I've seldom read a comics biography that left me with as many mixed emotions as Blake Bell's Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko [Fantagraphics Books; $39.99]. Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, is one of the first artists whose style I recognized and he was among my first favorite artists. I still love his comics of the 1950s through the 1960s, cherishing his weird-but-inviting depictions of aliens, giant monsters, super-heroes and the supernatural. His people might've been a few years out of step with the world outside my window, but they were uncommonly real to me. I could believe in them and, by extension, the artist who was drawing them. Then Ditko changed.
Bell is clearly a great admirer of Ditko's and, in this book, he does his readers the equally great service of telling the story of Ditko's life in more detail than has any previous examination of this unique artist. Bell brings us Ditko's history, his artistic goals, the challenges the artist faced, his triumphs, his defeats, and the rigid path that would ultimately and unfortunately lead Ditko away from the large audiences he once enjoyed. Bell is a firm advocate for Ditko's rightful place in comics history, but, by the closing chapters of this book, the most telling emotion is sadness for the life Ditko has chosen for himself and for the utter lack of joy in Ditko's current works.
Fantagraphics has done its usual outstanding job in publishing this volume. Designer Adam Grano is to be especially commended for presenting hundreds of Ditko drawings in a manner that captures the reader's attention and pulls us into Ditko's worlds. Ditko's first comics story - "Stretching Things" - is reprinted in its entirety, but there are also panels and pages and covers from the length and breadth of his career.
Ditko's reticence to engage comics historians means there will always be unanswered questions about his life and career. For now, and possibly for all time, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is our best look at this amazing artist. It earns the full five out of five Tonys.
The Question: Poisoned Ground [DC; $19.99] reprints issues #7-12 of the late 1980s series by writer Dennis O'Neil with artists Denys Cowan (pencils) and Rick Magyar. Though far removed from the character as created by Steve Ditko in the 1960s, their take on the faceless avenger of lawless Hub City has an integrity and a style of its own.
Vic Sage is an investigative reporter who has returned to the city, "delving into Eastern philosophy as he battles crime and crooked politicians." He has an uneasy romantic relationship with the mayor's wife, a strong and compassionate woman trying to hold the city together while her husband descends further into alcoholic indifference. On rereading these stories for the first time in two decades, it struck me that the doomed love of Vic and Myra is one of the hottest ever portrayed in super-hero comics.
O'Neil's stories truly roam off the beaten path. There's the one with a crime lord raised by wolves. Then there's one with the Mikado, a vigilante who seeks to ensure that the punishment always fits the crime. Oh, yeah, and the three-issue story in which Vic's closest friend and ally is kidnapped by a mass murderer who wishes to become a saint. Very weird, very compelling.
The Cowan/Magyar art fits these stories as well as any art has fit any stories in comics. It has physical and emotional power to it, its quality further enhanced by the contributions of colorist Tatjana Wood and letterer Gaspar Saladino. Kudos must also go to original editor Mike Gold. The series is a highlight in a career full of them.
The preceding reviews were originally published in Comics Buyer's Guide #1646 [October, 2008]. In the past, TOT has run my "Tony's Tips" columns in their entirety, but, for the present, I'll be a bit more selective about what I reprint with the aim of avoiding dated material. The same will hold true for any reprints of "Tony's Other Online Tips."
TOT's popular "Comics in the Comics" feature is now appearing on my message board...
...and being handled by Bob Ingersoll, who has expanded on it in truly astounding ways. I'm still posting some comic strips from my backlog, but Bob is posting the current strips on a daily basis. Check it out.
TOT will be undergoing some facelifting in the near future, following conversations between Justin - our wondrous Web-Wizard - and myself. If there are elements of our design that you love or loathe, now's the time to speak up.
NEW YEAR NOTES
Courtesy of Wikipedia, I have this morsel of 2009 trivia for you: "Tokyo Police Club's song 'Citizens of Tomorrow' has a few lines as to what will (fictionally) happen in 2009, for 'our robot masters will know how to clean this mess up and build a better world, for man and machine alike, for the boys and the girls who are slaves building spaceships at night in the fluorescent light.'"
Let's keep this between ourselves or Rush Limbaugh will start claiming President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama is actually a secret Muslim robot.
I'm Tony Isabella and I'm searching for a new tagline to these nigh-daily columns of mine.
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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