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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Golden Age Comics: Chandu the Magician

If you’re like me you probably went to go see the new Marvel movie this weekend: Dr. Strange.

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If you haven’t seen it my spoiler free review is this: GO SEE IT NOW!!!

It’s trippy, mind warping, Benedict Cumberbatch is an awesome edition to the Marvel Universe, and it has some of the coolest fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

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Normally I would do a blog post about the history behind Dr. Strange but here’s the thing, the character really doesn’t belong to the Golden Age of Comics.

Dr. Strange was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the creative team behind Marvel’s greatest hero: Spider Man.

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Dr. Strange premiered in 1963 in the anthology series Strange Tales.  Since the character was a sorcerer and master of magic Ditko used the comic to create some of the coolest and most mind bending artwork ever seen.

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Sadly, while the art was fantastic, Dr. Strange didn’t really catch on as a solo character in his own series like Iron Man or the Hulk.  While he was popular with college kids who were experimenting with Eastern mysticism and psychedelic stimulants like LSD, the character was more at home as a supporting hero who was useful to other heroes whenever they were confronted with magical threats.

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Like I said before, Dr. Strange really doesn’t fit the bill for this blog.  However, while researching the character’s history I discovered that Stan Lee took a lot of influence for Dr. Strange from an old radio program called Chandu the Magician.

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After looking up Chandu on the internet I decided to write this week’s blog post on this instead.  Sure it’s a radio show turned into a movie series, but it’s got enough comic book elements in it to justify a place here.

Origin

Before there were comic books and comic book movies, there were radio shows and pulp novels.

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Chandu the Magician premiered in 1931 on the Los Angeles station KLR.  The show featured a man named Frank Chandler who was played by radio actor Gayne Whitman

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Frank was an American who had traveled to India to learn the mystic arts from the yogis.  Such skills included astral projection, hypnosis, and escape artistry.

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After he had learned everything he could he was sent into the world to fight evil in all its forms with the new identity of Chandu the Magician.

He would have various adventures every week, broadcast in 15 minute adventures, and sponsored by companies such as White King Soap and Beech Nut Gum.  He had several love interests such as the Egyptian princess Nadji who was played by actress Veola Vonn.

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The program was successful and lasted from 1932 to 1935, and was even revived in the late 1940’s.

On top of the radio show, they even made a movie about Chandu in 1932.

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Chandu the Magician stared actor Edmund Lowe as the title character,

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and horror movie icon and king of over the top epic performances, Bela Lugosi as the villain Roxor.  You probably know him better as Dracula.

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The movie was 71 minutes of glorious 1930’s cheese filled with magic, sappy romance, and death rays.  If you don’t believe me please watch this clip of Bela giving the best damn evil villain monologue I have ever heard.

The movie was successful enough to spawn sequels and I can assume the studios loved Lugosi because they cast him as Chandu in the sequel.

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So what happened?

Life and society moved on, leaving radio and old heroes like Chandu in the dust.

While I normally feel a pang of regret and nostalgic longing for the heroes that I write about in this blog I’m really not feeling a whole lot for this one.

Sure he was a cool magician and yes the adventures were creative and exotic, and we got one of the best Bela Lugosi performances I’ve ever seen out of it, but the character was definitely a product of his time.  There’s a pretty strong undercurrent of some of the more uncomfortable ideas that permeated American entertainment during the 1930’s.  Everything from blatant racism to casual sexism is on call here.  Granted, a lot of the early comics played with that as well, but I get the feeling that a lot of people won’t be lining up to see the Chandu reboot at the box office.

Still, it was a fun little story and it seemed to have enough of an effect on a young Stan Lee to create Doctor Strange, so it wasn’t all bad.