Friday, January 15, 2010

The Monkey Reads: Ditko's Outer Limits

Strange Suspense
The Steve Ditko Archives, Vol. 1
Introduced and edited by Blake Bell
Few artistic creations merit the adjective "lurid." Strange Suspense leers confidently from the shadows of that small crowd.

Before Ditko gave life to Spider-Man and took Jack Kirby's deliberate comic book art into even weirder, angular places in the 1960s, he slargged away in the mid-'50s as a artist and scripter for Charlton publishing's horror comics. This collection assembles that work in all of its cheap-inked beauty.

Charlton was the off-brand to EC's superior product, but as this book shows, Ditko's editors at Charlton seemed to let their creative staff do whatever they wanted. So the reader doesn't get only the expected Creepshow style horror tales with twist endings.

Sure there's plenty of the straightforward stuff. But Ditko mixes genres too. An extra-terrestrial soldier cheats at poker with a bunch of circus performers. Crooked cops of the Jim Thompson variety get tangled up with femme fatales in the distant, space-traveling future.

Best of all, Ditko fans get more of the artist's bizarre depictions of human physiology. He twists faces into freakshow territory that clearly influenced Charles Burns. Ditko's psychedelic backgrounds turn mundane libraries and dark roads into funhouse distortions that key in directly to the ugly psyche of adolescent boys. Plus there's enough flop sweat to fill an Olympic-size pool.

The stories themselves don't lift beyond rejected Night Gallery ideas, but the accompanying images splash cubism and surrealism onto the unsuspecting page.

Reference material: If the infected, deformed teens of Black Hole inspired the reader to linger on each page of that magnificent book, Strange Suspense is worth a look. And for the Ditko-curious, this isn't a bad place to start.