Thursday, November 2, 2017

Covering Ditko

The artistry of Steve Ditko has been captivating comic book aficionados for over six decades. One aspect of his prodigious accomplishments in the comic art field worth exploring is Ditko's facility at designing compelling cover art. From his earliest days in the industry Ditko showed confidence in orchestrating cover scenes, which was of the utmost importance in gaining the attention of prospective customers. This post will sample what I consider some of his most innovative, intriguing, amusing and offbeat work from the 1950s into the present day.

                         Strange Suspense Stories # 18, May 1954 

Ditko's earliest covers adorned Charlton Press, where he immediately stood out as a young talent to be reckoned with. While his more grisly illustrations are often recognized by fans, I prefer those that emphasize mood and tension. The above scene is a classic example of simplicity in design. The reader is drawn in by the woman's terrified face occupying the foreground and the shadowy figure behind her. The trees, falling leaves and moon complete the picture, further complimented by the unknown colorist's subdued tones.   

                                The Thing # 15, July-August 1954

Ditko's gigantic, drooling worm creature devastates a city landscape. The buildings, skylight, billboards and water tower define a recognizable Manhattan that the artist was familiar with and would often render with great skill and personality in the years ahead.

This Magazine Is Haunted Volume 2, number 12, July 1957

Horrific elements such as the one seen on The Thing # 15 were commonplace in comics, but that all changed when the Comics Code was instituted in late 1954. Ditko adapted to the restraints by placing an emphasis on atmospheric scenes that evoked a sense of menace. Here host Dr. Haunt approaches a foreboding house on a windswept night. 

                  Tales of the Mysterious Traveler # 4, August 1957
The image of the Mysterious Traveler standing under a street lamp as wisps of paper fly in the air (and are used to spotlight the interior stories) are indicative of master cartoonist Will Eisner, particularly his masked crime-fighter, The Spirit, who appeared in newspapers in the 1940s and 50s. A superior storyteller and craftsman, Eisner was one of many artists whose work was absorbed by Ditko. Subtle touches abound on this cover, such as the host's face appearing behind him on a billboard with the words "in this issue" barely noticeable.       

                                      Unusual Tales # 9, November 1957
A family reacting to red snow is a perfect example of Ditko playing with characters emotions, expressions and body language. Little touches such as showing the characters' breath in the cold air are noteworthy.       

                            Out of This World # 6, November 1957   
Unusual designs such as this one demonstrate Ditko's ability to choreograph a cover scene for maximum effect. Incorporating four elements (the floating figure, circular motif, amorphous dripping fog and "stepping stones") foreshadows the world he later developed in Doctor Strange.

                   Strange Suspense Stories # 35, December 1957

It's hard to conceive that Charlton editor Pat Masulli had anything more to do with this cover than approve it, especially since no interior stories correspond to it. A man trapped inside a light bulb surrounded by moths, manifested by Ditko's quirky imagination.  

                      Out Of This World # 7, February 1958

"Strange, Different, Unusual" are the key words on this cover and Ditko follows through by drawing a figure composed of glass, plastic, metal, wood - even part of a newspaper! (Ditko would incorporate newspaper headlines and articles in his Avenging World series a decade later). One imagines Ditko sitting at his drawing board and playing with different ideas until this one popped up. 

                Mysteries Of Unexplored Worlds # 11, January 1959

Ditko seemed fascinated with water-based concepts and incorporated them into many of his cover scenes in this period. This is one of his most imaginative, enlivened by an arresting color scheme.  

                             Amazing Adult Fantasy # 13, June 1962    
While continuing his assignments for Charlton, by the late 1950s Ditko was becoming increasingly occupied with work for Editor Stan Lee at the nascent Marvel Comics. Jack Kirby was Lee's go-to artist for the majority of covers, but Ditko crafted a few in the monster-fantasy genre too. When Lee came up with the idea of showcasing Ditko's talents in Amazing Adult Fantasy he became the regular cover artist as well. Ditko's suspenseful cover includes a menacing figure rising out of the sea and onto a dock; in the background a mist-shrouded city becomes a "character" awaiting the unknown. 

                          Amazing Spider-Man # 2, May 1963

In Robin Snyder's publication, The Comics (Vol 13, No 1, January 2002) Steve Ditko, wrote about this cover in A Mini-History: The Amazing Spider-Man # 2: 

"The Amazing Spider-man #2 (May 1963) featured my first penciled and inked Spider-man cover. It showed an air battle between S-m and the villain, The Vulture. The cover also had an insert involving the second villain, The Terrible Tinkerer (and contains my addition of spider webbing to the title and my idea for the Marvel hero head box in the top left corner)." 
Ditko's extraordinary run as co-plotter/plotter/artist on Amazing Spider-Man has been discussed countless times - and deservedly so - but his contributions as cover artist are also of great importance. I will post just a few of my favorites here, beginning with his first full cover art (Jack Kirby penciled the published covers to Amazing Fantasy # 15 and Amazing Spider-Man # 1, with Ditko inking). Spider-Man being menaced by a villain with the ability to fly amidst a backdrop of New York City's towering skyscrapers is a stunner. Stan Goldberg's choice of an all-gray color scheme emphasizes the two opponents skillfully. The inset, which publicizes the second story, is efficient and does not detract from the cover.  

                       Amazing Spider-Man # 15, August 1964

This cover drew me in all those years ago when I first saw it and it's STILL a favorite. Ditko creates palpable tension by showing the reader a vulnerable hero who appears to have no chance of escape. How does Spidey get out of this predicament? Back then it would cost you 12 cents for the answer, and I suspect quite a few perusing the newsstands for entertainment made that purchase. 

                         Amazing Spider-Man # 22, March 1965

On many of these covers you'll notice that dramatic situations supersede conventional fist-fights. Ditko could certainly craft those with finesse,  but he often concentrated on reaction instead of action. Here the "leading man" is missing; instead his looming shadow and calling card (the Spider-Signal) announce Spider-Man's symbolic presence to both the started villains and his prospective audience. While early on Lee discussed and worked out cover designs with Ditko, according to the artist there came a point where he produced covers on his own, with no input from Lee.      

                         Amazing Spider-Man # 24, May 1965

A bizarre and compelling cover has Spider-Man haunted by ghostly images of old foes Sandman and the Vulture; a man whose desk appears to be on the ceiling and an off-kilter perspective that forces the viewer to question exactly WHAT is going on here.

                     Amazing Spider-Man # 28, September 1965

 Experimentation is another aspect of Ditko's cover-art, as evidenced here. The all-black background has Spider-Man blending into the darkness with only the red highlights of his costume standing out as The Molten Man's shining figure advances. This was not your typical superhero cover. 

                      Amazing Spider-Man # 33, February 1966

Superlatives escape me when trying to describe this cover. Like a perfect game in Baseball the components are visible but you are in awe over the results. An understated masterpiece by Ditko. 

                      Beware The Creeper # 2, July-August 1968

The Creeper's pose and the villain lurking behind him interact with familiar Ditko tropes: rooftops, rain and a city background.  

                          Eon # 3, 1969. Mr. A copyright Steve Ditko

While this Mr. A illustration was used as the back cover for Rob Gustaveson's fanzine, Eon, I thought it was a good example of Ditko's visual sense and therefore included it. The attractive Mr. A logo design, encompassed by an almost abstract building motif and Ditko's signature leads into his "good/evil" card, the fool skirting the edge and Mr. A's omniscient figure.    

                           Haunted # 1, September 1971

Ditko showcases the interior stories in a decidedly offbeat manner: three vignettes composed of eyes and a mouth. 

                          Ghostly Tales # 89, October 1971

Ditko's visual symmetry is fascinating. On this cover he uses the eyeball and circlular images to entice the reader.  

                  The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 28, October 1971 

Host Dr. Graves presents the feature story on a parchment, holding it up for the viewers to observe. Ditko incorporated the entire cover in his design, including the logo. The candle in the foreground and the bricks and figure going beyond the page, 3-D like, are nice touches.

                             Haunted # 2, November 1971 

A man floats in space, surrounded by a montage of faces and figures enclosed in a circle (as we have seen, the use of circles and circular images is a constant in Ditko's art). Charlton Press was an ideal place for Ditko to tinker with an array of techniques and covers were no exception. Nick Cuti, who was an assistant editor at Charlton in the 1970s, had this to say on Facebook when I asked about the cover process:  

"at Charlton as far as I can remember all the covers were assigned after the story had been illustrated. We had stacks of finished stories on metal shelves. I was assigned to put together an issue and then an artist was assigned to do a cover for the issue."   

                         Ghost Manor Volume 2, # 4, April 1972 

Ditko has an almost uncanny ability to evoke a three-dimensional look on this cover. The man in the foreground and host Mr. Bones (who looks out at the viewer) are superimposed against the ocean background and ghostly apparition.  

                 The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 31, April 1972

A succession of images devised as index cards. Another unorthodox presentation by Ditko. 

                          Ghostly Tales # 103, April 1973

The trademark Ditko fingers open a door, revealing a frightening and deadly secret! A few years earlier this cover would almost certainly have been rejected by the Comics Code, but in 1971 the rules were revised, leading to more horror-oriented fare.   

                       Ghost Manor Volume 3, # 15, October 1973 

Ditko's use of barbed wire in the foreground adds to the tension of this scene.

                           Daredevil # 162, January 1980

The covers Ditko drew when he returned to freelance for Marvel in the late 1970s were usually not as strong as his earlier efforts, likely due to tighter editorial control and/or others providing a composition for Ditko to follow. This Daredevil cover is a little awkward but stands out due to the positioning of the hands holding the knives in the foreground.  

                                   The Fly # 8, August 1984

Ditko had a run on Archie's The Fly in the 1980s but his covers were watered-down when management refused to let him ink them. Ditko's last issue was an exception, and the artist comes through with a scene of the Fly caught in a dangerous situation. 

 Steve Ditko's Static Chapters 1-5, July 1989. Static copyright Steve Ditko.

In 1988 Ditko began producing his independent work with co-publisher Robin Snyder, a relationship which continues into the present. One of their earliest efforts was a reprinting of Ditko's Static, an intriguing hero with a visual flair. His story came to a conclusion in the second volume. Ditko's scene of Static surrounded by a montage of criminals is heightened by his sharp inking and use of blacks. 

                             3-D Substance # 1, 1990

Early in his career Ditko assisted Joe Simon and Jack Kirby on their Captain 3-D comic, and, as a few examples I've shown here prove, Ditko picked up some pointers on creating images that leaped off the comics' page. 

                     The Mocker, April 1990. Copyright Steve Ditko.

A sea of individualized faces accompanied by an array of expressions is another Ditko trademark that distinguishes this cover. The Mocker was a "graphic novel" and one of Ditko's best self-published concepts. 

                         Curse of the Weird # 1, December 1993
                        Monster Menace # 3, December 1993

Ditko drew a few covers for Editor Mort Todd's reprint line of Atlas horror/monster stories from the 1950s and early 60s. Ditko not only penciled and inked the covers, but provided the color guides as well. 

     OH No! Not Again Ditko! March 2009. Copyright Steve Ditko. 

Ditko's satirical side comes to the fore on this unusual cover, with the main concept of an ink bottle spilling its contents out over the page, its features and bordering the cover. 

          Act 7, Making 12 of Ditko's 32's. Copyright Steve Ditko. 

 Act 8, Making Lucky 13 Ditko's 32's. July 2011. Copyright Steve Ditko. 

                      # 25, March 2016. Copyright Steve Ditko. 

While Ditko's style has simplified in his later years his sense of design, composition and playfulness remains in evidence, as do his signature tropes, including the eyeball, cover montages, water towers, bizarrely attired characters and creative costume designs.  

For over six decades Steve Ditko has not only produced countless stories and invented an army of characters, but a great many of his covers are noteworthy as examples of an artist thinking about how best to craft a singular image. The choices made by Ditko are indicative of an artist who doesn't take the easy way out. It is another accomplishment that puts him in the pantheon of a true original in the world of comic art. 

Speaking of Ditko, The Amazing Spider-Talk Podcast asked my to speak about one of my favorite comic book creators. Here is the link:

In acknowledgement of two men who provided inspiration in the study of Ditko's cover-art: Michael Wileman, whose 1982 publication, A 50s Ditko's Cover Gallery, introduced me to many previously unseen Charlton covers, with fascinating commentary on each one, and Robin Snyder's The Cover Series (September 2010), showcasing a plethora of Ditko covers, some unpublished or taken from original stats.    


Michael Tuz said...

Just in time for the artist's 90th birthday; a nice selection of Ditko's imaginative, captivating covers. On the anthology titles they were often the best part of the comics that they graced.
His Pre-Code covers at Charlton appear to be (successful) attempts to emulate the cover art seen on the EC comics of the day. There's more than a hint of the layout and design techniques of Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig to be found in many of Ditko's earliest Charlton covers. That cover for Strange Suspense Stories #18 is a perfect example of this, eh... cross-pollination.
But then other covers from this period -- such as the giant worm cover to The Thing! #15 -- were pure Ditko.
Within a few years the need to imitate EC was no longer there, and Ditko's covers became subtle, moody depictions of scenes most fantastic; compositions that visually did what Lovecraft did with words...they captured the mood as much as (or more than) the appearance of the scene.
This is a gift that transcends technical skill, an ability than many admire but few ever attain.
Scrolling through these covers defines Ditko's greatness better than any words.
He is a rare and unique treasure.

Nick Caputo said...

Thank you, Michael. I have to look more closely at the Feldstein and Craig cover's of that period. I know Ditko was a comics fan and aware of many of his contemporaries efforts, and surely EC was one of them.

A rare and unique treasure indeed.

Michael Tuz said...

It seems entirely possible that Ditko had been asked or instructed to emulate those styles for the Charlton books. The name "Strange Suspense Stories" for instance, is clearly an imitation of the EC titles "Shock Suspenstories" and "Crime Suspenstories", chosen in an attempt to piggyback on the success of Bill Gaines' company.

You can't fault the editor for copying a model that works!

Robert Beerbohm said...

Always love reading your stuff Nick. One could make the case of a couple hundred more covers and stories making a "Best of" Ditko compilation. These were all fun to scroll thru!

Regarding Steve Ditko's "style" all can be traced back to WIll Eisner inspired angle shots with Ditko adding in his own visions enhancing art.

Nick Caputo said...

Thanks, Bob. I agree that Eisner was an inspiration but many other artists, from his teacher Jerry Robinson to Mort Meskin (which Ditko has acknowledged), John Severin and others not always acknowledged and in the shadows were part of his education as a young artist. What is important though is how he grew and how his work became truly unique.

-3- said...

Great selection of covers - hard to go wrong with Ditko.

Looking at the third cover, it almost seems that the figure in the background from the first cover has down his foul work and is shambling back home now.

Howard Simpson said...

Great article and compliation of covers. And a good reminder that he did horror, which I tend to forget.

Nick Caputo said...

-3- and Howard,

Thank you. I could probably make this post triple the length without sweating, but then I'd have to provide witty commentary to go along with it!

Yes, Ditko's horror work is very effective and work searching out.

Drew said...

Great blog post article on an artist I loved before I even knew his name, as a kid collecting Marvel and other comics ca. 1969-74. It was great to see the covers from Mr. Ditko’s earliest days as a comic book artist. Thank you so much.

Nick Caputo said...

Thank YOU, Drew, for the kind words. Clearly you had excellent taste from childhood!