Steve Ditko’s ghost stories

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 a variety 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.

Ghostly Haunts 23

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 DO NOT 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.

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 3
“Treasure of the Tomb” page 3 from Ghostly Haunts 23 (March 1972)

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 struck me like a thunderbolt.

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 10
“Return Visit” page 2 from Ghostly Haunts #23 (March 1972)

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.

Ghostly Haunts 31 pg 3
“Web of Evil” page 3 from Ghostly Haunts #31 (April 1973)

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 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.

Ghostly Tales 106 pg 7
“The Moon Beast” page 7 from Ghostly Tales #106 (August 1973)

Being exposed to Ditko’s work on these books rapidly caused me to reappraise his other material.  Soon after I re-read 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 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.

Ghostly Tales 122 pg 20
“The Crew that was Hanged” page 7 from Ghostly Tales #122 (August 1976)

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.

Halloween spotlight on Tom Sutton at Charlton Comics

Today, to celebrate Halloween, I am spotlighting the work of an artist with one of the most distinctively eerie styles I have ever come across, Tom Sutton.  Born in 1937, Sutton had a very prolific career.  Unfortunately he is probably not nearly as well known as some of his contemporaries due to the fact that he rarely worked on super-hero titles.  His style was not particularly well-suited to the spandex set, and he himself was not especially fond of the cape & cowl crowd.  However, when it came to horror, mystery, science fiction, romance and even humor, Sutton was a perfect fit.

Sutton worked for several companies, among them Marvel, DC, Warren, Skywald, First, Eclipse and Fantagraphics. He did an especially large body of work for Charlton Comics, that third-rate outfit run out of Derby CT that specialized in low page rates, cheap printing, poor paper quality… and almost unlimited creative freedom.  As I’ve written before, for up-and-coming writers and artists who were looking to break into the biz & find their feet, or for more seasoned creators who were seeking a publisher with little editorial or corporate oversight, Charlton was the place to go in the 1970s.

Haunted 23 cover

I am going to focus on Sutton’s output at Charlton, because he did really great work there… and because I really don’t have too much of his other material readily at hand. Especially his Warren Publishing work, or his art for Marvel’s black & white magazines.  But I have at least a couple of dozen issues from among Charlton’s various horror anthology titles, many of them containing superb work by Sutton.

Interviewed in 2000 by Jon B. Cooke for  Comic Book Artist #12 from TwoMorrows Publishing, Sutton explained the appeal of working at Charlton:

“They published weird stuff, and I have always been fascinated by weird stuff, and the weirder the better….  I do owe a certain amount to Charlton, because they allowed me to write a lot of ditties of my own, to paint a lot of horrible covers, and they never, ever, ever remarked on my technique.”

Sutton’s artwork was undeniably distinctive, leaving an impression upon readers throughout the years.  The juxtaposition of a quirky, cartoony style with the use of an absolutely insane amount of detail played a significant part in generating the disquieting impact of Sutton’s illustrations. There is what I would describe as a psychologically unsettling quality to his work.  I definitely see that epitomized in his ghoulishly insane cover for Haunted #23 (September 1975) pictured above.

Haunted 17 pg 20

Sutton was an expert storyteller. He knew how to pace his layouts and position the figures in his panels for maximum dramatic impact.  In much of his work there is a palpable sense of anxiety and dread.

One of the best examples of this was the story “A Budding Evil” which he wrote and drew.  It appeared in the pages of Haunted #17 (July 1974) for which he also illustrated the cover.  I featured that piece in last year’s Halloween spotlight on Charlton Comics horror anthologies blog post.  This time, above, is a page from that story.  That wide-eyed gaze of the female protagonist in the last panel is a trademark of Sutton’s.  He very much specialized in rendering people wrought with fear & dread, capturing the quality of souls in anguished terror.

Haunted 36 pg 11

On the other hand, “The Night of the Demon” from Haunted #36 (May 1978) very much demonstrates Sutton’s versatility.  Charlton mainstay Nicola “Nick” Cuti wrote the tale of Sonya & Tanya Marcus, mother & daughter witches living in medieval times.  Sonya utilizes magic for good, and she seeks to instruct her daughter to follow in that path.  Sutton’s work on this story has a great deal of atmosphere, but in this case it is of a fairy tale nature.  Yes, there is a bit of a dark undercurrent to some of it, as Sonya lectures her daughter on the powerful, dangerous demon Ailurikos, who must be invoked very carefully, and only on occasions when he can be directed towards benevolent goals.  Sutton renders Ailurikos as a sleek, sinister amalgam of a panther and a bat.  But for the most part Cuti’s tale is one of whimsy, and Sutton’s art reflects that.  He certainly draws the young Tanya as a sweet, adorable figure.  (And quite coincidentally Diversions of the Groovy Kind is spotlighting “The Night of the Demon” as part of Halloween Week.)

Ghostly Haunts 163 pg 1

Another interesting story illustrated by Sutton was “Baku the Dream Eater.”  This story neatly straddled the genres of horror, fantasy and romance. Sutton’s beautifully rendered title splash, posted above, is absolutely amazing.  It’s another fantastic piece by Sutton, as once again it demonstrates his flexibility as an artist.  Certainly it is a very nice example of how adept he was at illustrating beautiful, sensual women, as well as his usual bizarre monsters.  I scanned this from Ghostly Tales #163 (October 1983) which was an all-reprint issue (by the early 1980s Charlton was on its last legs and recycling a great deal of older material).  According to the Grand Comic Database, “Baku the Dream Eater” originally saw print in Ghostly Haunts #55 (October 1977).

Haunted Love 11 pg 9

Speaking of romance, one of the odder Charlton titles (and that is definitely saying something) was the very short-lived Haunted Love, which lasted a mere eleven issues. As Cuti explained to Jon B. Cooke in Comic Book Artist #12, the Haunted Love series was an attempt to combine their readers for ghost comics, who were mostly young boys, and their readers for romance comics, who were young girls.  Supposedly this would result in twice as many sales.  But, as Cuti humorously observed, “As it turned out, instead of combining our two audiences, we would up alienating both audiences.”

Nevertheless, during its short run Haunted Love featured some decidedly oddball & offbeat, but still interesting, stories.  One of these was “Beware: Do Not Love Him!” in issue #10 (July 1975).  Written by prolific Charlton scribe Joe Gill, it featured gorgeous artwork by Sutton in the gothic romance tradition.

Ghostly Haunts 40 cover

Some people find spiders scary. Speaking for myself I have always thought they were pretty cool.  Plus they are cheaper than hiring an exterminator!  (I must have read Charlotte’s Web one too many times as a child.)  Having said that, I can certainly understand why a giant spider would be a source of anxiety.  Obviously so too did Sutton, who illustrated an awful arachnid in its wicked web on the cover of Ghostly Haunts #40 (September 1974) seen above.  Appropriately enough he signed this piece as “Grisly.”  That lurid green coloring maximizes the impact of this one.  Within the pages of this issue is the bizarre accompanying tale “The Game Keeper,” which is both written and illustrated by Sutton.

Charlton horror hosts by Tom Sutton

The aforementioned Tom Sutton interview in Comic Book Artist #12 contained several examples of Sutton’s Charlton work.  Among these was the above piece, a striking black & white illustration featuring several of the Charlton horror hosts which originally saw print in Charlton Bullseye #1 (1975).  Front-and-center is my favorite of them all, the lovely Winnie the Witch.  Looking over the cool double page spread drawn by Mort Todd for The Charlton Arrow #1 (order your copy now if you haven’t already) I can identify the other spooky subjects of Sutton’s illustration.  Floating above the group is Impy, standing behind Winnie is Mr. I.M. Dedd, on the left with a noose is Mr. Bones, and at the right with a book of occult lore in hand is Dr. M.T. Graves (you have got to love those names).

Tom Sutton passed away on May 1, 2002 at the age of 65. He left behind him a rich legacy of distinctively macabre art.  I think that there have only been a handful of comic book artists over the decades capable of conjuring up a genuinely frightful mood though their work.  Sutton was undoubtedly one of them.  If you are not already familiar with his art, I highly recommend seeking out some of the many comic books that he illustrated throughout his career.

By the way, I bought about half of the Charlton horror issues at various comic book conventions over the years.  The others were found in the back issue bins of Roger’s Time Machine aka Mysterious Island, a comic shop that for a long time was on West 14th Street.  Now known as Mysterious Time Machine, it’s located at 418 6th Avenue, between 8th and 9th Street.  It’s a great place with a huge selection of comics, including those old Charlton books.

I hope everyone enjoyed this brief look at the work of Tom Sutton.  If you would like to see more of his awesome art, please check out Tom Sutton, Comic Book Artist Extraordinaire on Facebook.  Have a happy Halloween!