Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 cover image
Reading Blake Bell’s introduction to his new book, Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1, I suddenly remembered when I first learned about Fredric Wertham and his book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Back then, I was shocked to learn of how this book changed (or as some opine, ruined) comic books.
This best-selling book argued that there was a correlation between comic-book images (especially depictions of sex, drug use, and violence) and the corruption of American teenagers. The book apparently led to the creation in of a 1953 Senate Subcommittee to investigate juvenile delinquency. Fearing a public and consumer backlash because of that committee, comics publishers established the now-infamous Comics Code Authority (C.C.A.) on October 26, 1954 to regulate content. Apparently, titles published by EC Comics were the real target of the C.C.A.
The period before the C.C.A. is known as both the “Golden Age” of comics and the “Pre-Code” era. EC produced high quality crime, horror, and science fiction comics, but the publisher’s horror titles, like The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, spawned many Pre-Code copycats. The profitability of such comics and the competition to produce them probably pushed the depictions of graphic excess in horror comics to new highs (or lows, as it may be).
In the two years before the C.C.A. effectively put an end to Pre-Code horror comics, a young Steve Ditko drew covers and stories for Pre-Code horror comic book titles. Yes, before inventing the graphic language and visual style of The Amazing Spider-Man and the mysterious Doctor Strange, that Steve Ditko drew tales of bloody mayhem and murder for several publishers, but mostly for now-defunct Charlton Comics.
Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 collects over 30 of these stories and about 20 covers. These early Ditko stories display the nascent version of the graphic language that Ditko would later employ when drawing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stores. And they’re just plain fun to read. This is horror comics in the tradition of horror fiction that appeared in pulp magazines – kooky, weird, violent, but surprisingly imaginative.
The truth of the matter is that the depictions of bloodshed, vile murders, dismemberments, etc. were and are still inappropriate for juvenile readers. Maybe Wertham was on to something. However, the explicit nature of these stories is perfect for the adult, comics reading cognoscenti. The frank depictions of marital discord, which inevitably leads to gruesome murder, are a joy to behold in such stories as “The Evil Eye,” “If Looks Could Kill” and the stunning “Bridegroom, Come Back!” Even dating couples experience hell, as shown in stories like “A Hole in the Head” and “Comeback.” Crime fiction makes an appearance, with the best being the gem from Crime and Justice #18, “Killer on the Loose.”
Bell, who wrote the glorious Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, the 2008 best-selling critical retrospective of Ditko’s career, offers another winner about Steve Ditko. Bell’s introduction informs and illuminates a pivotal time in the history of American comic books in a way that will enlighten readers to whom this era is new. Of all the books reprinting old comic books, Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 is certainly one that belongs at the top of this usually overpriced heap. It is a must-have and a keeper.