Sunday, December 7, 2014

Oh, Murder!

Being interested in Steve Ditko's work, I learned he contributed stories to an anthology series from 1986 entitled Murder, printed in black & white by the now-defunct Renegade Press and edited by Robin Snyder, Ditko's present-day editor. Like most comics from the black & white boom & bust period it sells dirt cheap today so all three issues can be obtained for a pittance.

Now that I have Murder in hand, what is it? Well, it's... it's an anthology title. Called "Murder," for unclear reasons. An illustration which opens the first issue (drawn by a young Erik Larsen) asserts the series' full title is "Murder, Tales of Psychological Tension." That's pretty much hooey - it describes some stories but not others - some are simply short comedic tales. Several look to be inventory tales prepared for other publishers. It's a hodge-podge with no clear theme.

Thus, the stories anthologized in Murder don't really compliment each other and must stand on their own merits. Considering the contributors include Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, the aforementioned young Erik Larsen, Dan Day and a previously-published Wally Wood story; the other talents are unfamiliar names. Of course, even the masters contributed very little; there's exactly one page of Toth content in each issue: two single page illustrations and one cover (above, looking strangely evocative of Dave Sim).

Larsen's contributes what's easily the funniest of all the humour pieces in Murder#3, Jim Stenstrum wrote and Larsen "drew" the one page "Jim Stenstrum's Tales of the Siberian Snowtroopers#2." Seemingly a response to John Byrne's infamous snowstorm scene from Alpha Flight#6; the panel above is the entire joke - word balloons against a white background. It goes on for one page, which is the exact length the gag demands.

Now for the main attraction: Steve Ditko himself! Ditko's stories are "The Big Man" (issue #1), "A Deal is a Deal" (#2) "My Brother..." and "Social Justice" (both #3). These come from the period in the 80s where Ditko was finding less work at Marvel & DC, no longer had Charlton to fall back on and after his falling-out with Eclipse. Like Ditko's current output under Snyder's watch, Ditko's Murder scripts are fairly bare-boned, told in short-hand. I count Ditko as one of the greatest storytellers in the medium. but he's not very good with dialogue; take the "etc, etc, etc." above - not quite William Faulkner, eh?

The stories are pretty familiar ones with twist endings where the guilty are punished through ironic means, but they're well-told; "The Big Man" concerns a killer who eliminates his rivals by seemingly growing in size to crush them; in "A Deal is a Deal," a man tries to cheat death by bargaining away his possessions; "My Brother..." features one brother who's a criminal, the other a lawyer and how their lifelong contest comes to an end; the best is easily "Social Justice," a funny two-pager wherein a television set compels a man to commit crimes - when caught, he fingers the TV and the TV goes to jail! I'm not certain whether Ditko is accusing those who blame their crimes on media or those who try to accuse media of causing crimes. Either way, it's a pretty approachable bit of social satire.

Murder's confused lack of a mission statement renders it little more than a curiosity, but if you - like me - are curious to see Steve Ditko cutting loose - it's an interesting oddball. If you can only obtain one issue, make it #3 with the Toth cover, the great Larsen one-pager, the double dose of Ditko and the Wood reprint.

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