Friday, April 20, 2018

Ditko and Wood

Steve Ditko and Wally Wood exist in a rarefied estate of comic book hierarchy. Their body of work has been admired and critiqued by fans and historians in numerous articles, books and online forums. Separately they each garnered accolades and showed great promise from the outset; Ditko in countless horror, mystery and sci-fi stories for Charlton; Wood for his superlative artistry throughout EC Comics line, particularly his ornate depiction of spaceships and interplanetary flights of fancy. Both Ditko and Wood were non-conformists with a strong sense of independence, which by the mid-1960s led them to seek out avenues outside the dictates and constraints of mainstream comics where they did not have to acquiesce to an editorial status quo.   

Wood led the charge with his self-published magazine witzend, where Ditko (who was reportedly friends with Wood) created a character he fully owned in its third issue: Mr. A (1967). The two had joined forces professionally a year earlier, when Wood sought out artists to fill the pages of Tower Comics' adventure line. Wood was hired by publisher Harry Shorten to package the titles, which - priced at 25 cents - were double the size of an average 12 cent comic. Wood contributed profusely as writer/plotter, artist and inker, but even with a staff of assistants he was unable to handle the load. In addition to Ditko, Wood called on many highly-respected professionals to illustrate T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Dynamo and Noman, including Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Dick Ayers, Reed Crandall, Paul Reinman and Chic Stone. 

The auspicious debut of the Ditko/Wood combo began at Tower Comics in 1966; from the onset their pairing resulted in an undeniable synergy. The artists continued to partner sporadically in the ensuing years for a variety of publishers, with results that were always interesting and frequently quite stunning. I believe the following review, in which I chronicle every Ditko and Wood story produced in the 1960s and 1970s*, provides tangible evidence why attention to the work of these two remarkable craftsman is warranted.  

*The format I've employed is chronological, and based primarily on cover-dates, although in the instance of The Stalker I decided to discuss all four issues consecutively. Job numbers also come into play at times, as I will explain in the body of the text in greater detail

"Dynamo Meets the Amazing Andor," inking assistance by Dan Adkins. Tim Battersby worked on the script (per his work records) with Wood possibly involved. Dynamo # 1, August 1966.

The first issue Ditko penciled and Wood inked was either Dynamo # 1 or T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 7. Both are cover-dated August, which means they were on newsstands in May of 1966, but since Tower didn't employ job numbers on their published stories (often seen on splash pages and used in an editorial capacity to keep track of jobs) there is no way to ascertain their premiere undertaking. I've chosen the Dynamo splash because of Ditko's striking point-of-view shot, looking up from the manhole, a perspective that may have been influenced by Orson Wells' cinematic masterpiece (studied by many artists in the field) Citizen Kane. Wood lends the perfect touch with his precise inking. 

Another reason I led off with this story is - quite frankly - purely visual. The "Ditko/Wood" signpost that is illuminated on the splash page is symbolic of the two artists symmetry in graphic storytelling. Ditko's signature showed up in a similar manner on a Charlton cover years earlier, so it's a distinct possibility Ditko playfully added the credits here. 

  Ditko's fight-scene choreography has been admired by many comic book aficionados, and with good reason, as page 8 from "Dynamo Meets the Amazing Andor" illustrates.   

Panels from page 8 and 9 and the entirety of page 10; "A Matter of Life and Death," T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 7, August 1966. In an unusual move for the time, Dan Adkins had the idea of killing one of the Thunder Agents. After receiving approval from editor Samm Schwartz, Ditko was assigned to the story. Who else could convey emotions of disbelief, anger and grief with a sense of craft and authenticity? Adkins script, layouts and inking assistance. 
Dynamic splash page art showcasing Ditko's poses and command of anatomy combined with Wood's lush inking. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 12, April 1967.  

One of the Thunder Agents played largely for laughs was the non-super powered Weed. Wood reportedly had a fondness for the character and his appearance was even patterned after the artist. Ditko who had a good feel for humor, exaggerated postures and hand gestures throughout the story. Wood imbued The Iron Maiden, a voluptuous femme fatal, with a strong dose of what all his women appeal. "Once Upon a Time..," Dynamo # 4, June 1967.

Credits were occasionally hidden in backgrounds, as seen in this panel. Ditko's name appears on a billboard (as does RR for Ralph Reese); Wood's on a bus. Wood's then-wife, Tatjana's name is partially visible on the side of a building. Tatjana was a talented colorist and likely did the honors on this story.      
The adventures of Dynamo were not always taken as seriously as some of his super-heroic peers, an influence imposed by Wood. Here is another example of Ditko character-types populating a story, including satirical beatniks and mobsters. "Return Engagement," T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 14, July 1967. Wood layouts and possible script, with inking assistance by Dan Adkins. 

While this Dynamo story is drawn solely by Ditko I decided to include it because Wood may have been involved as plotter (with Roger Brand scripting) as posited on the Grand Comic Book Database. If so, it's still an example of the two working together (and besides, I liked the page so much I HAD to share it!). "Dream of Doom!," T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents # 16, October 1967. 

"The Wizard of Dark Mountain!," Bhob Stewart, script and layouts; Steve Ditko finished pencils; Wally Wood inks, with possible assistance from Dom Sileo and others, Bill Yoshida lettering. Jungle Jim # 22, February 1969.  

Ditko and Wood's next collaborative effort took a circuitous route to Charlton comics. On his blog Bhob Stewart explained that Jungle Jim was originally an assignment Wood produced for King Features, the newspaper syndicate who decided to start a comic book line utilizing some of their popular characters. Unimpressed with sales figures, management decided to drop the line, selling off the remaining material to Charlton. Stewart recounts that, with a deadline fast-approaching, Wood recruited a number of artists to get the stories completed, including Ditko:  

  Wood turned that one ("The Wizard of Dark Mountain") over to Steve Ditko, who followed my rough layouts with such precision that he carefully included every detail. I saw that he had made a few slight alterations and improvements. On page five, panel five, I had Jungle Jim holding Rima’s ass as he gave her a boost into the ventilating shaft; Ditko gave it a simple change to make it acceptable to the King editors. On page three, panel four, my rough of the trio rock climbing was awkward, and he easily solved the problem by repositioning the characters.   

You can read a more detailed account of Stewart's work with Wood on Jungle Jim here:

Jim makes a brilliant observation on this page from "Reptile God of Lost Island."  Ditko and Wood illustrated three stories in Jungle Jim # 27 (December, 1969).  Charlton had been producing all-new material by staff writer Joe Gill and artist Pat Boyette, beginning with # 23 and continuing until issue # 26 (for reasons lost to the ages Charlton did not publish the remainder of its King inventory until nearly a year later. Go figure!)

 "The Beast Man and the Man Beast" is the second Jim story featured in JJ # 27. Ditko may have only contributed layouts or breakdowns, with finished art by Wood and other unknown assistants. I see less of Ditko's expressive faces and figures here, although Jim's pose in panel four and the villain's fingers in panel five confirm his input. 

     "Winged Fury," the final Jim tale appearing in issue # 27, has a more pronounced Ditko presence, from the characters poses to the bat-winged creature lurking above the heroes. Bill Yoshida lettering on all stories. 

 Heroes, Inc. presents Cannon, 1969. Story/inks by Wood; pencils by Ditko.  

In 1969 Wally Wood produced a comic book for the publisher of Overseas Weekly, where he had created Sally Forth and other comic strips for Military News, a paper distributed to G.I.'s. and circulated on Army bases. Heroes, Inc.  was not restricted by Comics Code regulations and included depictions of violence and sexuality. The stories and characters were all copyrighted in Wood's name, which was another incentive for the artist. Wood recruited Ditko to pencil the 12 page lead feature, Cannon, a soldier turned into an unemotional fighting machine and sent on missions by the US government. Freed from the confines of the Code, Ditko and Wood turned in one of their most impressive pencil/ink jobs.     

From 1970-1973 Ditko and Wood went their separate ways creatively; Ditko working primarily for Charlton while writing and drawing Mr. A, Avenging World and other independent comics appearing in fanzines and small press publications; Wood was busy inking stories for DC, drawing and occasionally writing material for Warren Publishing's black and white magazines (Creepy, Eerie, Vampirilla) and producing creator-owned tales in witzend and for overseas publications.   

The impressive splash page to The Destructor # 1, February 1975. Inking assistance by Paul Kirchner; lettering by John Duffy; coloring by Bhob Stewart.  

Mobsters, heroes and classic storytelling. "Deathgrip!," The Destructor # 2, April 1975. Archie Goodwin script; Paul Kirchner inking assistance; Dave Hunt letterer.  

  From his dark glasses to the metallic hands, Deathgrip is reminiscent of the insane scientist Dr. Gogol, as played by Peter Lorre in the 1935 thriller Mad Love. Perhaps author Goodwin suggested the visual reference to Ditko?

In late 1974 Ditko and Wood were reunited under the auspices of Atlas-Seaboard, a new comics company overseen by former Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. In an effort to get some of the top creators in the field to join, Goodman offered higher rates and a return of original art pages. Ditko penciled a few titles for the company, notably The Destructor, a teenage superhero with a hard edge. Ditko was certainly no stranger to teen heroes, having previously crafted both Spider-Man and The Hawk and Dove. Written by Archie Goodwin (who Ditko had worked with at Warren, illustrating black and white horror/thrillers in a medley of breathtaking ink/wash techniques), Wood embellished the first two issues with his usual expertise.

     "Quest for a Stolen Soul," Paul Levitz script, Stalker # 1, July 1975

     "Darkling Death at World's End Sea," Stalker # 2, September 1975

   "The Freezing Flames of the Burning Isle," Stalker # 3, November 1975 

"Invade the Inferno," Stalker # 4, January 1976. All stories written by creator Paul Levitz, with inking assistance from Paul Kirchner, Al Sirois and Wayne Howard. Lettering by Ben Oda.  

DC Editor and former Wood studio partner Joe Orlando corralled Ditko and Wood to illustrate Stalker, Paul Levitz's sword and sorcery/fantasy hero. Playing to the strength of both artists, Levitz crafted a world populated with demonic creatures, beautiful women, ornate castles and fantastic adventures. Unfortunately the series was cancelled after four issues, a victim of both the comic book glut and an overall slump in industry sales. 

On Paul Levitz's blog you can discover more about the character's origins and how fandom was miraculously graced with a 4th issue:

"Love is a Dandy!," Steve Skeates script; Milt Snapinn lettering, Paul Kirshner inking assistance, Plop # 16, September 1975.

Wood, who had drawn and designed a few bizarre covers for Plop, Joe Orlando's humor title, was teamed with Ditko on Steve Skeates unusual tale of a young man who takes his love of horticulture to a whole new level!    

"The Gnark is Coming! The Gnark is Coming!," Steve Skeates script; Milt Snapinn lettering, Amazing World of DC Comics # 13, November 1976

Ditko and Wood's last published work for DC appeared in Amazing World of DC Comics, a fanzine produced by the company to promote their line. The story was originally intended to appear in Plop, a title that was due to be cancelled. While Ditko had only drawn a few humor strips in mainstream comics, Wood was revered for his madcap parodies of comics, movies and advertising (teamed in its early years with the brilliant satirist Harvey Kurtzman) in Mad comics and its later incarnation as a magazine.

Untitled Cannon story; script by Wally Wood. Heroes, Inc. Presents Cannon # 2, 1976. 

The Ditko-Wood team ends, appropriately, on one of their final published stories, a return engagement with Wood's creation, Cannon. Published seven years after the first issue, the dimensions changed from a color comic to a magazine-sized black and white publication. Bob Layton, who became a well-known inker, artist and writer for DC, Marvel and other companies, published this issue (under his CPL/Gang Publications banner) which was sold through mail order, in comic shops and at conventions.

Ditko and Wood did not cross paths professionally after 1976. Ditko was busy with assignments at Charlton, DC (where he wrote and illustrated several "Creeper" stories in World's Finest Comics and created Shade, the Changing Man), science-fiction tales for Questar and returned to freelance for Marvel after over a decade's absence; Wood also penciled and inked various DC stories but one of his most accomplished projects, The King of The World, a book-length fantasy extravaganza, was published in 1978. Tragically, Wood died by his own hand on November 2, 1981. 

For over a decade two extraordinary stylists and creative powerhouses fused their storytelling aptitude with impressive results. It is a testament to their imagination, creativity and purity of craft that the work of Steve Ditko and Wally Wood continues to be studied, analyzed and dissected. Like those who rise to the top in any field - authors, directors, musicians, actors, athletes - they invite further investigation into the creative process.        

    A fond farewell to the Ditko-Wood team. Final panel of Stalker # 1, July 1975


Friday, April 13, 2018

Chuck McCann: In Tribute

For those of us who were children of the 1960s and resided in the New York City area, Chuck McCann was a familiar name. The popular television shows he hosted (Laurel and Hardy and Chuck and Let's Have Fun on WPIX-Channel 11 and The Chuck McCann Show on WNEW-Channel 5), epitomized the frenetic and raw nature of a blossoming medium. As McCann explained in his book Chuck McCann's Let's Have Fun! Scrapbook (2012):

You have to keep in mind that in those days nobody really knew television. Everybody was flying by the seat of their pants.
From his earliest days in show business Chuck had met and apprenticed with master puppeteer Paul Ashley, who was an instrumental part of many early children's and adult television shows.


   A flyer for the team of Paul Ashley and Chuck McCann, who played many venues together before teaming up on TV. Ashley's skill at both caricature (Laurel and Hardy, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton and Ed Sullivan are a few that can be seen here) and original creations left an indelible impression on this author's early years and has fostered a life-long love of the art of puppetry. Largely forgotten, Paul Ashley's work in early television deserves a critical study. Image from Chuck McCann's Let's Have Fun! Scrapbook, as are most of the other Chuck-related pictures here.   

One of Paul Ashley's puppets starred in an early TV show from 1950-1954. Rootie Kazootie was popular enough to star in several Dell comic books in that same period. Rootie Kazootie (Four Color) # 415, August 1952. Writer unknown, Dan Gormley art. Image from Comic Book Plus.      

Chuck's first foray in a starring role on television (accompanied by Paul Ashley and his puppets) was as host of The Puppet Hotel, a short-lived program on WNTA-TV, Channel 13 (precursor to what would become public television station WNET) that ran from November 28, 1959 until January 16, 1960.     

When offered a contract to work at WPIX Chuck came up with the idea for a show. A huge fan of the comedy team Laurel and Hardy since he was a child (he had been in contact with Stan Laurel since he was 12 years old) he suggested a program where he hosted their films, using segments with puppets to round-out the show. WPIX had been using the shorts in rain delays or when they had to fill time before their next program on New York Yankees broadcasts; later on they employed the Abbott and Costello Show in the same manner (many of us are familiar with the announcer stating: "We now join Abbott and Costello, already in progress.."). Laurel and Hardy and Chuck debuted on September 7, 1960 - which initiated nearly a decade of tomfoolery with Chuck at the helm.

 Chuck holding the brilliant craftsmanship of Paul Ashley in his hands. Chuck did the voices of both Stan and Ollie in-between segments of the boys films. According to Chuck, Stan Laurel was pleased that the team was being introduced to a new audience on television. 

Chuck was soon asked to host another program on Sunday mornings to compete with Sonny Fox's popular Wonderama on rival network WNEW channel 5. Let's Have Fun was first broadcast on September 18, 1960 and would run FOUR hours live, with segments featuring cartoons (Popeye, Superman); classic comedy (The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello and, of course, Laurel and Hardy) and Serials such as Flash Gordon) giving the host a break between comedy sketches and puppetry. It was a grueling work-load but Chuck was a performer up to the task and Let's Have Fun quickly became a ratings success.

A fortuitous event opened up another avenue for the comedian to experiment with, as Chuck recounts in his book:
Then, one day in 1962, I was blessed when I learned that the Daily News - which was the parent company that owned the station I was working for - was going on strike. Since the paper had the rights to use strips that appeared in the Sunday "funnies", the idea came that I could read them on the air and keep our viewers up to date on what their favorite characters were doing, just as Mayor LaGuardia had done on radio during a newspaper deliverymen's strike in 1945.     

 New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-1945) read the comics on his WNYC Talk of the People radio show in July, 1945, which inspired Chuck to do the same on Television almost two decades later.

Since television is a visual medium Chuck decided to dress up as some of the characters he was reading, including "Dick Tracy', "Little Orphan Annie" and "Dondi". For "Terry and the Pirates Chuck opted not to caricature the strips hero but instead parodied his femme fatale nemesis, the Dragon Lady. Well, not exactly. Chuck thought THAT would stretch credibility a little too far, so he created the Dragon Lady's mother!

      Chuck surrounded by Channel 11's line-up of kid's show hosts: Captain Jack McCarthy (top); Officer Joe Bolton (right) and Bozo the Clown (Bill Britten)
Chuck departed Let's Have Fun and WPIX in August, 1965 due to managerial interference. Without skipping a beat he moved to WNEW-Channel 5 in September of that year. The Chuck McCann Show aired weekdays and Saturdays with the same basic format until September 9, 1966. The format changed to once again spotlight Chuck's favorite comedians as Chuck McCann's Laurel and Hardy Show and ran until June 9, 1966. While he worked on other children's programs from time to time, Chuck became a versatile performer, appearing as a character actor in movies and on countless television shows, doing commercials and utilizing his mimicry and vocal skills for Saturday morning cartoons and animated features.

 In 1994-95 Chuck provided the voice of the Thing for the animated Fantastic Four cartoon, which included an adaptation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Galactus story-line. Page from Fantastic Four # 48, March 1966. Joe Sinnott inks, Artie Simek lettering.   
For over five decades Chuck McCann gave children a reason to smile and never appeared to lose the child in himself, which is an accomplishment in itself. By all accounts he was a kind and gentle soul, which came through in his on-screen persona. Chuck McCann died on April 8th 2018, at the age of 83. For the majority of those years he put on a happy face for all the world to enjoy. 

Click the link below to see the opening of Let's Have Fun and the closing segment of The Chuck MCCann show, which includes a magical moment of Chuck outside the WNEW studios greeting fans. It perfectly captures the charm and innocence of a bygone era.