When one hears the name Steve Ditko, it’s usually in reference to his most well-known creation Spider-Man. But before he and Stan Lee created that wall-crawling wise-cracker, Ditko was responsible for some exceptional work, both before and during the reign of the creatively stunting Comics Code Authority (CCA) — check out my review of Marvel Masterworks’ Atlas Era Menace Vol. 1 for a brief, and personally biased, history of the Code. Although Ditko’s work after the installation of the CCA is best described as science-fiction, the majority of his pre-Code work was in the horror and crime genres, with a bit of science-fiction thrown in for good measure.
Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 from Fantagraphics Books presents Ditko’s pre-Code work in all its grisly detail. From the drawing of a man being executed in the electric chair on the cover to the drawing of a plantation owner being eaten alive by a swarm of ants in its final full-length story, this is a collection of tales about betrayal, revenge, and the unexpected.
Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 – The Competition
While Stan the man and his stable of talented artists hammered out tale after menacing tale over at Atlas Comics, and Bill Gaines and others crafted creepy tales for Entertaining Comics (EC), Steve Ditko employed his pencils at these two companies’ horror comic competitors. These competitors included Ajax-Farrell (an imprint of the Farrell Comic Group), Gillmor Magazines (A Key Publications imprint), Prize Comics (an imprint of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon‘s Crestwood Publications), Timor Publications (another Key imprint), and, where Ditko did most of his pre-Code work, Charlton Comics.
Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 – The Art
A cheekier author might write, “Duh. It’s Steve Ditko,” in this section and leave it at that, but I’ll go into a bit more detail. Ditko’s mastery of gritty details and his often grotesquely cartoonish art style are great for horror comics. Detailed elements like the stitching on a lampshade or the well-shaded folds of a bed sheet shown on the same page as a man with an exaggeratedly sunken face create a juxtaposition that’s so subtle the reader barely registers it. This deft mixing of styles gives Ditko’s art an almost imperceptibly creepy air, usually only obvious after some reflection.
Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 – The Writing
As with any artist-centred anthology of comics, some of the narratives collected in this hardcover are better than others. One of my favourites, from Charlton Comics’ Science Fiction Space Adventures #11, entitled “You are the Jury” chronicles the exploits of Ogu, a soldier from an unnamed alien world. The story opens with a unique splash page depicting an alien courtroom as shown from the first-person perspective, even down to an elliptical frame that represents the reader’s eyeball. The reader is entreated to pass judgement on Ogu who was A.W.O.L. from his military posting, having decided that his time would be better spent exploring the new and tiny planet Earth.
In a bit of a narrative non sequitur, Ogu pilots his jet-pack to an empty range that turns out to be an atom bomb testing area but mistakes a nuclear explosion as a fireworks show heralding his arrival. Ogu then comes to a circus and is mistaken for a newly hired freak by the circus performers. Taking him for a sap, as well as a freak, they invite Ogu to join them in a game of poker. Using his mental-scanner, Ogu is able to determine that the circus performers hope he has a great deal of money. So, making use of his auto-materializer, Ogu produces a wad of bills and antes up.
Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 – “The Sky’s the Limit”
After a few hands, the circus performers make the game more interesting by removing all betting limitations, announcing that the sky’s the limit. Ogu continues to use his auto-materializer to make winning cards appear in his hand until he has cleaned out the other players. Finally, a literally minded Ogu bets the performers Earth’s sky. The perplexed performers, looking to win back their money, go along with him, but when Ogu wins the hand he leaves Earth and takes its atmosphere with him. Quickly realizing that oxygen is vital to human survival, Ogu seeks to replace Earth’s sky but is instead taken into custody by his planet’s military police.
Ogu begs to return to Earth in order to save whomever is left alive, but his government believes he’s simply trying to escape punishment. The alien Judge reminds the reader that Ogu is only on trial for being A.W.O.L. from his post and nothing else. He entreats the reader to deliver sentence, after all “YOU ARE THE JURY!!”
Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 – Social Commentary
It’s tough to say whether or not the above story is related to an actual case of a soldier abandoning his post, or whether it’s simply a product of the writer’s imagination — unfortunately, though this is a great anthology in other respects, Strange Suspense is devoid of any information on who wrote each of these early Ditko vehicles. Either way, the question put to the reader at the end of the story makes use of a great science-fiction/horror trope that asks the reader to judge an event, which would be horrific for a human, from an extra-terrestrial viewpoint.
“You are the Jury” seems to use this trope to analogize the military and the deliberating process of courts-martial, showing effectively the flaws in this system as well as the crippling anxiety that would be an inescapable part of passing judgement on a fellow soldier. Even as the surprise ending to a horror/science-fiction tale, it’s quite unsettling to engage in a thought experiment wherein the logical solution to a problem involving the least rule-breaking is to let humanity perish. Much like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Justice,” “You are the Jury” makes a strong case for judicial compassion in favour of blindly following the rules.