Tales of the Mysterious Mr. Ditko (and the Not-So-Mysterious Mr. Lee...)

November 12th, 2004
I was there practically from the beginning.

Having bought the fourth issue of THE FANTASTIC FOUR off the stands on a cold wintery day in early 1962, I was there almost from the outset of the Marvel Revolution of Comics. I came in on Thor shortly after he rediscovered his Uru hammer, mere months after Bruce Banner was first bathed in gamma radiation, right after Tony Stark's heart suffered a shrapnel wound to the heart in Viet Nam.

But as one era beckoned, another, vastly under appreciated, began to wind down inexorably: the era of the Lee/Ditko weirdies. By 1962, these five page twist ending tales, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko (and generally lettered and colored by Artie Simek and Stan Goldberg, respectively), had proudly taken the back-up slot in virtually every issue of Atlas publication's small but memorable line of fantasy titles for several years, the perfect cerebral counterpoint to the more sinew-driven monster epics flowing endlessly out of the magical lead pencil of Jack Kirby, whose pocket-sized epics that were invariably the meat-and-potatoes cover story of any given issue. The King regularly served up the main course, but Stan and Steve provided for an always tasty dessert.

With the coming of the super-heroes, the days of these whimsical flights of four- color imagination were unfortunately numbered, but despite what you might think, they did manage to hang on for almost two years into the Spandex era, only to be killed once and for all by that greatest of all Marvel creations: the amazing Spider-Man...

While I don't have conclusive data regarding the number of stories churned out by the team during the pre-costumed character days—and in fact, more than a handful of the earlier Lee/Ditko collaborations would more properly fall into the Kirby-like, “Fin Fang Foom-ish” category, so exactly how would you count THOSE in a final tally anyway?--here's some intriguing info that I was able to assemble simply by paging through my weathered but still worthy set of Olshevsky Marvel Comics Indexes:

When Hank Pym left the lonely world of one-shot fantasy protagonists to don the costume of Ant-Man in TALES TO ASTONISH number 35 (having previously appeared in the 27th issue), every issue from that September, 1962 one on up to and including the 48th one—cover dated October 1963--featured a Lee/Ditko charmer bringing up the rear. That's fifteen entries in that title alone.

Over in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, when Don Blake embarked on that fateful vacation of his in the 83rd issue (August 1962), Stan and Steve were also on hand, and hopefully were able to distract the reader long enough, preventing him from pondering overmuch this one burning question: just exactly WHO spends his down time wandering through the mountains of Norway anyway? And so, for just over a year—fourteen tales total—the pair worked hard to make the customers forget any other wild flights of illogic that might've crept into the gaudily garbed God's adventures, ending in the September 1963 issue.
Iron Man got a comparatively late start in TALES OF SUSPENSE, debuting in the March, 1963 issue, number 39. Lee and Ditko could be found in their standard slot therein, and for every month afterwards on through to the 44th issue, and again in the 46th (October, 1963), crowded out of number 45 by an extra-length 18 page Iron Man escapade. In all, a mere seven post-hero Lee/Ditko delights found their way into the pages of the Golden Avenger's pulp-paper original home.

Then there's STRANGE TALES. Home of solo adventures featuring the Fantastic Four's junior member, the Human Torch, the inauguration of his spin-off series in issue number 101 (October 1962) was of particular personal importance to me, mainly because it was my very first exposure to the unique style of artist Ditko (more about that later).
The five-pagers ran up to and including 109 (January 1963), took a two issue leave as Stan and Steve cautiously presented their latest creation, Dr. Strange, to a curious public. Apparently not totally sold on the appeal of the mustachioed magician, the fellas returned to their tried and true fantasy fests two more times—in STRANGE TALES 112 and 113, the last issue carrying an October 1963 cover date—before realizing they indeed had a hit on their hands with the Sorcerer Supreme, and thus forevermore devoted the long running title's back pages to the mystical character. So, in all, there were eleven anthology shorts from the team published during the Torch's reign.

Putting aside the eight issues of AMAZING ADULT FANTASY that preceded the hastily retitled AMAZING FANTASY number 15 (August 1962), each of which were comprised of Lee/Ditko weirdies of varying length--save for, of course, the debut of a certain future icon by the name of Spider-Man--that's a grand total of forty-seven short but oh so sweet one-offs by Peter Parker's founding fathers. Why, when you stop a moment to consider things, even the way that landmark initial Spider-Man episode reads--all ironic angst, and with a shock ending to boot--it's really nothing more or less than a double length weirdie with some long underwear thrown in to provide color!
(And apropos of nothing, I've always been quietly amused regarding the notion that editor Stan had the title naively changed over from AMAZING ADVENTURES to AMAZING ADULT FANTASY in a valiant attempt to be, as its slogan boasted “The Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence”, when in reality, it instead suggested the name of some cheesy porn mag!! Well, he MEANT well, I'm sure...).

Stop for a minute and take a closer look at the credits of the super-hero portions of those four titles, and you'll find something interesting: though editor Lee receives credit for plotting each and every Thor, Torch, Iron Man, and Ant-Man episode running in the forty seven issues that also featured the Lee/Ditko back-ups, ALL are primarily scripted by other authors (Larry Lieber being the workhorse of the group).
However, in the very first issues NOT to feature the long entrenched back-up features by the talented tandem, Stan not so coincidentally finds himself writing his very first Thor, Torch, Iron Man and Giant-Man stories solo (with the only time he ever put words in Hank Pyms once tiny mouth was when he guided Ant-Man through a guest appearance in FANTASTIC FOUR 16 and as a founding member of and in AVENGERS 1, trivia buffs). You'll note that these featurettes disappear completely after the September 1963 issue of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, and the October 1963 editions of the other three monthly publications, and a closer examination of the big picture at the small but ever growing company will reveal that the shift was certainly no accident.

Remember the web-slinger? Stan and Steve's OTHER pet project? Well, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was launched as a bi-monthly title bearing a March, 1963 cover date, and not surprisingly, the book was a huge—and near instantaneous—success. After four issues produced on a sixty day schedule, the guilt ridden good guy went monthly with his fifth issue. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN number four, September, 1963, was followed but thirty days later by AMAZING SPIDER-MAN number five, October 1963—the very same month the very last three of these enchanting little slices of funnybook fantasy made their final appearances as part of the fledgling Marvel line. Obviously, twenty some odd pages of Spider-Man each month was more than enough to keep artist Ditko busy, and scripter Lee replaced the time he'd previously devoted in the past to these tasty nuggets to focus instead all his attention on what he rightly perceived to be the company's—and his—future, the ever burgeoning line of Marvel super heroes. It was the right decision for everyone, but that doesn't mean something wasn't lost in the transition. Something always is when progress comes a'stormin' through...
Always there was a magnificently designed splash page, deceptively simple yet effective in imparting a very clear—though still intriguing—notion of what exactly was to follow on the next four pages. Artie Simek's bold title lettering and Stan Goldberg's moody color choices, in combination with Steve Ditko's masterful layouts and unique and otherworldly drawing style, made these splash pages, in my mind, bold--if sadly under-appreciated--artistic achievements! Look, I love Spider-Man as much as anybody—and Dr. Strange is no slouch, either—but I honestly cherish these short collaborations between Lee and Ditko almost as much as the misadventures of Peter Parker and his friends. And amongst a long list of triumphs to choose from, there are three tales that, at least for me personally, stand out above all others...
Several years ago, before this web-site was even a consideration, I was enlisted to create an autobiographical comic strip called “Little Freddy” for a magazine that—bummer-- never wound up seeing the light of day. The second two page episode that I did concerned the very subject I've been going on and on about here. Specifically, I discussed the trio of entries I alluded to above, and while I strongly suggest you read my little vignette if you haven't already, you might hold off for a few more minutes before doing so. Y'see, pertinent plot points are revealed in the course of my two page reminiscence, which was fine at the time I put my memories down onto paper in cartoon form. But something startling occurred to me recently: I no longer have to redraw my past for all to enjoy when I can just as easily scan it in to share with everyone!!

(Bear in mind, I've done my best to limit my pilfering of the past to small doses of material that wouldn't otherwise be seen elsewhere, in hopes of not teeing off the vintage material's rightful and various copyright owners. Sure, I wish there were someone out there posting the entirety of the Lee/Ditko weirdie canon, but that someone's not gonna be me. It's these three tales, (insert name of current owner of Marvel Properties here) and that's it—promise!..)

So, read the originals first, and THEN the “Little Freddy” story, okay?

Well then, we have for you:
“What Is X-35?” from STRANGE TALES #101, October 1962. THIS was my very first exposure to Steve Ditko's artwork, and after over a year of viewing DC Comics comparatively antiseptic approach to cartooning, I was understandably jarred at what I saw in these five pages.
I'd never seen anyone in a comic like the creepy Archie Craig before—nor had I encountered as large a screaming headline as the one Simek provided this splash page with, either—and I found the whole thing more than a little unsettling. But, I was hopelessly hooked on the line's super-heroes, so I kept coming back, and Ditko's artwork, even though I initially found it vaguely unnerving, quickly grew on me
I'm glad it did, because a few short months later, JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #87 (December 1962) featured my all-time favorite Lee/Ditko/Simek/Goldberg masterpiece, “The Man On the Endless Stairway”. All four men were at the tip-top of their game on THIS one—how they failed to include it as part of the upcoming hardcover “Steve Ditko: Marvel Visionaries” collection is beyond me!

Lead Carl Cragg makes Archie Craig look like Cary Grant by comparison, both in appearance and deeds. There is, I proclaim, no more dramatic splash page in the entire history of the comics! (Okay, okay, maybe I AM overreaching--if only by a bit...) And that ending! Those last two pages have been burned in my mind's eye for the last forty-two years, and they ain't ever gonna leave, believe you me. It may not have quite the same effect on a mature adult encountering ot for the first time, but take a moment to appreciate the considerable craft that went into this excursion into the fantastic. Especially note the muted hues colorist Goldberg chose for this job, thus particularly intensifying the limited yet effective use he makes of the color red. Whew—things REALLY start to get hot in that final panel, don't they?..
“The Gentle Old Man” from JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #94 (July 1963)--well, that one holds some of the warmest—and oddest--memories for me, concerning an incident that's perhaps best described in the “Little Freddy” episode.
The short of it—needing a simple premise for an improv I was performing with some friends after school in the sixth grade during the gathering of a loosely organized drama club, I came up with the plot for this fun little Lee/Ditko entry on the fly (most likely because I'd probably read it for the zillionth time just the day before). Things went pretty much the way I describe it in my strip (though I threw in the whole “thespian” gag after the fact, admittedly), the one-time-only performance playing to some surprisingly high acclaim. After that experience, how could I NOT love this tale?
Yeah, there's nothing quite like one of these marvelous little vignettes, and nothing would please me more than to see them collected somewhere, somehow. In the meantime, I offer up these three stories by the man who quickly became and remains my all-time favorite cartoonist, working in conjunction with the writer who probably had a greater influence on me than just about anybody else had in my entire life. These are the true heavyweights, people, and unjustly neglected stories like these are clear and demonstrable reasons why the duo reached such exalted status in my young and impressionable eyes.

Why, they became such heroes to me that I didn't even stop to wonder just why there weren't any naked women in those few issues of AMAZING ADULT FANTASY I managed to scrounge up!?!...

(Splash pages above from, in order of appearance, AMAZING ADULT FANTASY 13, JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY 86, 93, 90, and 89)

HOME | Words About Pictures