Monday, November 30, 2020

DC Profiles Number 58!

When asked to contribute a small personal essay for DC's Profiles feature, an attempt by the publisher to make its talent a little more familiar to the readers, Ditko in typical form refused. He often said an artist's work should speak for them and so in this instance an ensemble of his DC Universe characters sufficed to send the message that he'd been busy in his years at DC. 

Of his many creations showcased in DC Profiles Number 58 one is stands out to my eye and that's Stalker. I haven't dealt with Ditko's foray into Sword and Sorcery, but don't fret, I plan to include Stalker sometime next year when I review a passel of S&S types. Something to look forward to or dread, you choose. 

Next month something completely different.

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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Shade The Changing Man!

It is not difficult to argue that Shade the Changing Man was Steve Ditko's last significant creation for mainstream comics. It's a been decades since I read these stories and frankly reading them all together and not once a month has altered my opinion. For one thing the stories are incredibly dense, both in plot and numbers of characters. The fact that unusual names are common only makes keeping the rosters of good and bad guys distinct and further hurting that effort is the fact that at least half the cast is keeping a criminal secret and the rest are duplicitous about something at the very least. These are agents of a bizarre other-dimensional government which seems to lots of laws but seems to have difficulty dispensing justice. No doubt that was intentional. 

In Shade the Changing Man I see one of the most complex universes Dikto ever took time to concoct. Usually his heroes operate in a version of the very real world in  cookie cutter cities called Hub, River, or some such name meant to evoke a film noir setting. But here we have the Earth as just one setting with Shade's home being the Meta-Zone and between the two a weird wild dangerous territory called the Zero-Zone. There are characters brimming in all of these locations, so many at first that I frequently got lost in the crowd of offbeat names.  

I was reminded of nothing so much as the lush beautiful "Fourth World" fashioned by Jack Kirby for his New Gods adventures. In those tales Earth is just one battleground among several, though a critical one. Here it seems to be much the same. 

Also Ditko creates some of his most visually arresting villains. As wacky as Shade is himself with his visually interesting but sometimes difficult to fathom powers we get the likes of an angry warrior "Zokag" who reminded me of Kalibak with his ferocious ways, their weird color-shifting "Form" who seemed to scare everybody, and the stark white "Cloak" who reminded me a lot of the Ghost from those Charlton Captain Atom comics. 

There's a family drama imbedded in the saga too with Shade's love interest imagining he's hurt her family and betrayed the Meta-Zone.The villain "Sude" who looks like a version of Pac-Man at times makes the most of these misunderstandings. Shade is in fact thought a villain through almost all of the run we have in hand. 

I got the sense that after his battle with the ultra villain "Khaos" that his standing might well be improving and it did in some quarters. Still and all he was pursued by the authorities as a traitor with a death sentence on his head. 

The action moves beyond our hero Rac Shade when he slips into a "color coma" which is just what you'd expect. He periodically changes color as he lies unconscious following his defeat of Khaos. 

The transition is being made in the book and you get the feeling that Shade's days as a marked man are going to end as he undertakes a mission back to the Earth-Zone for elements of the Meta-Zone leadership. He's not been publicly exonerated but his girl friend knows he's an innocent man and so do many others who now stand beside and support him. This shift happens just as the title abruptly ends. 

One final issue of Shade the Changing Man was produced by Ditko and in this one he is waylaid on his way to the Earth-Zone and battles a deadly villain in the Zero-Zone. All the way through in these Zero-Zone skirmishes I got the feeling of deja vu as the fights reminded me of Doctor Strange's forays into the Dark Dimension to take on Dormmamu in the pages of Strange Tales. Of course this is a science fiction seeting but the visuals are much in the same vein. 

Some call Shade the Changing Man Ditko's last great mainstream comic work and I'd tend to agree with them. I was much impressed on this reading at the potential for the characters and the new setting. I know much work was done with Shade and his Meta-Verse when it was inducted into the arcane Vertigo universe. I haven't read any of those stories and cannot comment, but for sure they got their inspiration from the deft artwork and mind of Steve Ditko. 

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Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Adventures Of Starman!

Now I must confess that despite Steve Ditko's involvement with the feature of Starman, I mostly went to the quixotic Adventure Comics of this era for the Plastic Man feature by Mike Barr and Joe Staton. Staton I thought the ideal artist for Plas as my beloved E-Man by Staton and the late Nick Cuti had been partially inspired by Jack Cole's classic creation. But if I went to the dance for Plas, I wasn't to sad to spend a bit of time with Prince Gavyn, better known as Starman, one of a myriad of chaps who have held that title. 

The first was the Golden Age Ted Kight created by Gardner Fox and Jack Burnely for early issues of Adventure Comics, who discovered the power of the "Gravity Rod" and used it to become one of the more powerful superheroes of his time. Later dubbed the "Cosmic Rod" it was loaned to Star-Spangled Kid when a younger generation of heroes took charged of the Justice Society on what was once called Earth-2. What it's called today is anyone's guess. 

Gerry Conway and Mike Vosburg created a second Starman who alternately owes his name to the DC original or Ziggy Stardust or some variation of that. He lasted all of one issue of 1st Issue Special though later he was dusted off and made part of the larger DCU canon as a character who pushed the boundaries of not outer space but sexual orientation. 

The fourth Starman was eventually revealed to have become a superhero as a result of getting a charge of energy from Prince Gavin who was the Starman we are most focused on today. This Starman's career blossomed and wilted in the 1980's as recorded by Roger Stern and Tom Lyle among others. 

And finally (I think) the heritage of Ted Knight is returned to when both of his sons become Starman in turn. One is killed while the other has a reasonably long career in the 90's as reluctant hero. James Robinson was the writer and worked diligently to tie together the threads of a saga of "Starmen" from across a number of decades. 

The Starman that Ditko drew for DC was heavily inked by Romeo Tanghal and created by Paul Levitz. He gets a bit of inspiration visually from Ditko's own Captain Atom, created for Charlton with Joe Gill decades before I believe. Those sparkles on his costume give more than hint of his pedigree. 

The sparkly look was something used by Jim Starlin when he revamped another stellar superhero for Marvel Comics called logically enough Captain Marvel. The common blonde hair might also be a reminder of where these similar heroes hail from. 

Ironically enough (or by careful planning) after a somewhat decent run in Adventure Comics alongside Plas and later Aquaman, Starman's adventures come to an abrupt halt. He was a royal who had the ability to live in space and was tapped by an enigmatic alien to use two wristbands ("Nega Bands" anyone?) to channel stellar energy. He used these powers to protect a queen who was also his sister and to rescue many among them his true love another chick of royal blood. 

All this is undone when after the cancellation of the series the story is wrapped in DC Comics Presents and features Jim Starlin using Mongol as the villain who usurps the throne and kills the queen. Prince Gavyn becomes emperor, changes into blue duds and ends up teaming with Superman to not only defeated Mongol but destroying the empire itself which we learn was literally held together by the stellar force of the crown itself. Once free the assembled planets vamoose and the empire is no more but Gavyn is free to find love at long last. 

After the debut Ditko did not draw anymore Starman covers, but talents such as Jim Aparo, Joe Staton, Rich Buckler, Brian Bolland and Ross Andru did many, with the focus shifting among the heroes who shared the title at the time. Here are the covers from the Starman era. 

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Friday, November 27, 2020

Pop Action At Its Best!

The page from Beware the Creeper by Steve Ditko and letterer Gaspar Saladino (perhaps)  above is a marker of a time and place when suddenly comic books and comic book characters were wildly popular. The iconography of the comic had filtered into the broader culture in a new way, it had quietly slipped into the salons and parlors of the intelligentsia, those blokes and dames who determine what is cool and what is not for the rest of us grunts. For a sweet moment in time comics were cool. (They've since become mainstream, but perhaps not as "cool".)

One of the reasons was Batman, a TV show that took the country by storm and filled our imaginations with all manner of new yet somehow vintage sights and sounds, translated tongue-in-cheek from the pages of decades of yellowing comics. 

The simple "Pow!" became the marker of a sound that never was save in the imagination along with its brothers and sisters like "Zap!" and "Crack!" and such. The sound effect "Foom" achieved such a charm that it became the title of one of Marvel's many fan clubs magazines. 

The museums became a repository to the stuff of the newsstands and celebrated for its potency in a culture which already felt that life was draining from it a bit. It's at once a celebration and an achievement, but also sad in one sense because the "trash" had become "treasure" and that makes it of significance to those who don't love it for its own sake. 

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Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Day In The Anti-Life - Who Gets The Bird?

It's "Turkey Day" here in these United States, and a Thanksgiving like this we have not seen in my lifetime that's for sure. This holiday has traditionally been all about gathering together and enjoying a sumptuous repast and recognizing the joys that life can bring. 

This year though there ought not be large gatherings and while the food might be as good, the recognition of joy might be a bit more difficult to accomplish over Skype. These United States of mine have responded to the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 with as little success as can be measured anywhere on the globe, and we have only our own stupidity and implacable ignorance to blame.

Half the country is fighting mightily to stave off the plague and eventually return life to normal order as soon as possible. The other half apparently couldn't wait for that reality, and were in fact encouraged by lamebrained leaders to go forth and frolic in a fantasy as if no disease afflicted the land. On all levels of government we have witnessed hapless dopes hand out off-the-cuff medical advice which has done all the harm you might well imagine such nitwit pronouncements to manufacture. 

At the top of the heap of miscreants who have wrought this disaster is our very own Numbskull-in-Chief. He's mishandled the pandemic from the get-go and now that he imagines it's no longer his "responsibility" (as if he ever did imagine it was) he's revving up the mishandling. Equally slow at the switch are the Republicans who hold sway in the Senate and have blocked relief for the regular Jane and Joe of America and instead in "Grand Old Party" fashion focused almost exclusively on business interests, their real constituents. 

Our new President has already begun to offer true leadership, but he will be blocked again and again in order for the GOP to gain a rhetorical advantage come next election. The realities of the disease are of little or almost no concern it seems despite Covid's insidious habit of afflicting the rich and powerful and stupid as well as the common bloke. True "Democracy" in action at last sadly. 

Who gets the bird today? Donald Trump and a more eloquent salute to his criminal leadership I cannot imagine. To the GOP I say lead, follow or get off the stage! Enjoy your turkey friends and pass me some virtual cranberries please.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Dare You Enter The House Of Ditko!

One of the things most admirable for me about Steve Ditko was his work ethic. Sadly artists who work regularly sometimes get tagged as "hacks", as if only sharpening your skills in private was appropriate. Ditko worked and developed in public and that can be seen in the mystery and science fiction stories gathered together in the first volume of The Steve Ditko Omnibus. Apart from Shade the Changing Man and Stalker this tome offers up around two hundred pages of Ditko work from three decades. There was just one cover for these mystery magazines and that you can see above. 

The first items are from the middle 60's and are part of material he produced in tandem with Sal Trapani for DC, ACG, and others. A decade later he's back at DC for stories appearing in House of Secrets, House of Mystery and Ghosts among others. In the 80's he turned out some dandy tales for Time Warp, Weird War Tales, and even Plop!. With one exception he works from the scripts of others such as Steve Skeates, Arnold Drake, Jack Harris and many more. Often his work was inked by Ernie Chan, Mike Royer, Wally Wood and an old Charlton mate Wayne Howard. But the best stories are those he did the full art for such as the page above. 

These are not the greatest stories in many instances, full of time-worn plot twists often, but many are clever little fables of what happens when people misbehave. Steve Ditko was best when he was drawing common folk and these genre stories give him an ideal chance to do just that. Not a hack, just a working artist. 

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