Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Fascinating, Frustrating Enigma of Steve Ditko

I love books about comics, the comic-book industry and the people who make comics. I wish there were a lot of them, because I think it’s worthwhile to document these events and people while we still can.

Which brings me to Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics, $39.99), in which author Blake Bell examines the life and work of one of comics’ greatest enigmas.

Almost anyone interested in superhero comics knows Ditko was the artist who co-created The Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Stan Lee. Those who go a bit deeper will know that Ditko also created some cool characters at DC Comics in the late 1960s and 1970s, including The Creeper, Hawk and Dove and Shade, The Changing Man. A few more willl remember him for doing layouts on the cult 1980s Marvel series Rom, and a dedicated few will have perused Ditko’s independent creations such as Mr. A. But given that Ditko has refused to be interviewed or appear in public for decades now, little else is really known about this artist, who created some of the most unnerving and interesting comics in the medium’s history.

Bell does the best job of any attempt I’ve ever seen to bring together everything we know about Ditko’s life and work. The result is fascinating, frustrating and eventually presents a sad portrait of an immense talent that withdrew from the world and denied it of his work and himself of the audience, acclaim and success that was easily within his grasp.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Strange, Fleeting Fun of Jack Kirby's 'Devil Dinosaur'

Devil Dinosaur Omnibus
Jack Kirby was always a powerhouse comic book artist, but his work in the 1970s is among the most amazing of his career as well as the most divisive. I say divisive because Kirby’s work in that decade took some often strange turns — sometimes producing amazing classics and sometimes producing fascinating failures.

I have to place Devil Dinosaur in the latter category. This short-lived series only ran eight issues in 1978 and, according to Tom Brevoort’s introduction in the Devil Dinosaur Omnibus edition I just finished reading, it was an attempt by Kirby to capitalize for Marvel on some interest an animation studio had in the Kamandi series he created for DC.

Kamandi itself was an oddball series, reportedly inspired by the Planet of the Apes movies, the first issue of that series prominently featured a destroyed Statue of Liberty and was set in a post-apocalyptic future full of mutated half-animals and, of course, the titular last boy on Earth. Even though Kamandi borrows its premise at least partly from a popular movie series, that comic book’s storyline had somewhere to go.

Not so Devil Dinosaur, which flounders partly because it’s a pretty thin concept to begin with and partly because there’s not really any place to take the story. For those who’ve never read this series, Devil Dinosaur is a T-Rex style dinosaur living in prehistoric times who is burned by a mad mob of early human “small folk” and emerges bright red in color. He teams up with a young “Dawn-Man” named Moon-Boy, and together they defend their valley home from various threats.