount of attractive covers throughout the line, both as penciller and inking over other artists such as Rocco Mastroserio and Pat Masulli. As editor he instituted the "action hero" line in 1966, competing against Marvel and DC with new characters including Thunderbolt, Sarge Steel, Peacemaker, Judo Master and revivals of Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle.   Under his tenure letters pages became a staple (with personal replies by Giordano) and, inspired by Marvel, he began to add credits to the stories. Giordano was instrumental in creating a personality for Charlton, elevating it in the eyes of fandom.

An impressive early effort by Dick Giordano. "Shakedown!", Carl Memling script, Charlotte Jetter lettering, Racket Squad in Action # 14, January 1955. 

Dick Giordano cover art, Konga # 12, May 1963.

Giordano drew countless romance covers for Charlton. I Love You # 59, August 1967.

For a period of time Joe Sinnott worked for Vince Colletta's shop, penciling countless stories for Charlton's romance line. In addition, he filled in for Steve Ditko on a run of Gorgo stories. Although Sinnott is recognized as an exceptional inker, enhancing the pencils of John Buscema, Gene Colan and Jack Kirby, he has also penciled many stories over the decades for outfits including Dell, Archie and Treasure Chest, where he illustrated biographies of Pope John XXIII, General Douglas MacArthur, Patton, Eisenhower and Babe Ruth.           

"The Venusian Terror", Joe Gill script, Joe Sinnott pencils, Vince Colletta inks, Gorgo # 10, December 1962. 

Rocco "Rocke" Mastroserio is another artist who deserves greater recognition. While indexing  stories and covers for the GCD I’ve observed how prolific and talented Mastroserio was. Mastroserio had a strong line and his inking was solidly detailed. His covers, stories and introductory pages were scattered throughout Charlton’s line for some 14 years. Mastroserio also produced excellent work for Warren in the late 1960s for their black and white line of horror magazines. Had he lived he would undoubtedly have branched out to work for other companies (as many of his peers did), but in 1968 Mastroserio died at the all too young age of 44.  

Rocco Mastroserio cover art to Ghostly Tales # 59, Jan 1967. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the lettering skills of Jon D'Agostino, who worked for many years at Charlton. In addition to his solid calligraphy, D'Agostino was also a skilled artist, inker and colorist. D'Agostino continued to work in the industry for many years, often drawing stories for Archie comics.    

Mastroserio cover to Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 4, Nov 1967, Giordano layout and/or inks. In an interview in Whizzard # 14 (Winter 1981), Dick Giordano spoke about Mastroserio: "He was living and working in Derby at the time and if you look at those books you'll see that he used to do about 70 per cent of the covers, which were generally laid out by me but penciled and inked by Rocke." 

Mastroserio was also an attractive inker over many of Charlton's mainstays, adding a level of John Severin style detail to the pencils of Bill Molno. "Sgt. Yellabelly", Joe Gill probable script, Battlefield Action # 28, January 1960. Image from Comic Book Plus:

Jim Aparo began his career at Charlton in the 1960s, and although he is recognized for his work at DC on characters such as AquamanBatman and the Phantom Stranger, his Charlton output was equally impressive. Aparo had a clean, attractive style and he always produced a complete job (pencils, inks and lettering). Perhaps his finest accomplishment at Charlton was his excellent run on the Phantom.      

                             Jim Aparo cover art, The Phantom # 38, June 1970. 
                          Jim Aparo's effectively moody cover to Ghostly Tales # 79, April 1970.
Wayne Howard was a Wally Wood inspired artist (and one time assistant) who often wrote, drew and lettered his own stories. He began working for Charlton in the early 1970s, and was credited on covers as the creator of the mystery-anthology Midnight Tales, where he also created the hosts Arachne and Professor Coffin. Howard also inked other artists work to good effect. Although Howard occasionally worked for DC and Marvel, mostly as an inker, it was at Charlton that he had the freedom to experiment. Howard died in 2007.   

A Wayne Howard Wally Wood inspired page, likely written, drawn, lettered and colored by Howard. "The Voyage", Ghost Manor # 8, Nov 1972.  

Wayne Howard cover (and lettering), Ghost Manor # 13, July 1973.

Pat Boyette was hired by Dick Giordano in the 1960s and became a prolific artist well suited to the mystery line. His faces and figures might not be attractive, but he brought mood, experimentation and an expressive quality to his stories. Boyette often wrote, drew and lettered stories, giving him an opportunity to play with the form. Because Boyette's style was so unorthodox he was not always welcome at other companies, but at Charlton he fit in perfectly.

Pat Boyette excelled in portraying bizarre creatures, as seen on this painted cover. Ghostly Haunts # 52, Oct 1976.

Boyette's sense of mood and panel movement is showcased on this page, from "The Things Some Kids Dream Up!", page 6, Joe Gill script; pencils, inks and letters by Boyette, Haunted # 14, Sept 1973.   

Sanho Kim was a Korean artist who started working in 1957, drawing fantasy and science fiction related comics. In the late 1960's Kim moved to the United States and began working for Charlton on many of the ghost titles, but also contributed to war, western and romance stories and covers. Kim had the unusual habit of including the day, month and year the work was completed in the final panel. Kim inked and lettered all his stories, occasionally writing them as well. Kim also produced some work for Warren and Marvel. In 1973 Kim produced an early Graphic Novel for Iron Horse Press, Sword's Edge, in collaboration with Michael Juliar. Kim returned to Korea in 1996, continuing to create comics, and In 2008 was honored with an Order of Cultural Merits award by the Korean Government. He continues to be involved in fine art centering on Korean culture. 

Sanho Kim wrote, drew and lettered, "The Promise", cover billed on Ghostly Tales # 101, Jan 1973, as "A Korean Folk Tale told in English and Korean". The rigid formats of DC or Marvel in that period would not have found room for a story like this, but Charlton allowed such experimentation. Kim also wrote an editorial message at the end of the story. 

Pete Morisi, better known under the pseudonym "PAM", created Thunderbolt for Charlton and worked on war, western, romance and mystery stories. A police officer by day, he freelanced anonymously in his off-hours for Charlton since the force frowned on outside work. Morisi's style was greatly inspired by veteran George Tuska, along with artists like Jack Kirby. While Morisi's figures had a stiff quality, his sense of pacing and storytelling made up for it.

An effective Morisi page from "Wrong Turn", Haunted # 13, July 1973. Nick Cuti script, PAM letters.  In this period Morisi used photo references (not for the aliens, I assume!) 

Thunderbolt was the creation of Pete Morisi. This page highlights a good sense of design. From issue # 51, April 1966.

Tom Sutton would have been a perfect fit for EC comics 1950s horror line (indeed, he was inspired by the work of Wally Wood and Graham Ingles) but he was instead destined to bring a sense of the macabre to Charlton's 1970s thrillers. Another triple threat (writer, artist, letterer) Sutton loved the ability to experiment with styles and techniques and - like Boyette - painted many stunning covers for the company. Although Sutton worked for other companies, including Marvel and DC, his quirky, offbeat renderings were most at home in the backwoods of Charlton. 

Tom Sutton's bizarre imagery was showcased on Charlton's mystery line. Painted cover from Haunted # 17, July 1974. 

Don Perlin had been drawing comics since the 1950s, although he received greater recognition in the 1970s at Marvel on horror series such as Werewolf by Night and Ghost Rider. Perlin produced a great amount of stories for Charlton in the 1960's and 1970s, both in the mystery and war genre.   

A Don Perlin splash page showcases his skill at composition. Joe Gill script, likely lettered by Perlin. "The Night of the Poltergeists", Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 18, Feb 1970.

 Fred Himes became a Charlton mainstay in the 1970s. His style was clean and simple, with an emphasis on attractive women. He worked on war, western, romance, mystery and television related titles such as Valley of the Dinosaurs and the Six Million Dollar Man, with covers often inked by Pat Boyette.  

Fred Himes' attractive page from "The Devil's Bride", Ghostly Tales # 96, July 1972. Possible Gill script, likely Himes lettering. 

Joe Staton was part of the “70’s wave” of young artists who started at Charlton. Staton had a charming, cartoony style, with a mix of inspirations, including Steve Ditko. The versatile artist produced a plethora of mystery, romance and adventure stories. Staton is most noted for his collaboration, with co-creator-author Nick Cuti, on the humorous super hero strip E-Man. Staton has had an impressive career working for companies such as DC and Marvel, and currently draws the Dick Tracy comic strip, but his early work at Charlton is fondly remembered and worth seeking out.

Staton's sense of pacing, design and Ditko influence is evident on this page. "No Way Out", from Ghostly Haunts # 28, Dec 1972. Nick Cuti script, Charlotte Jetter letters. Jetter's distinctive  lettering enhanced many Charlton stories from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Jetter began working in the 1950s alongside her husband, artist/editor Al Jetter at Fawcett; in later years she  worked for Marvel. Charlton's colorists remain a mystery, although artist/letterer Jon D'Agostino is a prime contender when he worked there in the 1950s and 1960s; he is said to have begun as a colorist for Timely/Atlas' production department (per Stan Goldberg) and has been mentioned from time to time as working in that capacity for Charlton. Wendy Fiore was the only known colorist who was occasionally credited in the 1970s and 1980s.      

Staton art and storytelling enlivens this page from "Reunion", Haunted Love # 4, Oct 1973. Joe Gill script, Joe Staton letters. This was a extra-length 16 page story, and Staton created a moody and effective tale.

Mike Zeck showed great ability in his fanzine art for titles such as RBCC. His first professional sale was at Charlton, where he drew stories and painted and colored covers. In a short period of time he moved to Marvel, gracing titles such as Master of Kung Fu, Captain America, Spider-Man and the Punisher.

Mike Zeck pencilled, inked and colored this dynamic cover for Ghostly Tales # 123, Oct 1976

John Byrne also began his career at Charlton. His enthusiasm and talent was apparent from the start, working on such diverse strips as Speed Buggy and Doomsday + 1. Byrne soon found employment at Marvel, first penciling, and later often writing strips such as Captain America, Fantastic Four and a little known comic titled X-Men.

John Byrne's skill is apparent in this splash to Rog-2000, "Withering Heights". Nick Cuti script, Byrne art and lettering. From E-Man # 7, March 1975.

Don Newton had been known as a talented artist in fanzine circles for years, drawing impressive covers for RBCC and many other fanzines. Newton broke into the business in the 1970's at Charlton, working on mystery stories and creating hosts such as Baron Weirwolf. His work on The Phantom is on a par with Jim Aparo's. Newton later followed Aparo on another famous character: BatmanNewton died in 1984.    

Impressive Don Newton splash page to "Death in the Storm!", with inks by Dan Adkins. Written by Joe Molloy, likely lettered by Newton. From Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 49, Jan 1975.

The Phantom visits Casablanca, with some familiar faces in the background. Don Newton pencils, inks and letters, Bill Pearson script, from The Phantom # 70, April 1976

    And, of course, there was Steve Ditko.

Ditko worked for Charlton early in his career drawing horror, science fiction, crime and westerns. He never really left the company, as he explained in First Choice, an essay published in Steve Ditko's 160 Page Package, 1999:  "..Charlton left us and the comics field"

Ditko always had a strong sense of pacing and choreography, as this page illustrates. "The Forbidden Room", possible Joe Gill script, Jon D'Agostino letters, Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds # 4, July 1957. 

Even when Ditko was busy working for Stan Lee on mystery and superhero stories in the late 1950s and early 1960s he continued to produce art for Charlton, notably the monster titles based on movies Gorgo and Konga. There was only a short gap in the 1964/65 period when Ditko only had one story appear each year. Ditko returned to pencil a revived Capt. Atom in late 1965. The title appeared on newsstands the same month as Amazing Spider-Man # 32 (comics were usually dated two to three months ahead of "real time"; Capt. Atom had a December cover date; Amazing Spider-Man # 32, January - both apparently were on sale in early October). After creating "the Question" and a revised Blue Beetle, Ditko settled in for a long period drawing primarily for Charlton's mystery line.  

Ditko's page design and atmospheric inks were exceptional in the late 1960's-early 1970's period, one of the most expressive of his long career. "Return to Trilby Shoals" Ditko art, Possible Joe Gill script, Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 16, Oct 1969.  

Ditko drew many finely detailed and experimental stories for Charlton in the 1970's, some of his finest work ever. While his art became less detailed by the mid 1970s he still produced for Charlton while working at DC and Atlas-Seaboard. In the mid-1970s Charlton went all reprint, but Ditko returned for their last revival attempt in 1985. Along with drawing a few new stories for the revived Tales of the Mysterious Traveler, Ditko brought his creator-owned character Static to the company. Ditko and Charlton were a good fit and he remained loyal to them until they closed their doors for the final time.

It doesn't get much better than this. Ditko's line absolutely flows on this page. His design sense, characterization, layout and backgrounds are expert. "An Ancient Wrong", Ditko art, Joe Gill script, Charlotte Jetter letters, Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 20, June 1970.  

Charlton’s  line of romance, war, western, mystery and humor had a place on the newsstands from the mid 1940s to the mid-1970s. Increasingly, with the loss of mom and pop stores and the proliferation of comics shops their product became marginalized. Fans in the 1970s almost exclusively sought out superheroes, or monsters with a continuing back story, such as Tomb of Dracula and Swamp Thing. Their line-up continued to cater to a younger crowd, but the audience for hot rods and westerns appeared to be diminishing. Although they tried to make another run in the mid 1980's, it was not to be.

Alex Nino cover art to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler # 15, December 1985. 

Steve Ditko's final new story for Charlton appeared alongside reprints of his 1950s Mysterious Traveler stories. Story, art and lettering by Ditko. Tales of the Mysterious Traveler # 15, December 1985. Story copyright 2016 Steve Ditko.  

For many years Charlton was a familiar product on the comics racks, alongside Archie, Harvey, Western, DC, Marvel and others. Their diverse titles sold well to a general audience.  Although often maligned, they had a solid group of diverse and dependable creators. While Charlton never rose to the top ranks of comics publishers, perhaps that was a good thing. Nestled in their own little corner Charlton thrived for decades; an offbeat company that received little notice or acclaim, they chugged along at their own pace. I'm glad they were around to entertain me when I was growing up and appreciate them even more in today's often predictable and antiseptic environment.  

Top image, Tom Christopher art; bottom image, Steve Ditko art. Ads such as these appeared in fanzines such as Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal to promote Charlton's revived line in 1985. The company was one of the few still attempting to cater to a variety of tastes, but sales were not strong enough and Charlton called it quits late in the year.  

Mort Todd continues the Charlton tradition with a mix of new material and classic reprints. I've had the pleasure of assisting him on his Comic Book Cover Series, which is highly recommended. Read more about his publications here: 

With thanks to Robin Snyder for his knowledge, input and encouragement and Darci for her grammatical corrections.