Monday, November 12, 2018

Stan Lee:The Final Chapter (1922-2018)

Copy written by Stan Lee promoting the nascent line of Marvel Heroes.  House ad appeared in Fantastic Four # 14, May 1963. Art by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko; lettering by Artie Simek; colors by Stan Goldberg.  

With the passing of Stan Lee the Marvel Age of Comics has ended. The triumvirate of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Lee initiated an exciting, innovative and freewheeling atmosphere at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s. Lee had worked for decades as editor, writer and art director for publisher Martin Goodman's comics, previously known as Timely, followed by Atlas (before becoming Marvel) and produced countless successful, long-running titles, from Strange Tales to Millie the Model. In those years he collaborated with a plethora of talented artists: Syd Shores, Bill Everett, John Severin, Russ Heath, and one of the most prolific and versatile of them, Joe Maneely, who died a few years before the superhero boom. It was Jack Kirby, however, who rejoined Lee after Maneely's passing in 1958. He along with a small group of artists, notably Steve Ditko, began to revitalize the line, producing dynamic, entertaining and moody fantasy stories, featuring over-sized monsters and weird thrillers. 

Lee utilized tropes he honed initially in romance and humor comics, incorporating them into the new superheroes that slowly overtook the monster titles. As co-creators of that era, Kirby and Ditko were no doubt instrumental in bringing a wealth of creativity and concepts to the table. Lee, however, led the charge as promotional wizard for the Marvel line. He infused everything - cover copy, replies to fan letters, editorial pages - with a child-like enthusiasm, making him the perfect company cheerleader. Most importantly, Lee conveyed a  bemused, self-deprecating mockery in a period when other editors echoed the tone of a stern school principle. From this framework Lee molded the "Marvel Comics Group" into an entity which was not only successful in terms of the bottom line (which was the primary concern of publisher Martin Goodman) but was critically acclaimed by older fans and cognoscenti of the medium.     

There are those who have questioned Lee's persona, opining that it was all an affectation. I don't believe so. I think Lee was a big kid who never quite grew up. My conclusion is based on personal correspondence, which often displays the same jocular writing style. From 2009 or so I began to email Lee (thanks to my pal Michael J. Vassallo), sometimes on serious questions related to the field, other times in a more humorous vein. Lee always replied to my emails promptly, and they were clearly his words, not those of an assistant. That raised the bar in my respect for him, because he could easily have ignored, or had someone else reply, to my missives. I thought I'd share a few here in tribute to the man.

In this email dated March 27, 2008, Lee replies to a question I asked about how important he felt letters pages and fan interaction were:    

  Stan often seem the most energized when I sent him satirical letters. In this one, dated June 21, 2009, he follows up on a joke I made about one of my favorite goofy villains, Paste Pot Pete:    

My email to Stan on learning about Disney purchasing Marvel, dated September 8, 2009:    

Stan's reply: 

  Since Stan often employed humor in his stories so I inquired as to what comedians he admired (December 16, 2009):

 From March 6, 2010. My comment on a cameo video (was this really at the Academy Awards?) and his reply:

From June 22 & 23rd, 2011, I questioned Stan on some of the editors who he looked up to in the comics industry and received a serious and illuminating response:

I'll end with another aspect of Stan Lee that I admired, his forward-looking attitude. I wrote him lamenting the superhero movies and my belief that they would replace the comics themselves. His reply, from May 24, 2012: 

 And there you have a glimpse of Stan Lee, not under the lights of a camera or surrounded by throngs of fans at a comic con, but in one-on-one personal correspondence. I think these words gives a glimpse of his true personality, one that echoed throughout his career and brought a buoyancy to the countless comics he authored over the decades. 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Steve Ditko's Shade, The Changing Man: A Look Back

The Steve Ditko Omnibus Volume 1 starring Shade, the Changing Man reprints, for the first time, the original eight-issue run of Ditko's 1977 creation, along with the unpublished 9th installment (in addition, all of Ditko's 1970s mystery, humor, sci-fi and war output for DC is collected). A little background is necessary: when DC had a downturn in sales, management demanded massive cuts throughout their line. Contents of the completed comics (minus coloring, which was the final level of production before heading to the printers) were compiled in order to retain copyright ownership. Totaling at a massive 942 pages, 40 xerox copies were printed in two volumes as Cancelled Comics Cavalcade and sent out to contributors. An additional copy was reserved for Bob Overstreet, publisher of The Comic Book Price Guide. A few have surfaced on the secondary marketplace and can be found online. 

While the compilation and preservation of Ditko's work is laudatory, one aspect that troubled me, and which I believe is worth addressing, is the  decision to print Shade # 9 in black and white. When Ditko's unpublished Blue Beetle and Capt. Atom stories surfaced in fanzines, the addition of color in a small press publication was cost-prohibitive. In this instance the concern was of an editorial nature: to present the material without alterations (akin to a DVD release of an uncut film). However, I believe it has the exact opposite effect, since Shade was earmarked for color; the only reason it lacked hues was due to production being called to a halt. Color would invariably have enhanced the work and rendered it closer to what the artist had originally intended.                  

  House ad promoting Shade, incorporating Ditko's cover art to issue # 1, appeared in May-June 1977 dated DC comics. Lettering by Gaspar Saladino. 

The Comics Journal # 33, April 1977 heralded Ditko's new character. Was this intended to be the original cover to issue # 1? A presentation piece? Promotion art for fanzines or conventions? It includes a hand-lettered title by the artist, emphasizing the word "Changing." Perhaps the logo was a preliminary design Ditko suggested to DC? This issue also includes a review by Mike Catron: "Shade: Ditko's new book shows potential."

Gaspar Saladino was one of the top letterers in comics, often sought-after by editors at both DC and Marvel to craft attractive cover copy and logos. Saladino created the "Shade" title, while Bill Morse devised "The Changing Man." 
 DC had planned to feature Ditko's name above the title, but since this was a collaborative effort and not a sole creation, the unerringly ethical artist  vetoed that idea. From The Comics Journal # 32, January 1977.

It's clear that these stories look infinitely better on higher grade paper. In 1977 the printing quality in most comics was abysmal. Straight lines wobbled and pages bled through consistently, making it difficult to appreciate the art, and sometimes hard to read. Here we see Ditko's illustrations reproduced with a much sharper texture, achieving a more rewarding experience.

An example of DC's hardcover reprinting of Shade. Unless otherwise noted, images are taken from the original publications.  

Ditko created the character of Shade, who fits into his concept of a hero and a moral ideal. As with many Ditko protagonists, Rac Shade is a man wanted for crimes he did not commit and pursued by both criminals and the law. He wears an outfit that gives him the ability to alter his appearance based on his opponent's fears. Like his later character, Static, the device could be used for good or evil, depending on the wearer. Although there is a base on earth, much of the story takes place in other-dimensional realms. 

Ditko adds conflict to the strip in Shade's relationship with Mellu. "The Forms of Destruction," Shade the Changing Man # 2, September 1977. Michael Fleisher dialogue, Bill Morse lettering, Liz Berube colors.   

Ditko's plot is thick with characters and concepts - perhaps a little too dense in places - but he devises a number of interesting twists and turns throughout the series. Shade's love interest, Mellu, is a strong, independent woman. A Government agent, she blames Shade for the crippling of her parents, but harbors a modicum of doubt over his apparent guilt. While others may have played this plot-line out interminably, Ditko wisely resolves it in the 6th issue. 

   A trio of bizarre villains crafted by Ditko. From top to bottom, Form, Sude and Khaos.  

Ditko's visual concepts stand out in his design of villains such as Form: a woman who can change into a misty substance, Sude: a large mechanical face with arms and enormous teeth, and Khaos: a distorted figure who represents anarchy. 

  Ditko's use of lighting for dramatic effect is evocative of cinematographers such as Karl Struss and reminiscent of his friend and fellow artistic powerhouse, Wally Wood. Image from DC's hardcover edition.  

While Shade has a lot to offer, there are a few drawbacks. I find Shade's visual signature of "changing" his appearance and frightening his foes lacking in drama. A big fist and a scary face can only go so far. One of the most inventive designers in comics, Ditko's costuming of Shade lacks his usual flair (his villains, as seen above, are much more dramatic visually). Michael Fleisher wrote the dialogue for every issue, which is at best workmanlike (the author stated in interviews that he didn't particularly care for the assignment). while I've enjoyed his solo writing on strips such as Jonah Hex, it's unfortunate DC didn't employ an author sympathetic to Ditko's philosophy; someone who could have invested as much into the dialogue as Ditko did his plotting and artwork.

Shade was reprinted in other countries, including Brazil and France. O Mutante cover from Shade # 6, May 1978. Super Heroes image is reworked from the splash page of Shade # 3, November 1977. 

This was essentially Ditko's last hurrah at DC in terms of investing effort in his own concepts. As the article by Joe Brancatelli below reveals, Ditko was growing disgusted with the policies of the major companies, who wanted their product to fit into a comfortable niche. This was anathema to Ditko, who thrived on seeking out new concepts to explore. After the cancellation of Shade most of Ditko's new creations would go the independent route, his work for DC and Marvel concentrating primarily on pre-existing characters. Speedball, created in 1988, was an exception, although a number of hands were involved in the character's development, which lead to a retreading of the teenage superhero motif.  

Joe Brancatelli's column, The Comic Books, from Creepy # 93, November 1977:
                                       DITKO—AS ALWAYS 
 It always seems that no matter how often the four-color comic book business goes into a creative nosedive, Steve Ditko is there with-a new concept, a new character or some new idea. Lately, Ditko has been plying his trade at DC, plotting and drawing a book called. Shade, The Changing Man.. Three issues into the book, Shade doesn't look to be another Spider Man. or another Dr. Strange, or even another Mr. A, but it is easily the most intriguing comic on the market. It's got everything a classic Ditko series has: a character, who is unalterably good, somehow finding himself in combat with organized society; an underlying battle between good and evil; philosophic musings about society, corruption and idealism; and a bunch of typically Ditkoish characters, plot twists, strange and exotic dimensions and artwork. And if the art itself isn't quite up to Ditko's usual exacting standards, it's -improving immensely with each issue.
Unfortunately, the coloring on the book is atrocious ("I always give them color guides," Ditko says, "and they never follow them.") and Ditko's work has never prospered on the smaller pages of today's comic books. "I've plotted up to issue 15 of the book," Ditko says, "but I don't know anything about the book except for the fact that (Mike) Fleischer is writing the sixth issue. I don't know anything at all about sales, either. DC doesn't tell you anything. For all I know it could be a big bomb." Always fiercely outspoken about industry matters, Ditko claims DC editors have been forcing Shade into the standard superhero niches at every opportunity. "I always try to do something different. I never wanted Shade to be just another costumed superhero. I'd have done it differently, but they (DC) want to stay with the hackneyed old stuff. "You look at the long-range prospects of the character and you know Shade isn't the kind of book you can do in 17 pages an issue. But after a while, I just blank out after I take the book in to the office." "You learn," he says bitterly, "that all they ever want is a half-assed reprint of the story you did for them last week. You learn that if you want to survive you have to put up a wall and stay away from all the comic people before they make you as dull and repetitive as they are."

Shade the Changing Man was not only a victim of economics but an example of the limited 17-page format that plagued creators (including Jack Kirby) in the 1970s. Less than a decade later high quality, longer, complete stories (called Graphic Novels) became part of the comics landscape. Unfortunately, the formats that would have been perfect for Ditko's work were reserved for fan favorites such as Frank Miller, John Byrne or Alan Moore. If you were not the current flavor-of-the-month Marvel or DC had no intention of spending money on what they believed to be a money-losing proposition. It took over 30 years for DC to publish a collection of Ditko's work for the company, including Shade. That is to be commended, but imagine if the artist was given the opportunity years ago to complete the Shade saga? What might that have looked like? 

  Ditko revisited Shade for the final time when he agreed to provide an illustration for Who's Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe # 20, October 1986. 

The Steve Ditko Omnibus starring Shade is available for purchase at Amazon: 

Saturday, July 7, 2018

S. Ditko 1927-2018: An Independent Mind

"The creator seeks worthy values. He has the drive and ambition and is willing to struggle with no  guarantees of success or security. He offers his best for all others to consider - to accept or reject." Steve Ditko, Laszlo's Hammer, 1992

The thinking artist. A page from Lazlo's Hammer, (1992) which illustrates Ditko's storytelling process.  

A fiercely independent man, Steve Ditko walked a path distinctly his own through the comic book industry for over 60 years. Early on Ditko distinguished himself as a versatile artist, drawing horror, science fiction, crime, mystery, war, western, romance and humor stories. In itself worthy of praise, but Ditko transcended mere technical proficiency by infusing his work with a deeply-held, unwavering philosophical ideology. That aspect, above all others, wove its way throughout his storied career.      

Captain Atom, which debuted at Charlton in1960, was Ditko's first superhero strip. the character was created and written by Joe Gill and  designed by Ditko. Ditko's tribute to Charlton writer Joe Gill appeared in Steve Ditko's 160 Page Package, 1999. 

In the years (and decades) that followed, Ditko created, co-created, or re-created a litany of heroes, including Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Blue Beetle, The Question, The Creeper, Hawk and the Dove, The Destructor, Stalker, The Void, Killjoy, Shade, Starman, The Missing Man, Speedball, The Mocker, Static, Miss Eerie, Madman and many others. Ditko's striking designs made his characters instantly recognizable. Just as important was Ditko's ability to bring characters to life with gestures, body language and facial expressions. He was one of the masters in that category.    

A sampling of Ditko's costuming. From top to bottom: Spider-Man, certainly his most recognizable design, rendered in cartoons, movies, computer games, tee shirts, toys and other merchandising; Doctor Strange; The Blue Beetle (a long-running character Ditko overhauled in 1966); The Creeper; Shade, the Changing Man; Static and The Baffler.         

In 1967 Ditko broke new ground by creating Mr. A, a character copyrighted in his name. Lacking either a costume or special powers, only Mr. A's face was concealed. Freed from the confines of the Comics Code Authority, Ditko's moral avenger took on the underworld and criminals in a black and white world, both literally and figuratively (Mr. A, quite deliberately, never appeared in a color comic). Featured in fanzines and independent publications on and off for over 50 years, co-publisher Robin Snyder has continued to release reprint and unpublished material starring Ditko's seminal hero. 

                       Mr. A illustration from Eon # 3, 1968

Ditko's characters inhabited a world where actions have consequences. He believed in heroism, justice and individual rights, which was echoed in all his fictional constructs. He was unwavering in his convictions and refused assignments that didn't adhere to his standards. He avoided the spotlight and had no interest in being a celebrity. To some that made him an oddball, a kook, or worse. What mattered to Ditko - what he ferociously embraced - was the work. It was this single-minded intensity that made him a compelling figure.  

Ditko was an inspiration from my earliest days. His art spoke to me on a very personal level. I'm glad I was able to correspond with him these past years. He was a man of letters, more comfortable, I suspect, writing than speaking. As many familiar with my blog know, I've written much about Ditko's work these past years. That will most assuredly continue. 

Thank you, Steve, for the innumerable hours of crafting stories with pencil, ink and paper. Most importantly, thanks for the thought you put into so much of your work.

Dedicated with respect and admiration to Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder.          

My friend Barry Pearl has also written a touching tribute on his blog:

Thursday, June 28, 2018

55 Summers Ago: Fantastic Four Annual #1

At this time of year my thoughts often drift back to an afternoon in late June and a classroom in Brooklyn, New York. As I sat at my desk I stared longingly at the outside world through an expansive open window - a perfect day in my mind’s eye. The semester was dwindling down, final exams were concluding, and the months of July and August beckoned, when the days seemed endless. Summer meant exploring parks, back yards and city streets with friends; baseball and stoop ball, collecting gum cards, flying wooden airplanes and rushing to purchase Ice Cream from the Mr. Softee truck when its familiar melody wafted through the air. Sometimes it was an immense pleasure just to stare at the clouds above as time stood still. 

Trips to local candy stores (for those too young to know, those establishments sold loose candy, soda, rubber balls, newspapers, magazines and, of course, comics) offered numerous surprises: June, July and August brought an array of 25 cent, triple-length Annuals comprising Marvel’s top titles: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Journey into Mystery with Thor (there was also the popular Millie the Model, but I didn't pay attention to it back then). The Bullpen Bulletins' page and Marvel checklist told us what Annuals to expect each month during the summer, but we didn't know what week they would arrive, so anticipation was high with each visit to the newsstand.

While most superhero fans paid little attention to the teen/humor titles they were best sellers at Marvel for many years. Millie the Model starred in 12 Annuals, from 1962-1975, a pretty strong run. Patsy and Hedy were not as fortunate, headlining a single Annual, but it was on sale the same day as FF Annual # 1, so I featured it here. Al Hartley cover-art. Sam Rosen lettering and Stan Goldberg colors.     

Sgt. Fury King-Size Special # 4, August 1968. Dick Ayers pencils; John Severin inks; Sam Rosen lettering; Marie Severin possible coloring. 

Strange Tales Annual # 2. Jack Kirby pencils; Sol Brodsky possible inks, Artie Simek lettering; Stan Goldberg colors.  

Strange Tales Annual # 2, on-sale in July, 1962, was Marvel's first 25 center to showcase superheroes. The Human Torch, who headlined the monthly comic, was teamed with Spider-Man in an 18 page story that failed to live up to expectations - even with the considerable talents of Lee, Kirby and Ditko (the remainder of the issue featured reprints of pre-hero monster tales). Fantastic Four Annual # 1, which debuted the following month, was a superior product in both content and presentation, and is deserving of a closer look.

My first encounter with FF Annual # 1 took place when it was reprinted in its entirety eight years later, in September, 1970 (cover-dated December). John Romita pencils; John Verpoorten inks; Sam Rosen lettering.  

 The iconic corner insignia depicted head or full figure drawings of Marvel's characters, with the company logo and price underneath it; this allowed consumers to easily identify a favorite title on the crowded newsstands.It was Steve Ditko who suggested the idea to Stan Lee, which was approved by publisher Martin Goodman and implemented across the entire line on comics dated May/June 1963. It may be surprising to some in the modern era of corporate titles and specific duties, but the small-time operation that was 1960s Marvel allowed for innovations such as Ditko's. The informal approach was akin to a group of musicians who contribute in various ways that are often unknown but add immeasurably to the finished product.The first Fantastic Four Annual utilized the same images of the quartet that adorned the monthly comic. Jack Kirby pencils and possible inks. 

Who else to feature in the first FF Annual other than their primary antagonist, the Sub-Mariner? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby upped their game considerably, crafting a special 37 page extravaganza with Namor waging war against the surface world. Lady Dorma returns from the 1940s Timely era (originally Namor's cousin, the character was reinvented as love interest and rival to Sue Storm for Sub-Mariner's affections), Warlord Krang is introduced as an antagonist, lusting for both the throne and Lady Dorma. Namor's origin is retold and expanded, with his homeland (never named by creator Bill Everett) now established as Atlantis. Lee and Kirby are admirably supported by Dick Ayers, whose inking brought substance and personality to Kirby's pencils. Artie Simek's stylish lettering and Stan Goldberg's effective coloring added the finishing touches.    

A close examination of page 37, panel 4, reveals that the top portion of Namor was redrawn, most likely by production assistant Sol Brodsky. Kirby's original illustration apparently had Sub-Mariner knocking citizens around a little too forcefully for the Comics Code.The sloppy movement lines and some of the bystanders, including the woman in the background, are clearly touched up.  

                                           The Skrulls. Kirby inks?. Ray Holloway lettering. 

 .                                    Dr. Doom. Brodsky inks? Ray Holloway lettering. 

The Mad (quite honestly I think he looks more perturbed) Thinker. Dick Ayers inks. Artie Simek lettering.  

                                     The Puppet Master. Kirby inks?. Ray Holloway lettering.  

FF Annual # 1 included a plethora of special features, such as the 11 page "Gallery of the Fantastic Four's Most Famous Foes!" Every villain up to FF # 15 appeared, with sensational Kirby artwork and dramatic copy by Stan Lee. To my eye it appears that Kirby inked the majority of illustrations, although Ayers clearly inked "The Mad Thinker" and possibly "Dr. Doom." Sol Brodsky's inking bore similarities to Kirby's own (what I've termed) "sparse" style; he may have inked The Sub-Mariner illustration. Stan Goldberg is believed to have colored the entire issue.

(for a detailed analysis of Kirby's inking techniques see my earlier post, "Kirby inking Kirby":    

  Other special features in the Annual include a two page "Questions and Answers about the Fantastic Four," which revealed heretofore unknown facts about the powers and personal lives of the FF, and a schematic of the Baxter Building. 

"The Fabulous Fantastic Four Meet Spider-Man!" is an expanded retelling of the FF's first encounter with Spidey in Amazing Spider-Man # 1. Inking Jack Kirby's pencils, Steve Ditko kept Spider-Man's look consistent, fixing errors in costuming that often occurred when Kirby drew the character, such as incorrect web-lines, lack of underarm webbing and a missing spider symbol on his chest. Ray Holloway lettering.  

The Annual concluded with a truncated reprint of Fantastic Four # 1 (the first twelve pages), published just two years earlier. A number of alterations were made in order to maintain consistency with their present-day incarnation. The Thing and Mr. Fantastic were slightly redrawn, but the biggest change was in the depiction of the Torch. 
The Human Torch was originally drawn as a featureless blob of flame, as seen in Fantastic Four # 1, November 1961 (as reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, 1987). Stan Lee script, Jack Kirby pencils, George Klein inks, Artie Simek letters. 

For the 1963 reprint Lee had the Torch redrawn (Sol Brodsky being the likely culprit) conforming to a more human appearance familiar to readers since issue # 3.     

This was the first of many exciting annuals. In future years, special events in the FF alone included the origin of Dr. Doom, the wedding of Reed and Sue, the re-introduction of the Original Human Torch; the announcement of Sue's pregnancy (although, like early television, the word was deemed unsuitable; it was simply stated that Sue "is going to have a baby") and the child's birth the following year. 

While page lengths and special features changed from year to year depending on time constraints (new stories became much shorter, with reprints filling out the 1965-1966 specials) from 1963-1968 Marvel's Annuals (or "King-Size Specials" as they were sometimes called) showcased the work of numerous talented craftsmen, including  Lee, Kirby, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, Don Heck, Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Larry Lieber, Al Hartley, Stan Goldberg and Marie Severin. 

John Romita's stunning cover to Amazing Spider-Man King-Size Special # 5, Summer 1968. If you were a kid staring at this image in a candy store would YOU pass it up??

By 1969 Marvel's Annuals consisted almost entirely of reprint material and were even withdrawn from the schedule for several years. When they returned in the mid-1970's many  were lacking the imagination, excitement and creative punch that exemplified their earlier efforts. I'll always be grateful, though, for those magical moments when I walked into a candy store and discovered a brand new Annual awaiting me - a clear sign that those precious days of summer had not yet come to a close.            

What better way to conclude this post than by showcasing the cover of that magical first FF Annual? Kirby and Ayers art; Artie Simek letters; Stan Goldberg colors. It went on sale at most newsstands on July 2, 1963. Were YOU there??