Steve Ditko is a comic book artist most noted for, in the early 1960s, co-creating with Stan Lee for Marvel Comics both Amazing Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. But before that, Ditko spent the 1950s honing his artistic ability drawing dozens and dozens of comic book stories for various publishers. Fantagraphics Books, publisher of "The Complete Peanuts," "Prince Valiant" and many other pristine compilation series, have been collecting Ditko’s early work and presenting them chronologically in "The Steve Ditko Archives."
The current release, Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 3, presents the work that Ditko did for Charlton Comics from 1957-58. Charlton Comics, according to the introduction by "Ditko historian" Blake Bell, was known as a producer of the lowest-quality comics. They relied on bad paper, low pay ($6.50 a page!), low-quality stories and art. So why did Ditko work for a company that clearly didn’t care about comics? The answer is simple: As long as the content didn’t hurt sales (and was approved by the newly established Comics Code Authority), he had all the creative freedom he craved.
The stories and covers in this volume are from the comic anthology series "Tales Of The Mysterious Traveler," "Out Of This World," "Mysteries Of Unexplored Worlds," "Strange Suspense Stories," "Unusual Tales," and "This Magazine Is Haunted." As you can probably tell by the titles, the tales have a "Twilight Zone"-like feel with twist endings that usually feature some nefarious character getting his or her comeuppance. Because of the generally poor writing and even worse editing, many stories are bland and not very satisfying but the Ditko artwork holds your attention.
Ditko does an amazing job of illustrating a wide variety of stories just exploding with imagination. Period pieces, exotic locales, aliens, robots – it’s clear Ditko is having a ball with all these tests of his artistic skill. His figure work is wonderful, including expressive gestures and facial expressions of people of all ages (love his old men!) and all shapes and sizes. He has fun with the "hosts" of a couple of the comics – ‘"The Mysterious Traveler" and "Mr. Haunt" – finding clever ways of inserting them into the stories they narrate. While all have some artistic merit, a few of the titles in which Ditko outdoes himself include "From All Our Darkrooms" (about aliens who try to invade our world through photo negatives); "The Strange Fate Of Captain Fenton" (a tale of a mean sea captain who thinks he’s found paradise on a remote island); "The Sultan" (about the greedy ruler of a Mideast land); and "The Man Who Changed Bodies" (about a luckless bum who gets to change places with a wealthy businessman.)
Fantagraphics Books does its usual outstanding job with this volume. Printed on a nice thick stock, this comic-book-sized hardcover reprints Ditko’s art with rich, vivid colors and sometimes, with the covers, reprints the original inked art along side the color version. This series is a lasting legacy for a great artist who could have been lost in the past but whose work has been collected and preserved for us to enjoy over 50 years later.
I look forward to the next volume.
Rich Clabaugh is a Monitor staff artist.