by Andy Wolverton
Steve Ditko celebrated his 86th birthday just a few days ago on November 2. In his introduction to Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives, Volume 4, series editor Blake Bell states that “2013 marks Ditko’s 60th year creating comic books (his first published work appeared in 1953).” In this fourth volume, Bell features much of Ditko’s 1957 work for Charlton Publications, which included such comic book titles as Strange Suspense Stories, Tales of the Mysterious Traveler, Out of This World, and others.
Although the work featured in Impossible Tales was completed in 1957, some of it was not published until 1958 or 1959. Charlton assigned numbers to each finished story, then put them on a shelf until needed for a particular issue. Bell has arranged these stories in numerical chronological order (not necessarily in publication order) so that we see Ditko’s work as it develops. Watching this progression is somewhat difficult, since Ditko illustrated so many different kinds of stories, and strengths in one genre didn’t always immediately show up in another.
For example, while it contains some supernatural elements, “The Menace of the Leaves” doesn’t provide Ditko many opportunities to depict things that seem very out-of-the-ordinary. By contrast, “The Forbidden Room” (more of a suspense/horror story) allows Ditko to have a field day with a strange house, creepy interiors, off-kilter angles, shadows and terrified faces. As the book progresses, we not only see Ditko taking more risks as an artist — drawing an out-of-body experience in “Through the Walls” and visually integrating music into a story in “Little Boy Blue” — we also see forerunners of some of his Marvel creations which were only a few years away, such as the aforementioned out-of-body experiences associated with Doctor Strange, an old woman who looks suspiciously like Peter Parker’s Aunt May in “The Secret Room,” and more.
Ditko is at his best when things get weird, as they do in “From Out of the Depths,” a story about a shadowy being that emerges from the Gulf of Mexico. That weirdness in and of itself would be enough to interest most readers, but Ditko knows how to show the reactions — whether fear, terror, anger, despair, or some other emotion — in the faces of his human characters.
Feverish nightmare worlds and weird science are also strong Ditko trademarks, appearing in such stories as “The World Awaits,” about a scientist creating mutant ants; “There It Is Again” and “A Second Self,” a pair of Frankenstein pastiches; and “The Man from Time” and “Failure,” two time travel stories. One of the things that makes Ditko such an important artist is his willingness to try anything. Charlton may have paid the lowest rates in the industry, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at Ditko’s work. His sense of exploration and dedication to his craft are evident on every page.
Ditko’s art is indeed outstanding. But the stories? Not so much. In fact, many of them are lousy. Some include good set-ups with clumsy or too-easy endings; others are simply formulaic. Yet surprisingly, several still hold up well. For good or ill, you can’t fault Ditko for the stories themselves. It’s doubtful that Ditko had a hand in the writing of any of these tales. (Bell speculates that the stories were probably written by Charlton mainstay writer Joe Gill.) We’re here for the art, and the art is fabulous.
Fantagraphics has done a superb job of making these comics look absolutely gorgeous. The color representation is stellar; I don’t think you could ask for a better product. The only quibble I have is in the reproduction of the lettering, which is either too dark or light in just a few places, but that’s certainly not a deal-breaker. Blake Bell and everyone at Fantagraphics have put together yet another excellent volume in the Steve Ditko Archives, a series that is not only an essential part of comics history, but also a whole lot of fun.
Get Impossible Tales as well as the other volumes in the Steve Ditko Archives: