Noah Berlatsky reviews Strange Suspense: Steve Ditko Archives Vol.1

Posted by on January 7th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Steve Ditko; Blake Bell, ed.; Fantagraphics; 240 pp., 39.99; Hardcover, Color; ISBN: 978-1606992890

This is a collection of comics-great Steve Ditko’s first published stories, mostly pulp horror from the early 1950s. I found it literally unreadable.

Usually when I write a review, I try to put in an honest effort to actually read every word. I gave it a go here and…well, this is what I found myself trudging through in the second story in the volume, “Paper Romance.”

It was too late for me to back down now! So I wrote the letter as soon as I got home. A letter that had been in my mind for years…telling everything about myself and hinting at what I was looking for in a man…the rest was to come if and when somebody answered my letter! The next few days dragged by with leaden feet and after a while I forgot completely about my letter…well not completely! But then…

Did you read that whole thing? If you did and you enjoyed it, you’re a hardier soul than I. “I got my letter and then I thought about my letter and then I thought about my letter some more and then I used a metaphor: ‘leaden feet’!” That’s just dreadful. And, yes, that’s the one romance story in the book, but the horror and adventure comics are not appreciably better; there’s still the numbing repetition, the tin ear, and the infuriating refusal to finesse said tin ear by leaving the damn pictures alone to tell their own story.

Whether this is Ditko’s fault entirely is unclear. Fantagraphics doesn’t give writer’s credits for the volume, which may mean that Ditko wrote the stories himself or, alternately, that the scripters are anonymous. Even if I don’t know who to blame, though, I sure as hell am blaming somebody for the fact that when the goblins surround Avery, we have text telling us “They decided it was time to surround Avery” so that Ditko has to squeeze the actual picture of the goblins surrounding Avery into an even smaller space. And even when the text boxes fall silent, we have the endless nattering of the dialogue balloons. If the haunted sailor says he hears a wild laugh once, he’s got to say it five times. It’s like having your tale of suspense shouted at you by your elderly deaf uncle . Who is stupid.

Even putting aside the writing, in terms of visual flow and storytelling, Ditko, at least at this point in his career, varies between mediocre and downright bad. He’s got some entertainingly loopy ideas, but he’s constantly burying his punchlines — in his riff on Cinderella, for example, the final panel is supposed to show you the good prince changing into a vampire and the three sisters with their legs ripped off so they fit the slippers. But it’s done so small I had to stare at it for a good 15 seconds before I could make head or tail of it, and then all I could think was — why do you need to pull a leg off to fit into a shoe? Wouldn’t you want to cut the foot instead?

But the solution to all of these problems is easy. Just sell your soul to the devil for the power to create an invulnerable super-worm with poison lipstick who will tear out your uncle’s eyes and replace them with wax. Or something like that. I’m not really sure of the exact plot ins and outs, because I just skimmed the whole damn thing, thank you very much, which was a much, much more pleasurable experience than reading those first couple of stories. Because, whatever Ditko’s limitations, even at this early stage in his career, he’s a fascinating artist with a bizarre and entirely idiosyncratic visual imagination. Eerily writhing smoke, expressive hands twisted into unlikely or even impossible positions, angled shots from up in the skylight — none of this will surprise anyone familiar with Ditko’s work, but it’s all as tasty as ever. In this volume I noticed especially his faces. Everyone in Ditko has these strong lined physiognomies that hover on the verge of caricature. The result in these horror titles is that humans and monsters aren’t so much opposed as they are on a continuum of potential deformity. Even Ditko’s hot dames have features which are too heavy, too malleable — they look like female impersonators, or like they’re wearing masks.

My favorite image in the book wasn’t typical Ditko at all, though. Instead it was this.

Usually Ditko’s drawings are crowded, even cluttered. This panel, though, uses negative space like a Japanese print. It’s an intriguing reminder that, along with the inevitable stumbles, apprentice work can also result in the occasional uncharacteristic, and surprisingly graceful, experiment.

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14 Responses to “Noah Berlatsky reviews Strange Suspense: Steve Ditko Archives Vol.1”

  1. Caro says:

    Hey Noah — That panel about the goblins, where there’s text repeating the visual:

    I’ve been watching 50s government public interest films lately in the national archives and I’ve noticed this exact phenomenon there too: mostly the pictures are pretty random, but when they are meaningful, there’s always always some narrative describing them too. There are also lots and lots of missed opportunities for using images rather or in addition to description. It’s really not until the mid-1960s that I’m seeing graphics used on their own to convey meaning.

    It seems like we had to go through some learning curve about how to let a picture speak for itself.

    If anybody has other examples of this or general insight, I’m collecting data points.

    (Contrary to evidence, my academic speciality is actually 1950s visual culture, not psychoanalytic theory. Thanks for your time on the other thread, btw; fun.)

  2. Walter Kovacs says:

    “Usually when I write a review, I try to put in an honest effort to actually read every word.”

    Ha! Good one! Always lead with a joke.

  3. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Caro, I think this repetition actually got worse in the 50s…or, at least, I’ve seen other examples where things work better from earlier. For example, the Marston/Peter run on WW; there was a certain amount of text repeating visuals, but at some point in the run (around 1946 or so) they started experimenting with wordless sequences (I talk about that with some examples here.

    Jack Cole, too, was better than this. So was Charles Schulz — and strip cartoons in general I think. But super-hero comics used infuriating duplication of text and images well into the sixties at least. And manga is almost always more willing to just use images in comparison to Western comics….

  4. Chris Duffy says:

    Captions back then, I’ll bet, were half literary pretention and half “artist proofing.” (The act of producing a script that would be clear even if the artist failed to communicate the scene.)

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I wonder if there was also an element of writing *for the artist.* That is, they were putting in words so the artist would know what to draw, rather than for the reader.

    Neither of those would apply in this case if Ditko was himself the writer, of course, which he may have been.

  6. Uland says:

    But you could read it, literally. It isn’t “literally” unreadable, right?
    Yeah, sounds bad though. I can only scan lots of older stuff like this too.

  7. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Well, I guess individual words were readable. I don’t know that I actually could have read the whole thing though, without committing some sort of violence against myself or it.

    It was literally unreadable in the sense that I didn’t read it, I suppose.

  8. Walter Kovacs says:

    Maybe you shouldn’t review books you don’t read? Ha ha! No, that would be ridiculous. And not the Noah Berlatsky way! Ho ho ho.

    Say something clever but irrelevant about this.

  9. Caro says:

    Sez my roomie: the writer was probably Joe Gill. He was staff writer for Charlton Comics starting in the early 1950s.

  10. patford says:

    If you think those 50′s Charlton comics are bad you ought to try reading silver age Marvel comics. After not looking at those things for decades I tried reading some to my son a few years ago when he was between the ages of 5 and 6. Talk about eyes glazing over. Every time I tried reading an issue of Spider-Man or Fantastic Four to him it ended up with him saying, “Dad wake up.”
    Contrast this with comics like the Dell Tarzan, or early 60′s Superman comics which I wouldn’t today read for my own pleasure, but didn’t put me to sleep, or John Stanley, Carl Barks, 70′s Kirby which remain interesting.

  11. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “Say something clever but irrelevant about this.”

    Um, okay.

    “If you think those 50’s Charlton comics are bad you ought to try reading silver age Marvel comics.”

    Yeah, I’ve done that, also to my son. Got through them the same way; basically skip and skim. I think the Charlton stuff is worse, though.

  12. SD Grant says:

    I doubt Ditko wrote any of the stories in the volume. They were likely produced by the volumes of nameless drone writers employed for pennies at companies like Charlton in the ’50s.

    The book is mainly interesting for those already in love with Ditko’s style, since it allows us to witness its development.

    But the stories are pretty much universally crap. Many of those ’50s Charlton stories, drawn by Ditko or otherwise, were bafflingly awful, and it’s obvious the main editorial vision on those books was to fill all necessary pages each issue.

    As such, Strange Suspense has both historical significance and its own Dadaistic appeal, but is best read only a few pages at a time.

    - Grant

  13. patford says:

    “I think the Charlton stuff is worse, though.”

    I can’t agree, if only because the Marvel stories are longer. I mean reading to the kid you have a fighting chance to plow through a six pager. When you are on page two of an old Spider-Man, and your eye lids are getting heavy, you know it’s going to be a struggle.
    I thought about why most comic book writing is so poor when I was reading to my son.
    I hadn’t reread almost any of these old stories in decades. My guess: comics is a cartoonists (writer/artist) medium.
    In the early days many young enthusiastic cartoonists were attracted to comic books.
    The best of them were wrote their own material, but the increasing demands for art and story quickly resulted in an assembly line division of labor in most instances. Most of the artists weren’t polished, but their work had vitality. The writers were mostly older, and recruited from the failing pulp magazines of the day. To them griding out copy was only a paycheck.
    Imagine if Tin-Pan Alley song-smiths had supplied the songs for the punk-rock bands of the 70′s.
    Mort Weisinger of all people sums it up nicely:
    “…an eternal graveyard. Writers rarely get out of comics. I’ve found that nobody really respects a comics writer. Mentioning it is a liability. Mickey Spillane wrote comics when he was hungry, but he quickly got out of it. Many of the other writers who wrote for me were ones I got from outside the field of comics, from science fiction, and they used to do comics work for what they called ‘hungry money.’ They’d turn out a quickie once a week to pay the rent. Then they went on to radio, TV work, novels or films. They outgrew the field.”

    The best writers in comics were always the writer/artists. If you weren’t a cartoonist, and didn’t love the comics medium (which ideally is a writer/artist language), why would you write for comic books if you could get paid to write anything else?
    Gold and Silver age comic books are filled with interesting art, I find that I’m now interested in the art work of almost any old time comic book pro, even the guys I couldn’t stand as a kid. It’s just the opposite with the stories, in most instances I find them really poor and uninteresting.

  14. Noah Berlatsky says:

    There are some interesting ideas in those books — engagingly whacky twists and so forth. But yeah, it never gels into an actual aesthetic the way it does in the work of Bob Haney, or in Alan Moore’s 20th Century AD stories. In part because Haney and Moore actually had something you might call a prose style,and the folks here do not.

    The art is beautiful in a lot of places, though. I go back and forth on Ditko, myself, but this book certainly makes a strong case for him. I enjoyed it once I started skimming.