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Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1
posted February 24, 2010


Creators: Steve Ditko, Blake Bell
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, hardcover, 240 pages, November 2009, $39.99
Ordering Numbers: 1606992899 (ISBN10), 9781606992890 (ISBN13)

I wasn't going to review Strange Suspense Vol. 1, but in turning my office bookshelves inside out I discovered it squirreled away with material I hadn't touched in five years. No matter how it got there -- I'm going with it somehow growing spider-legs and scrambling across the shelves before inserting itself between Replacement God and From Hell -- it looked like it belonged. Strange Suspense is a handsome book generally, with a fun front cover and a nice, sturdy, feel. As far as my eye can tell the work is reproduced well; admittedly, I have one of the worst eyes in comics for that sort of thing. It's nice to have a bunch of comics from this time period, particularly the grittier pre-Code or Fear of Code-Like Crackdown work. There are some truly repulsive pieces of throwaway pulp in this book's pages, and Ditko was more than up to the task of illustrating them.

imageStrange Suspense covers Ditko's earliest works, his time dancing in and around publishers like Prize and Timor and the gigs through which he sealed a long-time relationship with Charlton. The main reason I didn't review this book until it displayed magic self-shelving powers is that there's nothing all that revelatory about the work in terms of how a career like Ditko's progresses. The Blake Bell-compiled book yielded one of the easiest checklists I ever brought to a book like this one. Did Ditko's work progress in terms of its basic professional quality? Check. Did Ditko's earliest work remind one of well-known Ditko influences like Mort Meskin and Jerry Robinson? Check. Did Ditko's work become more personal and idiosyncratic and recognizable as Ditko's own as the decade progressed and as he settled in at Charlton? Check.

Compounding matters, the three obvious historical lines of inquiry without one-word answers receive answers in pretty straight-forward fashion as well. I couldn't tell any difference between the work that Ditko did before and after he went back to Pennsylvania after getting sick that isn't explained by other, more likely factors like the speed with which he was working and the general development one expects of a young cartoonist. There's nothing in the way Ditko drew these stories that provide clues as to his general mental state later in his career -- the same way everything by JD Salinger gets read in the light of the reclusive figure he's become, we bring that same eye to Ditko in terms of his professional ethics and general desire to be left alone. If there's a qualitative difference between the work Ditko did with Joe Gill -- I'm assuming the Charlton stuff is Joe Gill -- and the work he did later with Stan Lee based on some factor other than the nature and relative quality of the scripts themselves, I'm not seeing it. Although as I recall, Gill was Timely-trained and probably wrote a lot like a younger Stan Lee in the first place. In the end, the surface appraisal of this as a good-looking book of choppy 1950s comic book stories that happen to be drawn by a quality artist bound for great things, that's all I'm seeing here. Hiding on my bookshelf makes even more sense now.