Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Steve Ditko's Legion

There are those that think that Steve Ditko is one of the great comic artists ever. They point to things like Marvel's Silver Age Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, and Charlton's 1970's The Question, among others. But I came of comic-reading age in the 1970's, long after Sturdy Steve had stopped working on those books. I was into more realistic artists like Curt Swan (Superman), Dick Dillin (JLA), Irv Novick (Flash), Jim Aparo (Batman), etc., and by the early 80s we had George Perez (Teen Titans), Mike Grell (Warlord), Mike Golden (Micronauts), Bill Sienkiewicz (Moon Knight), and many more. Ditko's work, when it showed up as a fill-in somewhere, was just too "off" for me to like. And while I can appreciate his contributions to the field, I tend to dislike (even today) a story with his artwork. It's just an acquired taste that I never acquired.

Why bring this up now? And why here?

Well, the Steve Ditko Comics Weblog is in the midst of reviewing his work on the Legion book from their perspective, so I figured I'd chime in from mine.

You would have thought that the early 1980s would have been a new golden age for the Legion. With issue #259 in January 1980, they finally forced Superboy out of the book that started out as his in 1949, and they had a book of their own for the first time. And what happened? With Jack C. Harris as editor and Gerry Conway as writer (assisted by J. M. DeMatteis), from 1980-81 we got the Space Circus of Death, the menace of Arma Getten Dagon the Avenger and the brief return of Tyroc, a space genie, Dr. Mayavale, one of the worst Mordru stories, and space pirates. True, there were some decent stories (the Dark Man and the Reflecto saga) but more often than not, they weren't. One thing that that in my mind didn't help was the rotating artwork. You'd get a couple Jimmy Janes issues and then you'd be blindsided by a Steve Ditko job. And the inkers didn't help ether: Frank Chiaramonte on Curt Swan = good, over Steve Ditko = bad, for example.

Bob at the Ditko blog says that one reason why Ditko got these fill-in jobs (seven issues in all) was because the Legion editor at the time, Jack C. Harris, was a frequent Ditko collaborator. And despite their admiration toward's Ditko's work, even the Ditko blog admits that "unfortunately for the most part Ditko's brief tenure as fill-in artist didn't intersect with the well-written eras." People often look at Gerry Conway as the sole blame for this under-enthusiastically received time, but some of the credit (or blame) must also be laid at the feet of the editor as well.

Within a year, though, the editor had changed (Mike W. Barr) and so did the writers (Roy Thomas at the end of the Reflecto arc, and then Paul Levitz) and artists (Pat Broderick and then Keith Giffen). Talk about what a change in creative teams can do to a book!

Of the seven issues Ditko did, they've reviewed six of them so far, leaving only Legion (vol. 2) issues 267 with Vibrex and the Legion flight ring flashback. and 268 with Dr. Mayavale unreviewed yet. Sadly, they don't have a copy of the Mayavale issue to review. (Update: Bob has now reviewed issue 268, and wishes hadn't.)

Some choice quotes:

Superboy and the LSH 257 (Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel on an ice planet): "This is one of those Ditko stories to pick up when you've exhausted all others."

Legion (v2) 268 (Dr. Mayavale): "All I can say is that I'm glad at age 10 I picked up the issue after this, or I might never have read an LSH story again. ... Except for the hands, this is all sorts of bad. I'd say the hands are worth about the 39 cents I paid, if you paid the full 50 cent cover price you might want your money back."

Legion (v2) 272 (origin of Blok): "I like Chiarmonte's work on some pencillers, but on Ditko it comes across as a bit bland and flattening... Sorry for going off at length on the story. I was having trouble believing it myself. ... Ditko's art wasn't too bad, but nothing really sticks out."

Legion (v2) 274 (space pirates): "Yeah, space pirates. It's sometimes amazing this book lasted through this period to get to the good stuff on the other side. Despite the story, there's actually some fun artwork by Ditko in this one, what with the goofy aliens and fight scenes."

Legion (v2) 276 (Mordru as Lord Romdur): "Anyway, suffice to say that like most LSH books of this era it makes very little sense if you're not familiar with the characters. If you are, then it makes no sense at all. ... But overall, seriously, if you don't already have Ditko's LSH stories I can't recommend seeking them out."

Legion (v2) 281 (Molecule Master): "The last of the seven LSH stories Ditko drew is, fortunately, the best by far of those I've read. That's hardly a compliment, given the others (and I'm in no hurry to track down the two I don't have, one of which has a reputation as one of the worst LSH stories ever)."

Well what do you know, it looks like we agree on some things after all.


Terence Chua said...

I can't wait to see what they make of Mayavale.

H said...

I would consider that - fortunately brief - era as the lowest point in Legion history.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. I have to admit I'm curious about the Mayavale thing, but I can't bring myself to buy it (though I have trouble believing DeMatteis can write anything as bad as Conway). Oddly, the issue after that, the first part of the Dark Man story, was the first new off the racks LSH book I bought, after being curious about the characters from an old first Levitz era issue I picked up and some appearances in other books. I'm still amazed that I hung in there for the next year until Levitz returned. I think it was largely on the strength of the SECRETS OF THE LEGION mini-series that gave me a glimpse into the more interesting Legion past.

Matthew E said...

It wasn't very good, but the Legion on the Run era can send 'em all up a tree.

Murray said...

Who's Arma Getten? That sounds liek a Kriby character, but it certainly wasn't a Legion character. Wasn't the villain in this story Dagon the Avenger?

This run of stories were the first Legion stories that I started picking up regularly, and I've got a soft spot in my heart for all of them... even those Steve Ditko stories, though I have to admit that it's taken me years to really appreciate them.


Michael said...

Murr - hey, haven't seen your name around these parts in ages! You're right, that was Dagon the Avenger in those stories.

Arma Getten was from issue 237. He kidnapped R. J. Brande and made the Legion acquire several powerful artifacts for him in exchange for Brande's life. That was the issue immediately following the wedding of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl (they resigned in this issue).

Murray said...

I don't think you've seen my name at your blog ever. :) I've been lurking for a couple of months but I haven't posted anything yet. I do enjoy the site, though!
Issue 237, eh? I'll have to look it up. While I have a great memory for Legion circa 260-Great Darkness Saga (I love the Space Pirates... and Jimmy Janes... and Doctor Mayavale... heck, I even think that Gerry Conway was finally hitting his stride on the book), the stuff that comes before that time is one big blur.
seriously... Arma Getten? I'm just going to *have* to reread that one. Time to head into the crawlspace and start digging through the long boxes.

Michael said...

Sorry, by "around these parts" I was thinking about your participation on the various Legion mailing lists. I recognized your name.

Yes, really, "Arma Getten".

Anonymous said...

Actually, Frank Chiarmonte on ANYONE usually equaled crap. He was a notoriously sloppy inker, providing heavy-handed brushwork on even the tightest pencillers.

His work on Curt Swan was just as bad as it was on Ditko.

I think one other thing to add to your point was that Ditko's skills, by the time that he was doing the Legion issues, had pretty much diminished and he usually was only given work when books fell behind schedule and he was the only person available.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of being a Ditko apologist, I wouldn't say that Ditko's work had diminished much by that point. He way just coming off some great work on SHADE at the time, after all. He did do a bunch of fill-in work, but that was largely a function of the market (the DC Implosion cutting SHADE down abruptly and Charlton not buying any more new work). Just about everything he did in that period was stronger than the LSH work, so I think you can lay most of the blame on uninspiring scripts and incompatible inking.

I did break down and pick up the Mayavale issue. Wow, that was trippy.

Michael said...

Anon: maybe it's that I just haven't looked at the old Superman issues in a couple decades, but I seem to remember Chiaramonte's inking to be pretty decent over Curt Swan's Superman pencils, or at least, not bad.

Bob: while the Legion books at the time were pretty uninspiring as a whole (not some of Gerry Conway's best stuff), the main penciller at the time, Jimmy Janes, is pretty fondly remembered despite what he had to draw. So it can't all be laid at the feet of the writer. As for inkers, well, I'm not enough of a fan to have paid attention to who inked Ditko better than others. But yes, I will agree that his work on Shade (while not entirely to my liking) was worlds apart (no pun intended) from his work on the Legion.

As for Ditko's inker on the Mayavale issue, Bob Wiacek had been in the business for about 5 years by this time (according to the Grand Comics Database), and he had been one of Mike Grell's Legion inkers in 1976 and had been working for both DC and Marvel with steady work. I'd consider him one of the top (unsung) inkers today - look at what he's doing over Perez' pencils on Brave and Bold, for example.

So what do you think it was that made Ditko's Legion artwork so sub-par? Jimmy Janes had the same writer and inkers. Was he just phoning it in for the paycheck?