Last week it was announced that legendary comic book creator Steve Ditko had passed away in late June. He was 90 years old.
Ditko is best known for having co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s. However, he was actually a prolific creator who worked on innumerable titles for dozens of publishers, as well as a number of creator-owned self-published projects, during a career that lasted 65 years, from 1953 until the time of his death.
I wanted to pay tribute to Ditko, but I never worked with him or met him, and so outside of a brief correspondence with him several years ago I cannot say I knew him. Certainly I am ill-equipped to assemble a comprehensive overview & analysis of his career such as the one that appeared in The Comics Journal.
It then occurred to me to look at one period, one facet of Ditko’s career that especially appealed to me, and explain why I held it in such high personal regard. I am going to take a brief look at Ditko’s work on the Charlton Comics horror anthologies of the 1970s.
About a week ago I happened to be chatting with comic book creator Dean Haspiel. During our talk, we briefly touched on the subject of horror comics. I broached the opinion that horror is a genre that is often difficult to utilize effectively in the medium of comic books. Haspiel appeared to concur, and suggested it can be difficult for many artists to effectively utilize the pacing and storytelling and layouts necessary to convey true horror & suspense, with many instead relying on gore & violence.
(I’m paraphrasing what Dean said, so don’t take any of the above for a direct quote!)
Just a few hours later the news broke of Steve Ditko’s passing. It immediately hit me square in the face that one of the few comic book artists who did genuinely excel at illustrating horror material was none other than Ditko himself. Certainly that talent was frequently on display in his work for Charlton.
Located in Derby CT, Charlton was infamous for its low rates paid to creators and the cheap quality of its printing. However the company also had very little in the way of corporate or editorial oversight. This was something that appealed to Ditko, who very much valued his creative independence.
In my teens and 20s I had seen reprints of Ditko’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stories, as well as his more recent work for Marvel from the 1980s. Though I liked it, there wasn’t anything that especially appealed to me. At times I even found his art to be weird and off-putting.
About a decade and a half ago I was at a local comic book convention where I happened to buy a few back issues of some of the Charlton horror anthologies. One of these issues was Ghostly Haunts #23 (March 1972) which featured a striking cover by Ditko. Inside this issue were two stories illustrated by Ditko, “Treasure of the Tomb” and “Return Visit,” both of which I later learned had been written by Joe Gill.
Let me tell you, Ghostly Haunts #23 was a genuine revelation. I don’t think I truly “got” Ditko’s work until that point. His art on those two stories hit me like a thunderbolt.
Ditko’s layouts, the pacing of his stories, his heavy inking, the contorted body language & wide-eyed, twisted facial expressions of his figures, all combined to create a palpable mood of fear and anxiety and tangible horror. Ditko genuinely excelled at generating an atmosphere of dread and suspense, of unsettling people and places that were more than slightly askew.
I also loved Ditko’s beautiful, sexy depiction of Ghostly Haunts hostess Winnie the Witch. Ditko’s women often exuded a dangerous sensuality, and that was certainly present in his depictions of Winnie, who was cute but also possessed of a coy edginess. Additionally, I enjoyed the effective way in which Ditko had Winnie lurking on the borders of the pages, or in-between panels, an omnipresent spectator who was almost but not quite involved in the proceedings of the narratives.
Subsequently I began searching out other back issues of the various Charlton horror anthologies. The prolific Ditko illustrated dozens of stories for the company in the 1970s, appearing in numerous issues of Ghost Manor, Ghostly Haunts, Ghostly Tales, Haunted, Scary Tales, and others, making his work fairly easy to locate.
Additionally, 20 of the horror stories that Ditko did for the Charlton were subsequently collected together in black & white volume Steve Ditko’s 160 Page Package. This was released in 1999 by Robin Snyder, who printed & distributed many of Ditko’s later works.
At times the stories in the Charlton anthologies were clichéd or repetitive or predictable. Since the pay rates were so low, Gill and his colleagues often had to literally crank these things out one after another in order to be able to make a decent living. Nevertheless, in spite of the variable quality of the writing, as well as his own low page rates, Ditko invariably gave it his best, always producing eerie, unsettling, effective work of a high caliber.
Being exposed Ditko’s work on these books rapidly caused me to re-appraise his other material. Soon after I re-read the Essential Doctor Strange Volume One, and enjoyed it tremendously. It’s since become one of my favorite trade paperbacks, either to read yet again, or just to flip through to marvel (no pun intended) at the exquisite artwork.
I’ve also began to look more favorably on Ditko’s work for DC Comics in the late 1960s, where he created such unusual characters as Hawk & Dove, the Creeper, and Shade the Changing Man. Fortunately much of this material has now been collected, making it much easier to obtain.
I serious doubt I will ever find myself in agreement with the Objectivist philosophies that became prevalent in Ditko’s later creations and stories, but I certainly appreciate the craft and talent that was on display in his artwork.
Steve Ditko was a unique creator possessed of one of the most distinctive, individual voices to have ever worked within the medium of comic books. His work for Charlton in the 1970s represents but a fraction of his output. Nevertheless it remains among my favorite material by Ditko, for the quality present within it, the visceral impact it delivered, and the fact that it led me to a deeper appreciation for his entire body of work.