Category: steve ditko

Dr. Strange (2016)

Dr. Strange (2016): based on the character created by Steve Ditko; written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Scott Derrickson; starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Rachel McAdams (Rachel Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Benedict Wong (Wong), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), and Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius): A bit of a boiler-plate Marvel Movie (think Iron Man with magic instead of technology and you’ve pretty much got it) enlivened by some ambitiously loopy visuals, albeit some of them riffing on Inception and not anything in the Dr. Strange comic books themselves.

The changes to Dr. Strange’s character make him a twin for Robert Downey Jr.’s snarky Tony Stark. That’s faithful for pre-magic Dr. Strange, not so much for post-magical-training Dr. Strange, possibly early Marvel’s least quippy hero — even Reed Richards (or Sue Storm, for that matter) got off more zingers than Dr. Strange in the 1960’s. Created by writer-artist Steve ‘Spider-man’ Ditko, Dr. Strange’s non-quippy gravitas probably makes him the Marvel character who would most benefit from a trade to DC Comics for, say, the Legion of Super-heroes.

Benedict Cumberbatch is fine as Dr. Strange, and Chiwetel Ejiofor does nice work as a seriously reworked Mordo. Mads Mikkelsen plays the least interesting Marvel Movie villain since Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2. Rachel McAdams is stuck playing Natalie Portman in the Thor movies, only moreso.

The movie’s visuals fail spectacularly at the end even as they also succeed admirably in translating Ditko’s surreal comic-book visuals of the Dark Dimension into the movie world. To say that the visual redesign of Dr. Strange’s greatest foe is regrettable is about the most praise I can offer. The poor bugger has been biggie-sized into a giant floating head that looks an awful lot like what would happen if you painted the Tron visuals for the Master Control Program onto an accordion.

As to the white-washing in regards to Asians… yep, one of Marvel’s first prominent, ‘good’ Asian characters is no more. Doc’s mentor, the ancient Asian known only as the Ancient One, is now the surprisingly spry Tilda Swinton, a.k.a. The Whitest Actress Ever. And the other tweaks made to the Ancient One’s character don’t help much either. 

In other areas, the magic training Strange endures now has all the length and rigor of selecting icons off a computer screen. Really, it makes the Harry Potterverse seem like a world teeming with educational rigor by comparison. Doctor Strange just has to make funky Kung Fu moves — no pronouncement of spells required. And the mystical doodad Strange and friends need to travel through space-time? It’s there to be dropped at a crucial moment, as these things always are. Lightly recommended.

Gorgo Loves His Mama

Ditko Monsters: Gorgo: edited by Craig Yoe; written by Joe Gill and others; illustrated by Steve Ditko and others (1961-64; reprinted 2013): This grand, tabloid-sized volume reprints all of comic-book legend Steve (Spider-man, Dr. Strange) Ditko’s work on the Charlton Comics adaptation and continuation of the giant-monster movie Gorgo.

Gorgo was a British attempt in the early 1960’s to match the success of Toho Studios’ Japanese giant-monster movies, especially Godzilla (nee Gojira). Thus was born Gorgo, a giant monster with an even more giant mother. Like King Kong, Gorgo gets captured and exhibited by some remarkably stupid showmen. Unlike King Kong, Gorgo has a mother who seems to be several hundred feet tall. England takes a beating.

After adapting the movie, Charlton continued the adventures of Gorgo and Mama Gorgo. Ditko and his long-time collaborator at Charlton, writer Joe Gill, combined on several issues of the title over a three-year period, with Ditko also providing several covers to issues he didn’t otherwise illustrate.

This volume really highlights Ditko’s two almost paradoxically opposite skills as a comic-book artist. He’s great at drawing really weird things, and he’s great at drawing people and settings that look far more normal and believeable than that of any other mainstream American comic-book artist in history. Giant monsters and ordinary people: it’s the Robert Redford/Godzilla movie you always wanted!

In between depopulating the ocean for their out-sized caloric requirements (Gorgo’s mother can gulp down sperm whales whole), Gorgo and his mother sleep on the ocean floor and occasionally get into adventures. They’re not the villains of the series — far from it. Instead, they end the Cuban Missile Crisis (I’m not joking), save Earth from an alien invasion, rescue an American nuclear submarine from the ocean floor, and inspire men and women to get married wherever they go (again, not kidding). For giant, destructive monsters, they sure are swell.

Throughout, Ditko juxtaposes the mundane and the fantastic with the same sort of skill he exhibited on his far more famous work on Spider-man and Dr. Strange, two characters he was drawing for Marvel pretty much simultaneously with several of the stories in this volume. Ditko enjoyed working for Charlton, pretty much the cheapest of the comic-book publishers to survive through the 1960’s and 1970’s, because he had pretty much carte blanche. Charlton was too cheap to exert editorial control, which meant Ditko didn’t have to tailor his style to the publisher or have his stories micro-managed by an editor.

It’s all a lot of over-sized fun on over-sized pages. This is Ditko near the height of his mainstream artistic powers. The scripts by Joe Gill are loopy in that Silver-Age science-fictiony way. The historical material contextualizes both the movie and the comics. Really, a fine piece of work. Gorgo loves his mama! Highly recommended.

Rise and Fall

The World’s End: written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg; directed by Edgar Wright; starring Simon Pegg (Gary King), Nick Frost (Andy Knightley), Martin Freeman (Oliver Chamberlain), Paddy Considine (Steven Prince), Eddie Marsan (Peter Page), Pierce Brosnan (Guy Shephard), and Rosamund Pike (Sam Chamberlain) (2013): Even more fun upon a second viewing. The movie gleefully subverts cliches from dozens of science-fiction sources while nonetheless making more sense than most ‘serious’ summer movies.

As with previous films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz from stars Pegg and Frost and director Wright, The World’s End strikes a fine balance between dialogue comedy and often uproarious slapstick. And as goofy as the fight scenes are, they’re still better choreographed than those in the vast majority of action movies. The soundtrack offers a time capsule of late 1980’s/early 1990’s BritPop, with an appropriate Doors song (appropriate to a pub crawl, that is) thrown in for good measure.

There’s a certain amount of seriousness floating around just beneath the surface, especially concerning addiction and free will, but the filmmakers wisely don’t bash the viewer over the head with it: they know when to jump back to comedy. Highly recommended.

The Steve Ditko Archives Volume 3: Mysterious Traveler: edited and introduced by Blake Bell; written by Joe Gill, Steve Ditko and others; illustrated by Steve Ditko (1957; collected 2013): The great Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange in the early 1960’s, can be seen herein becoming a great comic-book artist less than a decade into his illustrious career. The character work, panel composition, and experimentation with layout are those of a mature artist approaching the peak of his powers.

The weirdness of Ditko is that all this rising greatness comes on short horror and science-fiction stories for the lowest of the low of 1950’s comic-book publishers, Charlton Comics. Charlton paid the least of the major publishers. However, they also didn’t care what appeared in their comics, just so long as it passed the scrutiny of the new Comics Code Authority and then made a profit on the newsstands. That freedom set Ditko free, and he knew it — that’s why he worked for Charlton. He was doing a graduate course in comic-book illustration. And creative freedom has always been one of Ditko’s needs.

Most of the stories here are competently written, though there are some stinkers. But Charlton’s desire for 5-page and 6-page stories so as to give them flexibility in assembling comic books also means that even the worst story ends quickly. And you’ve got Ditko to watch. Many of the stylistic choices that would make Spider-man, Dr. Strange and many other later Ditko work so appealing and idiosyncratic find their first expression here.

The character work, especially with faces and with body poses, is already exquisitie and quintessentially Ditko. While Ditko was a poet of the ordinary-looking, he was also a master of the weird, and that too finds expression here. And as usual, editor Blake Bell does a fine job in assembling the material and in penning the autobiographical introduction to the volume. Highly recommended.

Ditkopalooza

The Steve Ditko Omnibus Volume 1 featuring Shade the Changing Man: all stories plotted and illustrated by Steve Ditko with additional writing by a cast of thousands (Collected 2010); The Steve Ditko Omnibus Volume 2 featuring Hawk and Dove: all stories plotted and illustrated by Steve Ditko with additional writing by a cast of thousands (Collected 2010):

Writer-artist Steve Ditko’s quixotic nature was only amplified by the cruddy state of mainstream comic books for the people who actually created characters for the companies. His two most notable co-creations for Marvel Comics were Spider-man and Dr. Strange, though he also did character-defining work on Iron Man and the Hulk. Tired of Stan Lee’s scripting and editing choices, Ditko left Marvel for more than a decade in the late 1960’s. For the last 15 years, he’s pretty much done his own, self-published thing, with very occasional short work for DC. He’s famously reclusive.

Prior to his fame-creating Marvel superhero work, Ditko did thousands of pages of horror and monster work for many companies, honing his skills until he’d pretty much reached his impressive peak in the 1960’s at Marvel and on B&W horror stories for Warren, and superhero work for DC and Charlton in the late 1960’s.

These two omnibuses collect all of Ditko’s output for DC other than his work on The Creeper in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In total, the collection spans several decades, offering the great, the good, and the very occasional indifferent sides of Ditko. He plotted many of the stories here (though not all), wrote a few, and either fully illustrated or pencilled the rest. It’s a really great, broad look at one of the most important, influential, and fascinating American comic-book creators.

Ditko’s unique ability to depict ordinary looking people in fantastical environments was at its best in Dr. Strange, but the Shade stories reprinted here are a very, very close second. They’re utterly bizarre and engaging, and Ditko finds in dialogue-writer Michael Fleisher a kindred spirit when it comes to odd dialogue and description. Many of the pieces fully scripted by others take advantage of Ditko’s strengths as well.

The pieces penciled but not inked by Ditko offer a fascinating look at how different artists approached Ditko’s art. Romeo Tanghal, an excellent inker of George Perez on New Teen Titans in the 1980’s, does a really solid job on the Starman adventures reprinted herein. The masterful Wally Wood doesn’t always completely work on the four issues of Stalker he and Ditko did together, sometimes overpowering Ditko’s distinctive faces, but it’s still worth looking at.

There are a few duds in the inking department, but they’re few and far between. And while Ditko’s Legion of Super-heroes stories aren’t an artistic high-point for him, they do accomplish something that a lot of artists on LSH failed at: they make the characters look like teen-agers.

The peaks collected here are really high, and the valleys (mostly horror shorts) still offer some of that Ditko magic. One also gets the only time Ditko drew Batman in a comic-book story (albeit as a guest-star in the first issue of the short-lived Manbat series), and Ditko’s crouching, weirdly endearing take on Jack Kirby’s Demon. Highly recommended.