Thursday, September 15, 2016

Steve Ditko's Fanzine Art: 1963-1986

While early comic book fanzines included contributions by professional artists such as Carmine Infantino, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Russ Manning and Paul Reinman, none were as prolific as Steve Ditko. The talented artist took an interest in these unique publications, created by a dedicated cadre of teenagers, young adults and older fans. Often falsely categorized as "reclusive", Mr. Ditko actually embraced fandom. The many drawings seen here present another side of the man, consisting of a generosity of spirit and an appreciation of the creativity and freedom the fanzines provided.

                                                  Alter Ego # 6, Winter 1963-64

Alter Ego was one of the earliest comic book fanzines, originated by Jerry Bails and continued by Ronn Foss and Roy Thomas. Steve Ditko made his  fanzine debut with its sixth issue, illustrating a letter he wrote. The playful drawing not only features Ditko's two signature characters, Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, but a caricature of the artist at his drawing board, inside an inkwell. Variations of this self-portrait, utilizing his tools of the trade (pencils, brushes, erasers, ink) have appeared throughout his career and define the intensity of the artist. Ditko's interest and enthusiasm for fanzines is also captured in his letter, as he jokes about "swiping" editor Stan Lee's copies from the Marvel offices.

Ditko drew the cover for Len Wein's Aurora # 5 in 1964. In a few years Wein would become a writer and editor for Marvel and DC, working professionally with Ditko from time to time. This was the final issue of Aurora, whose print run was a mere 135 copies!   

                                            Komik Heroes of the Future # 6, 1964

Komik Heroes of the Future was clearly a crudely produced fanzine, but I have to give editor Don Schank a little slack since he explained in his editorial that # 6 would be his last issue because he was soon entering HIGH SCHOOL! Extra props go to Schank for landing a short interview with Ditko and a dynamic illustration of  Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.

Although it has nothing to do with Ditko, as a baseball fan I couldn't resist showing this letter from Yogi Berra that appeared in the letters section of Komik Heroes of the Future # 6. I'm assuming Schank was either a Yankees fan or was aware that Yogi read comics!

In addition to his fanzine contributions Ditko drew the cover and an interior Dr. Strange illustration for the 1964 New York Comic Con booklet. The first official convention took place on July 27, 1964, organized largely by fan Bernie Bubnis. Ditko showed up for the festivities, his first  - and last - public appearance.

                                                         All Stars # 1, Summer 1965

Ditko illustrated this extraordinary Flash Gordon styled sci-fi cover for co-editors Bill Dubay, Marty Aubunich and Rudi Franke. What's even more amazing is that the highly-detailed cover was not an unused piece laying around his studio; it was actually based on fan artist Ronn Foss' interior story. 

                                                        Alter Ego # 8, Winter 1965

This is my favorite fan drawing by Ditko, evoking an undeniable charm. The illustrated letter to editor Roy Thomas features Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Aunt May, Dr. Strange and J. Jonah Jameson. Note the pencil/ink caricature and ink bottle. Thomas would soon join the professional ranks writing for Marvel; one of his early assignments included writing dialogue to two Ditko plotted and drawn Dr. Strange stories in Strange Tales #'s 143-144 (January-February 1966). 

 Ditko personalized this drawing to one of fandom's pioneers, Jerry Bails. It appeared in The Comic Reader # 33, January 1965.

A Ditko illustrated Captain Atom graced the cover of The Comic Reader # 36, April 1965, a character he had drawn for Charlton in 1960-61. As related in the news section, the hero was being revived for a three issue tryout, consisting of Ditko drawn (and Joe Gill scripted) stories. "If it catches on, Steve will probably be asked to continue the series." The author was correct. In six months Ditko returned to draw his first super-hero series.

Another Spidey-Dr. Strange combo appeared in The Comic Reader # 42, October 1965. Ditko wrote letters, contributed drawings and provided information on his latest work to many issues of the long-running and respected news zine. 

The Dr. Strange illo originally appeared in Super Heroes Anonymous # 2, March 1965. This image taken from Bill Schelly's excellent book, Sense of Wonder: A Life in Comic Fandom. The crude mimeograph technology forced the thirteen year old to trace over Ditko's art for reproduction, leading to a weak result. As Schelly related in his book, Ditko admonished the teen for publishing the sketch without asking the artists permission. 

Rarely seen, this cover image of Spider-Man was to be the last Ditko drew for fanzines. Crimestopper # 1, April 1965. Colors by John Hayward. 

Ditko's impressive Ronald Coleman-ish portrait of Dr. Strange appeared on the cover of Marty Arbunich and Bill Dubay's Marvel oriented fanzine, Yancy Street Journal # 8, May 1965. These two illustrations represent Ditko's final fanzine drawings of his two beloved heroes. In less than a year he would quit Marvel and never draw either Dr. Strange or Spider-Man again.  

One of many design oriented Mr. A spot illos that appeared in numerous fanzines. This one is from Journey into Comics # 5, 1969. Mr. A copyright 1969; 2016 Steve Ditko.    

In 1967 Steve Ditko created Mr. A, the moral avenger who first appeared in Wally Wood's publication, witzend. Wood's magazine was both a place where creators were freed from the restrictions of mainstream comics and an outlet to own their characters. One of the earliest mainstream professionals to jump aboard was Ditko. In the years ahead the artist devoted most of his fanzine efforts on Mr. A stories, essays and other personal work, although a few exceptions appeared from time to time, as we'll see.


Two versions of the same drawing.  The top image is from Gosh Wow # 2, summer 1968. The bottom image is from Capa-Alpha # 5, undated. Both were published by Robert Schoenfeld, but I'm uncertain which appeared first. The Blue Beetle and The Question are two characters Ditko worked on for Charlton in 1966-67. The Beetle was a very early superhero that Charlton acquired from a defunct company; Ditko took the bare bones and greatly revised the character. The Question was a non-super powered hero who fought for justice. Due to Comics Code Authority constraints, however, Ditko's stories were less violent than the similar Mr. A stories that appeared in fanzines, which had no such restrictions.

                                               Defender illustration, Comic Crusader # 8, 1970. 

Comic Crusader featured an impressive mix of articles and fan-drawn strips. Martin Greim was an enthusiastic supporter of Ditko's independent work and published quite a few of the artists stories over the years. Ditko contributed this dramatic drawing of The Defender, a character created, written and drawn by the publisher.

A trio of characters Ditko was associated with at Charlton, this illustration appeared in Realm # 3, November 1970, although I wonder if this piece was drawn earlier, since none of the three had appeared in comics for a few years. 

  From 1971-1976 Ditko's fanzine efforts centered exclusively on articles, essays and stories featuring Mr. A and other independent work. Ditko illustrated the cover to Gary Groth's The Comics Journal # 33, June 1977, spotlighting his new creation for DC, Shade the Changing Man.
Ditko's editorial drawing took pointed aim at the comic book industry. It appeared in The Comic Reader # 160, September 1978. Image copyright 1978; 2016 Steve Ditko. 

Ditko provided the cover art, lettering and colors for the 20th anniversary of Martin Skidmore's fanzine. Fantasy Advertiser # 97, June/July 1986. Image copyright 1986; 2016 Steve Ditko.  

After this point Ditko choose not to participate in drawing single illustrations for fanzines. An occasional letter surfaced in places like Comic Book Marketplace, but from 1988 to the present day Ditko's essays and independent efforts have largely been in tandem with co-publisher Robin Snyder.

Steve Ditko contributed to fanzines for a great many years, offering his time, talent and professionalism to even the weakest of publications. Ditko's interest in the fan community was apparent not only in his drawings, but extended to stories of individual encouragement. His presence in that formative period was an inspiration to those who loved the medium and sought to create a unique voice of their own.  

Pictured above is a rare sketch Ditko drew in ball point pen for a fan at his first and only convention appearance in 1964. Ditko has long since declined requests for drawings of his characters - so don't ask - but back in those early days he was of a different mindset. Do other examples exist??       

Ditko, with co-publisher Robin Snyder, continues to produce new work. Their latest Kickstarter campaign includes a mix of classic work and brand new material. The campaign is already a success, but if you'd like to contribute you still have a few days to do so:  

    A special thank you to Robin Snyder, a gentleman in thought and deed . 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Canines, Comics and the King

The unconditional love of a dog for its master is a universal experience. As such, it is no surprise that the relationship between human and hound has always been part of our culture; from stories in books, films and television to imagery in photography, paintings and - of course - comics. In comic strips alone one can find a number of examples, including Tige (Buster Brown); Sandy (Little Orphan Annie); Queenie (Dondi) and Snoopy (Peanuts). In comic books dogs appeared or starred in numerous features, from adaptations of four legged movie stars (Rin Tin Tin; Lassie) to new strips (Rex, the Wonder Dog) and even companions to popular heroes (Superboy's pup, Krypto; Batman and Robin's adopted dog, Ace). 

MGM's Lassie # 13, October-December 1953. Cover painting by the talented Dell/Western artist Mo Gollub, whose artwork adorned the covers of the title's initial 36 issues. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database. 

Lassie # 47, October-December 1959. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.

In 1940 author Eric Knight wrote a short story that was expanded to novel length, that introduced Lassie. The courageous collies adventure's went on to enthrall countless children and adults, becoming one of the most popular animal stars in movies, television, radio and comic books. Lassie headlined his own Dell and Gold Key titles in the 1950s and 1960s, many scripted by Gaylord Du Bois, a prolific writer who worked on a tremendous variety of features for the company.     

Rex, the Wonder Dog was DC's answer to Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. He went them one better by taking on not only bears and alligators, but dinosaurs! The series ran for eight years, from 1952-1959, illustrated initially by master artist Alex Toth and then for the majority of the series by Gil Kane, who was quite adept at drawing animals. The Adventures of Rex, the Wonder Dog # 32, April 1957. Gil Kane pencils; Bernard Sachs inks, Ira Schnapp letters. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.      

The German shepherd "Pooch", created by writer Robert Kanigher and drawn by Jerry Grandenetti, was a recurring character in the "Gunner and Sarge" feature for seven years. Joe Kubert cover art, Our Fighting Forces # 87, October 1964. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.

While many exceptional comic book artists rendered dogs with great skill and authenticity (Gene Colan, Russ Heath, Alex Toth, Don Heck and Neal Adams come to mind) for this post I'll focus on one of the industry's most accomplished creators.   

Jack Kirby is rightfully hailed as an artistic powerhouse whose overwhelming concepts and fantastic imagination has pollinated countless comic books. Just as important, though, was Kirby's ability to depict the mundane. This was achieved through his keen observation of people, places and things around him. Kirby showed an affinity for drawing animals throughout his career, with dogs in particular playing a part in many stories.  

The expression on the dog as he observes a romantic couple was so charming that I HAD to buy the comic! Kirby pencils (I believe; although some have attributed the pencils to Joe Simon); Joe Simon inks. Young Brides # 25, November-December 1955.

      "Logan's Next Life!" Kirby pencils and possible script; Joe Simon inks, Howard Ferguson letters.

"The Last Enemy!" Kirby art and possible script; Joe Simon inks; Howard Ferguson letters. Both stories from Alarming Tales # 1, September 1957.

Simon and Kirby produced the fantasy/anthology title Alarming Tales for Harvey comics, and dogs were prominently featured in two stories. "Logan's Next Life" questions the possibility of reincarnation. A stray dog dies saving an infant from a fire. When a doctor examines the baby he discovers the dog's birthmark on the child's shoulder. In "The Last Enemy!" a man travels into a future world where intelligent animals rule the world. Some of the concepts presented in this story, including Kirby's heroic Bulldog, would be revised fifteen years later in his Kamandi series for DC.   

 One of my favorite Kirby mutts is pictured in the above panels (it took me almost a week to track down this story, but I think it was worth the wait) a lovable mixture of hyperactivity and goofiness. Although he exasperates his owner, the dog winds up saving the world from a martian invasion. Man's best friend, indeed! "The Martian Who Stole My Body", Dick Ayers inks, Journey into Mystery # 57, March 1960. 

Lockjaw was an over-sized bulldog who had the ability to travel through space and time. A pet to the genetically advanced Inhumans, he was part of an ongoing story line in The Fantastic Four. While clearly larger than life, Kirby gave Lockjaw the attributes of a real dog, as witnessed by his holding onto his steel "stick". Kirby's expression on Johnny Storm conveys a genuine sense of joy and affection for his canine companion. Joe Sinnott inks, Fantastic Four # 55, October 1966. 

Kirby captures the dog's body language and curiosity with great facility. Joe Sinnott inks. The Silver Surfer, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Simon and Schuster, 1978.

   Jack Kirby spending some quality time with his own lovable pooch, circa 1991. Photo originally presented in The Jack Kirby Collector # 10, April 1996. 

Jack Kirby not only demonstrated his comprehension of a dog's behavior, personality, movement and physical structure, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a palpable sense of affection comes through in his drawings, one that many of us can relate to.    

 In memory of my brother John's dog, Sam, a wonderful companion and my buddy for the past 12 years. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

50 Summers Ago: Marvel Tales # 4

Fifty years ago this month - on June 9th, 1966, to be precise - Marvel Tales # 4 was distributed to candy stores amid a vast array of comic books vying for attention. It got mine. While visiting my Grandparent's in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, my older brother John and I took a walk to the corner ice cream parlor, run by a Louie Dumbrowski type (the harassed proprietor of the old Bowery Boys comedies). Having collected comics for a few years, John perused the magazine racks, as he often did, searching out a few to purchase. One of those was Marvel Tales # 4. The color scheme was striking; a purple logo with red highlights and a bold yellow background, topped off with small cover reproductions of Amazing Spider-Man # 7; Journey into Mystery # 86; Strange Tales # 102 and Tales to Astonish # 39. At six years old the comic was a hypnotic draw to me, and one of the earliest I recall reading (or attempting to read). 

                                  Marvel Tales # 4, cover-dated September 1966.

Marvel Tales was originally published from 1949-1957, a horror/mystery anthology in the companies Timely/Atlas period. The title was resurrected in 1964 (a logical move, since "Marvel" became the brand name associated with Martin Goodman's comics line) and the first two issues were annual publications. Beginning with Marvel Tales # 3 the comic was promoted to bi-monthly status, alternating with Marvel Collector's Item Classics, another 25 center which reprinted The Fantastic Four, along with early stories of "Iron-Man", "Doctor Strange" and The Incredible Hulk. Either Publisher Goodman or editor Stan Lee realized that the earlier superhero material was of interest to fans and would be a profitable venture. 

Although the reprints were only 3-4 years old, they had the feeling of a much earlier time. This was due in great part to the changes instituted at Marvel in those few short years. In most cases the older stories had writers working over Stan Lee's plots and artists drawing from a traditional full script (exceptions in the material reprinted include Spider-Man, FF and the Hulk, which were co-plotted by Ditko and Kirby, respectively). By 1966, though, the "Marvel method" of artists working from a synopsis was in use throughout the line, with Lee and Kirby going full-throttle; combining a heightened sense of drama, heavy doses of humor, bombastic visuals, sub-plots and continued stories; supported by the likes of Roy Thomas, Dick Ayers, Gene Colan, Don Heck and John Romita.  Nevertheless, these early stories had a sense of raw energy and undeniable charm that poured through every page.                  

The cover copy to Marvel Tales # 4 (almost certainly penned by Stan Lee) created additional excitement for an older period.

As editor, Stan Lee choose words carefully, often tinkering with his own copy until the final deadline. A comparison of the copy on a stat used in house ads that month shows just how meticulous Lee was.


 On the second blurb, Lee added the word "unforgettable" before publication, creating an even stronger statement to entice readers.

                                    Lee cut "strives to defeat" to one succinct word: "trapped". 

Thor was no longer struggling, but HELPLESS, before the Tomorrow Man, although I think "against" would have been a better word than "before" (every one's a critic!)

                        The Torch copy was altered from "striking at" to "imprisoned" 

..and finally Ant-Man wasn't doing any "smashing" but became a "human target" of that over-sized bug! Sam Rosen, who lettered the cover, deserves kudos for his calligraphic skills, although staffers Sol Brodsky or Marie Severin likely provided the last-minute corrections.   

In every instance Lee altered the copy in order to create a sense of danger. I suspect Lee felt his audience would relate more to the heroes struggling with adversaries, unlike the original copy, which often pointed to a preordained victory.      

The inside front cover continued the sense of a bygone age (while I'm able to scan the cover and some interior pages without undue damage to my copy, since Marvel Tales was a square bound comic the inside front cover is fragile so I'll instead quote Lee verbatim):

"Four comicdom classics of yesteryear", followed by more dynamic verbs; "tangles", "battles", "traps", "attacks".  

"On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man" Stan Lee plot; Larry Lieber script; Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks; Jon D'Agostino letters and Stan Goldberg colors. Since I'm a stickler for details, I'll add that Sam Rosen lettered the new blurbs! Originally presented in Journey into Mystery # 86, November 1962. The splash page of every story included a large yellow arrow pointing out to readers (literally) where they were first published.

"Prisoner of The Wizard!" Stan Lee plot; Larry Lieber script; Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks; Jon D'Agostino letters and Stan Goldberg colors. Originally presented in Strange Tales # 102, November 1962. Kirby's original interpretation of the Wizard was decidedly odd, perhaps inspired by the great character actor John Carradine. 

  At six years old the two stories I was transfixed by, and which, I can't deny, remain sentimental favorites to this day, are Ant-Man's confrontation (hey, I can come up with exciting verbs too!) with the Scarlet Beetle and Spider-Man's encounter with The Vulture. 

"The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!" Stan Lee plot; Larry Lieber script; Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks; Artie Simek letters and Stan Goldberg colors. Originally presented in Tales to Astonish # 35, January 1963. Jack Kirby's world of ants, insects, gutters, sewers and sidewalks was familiar territory to city kids, and my introduction to Ant-Man.    

The Return of the Vulture!" Stan Lee story; Steve Ditko co-plot and art; Artie Simek letters; Stan Goldberg colors. Originally presented in Amazing Spider-Man # 7, December 1963. There was a definite sense of humor in story and art in the early Spider-Man tales.The above argument between J. Jonah Jameson and the Vulture may have been inspired by the famous Jack Benny radio bit wherein a mugger confronts the cheapskate and demands; "Your money of your life!" After a very long pause, Benny replies, "I'm thinking! I'm thinking!"   
Steve Ditko's art was a compelling world unto itself; his characterization of the teenage Peter Parker was complimented by his use of mannerisms and expressions. Peter was a likable kid, and his adventures as Spider-Man were exciting and dramatic. While I had just started reading and enjoying the John Romita version (Amazing Spider-Man # 40, Romita's second outing on the strip, was on the stands the same month as MT # 4) Ditko's original take was available to me through my brother John's collection and future issues of Marvel Tales and I was immediately taken by his work.

  Marvel Collectors' Item Classics # 4, dated August, was published in May, 1966, a month earlier than MT # 4, but since it was a bi-monthly title the chances are high that it remained on retailer shelves for an extra month. Both MCIC and Marvel Tales followed the same appealing cover design for many issues. Cover art by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, inks by Kirby and Ayers. Sam Rosen letters.  

  Fantasy Masterpieces # 4, dated August 1966, was on the stands the same month as Marvel Tales # 4 (and another title bought by my brother John at the aforementioned ice cream shop, possibly on the same day that MT was purchased, even though it went on sale the previous week).     

Fantasy Masterpieces was the third reprint comic Marvel debuted in 1966. It began as a standard size title reprinting pre-hero monster stories, but with the third issue morphed into a 25 center spotlighting Simon and Kirby's Captain America, stories not seen in 25 years. Reprints of Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch would soon accompany Cap. Along with the pre-hero monster tales, Fantasy Masterpieces gave many fans their first taste of the rich history of Timely/Atlas/Marvel. Jack Kirby pencils and inks. Sam Rosen letters.  

Marvel Tales continued as a reprint title for decades and Spider-Man eventually became the solo feature when the comic was reduced to standard size. In 1982 Marvel Tales turned back the clock and began re-reprinting the Lee-Ditko Spider-Man's in consecutive order. 

In 1966, though, Marvel Tales and its two companion mags offered children and teens a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of Goodman's line. The world was very different in those days; conventions were rare, stores devoted exclusively to comics were non-existent (used book stores, which could be found in almost any neighborhood, were often the only place to buy back issues), hardcover collections were in the distant future and the instant gratification of Ebay or Amazon was inconceivable. In that context, Marvel's reprints were an important first step in preserving the past, often doing so in consecutive order, creating a greater understanding of how the creators grew and developed over time.