Comic book showcase: Steve Ditko’s career and contribution to comics

So we lost one of the greats this week, legendary comic book writer and artist Steve Ditko.

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Ditko was an interesting character in his own right.  In an industry that thrives on creators being in direct contact with their fans through things like letter pages,

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and comic conventions,

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Ditko was a recluse who rarely made appearances and almost never gave interviews.

So how did Steve Ditko become such an icon in the comic book community, despite choosing to adopt a public persona that many would have considered career suicide?  Well, let’s take a brief look at his career and some of his more famous creations.

Ditko was part of the great revitalization of comic books in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This time period was known as the Silver Age of Comics and was known for its focus on science fiction aesthetic and themes,

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and for a little known writer named Stan Lee and a cigar chomping artist known as Jack Kirby creating the juggernaut known as Marvel Comics.

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This was also a time when many of the heroes that we know and love today were either created, such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four,

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or received a make over that would define them for the next fifty years such as Carmine Infantino’s re interpretation of The Flash.

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So where was Ditko in all of this?

Well, he got his start drawing for a small company called Charleton Comics after serving in the Army after World War 2, but moved to Atlas Comics in the mid 1950’s after recovering from a bout of tuberculosis.

Ditko would frequently collaborate with Stan Lee in creating short stories for Atlas publications such as Strange Tales,

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These stories were a huge success, and in 1962 Lee was given permission to create a story about a teenage superhero with spider themed powers.  Lee’s first choice for an artist on the project was…Jack Kirby.

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Kirby was an industry veteran and a very good artist, but in interviews Lee recalled that he didn’t like the way Kirby drew Spider Man.  It was good but it was just too heroic.

So Lee turned to Ditko and together they would go on to create one of the most iconic and popular superheroes ever: Spider Man.

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The hero would debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 on August 10th, 1962.  While the interior artwork was done by Ditko, the cover was drawn by Kirby.

Lee and Ditko’s creation was a massive hit and helped usher in a new era of superheroes who weren’t gods or paragons of virtue, they were creatures with fantastic powers and very human emotions and problems.  Spider Man may have had amazing powers, but he always suffered because of it.  Everything from the death of his Uncle Ben,

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to the death of Gwen Stacy,

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was his fault.

But if you ask me, one of the most iconic moments in the early Spider Man comics was a scene where he’s trapped under rubble, buried alive by the Green Goblin and he has to get himself out.

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Ditko helped make superheroes vulnerable, twisting Spider Man’s body into brutal and uncomfortable poses that made the reader feel the effort and pain he was going through.  It’s fantastic stuff.

A few years later Lee and Ditko would go on to create Dr. Strange, who debuted in Strange Tales #110 in July of 1963.

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Strange allowed Ditko to unleash some of the most surreal and fantastic artwork ever seen as the human Dr. Strange battled creatures of the mind who wielded black magic.

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It’s worth remembering this was the 1960’s, a time when counter culture and New Age religions were starting to make their way into pop culture.  It’s also worth remembering that Dr. Strange became really popular with college kids at the time.

Unfortunately, Steve’s relationship with Marvel and Stan Lee wouldn’t last.  See, Marvel Comics in the 1960’s pioneered a style of comic creation known as “The Marvel Method”.  Long story short, what would happen is that the writer would send an artist a rough idea of a story, the artist would draw the story as they interpreted it, and then the writer would write out the dialogue afterwards.

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It was a great way for a writer like Lee to produce a metric crap ton of work while maintaining his public image, but it wasn’t without problems.  Sadly, there is a lot of debate to this day over who created what at Marvel and whether or not Stan Lee deserves the level of credit and respect he is enjoying in popular culture while artists like Kirby and Ditko were relatively sidelined in the public eye.

But that’s a debate for another day.  What we do know is that Ditko was frustrated with Marvel and Lee enough to leave them and go work for his old collaborator Charlton Comics.

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While Charlton didn’t pay as much as Marvel, they did allow their creators more freedom in their work.  Ditko thrived at Charlton, helping to create some of their most iconic heroes such as Captain Atom,

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and The Question.

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The Question was probably Ditko’s most personal work.  He was a big fan of Ayn Rand and objectivism, the idea that morality must be realized through individuals seeking to act in their own self interest.  The Question was Ditko’s way to express his personal philosophy to the world, something that hadn’t really been done in a medium that was originally more concerned with simple stories for children.

The Question was uncharacteristically brutal for the time period.  There was a scene where he let a pair of criminals get swept away in a sewer than save them.

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Ditko also did some work for DC in the 1970’s creating heroes like Hawk and Dove and Shade the Changing Man along with a whole host of others.

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During the 1980’s and 90’s Ditko would become even more reclusive, working for small presses and often taking bigger work simply for the paycheck.  He would eventually retire from mainstream comics in 1998, although he did work with former Charlton editor Robin Snyder in publishing bits of solo work.

While Steve Ditko became more and more of a recluse, his work and characters continued to have a lasting effect on comics and popular culture.  While Spiderman is his most famous work,

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and Doctor Strange is currently enjoying higher status thanks to the Marvel movies,

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I think a lot of his work at Charlton and DC comics deserves special mention.

In 1983, most of the Charlton characters were bought by DC comics when Charlton was suffering financially.  They were approached by Alan Moore, who wanted to write a 12 issue series that was a dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre called Watchmen and he wanted to use Charlton characters to do it.  Two of them were Ditko creations, The Question and Captain Atom.  When DC said no, Moore used the idea of The Question to create his own character: Rorschach.

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and the idea of Captain Atom to create Dr. Manhattan.

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Most of the Charlton characters would go on to have successful careers in the DC universe on their own accords.  I can specifically remember the Justice League cartoon making fantastic use of The Question in its later seasons.

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So, how do we process the legacy of Steve Ditko?  He helped elevate the medium of comic books by introducing deeper and more meaningful themes and ideas into his work, he stood by his beliefs and preferred to let his work speak for him, and he helped to create two of the most iconic superheroes in modern history.

All in all, as far as legacies go, his position as one of the greatest comic book creators of all time is well deserved.

Thank you Mr. Ditko, you will be missed.

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Modern film, the Golden Age of Comics, and Wonder Woman

So this little movie is in theaters now.

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I haven’t seen it, although it is currently on my list of films to see, but I have seen the trailer and a good portion of the promotional media for the film.

A quick summary: the movie follows the real life journey and exploits of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.

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In real life, Marston was a respected psychologist and the inventor of the lie detector,

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he was also engaged in an unconventional relationship with his wife Elizabeth and his partner Olive Byrne.

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As for the exact nature of their relationship, all you have to do is take a look at the comics that Marston wrote to get some idea of what was going on.

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Frankly, I’m glad this became a movie and I would love to see more films like this since the story behind the creation of some of our most beloved superheroes is often just as interesting as the characters themselves.

Personally, I would love to see a movie about the trials and tribulations of Supmerman’s creators Siegel and Shuster,

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and we’re probably getting a Stan Lee film soon.

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but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

There’s a scene in the trailer for Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman where a group of people are burning a pile of comic books.

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While I don’t like seeing anyone burning books this actually got me pretty excited.  This is the first time I’ve seen any movie talk about the decline and fall of the Golden Age of Comics and while it is presented as a backdrop for the story the movie wants to tell, it’s an important time in American pop culture where the nature and effect that art has on our minds and souls was being hotly debated.

So today I’m going to give a brief history of the comic book industry in the late 1940’s and 50’s and in order to do that we have to talk about:

The post war comic industry

After the Allies won the Second World War Americans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated by coming home, starting a family, and giving up on superhero comics.

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Yes, the infamous “superhero fatigue” that so many people say is  coming with this current glut of superhero movies is actually nothing new.

Naturally, the comic book industry reacted to this shift by switching to different genres and trying new things.  Post war America saw a boom in non superhero comics, especially romance,

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humor,

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and horror comics.

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Post war America was actually a pretty good time for comics.  More people were spending money on entertainment, readers were getting older and more mature, and some of the greatest artists of the time were doing some of their best work.

Unfortunately comic books were confronted with a force more powerful than any super villain doomsday device: concerned parents.

You know how concerned parents thought violent video games were turning kids into mass murdering psychopaths?

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Well, it turns out that that isn’t all that new either.  In the 1950’s comic books went through the same process and things would come to a head with,

Backlash, Dr. Wertham, and Seduction of the Innocent

Maybe it was the soldiers coming home from the war trying to process the violence and destruction they saw, maybe it was the Red Scare and the rise of anti Communist sentiment in America, or maybe comic books have a bigger place in our psyche than we think, but for some reason these hearings swept the American people into an anti comic fervor that saw a tremendous backlash against the art form.  This resulted in crazy events like mass comic book burnings as early as 1948,

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but sadly the real destruction would come in the form of a well meaning man in a suit and tie.

Every art form, at some point in its early history, has had a vocal opponent who claims that said art form is destroying our children’s minds and must be censored before it’s too late.

Rap music had Tipper Gore,

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video games had Jack Thompson,

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and comic books had Dr. Fredric Wertham.

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Now, I don’t think Dr. Wertham did what he did because he hated comics or because he was an uneducated hack who was simply making wild accusations because he wanted the attention.  He was actually a highly respected psychologist who did a lot of good work, including providing cheap psychiatric care to under privileged children.

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Unfortunately, he noticed that a lot of the children under his care read a lot of comic books and he started to believe that it wasn’t societal woes or a poor home life that turned kids bad, but violent and disturbing imagery in the media the kids consumed.

Things would come to a head in 1954 when Wertham published his most famous work Seduction of the Innocent

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where he blamed comic books for the rise of “juvenile delinquency” in American youth.

The book was a hit and led to a Congressional hearing on the effects of comic books on children’s minds, and Wertham was the star witness.

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The hearings were incredibly destructive for the comic book industry and effectively brought mass censorship to the medium.  Companies that depended on risque and controversial content to stay afloat, such as the horror and comedy powerhouse EC Comics were the hardest hit and were forced out of business.  The industry underwent a massive contraction and thousands of people lost their jobs as publishers went out of business left and right.

The Fallout

In an attempt to save themselves from excessive censorship the remaining comic book publishers formed an organization known as the Comics Code Authority.  It was an organization that reviewed comics before they could be published and made sure they followed a certain set of rules in order to ensure that they were suitable for children.

The most famous and notable legacy of the Comics Code was the stamp that appeared on the far right corner of almost every comic for the next forty years.

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While the Comics Code didn’t kill the comics industry it did cripple it so badly that it’s still recovering today.  Since comic book writers weren’t allowed to tell complex and morally ambiguous stories if they wanted to get their book published comics became simple and almost boring in their predictable story lines and basic morality tales.  Sure, mature and grown up comics existed, but they could only be found in small press, out of the way places such as the “comix” scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

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Eventually cracks in the Comics Code would start to show and historians widely believe that it lost its power after Amazing Spider Man #96 told a story where Spiderman helped a friend who was addicted to drugs and was published without the stamp.

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But if you ask me, the damage had already been done.  The Golden Age of Comics was a time where characters like Wonder Woman could talk about deep and meaningful issues like man’s tendency towards hatred and how women could bring about a more peaceful world, whereas the immediate post Comics Code publishing industry decided to celebrate its newfound freedom by throwing all subtlety out the window and indulging in a lot of violence for violence’s sake.  This,

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is downright childish in comparison to the early issues of Wonder Woman.

Now, I firmly believe that we as a society have gotten better in dealing with art and the effects that it may or may not have on our minds, and I also think that the comic book industry telling better stories today than it did twenty years ago, but it is vitally important that we never forget why heroes like Wonder Woman were created and how important it is that we apply the same passion and thought into our stories today.

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Golden Age Showcase: Etta Candy

WARNING!  THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS FOUL LANGUAGE USED FOR COMEDIC EFFECT!  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Today is the third day in our coverage of the new Wonder Woman movie, which comes out this Friday!

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I am so goddamned pumped for this movie!

Now, while it would probably make sense for us to talk about Wonder Woman this week we’re not going to.  Don’t worry, an in depth discussion of Wonder Woman is coming next week but for now I want to talk about a member of our heroine’s supporting cast.  She’s a redheaded (sometimes blonde) powerhouse who takes no lip from anyone and if this was any other comic book movie she would probably be the focus instead of the heroine.

Today we’re talking about Etta Candy.

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Origin and Career

So remember when I said there would be foul language in this article?  It’s mostly here.

The character was conceived by Wonder Woman’s original creator, William Moulton Marston.

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She made her first appearance in Sensation Comics #2,

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the issue that also gave us Dr. Poison who we talked about last week.

Her backstory is pretty simple.  She was  skinny, scrawny girl who Wonder Woman met in a hospital, waiting to get her appendix removed.  When she was cured she put on a few pounds.

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How do I describe Etta as a character?  Simple.

Etta Candy gives no fucks.

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Etta Candy takes no shit.

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Etta Candy once helped defeat an ENTIRE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMP with nothing but a box of chocolates because she heard there were starving children being held there.

Etta knocks out a Nazi guard as she takes down the power grid.

Etta Candy is amazing.

Some of the more eagle eyed readers might observe that Etta Candy is a rather large women, some might even say she isn’t all that attractive.

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Etta hears your comments and doesn’t give two shits about what you think.  She’s large and damn proud of it.

You will also notice that Etta has something of an…unhealthy obsession with sweets.

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I love how in this universe filled with super humans, monsters, and legitimate gods that walk the Earth, Etta takes it all in stride and treats it just like nothing is out of the ordinary.

She needs no gods or men,

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chocolate is the only god she needs.

Despite her awesomeness, even Etta realized that she can’t take on the entire Nazi war machine alone, so she brought along some help in the form of her sisters from the fictional Beta Lambda sorority of Holliday College.

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Naturally, Etta was their leader.

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The girls proved to be incredibly helpful to Wonder Woman’s mission and kicked all sorts of ass.

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They would have given Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos a run for their money.  Why the Allied war effort even bothered to send regular troops to Europe is completely beyond me.

We even got to learn a bit more about Etta’s life after the war.  It turned out she had a family who lived on a Texas Ranch.  She even had a boyfriend.  His name was Oscar Sweetgulper.

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Are you picturing these two getting it on?  Because that is what I’ve been imagining for the past week.

Naturally, Wonder Woman brought Etta back to her home, where she was adored by her sister Amazons.  Also, she had no trouble going up against the more mythological creatures and villains of the comic series.

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In short (pun not intended) Etta was one of the greatest sidekicks in the early days of comics and remains one of Marston’s most fantastic creations.

So what happened?

You see this man?  The one smoking the pipe?

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That’s Robert Kanigher, a comic book writer who took over writing the Wonder Woman comic from Marston when he died in 1947.

Now, Kanigher is pretty well known and did some cool stuff over his career.  He wrote some of the early Blue Beetle adventures and he wrote what is widely considered to be the first Silver Age comic, which saw the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash.

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However, when Kanigher took over Wonder Woman not only did he barley use Etta, he changed the character to the point where she was no longer the leader of her sorority and she was insecure about her weight.

To make things even worse, she was relegated to the position of idiot secretary in the Wonder Woman tv show, where she was played by actress Beatrice Cohen.

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BOOOOOOOO!!!

POOR FORM!

WHAT THE SHIT DC?!

She became so obscure that I can’t find a picture of her from the 1950’s all the way to the 1980’s.

Thankfully, the writers and creators at DC realized what they had done and managed to bring Wonder Woman’s best friend back from the grave…sort of.

In 1987 artist writer/artist duo Greg Potter and George Perez revamped Wonder Woman for the modern age and brought Etta back.

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She was no longer a large woman, but she was a capable Air Force officer and an aid to Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman’s former love interest.

I say former, because Etta and Steve wound up getting married.

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She still had reservations about her weight and even developed an eating disorder.

During the New 52 revamp, DC brought Etta back again.  This time she was a black lady who was Steve’s secretary and close personal friend.

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She would also make a comeback in DC’s Rebirth series, where she’s still Steve’s secretary.

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That’s how she’s appeared in the main continuity of DC comics.  Some of it was good, most of it made it seem like DC was embarrassed of the character which is just…a crying shame.

Thankfully there were plenty of spin offs and interpretations of Wonder Woman that brought Etta back into her original role.

For example, here she is in the non continuity of DC’s Earth One timeline.

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and more recently the comic series The Legend of Wonder Woman brought her back to her original Golden Age appearance.

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She will be portrayed by British actress Lucy Davis in the Wonder Woman film,

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and if the trailer is any indication, I think she’ll be amazing at it and do the character justice.

Etta is an amazing character and a good friend to Wonder Woman.  In an industry that gets a lot of flak for not being very friendly to women, especially large women, Etta takes those critiques and smashes them over the head.  All with grace, poise, and a box of chocolates in hand.

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Golden Age Showcase: Hippolyta

So this little movie is coming out in a couple of weeks.

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I’m excited.

The funny thing about this movie is that it promises to be huge but strangely enough, DC and Warner Brothers aren’t doing a whole lot to market and promote the film.

Granted, there is a precedent for this lack of marketing push, but I like to think that part of the reason why the film isn’t getting a lot of love is because the producers and film makers are banking on the hoards of angry nerds who are so desperate to see a female superhero succeed that they are willing to give this film a bunch of free advertising.

Thankfully, I am incredibly desperate and angry and I intend to do my part and contribute to the madness.  For the next couple of weeks leading up to the release of Wonder Woman I intend to devote this blog to Wonder Woman and her supporting cast.

And since yesterday was Mother’s Day, I thought it might be fun to talk about Wonder Woman’s mother: the Greek Amazon Hippolyta.

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Origin and Career

Unlike almost all the superheroes of the Golden Age, who can trace their origins to the popular culture of the day, Hippolyta has one of the most accomplished and famous pedigrees in comic book lore.

In fact, probably the only modern day superhero who has changed less than DC Comics’ Hippolyta is Hercules himself, and that’s only because Hercules is an integral part of Hippolyta’s story.

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Hippolyta was the queen of the Amazons, a group of savage warrior women who claimed to be descended from Ares, the god of war.

As part of his twelve labors, Hercules was tasked with stealing an item called the Golden Girdle, a belt that gave Hippolyta incredible strength.  Hercules was successful in seducing Hippolyta into giving him the belt,

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but sadly perished when he goddess Hera convinced her battle sisters that Hercules was kidnapping her.

This story must have struck a chord with a man named William Moulton Marston,

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because he used this exact myth to inform the creation of Hippolyta in All Star Comics #8 in October of 1941.

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We’ll save the specifics for later but for now all you need to know is that the story of Hipppolyta remained relatively unchanged from its classical roots.  Hippolyta was the queen of her people and the mother of the book’s main character so she was tasked with talking to the ancient gods, looking after the welfare of the Amazons, and trying to control her daughter without much success.

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So what happened?

What do you mean “what happened”?  She went on to have an illustrious career as the mother of one of the most successful superheroes on the face of the planet!

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Granted, there have been some changes to her story.  Various versions of the character have her as a blonde badass,

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and at one point she actually took up the mantle of Wonder Woman,

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(yes that is actually Hippolyta and not Diana with a different hair do)

Her origin story with Hercules was changed up a bit in 1987 by writer George Perez.  It was a bit more…uncomfortable than the original with the new version of Hercules forcing himself on Hippolyta after he drugged her and her Amazons.
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It’s worth mentioning that he did this after she beat him in fair combat and attempted to reason with him.

Hippolyta has played an integral part in the DC universe, both in the comics and in other forms of media as well.  She has made regular appearances in a whole bunch of cartoons and animated movies,

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and is often treated with the respect and reverence that a queen and leader of her stature deserves.

In the upcoming movie the director decided to go the blonde route and have her played by the actress Connie Nielsen.

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To list every achievement and important event that Hippolyta has been part of would take forever and I highly encourage you to do more research on your own.  All that I really have to say is that while Wonder Woman is considered to be one of the greatest superheroes in existence, she would be nobody without the strength and wisdom of her mother behind her.

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Happy Mother’s Day everyone.