Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 4 HC

Writers: Various

Art: Steve Ditko

Edited: Blake Bell

Fantagraphics, $39.99, color, 256 pages

I used to think that Steve Ditko hit his artistic apogee in the 1960s, when he created or co-created Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Hawk & Dove, Shade the Changing Man and The Creeper. But this book suggests that peak came in the previous decade.

Impossible Tales collects Ditko's work from August 1957 to July 1958, an incredibly prolific period in the artist's career, published almost entirely at small (and cheap) Charlton Comics, in titles such as Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds, Out of This World, Strange Suspense Stories, Tales of the Mysterious Traveler, This Magazine Is Haunted and Unusual Tales. (Confusion alert: Some of these titles are continuations or reboots of titles formerly published by Fawcett.) One story was from a St. John's title, Do You Believe in Nightmares?

And they're a revelation. While the 1960s are certainly a high point in Ditko's creativity in the writing arena, his focus here -- where he does none of the writing -- is clearly on improving his artwork. If, like me, you began to grow weary of Ditko's stock poses, hand gestures, lighting and blocking by the late 1960s, you will see none of that here.

Sure, you'll see some familiar stuff, but here it's pretty much done for the first time, and is clearly experimental. You can almost see Ditko making mental leap after leap, working out artistic challenges in front of your eyes. Almost nothing repeats, as Ditko finds new ways to approach standard fare again and again.

And it is standard fare. Most of these stories are typical post-Code "suspense" fare, which (for some reason) are often set in small European villages in unnamed countries untouched by World War II that seem to have been left in the 19th century, or similar stock American settings. The stories are entirely unmemorable, except for Ditko's obvious passion for making them the best they can be.

Which sets up another revelation. Stan Lee sometimes comes in for criticism for getting too much credit in his collaborations with Ditko and Jack Kirby in the 1960s, but I discovered the value of his contributions by their absence here. Having read many similar "suspense" stories by Ditko that were written by Lee in late 1950s titles like Menace, Journey into Mystery  and Strange Tales, the difference is stark. Lee's stories have snappier pacing, more dynamic dialogue, stronger characterization and more clever twist endings.

To be honest, I've never been much of a Ditko fan, whose work I've always found a little retro, stuck somewhere around 1955. (I clearly recall a 1980s issue of Rom Spaceknight with Korean War-era tanks, and Ditko's women wore 1950s fashions into the 1990s.) My appreciation has almost always been intellectual, in that I realized that his art style was particularly appropriate in launching Spider-Man (who was supposed to be a little creepy as a superhero, and was supposed to inhabit a shabby, old-fashioned civilian world). And I appreciated that he was courageously passionate about his philosophy (although I didn't agree with it) in series like Hawk & Dove and The Question (which degraded into his later unreadable polemics like Mr. A).

But here I see an artist in a growth spurt such as I've never seen before. Impossible Tales is not only my favorite of the Ditko Archives series, it's my favorite Ditko work to date.

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I don’t know what my favorite Ditko work would be. I don’t disagree with anything you said here concerning volume four (it’s been a while since I read it), I definitely do agree that the Lee/Ditko collaboration have more snap. For stories of this type, I might choose his work if the Amazing Adventures omnibus or maybe the work he did for Warren in wash reprinted in Creepy Presents Steve Ditko.

I am currently in the midst of re-reading the entire Lee/Ditko and Lee/Romita Spider-Man for the first time in too many years, and when I finished the Lee/Ditko material, it was all I could do not to move on to Ditko’s “Action Hero” material he did for Charton.

Here is my provocative statement of the day. I do not dispute Ditko’s contribution to the creation and development of Spider-Man, but leaving the series when he did was the best thing that could have happened to both the character and the title. There. I said it.



Jeff of Earth-J said:


Here is my provocative statement of the day. I do not dispute Ditko’s contribution to the creation and development of Spider-Man, but leaving the series when he did was the best thing that could have happened to both the character and the title. There. I said it.

Oh, I agree. Ditko contributed tremendously to the early years of Spider-Man, but Ditko was as stuck in a given place as a writer as much as he was as an artist. His didacticism -- see the sclerotic Mr. A -- would have held Peter Parker back at a time when the character needed to move with the times. I doubt Ditko's right-wing polemics would have made the character as popular in the late 1960s -- when the country was moving inexorably to the left -- as did Lee's vague and cheerful liberalism.

And if the stories are true about the straw that broke Ditko's back on the title -- Lee wanting to make the Green Goblin someone Parker knew and Ditko wanting to make him a nobody, to reflect Ditko's contempt for criminals -- well, I think Lee was right. Ditko had already used his "nobody" idea with the Crime-Master, and making Osborn the Goblin became thematically important and a powerful launch point for future stories. I know Ditko genuinely believed in Objectivism, but any philosophy, especially an inflexible one, makes for poor stories.

And finally, for Spider-Man to become the international best-seller he became, he needed prettier and more accessible art. Which pretty much describes John Romita Sr.

Captain Comics said:

To be honest, I've never been much of a Ditko fan, whose work I've always found a little retro, stuck somewhere around 1955. (I clearly recall in a 1980s issue of Rom Spaceknight with Korean War-era tanks, and Ditko's women wore 1950s fashions into the 1990s.)

Jeff of Earth-J said:

Here is my provocative statement of the day. I do not dispute Ditko’s contribution to the creation and development of Spider-Man, but leaving the series when he did was the best thing that could have happened to both the character and the title. There. I said it.

I haven't seen this volume, but I do have Blake Bell's Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, all the Lee-Ditko Spider-Man Masterworks, Amazing Fantasy Omnibus (which I used to buy and love before Spidey), and Action Heroes Archive Volume 2 (collecting the post-Spidey Charlton stuff).

I have always been aware of Ditko's style of depicting early 50s clothing, etc. After awhile you get used to it. It's charming in its way. I tend to agree that his post-Lee work isn't quite up to the writing standards set in his Spider-Man and Doctor Strange work. I think it's been said before, but the work of Lee, Kirby, and Ditko after their "divorces" never was as great as their collaborations. Having said that, I tend to agree with Jeff that it was time for Ditko to leave Marvel. This is partly because his artwork is an acquired taste, especially for superheroes, but mostly because his bad feelings toward Lee and Goodman were negatively affecting his work. Amazing Spider-Man #38 (his last) was "phoned in".

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