Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Ditko - Dripping With Fear!

Dripping With Fear is the fifth volume in the Steve Ditko Archives from Fantagraphics. It presents work which was produced and appeared in Charlton Comics in 1958 and 1959. The stories are of the classic sci-fi whimsical variety with a strong moral message delivered when the protagonist either wins his heart's desire or is punished in some weird way for his improper desires. 

And speaking of improper desires, 1958 was an important month for Ditko in that he landed a studio with Eric Stanton, an artist who specialized in fetish and bondage art and comics for that shadowy market. Stanton and Ditko maintained a studio together for a decade, right through to 1968. As we well know it was in these years that Ditko's style matured and he fashioned the heroes which were to make him a legend in comic book lore. In fact there's some suggestion that Stanton might've had a small had in designing elements of the Amazing Spider-Man himself. The stories are conflicting, not helped by the fact that Ditko always seemed to want to downplay his involvement with his studio mate's work. 

That work found a audience which to put it bluntly was not mainstream America. To find that "Sturdy" Steve Ditko the co-creator of Spidey was also helping out on pages in which dames in various states of undress fought or held sway over one another is something the Comics Code approved world might think a bit too kinky. But there seems little doubt looking at some of the pages that Ditko did indeed assist from time to time on features like Sweeter Gwen and others. It's always struck odd that a man of such strong convicitions as Ditko held about the value of work would be so squeamish about owning his "work" here, seeing as it was the quality of the craftsmanship that should matter and not the content. 

Ditko also was moving away from just doing science fiction and fantasy tales and was working on westerns as well. This collection features the stories he did for Blackjack and Outlaws of the West and even closes out with a tale from Robin Hood and his Merry Men

But it's still those offbeat weird tales from This Magazine is Haunted, Strange Suspense Stories, Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds and Outer Space that supply the bulk of the material here. Ditko is also doing relatively few covers for these magazines as well, concentrating it appears on his storytelling. There is a sixth and final volume in this series and I'll take a look at it in just a few days. Be here for the Halloween-month long wrap up. 

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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Night Gallery - Serling!

Rod Serling is without a doubt one of the most important figures in early television, especially in the presentation of science fiction and fantasy. The Twilight Zone remains the gold standard of storytelling in this genre after six decades. Everything that comes along in that vein always looks like a variation on The Twilight Zone. And that's true for Night Gallery as well. Night Gallery was of course Serling's very early 70's attempt to get back onto television with the kind of smart and thoughtful yarns that had made The Twilight Zone iconic. That Night Gallery falls short is not Serling's fault, for the show was done on a less than a shoestring budget. 

Whereas The Twilight Zone offered one story a week, ideally a half hour, Night Gallery was saddled with having to offer up to as many as four different takes in any given hour. Usually there were two major stories and then perhaps a couple of gags. These were brief, often unfunny and they were loathed by Serling who was not in full command of this show as he had been before. Jack Laird was the producer and he had a different sense than the art than Serling, more keyed to dark humor. 

The other big deficit that Night Gallery faced was color. There was no way that in 1970 a network was going to allow a show to hit the primetime in black and white. But that's exactly what a show like Night Gallery needed. And to make matters worse, often the shooting schedules were so short and the budgets so tight that adding atmosphere was a luxury which was often dispensed with. Night Gallery was all about atmosphere at it best and this was deemed too expensive early on. 

On the plus side Night Gallery did adapt a number of  tales of Weird Tales C'Thulhu mavens such as H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, and Robert Bloch. Even if the adaptations are not everything one would imagine, Lovecraft in particular is difficult to film in the best of circumstances, the very fact the adaptations of "Cool Air" and "Pickman's Model" exist is a virtue not to be overlooked. Perhaps my favorite episode is "Brenda" adapted from a short story by Margaret St. Clair. Few of the Night Gallery show make you ache, but this one does. 

So I'm very pleased that I at long last got the chance to watch the Night Gallery episode all the way through. There's some dross for sure, but hidden in more episodes than not there are some gems. Even if Rod Serling was not always convinced of that fact. 

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Monday, October 26, 2020

Ditko Runs Amok!

Back in the 90's when Steve Ditko was winding down his mainstream career in comics you had a hard time telling when he'd pop up next. One place was in a nifty four issue reprint series edited by Mort Todd called Monster Menace. Of the four issues Ditko drew two of the covers including the one above featuring not only himself and Stan Lee hard at work but an avalanche of monster mugs from the mighty Atlas/Marvel monster years. 

Here's a look at a raw version of the artwork Ditko turned in before it was menaced itself by logos and branding imagery. 

And here it is again with some of that identifying copy in place. Notably missing still is the little Jack Kirby blurb at the bottom. 

Ditko also did the cover for issue three of Monster Menace and this one is bit more typical of the work he was doing at the end of his career in the halls of Marvel. Dismayed and frightened regular folks (Ditko's bread and butter) are scared of an oozing green gelatinous monster as it appears on the sidewalk. The copy at the bottom announced the monster "Zuztak", but this is no Zzutak my friends. 

Zzutak was a delightful monster penciled by Kirby and inked by Ditko who appeared in an issue of Strange Tales and some years later in the third issue of Fear where I first encountered him. He's always been a favorite. He was an ancient Mayan monster recreated by an artist given three dimensional paint by a mad Mayan priest who lusts for power and an army of Zzutaks. The artist instead paints up an enemy to do battle with Zzutak and the Mayan priest's plans are foiled. It's one of my favorites. 

I had hoped to do more this month with the Marvel mystery and monster work Ditko did, but time has got the best of me. Look for another go at Ditko's Marvel years in months to come. 

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Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Blood Trilogy!

"The Blood Trilogy" by producer David F. Friedman and director Herschell G. Lewis is an fascinating relic of the horror film's bygone days. Horror films had been of a particular kind from their beginning, largely psychological terrors limited in their ability to showcase gore by the strict limits of studios and censors. The development of the drive-in trade and the impact of Hammer Films with its color remakes of classic Universal features began to break that longtime hegemony down and more brusque and vivid portrayals of horror became possible. By modern standards these three films are still somewhat quaint, the special effects so artificial that confusion with real events is impossible really, but they were in color and that was sufficient for the time. 

Blood Feast is the first of these from 1963, and my favorite. It concerns a mad adherent of an ancient Egyptian cult who kills women and ritually consumes parts of them in service to his gods. He is humble caterer by day and a vicious killer by day-for-night. Now this movie ain't in anyway scary, the events too weird and the production too low-budget with mediocre and bad acting salted all through it to convince, but it does offer a fascinating picture of a man gone well and truly mad. 

Two Thousand Maniacs is the second installment from the same team a year later in 1964 after the amazing success of the Blood Feast. This low-budget effort made use of a town now disappeared into the bowels of Disney's Florida fortress of fun -- Disney World. The town folk there were happy to have a movie being made in their midst and supply the bulk of the not really "two thousand maniacs" from the title. These maniacs are ghosts from the Civil War who in Brigadoon fashion appear every one hundred years to take some measure of vengeance on the "Yankees" they waylay. They concoct weird carnival like deathtraps for their pleasure. It's the strong performance of a Lewis regular named Jeffrey Allen who makes this movie memorable for me as he's a rare professional actor among a multitude of lesser types. It's the favorite of most folks, but I find the tortures a bit too overbaked for my money. 

And finally the third instalment of this "Blood Trilogy" from 1965 is a weird number titled Color Me Blood Red which has a plot very similar to Roger Corman's Bucket of Blood. A mad painter grows increasingly difficult and vicious due to his inability to create art that satisfies him. He kills him girlfriend and her blood becomes the medium through which he is able to create masterpieces for which there is a market. His problem then is to get more of the life-giving substance to make more art and to that end he kidnaps a buxom young lady and that leads to more trouble for everyone. It's a relatively tight plot but the acting is tiresome and its a race to the end for the characters and the viewer as to which will lose interest first. 

Herschell G. Lewis went on to make more movies in this category dubbed "gore" though he parted ways with his longtime partner Friedman. His later efforts such as The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls are much less interesting than this initial trilogy which does have some sense of pushing fresh boundaries, if nothing else. Gore for gore's sake is utterly boring to my eye, but creating images an audience hasn't seen before is a worthy goal for a filmmaker. 

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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Ditko - Impossible Tales!

The Steve Ditko Archives Volume 4 is titled Impossible Tales and as this collection of Ditko tales from the latter part of 1957 and into 1958 show, the title is well chosen. Long gone are the space operas and the gruesome horror tales. They have been replaced by light and bouncy stories of science fiction and fantasy which focus on the destiny of one man. This is a collection filled with tortured souls looking for explanations for why they suffer of who they are. We have misguided robots, time travelers, befuddled scientists,  mutants and more.

These are stories mostly from Charlton and magazines such as Tales of the Mysterious Traveler and This Magazine is Haunted. It's the latter that really stands out in my estimation, the host of that comic Dr. Haunt has become a real favorite of mine in these readings. He's visually provocative and Ditko increasingly uses him in more and more creative ways fusing him into the stories. He does it with the Traveler as well, but somehow Dr. Haunt is a bit more engaging to my eye. I should also say that two stories from the earlier volume in the series are reprinted yet again because of some pages dropped in that first outing. 

One comic seems to be all Ditko, the St. John comic title Do You Believe in Nightmares. This is a heady book, almost in many ways to my eye what Dikto will do when he turns his sights on Marvel. There are two issues of this comic, the second features work by Dick Ayers and apparently both were the result of Al Fago, longtime Charlton editor selling these tales to St. John's when he was fired by Charlton. 

The rest of the stories appeared in Charlton comics such Unusual Tales and Out of this World. Ditko is exceedingly well represented in the Charlton line at this time but his covers do seem to diminish as he spends more and more time on the stories within. The covers he did produce though are real winners. 

The next volume will continue with Ditko's 1958 work and will also bring to light one of Ditko's most whip snapping aspects, his days as a pornographer. 

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Friday, October 23, 2020

The Boyette Chillers!

Steve Ditko was at Charlton for two reasons, they paid promptly and they left him alone to draw his comics he liked. That combination drew many talents to Charlton, not the least of which was Pat Boyette. Boyette was a "Renaissance Man" of sorts, a maker of early radio as a performer and later television and even movies as a producer and director. His most famous movie The Dungeon of Harrow is a drive-in horror flick not without its charms. And those charms are also evident in his artwork, which was incredibly distinctive and ideal for rendering tales of gothic horror. I daresay no single comic artist of any era was better at drawing ancient castles and musty denizens of same.  A heaping helping of Boyette's most distinctive work is included in the 2003Vanguard Press volume titled The Nightstand  Chillers. 

Most of the stories had appeared earlier in an issue of Vanguard's Tales from the Edge. That material plus more to plump it up a bit makes The Nightstand Chillers a nifty read. The stories included are from a wide array of publishers Boyette worked for through the 1970's. The list includes Skywald, Atlas-Seaboard, Globe Publications, Ace and of course Charlton.

Here are the covers of the magazines and comics the stories appeared in. They range from early in his career in 1971 to the early 90's. Two of them are from the period when Charlton was doing painted covers and Boyette was perfect for that kind of presentation. Boyette, co-creator of The Peacemaker died twenty years ago now in 2000, and for some more on him there is a very nifty interview with his career in the volume or you could check out this link. 

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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Kodti Is Out Of This World!

This cover for the January 1959 issue of Out of the World from Charlton Comics might well be my all-time favorite Steve Ditko cover, and I know that's saying a lot. Maybe I'll change my mind some time, but I find this image of golden armored spacemen perched atop equally golden gun mounts waging battle against orange orbs to be an fascinating and completely compelling image of space. 

From the get-go Ditko signed much of his work, but in this instance he does sign it but uses the anagram "S. Kodti". 

There's an elegance and deftness to this image which sometimes eludes Ditko. Almost never does he develop a cover in which people are such a small part of the composition. 

I first encountered this image as the cover for a 1978 cover of Charlton's reprint comic Space War. I didn't immediately recognize the cover as a Ditko production and somehow got it into my noggin that this was a Joe Staton effort. (I never saw or if I did, did not grokked the meaning of the signature somehow.)When I at long last learned of my error it gave me a fresh insight into how similar Staton's early work was to Ditko's early work. 

The art has been reprinted a number of times and always look good to my prejudiced eye. 

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Bubba And The Cosmic Blood-Suckers!

The movie Bubba Ho-Tep by director Don Coscarelli starring Bruce Campbell and the late Ossie Davis is among my favorite movies. As a bit of a probable joke it ends with the announcement of a possible sequel Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. There was some hubbub about a sequel but it came for naught and that's likely a good thing. Bubba Ho-Tep is a gem and to add to its universe is a problematic activity as the novel  Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers by Joe Lansdale demonstrates. Lansdale wrote the remarkable long short story (novella?) which inspired the movie and was encouraged to give the world more of his remarkable interpretation of Elvis Presley. 

Alas while I found the novel diverting and full of the typical Lansdale hijinks full of piss, vinegar and pungent death and sex, I found the whole far less satisfying than the sum of its many many parts. And it's those myriad parts which overwhelm this story for me. We get multiple perspectives in the story -- Elvis himself in his relative prime before his identity switch with imitator Sebastian Haff, one of his roadies named Johnny who carries much of the story as well as other asides and references. The story of course has the advertised "cosmic blood-suckers" which in a Lovecraftian way are hard to visualize. They seem more mood than menace sometimes, even when they are engaged with the small cadre of spook fighters employed by Colonel Tom Parker. It's a Parker who leads a secret operation which protects the world from ghosties and ghoulies and other assorted supernatural threats. He does so from his paddle-wheeler manned by zombies and assisted by blind psychics, sexy house ghosts, hammer-wielding tall tales, and others with a special "charisma" to battle evil. That's Elvis and he is the "Hellboy" of this particular version of the "BPRD". Much of the book is take up with the battle against the vampires and it's paced in a breakneck way. 

This ain't a bad book at all, but when compared to the yarn that inspired it, it falls far short in terms of import and theme. Bubba Ho-Tep is a magnificent reflection on mortality and plays with reality itself to drive home its points in a particular effective way. Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-Suckers is a rockem' sockem' misadventure which has more fury than feeling and while its diverting it ain't compellng, not even a bit. I'm not sorry I read it, but I don't think I needed it either. 

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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Finding Ditko!

This Out of this World cover is another favorite of mine from the hand of Steve Ditko. One thing which jumped out at me when I saw the original black and white art is the angular nature of the composition. Ditko masterfully controls the eye as everything in this image points the same way. The diver's gaze is directed toward the peculiar mole machine which is appearing at the same angle. What really popped in this is the fact the two fish around the diver's head are pointed the same way, as is the school of fish in the background. Kudos to Ditko for a dandy.

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