Friday, May 1, 2009

Reprint This! Steve Ditko

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected several titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

Artist Steve Ditko has earned accolades, praise, the thanks of a grateful comic-lovin' world and even a Jonathan Ross-helmed documentary for the BBC on the strength of his work. One of comics' most notorious recluses, the quiet artist was blowing kids' minds in the sixties with his work on characters like Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Creeper and the Question, all of whom he created or co-created. In the seventies, his workload didn't slow down much, even if his profile was a good deal lower than previously. For the publisher Charlton, he drew hundreds of pages for their horror titles, while continuing to occasionally draw more conventional adventure stories. The stuff he was doing was sometimes outlandish or utterly unconventional, but it all shares two common traits: it all looks terrific and it's all out of print and quite difficult to find.

Marvel has released some of the artist's work for them in a large-format collection entitled Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko, but most of his work for DC and Charlton has not been seen since it originally appeared. Since DC owns almost all of the output from Charlton (everything, I understand, save the small amount of material which the creators themselves re-purchased, such as the superhero comic E-Man) and has even incorporated some of their more successful trademarks into their own continuity, I don't believe there's really anything stopping DC from assembling a package of some of these strips. (Reader Martin Wisse suggests that much of this material might also be held by Roger Broughton's company; Devlin Thompson told me that months ago and I should have remembered.)

Killjoy, for example, was a completely bizarre character who "starred" in a pair of delightful eight-page episodes. Almost nothing about the character was shown or revealed; the focus was on the villains who were whining and protesting that nobody had the right to interrupt their evil schemes. You wouldn't expect to find satires about government and corporate obstinance in the back of a children's funnybook in 1973-74, but there they were, a pair of wonderful, high-concept comedies masquerading as something about superheroes. They'd be forgotten if scans hadn't shown up over at The Groovy Age last year, although reprints of the two stories did show up in a small press collection called The Ditko Package in 1989.

In fact, there are several small press collections out there, not the least of which are the ones that Ditko's company has had a hand in. But none of these have had the ability to work with several different publishers to assemble something more consistent. Of course, even his major work is not readily available in a simple format - I don't believe you can just buy a single book with all of his Dr. Strange episodes without getting a lot of later, inferior work in the same package, for instance - but a broad anthology might be possible, and show off a lot of interesting material in one place. Blake Bell's wonderful site Ditko Looked Up includes a fascinating stripography which mentions several books I've never seen. He drew the final issue of something called Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men for Atlas/Seaboard, for instance, as well as a couple of issues of Tiger-Man for that publisher, and four issues of Stalker for DC in 1975. Other work was a little sporadic at the time.

Apart from the horror comics and Shade the Changing Man, which I wrote up in an earlier Reprint This! and which deserves its own collection, and twelve episodes of Starman which appeared in the pages of Adventure Comics, there were unusual things like the first issue of Man-Bat, three episodes of the Kirby-created Demon and contributions to DC's SF anthology Time Warp. But best of all these things, from my perspective anyway, was the fantastic Odd Man.

I was about seven, and already a voracious comic reader, when DC started running house ads announcing the huge new expansion coming to their lineup. Called "The DC Explosion," one of these ads showed a group of characters who'd be getting their own titles or back-up series. The thunderously bizarre Odd Man was among the crowd in this one ad (you can see it at Fanzing's article about the debacle), and I was determined to see his story, and so I started scouring the Eckerd Drugs and 7-11s and Majik Markets for the issue of Shade the Changing Man which would feature the character. It was never released. As many of you know, the DC Explosion rapidly backfired into what we call the DC Implosion, and the contents of Shade # 9 were junk-published internally by the company for trademark protection.

I thought that was it for the Odd Man for almost fifteen years until I learned that Detective Comics # 487 published the story, or, as it turned out, a revised version of it, apparently with the cliffhanger ending jerry-rigged into an conclusion. I looked in every comic shop, junk store and flea market in north Georgia for this book, and could have assembled a complete decade's run of Detective except for # 487 until I finally heard about that new-fangled eBay thing that folk were talking about, and got an account just to buy this comic. And lots of other junk, but that came later.

At any rate, there remains a heck of a lot of great Ditko artwork out there which has never been republished. Unfortunately, some of the Marvel material includes licensed properties like Micronauts and Rom, to which the publisher no longer has the rights. But it's long past time to get started on a proper retrospective of this great artist's work. Sure, you're probably not going to coax a quote out of him for the back cover, but how about it, DC?

No comments:

Post a Comment