Thursday, March 19, 2015

Unearthed: Strange Avenging Tales #1

Steve Ditko. Although he continues to be best-known for his 1960s Marvel Comics work and second-best-known for his subsequent DC Comics work, at the time he went into partnership with Robin Snyder to self-publish his own material, he'd already worked for virtually every publisher in North America.

Fantagraphics' Strange Avenging Tales #1 came out in 1997, just before his turn to self-publishing. It was intended to be the first of a series, based on the advertisement within for an issue #2, but it seems that something fell apart, perhaps similar to his falling-out with Eclipse Comics in the 1980s. At any rate, we have this one comic. What is it? What do you think? Much like his self-published work, it's an anthology of "weird" stories with the same type of twist endings he'd been writing since the 50s and the same diatribes he'd been making since the 70s. Shall we begin?

We open with "All Mine," featuring a character called the Baffler. In this story, a thief named Oscar steals a priceless antique but is pursued by the Baffler, a being whom only Oscar can see. The Baffler might best be described as Ditko's Question wearing Elton John glasses. The Baffler emits some weird energies as he pursues Oscar, demanding he give himself up. Eventually Oscar's will is broken and he collapses, repeating "Not mine" ceaselessly while offering the stolen item back to the police. This is a simple tale, but Ditko's art is top-notch, presented here with ink washes (unlike the other stories in the book). I should also note that this and the other stories are presented with full scripts, not the stream-of-consciousness scripts found in most of the works Ditko's produced with Snyder.

There are two features in the book from "The Spoilers File." Each is two pages and involves a careless person causing a mess while thinking they don't have an obligation to clean it up, but then an unseen force manipulates them into fixing their mess. In the first story, it's a litterbug who gets his, while in the second it's a man who doesn't re-shelve books. They're quick stories and don't get too far into Ditko's frequent condemnation of society. The means by which the perpetrators are forced to clean up their mess is presented in a semi-humourous way, which helps a lot, to say nothing of the sheer kinetic energy displayed in their actions.

Next there's "In Due," a simple story told with supreme talent. Once again we have the story of a thief, this being a man who steals a valuable watch, killing the watch's dealer. He brings the watch to a repairman, but, in a wonderfully weird hallucinatory scene sees himself as one of the hands on the watch's face; when the hand reaches 12, we discover he never actually entered the repairman's shop - he was crushed to death outside the shop by a falling clock. The last page is a bit clumsy because the story contains a flashback within a hallucinatory scene, but the imagery of the man on the watch's face is so powerful that it overwhelms that minor pothole. In all, the dialogue is sparse and to great effect as the images are largely permitted to speak for themselves.

"Clyde and Claude" is the tale of a man named Claude who hears a voice in his head named "Clyde." Clyde is convinced Claude's wife is cheating on him and keeps pestering Claude, eventually driving him to spy on his wife. Catching his wife with another man, Claude kills them both, then finds he can't hear Clyde any longer. When the police arrive Claude laments, "We're no longer on speaking terms." I rather like this tale because it avoids some of Ditko's usual tropes involving criminals. Often his criminals manipulate others to obtain their sympathy but are, in fact, rotten to the core. This time, he has a criminal who listens to voices in his head and it's not an act - he really is insane. He's still not meant to be sympathetic, but because Ditko doesn't stoop to delivering a lecture, the tale flows in a more engaging manner than it otherwise would have. Also, Claude's wife is drawn as being very voluptuous by Ditko standards; he doesn't usually feature large breasts or exposed cleavage, yet this story has both.

Finally, in an untitled one-page feature, some hazily-defined creatures composed only of lines (seen above) argue that there are no absolutes, only shades of grey. They're apparently saying this in reaction to a mugger being arrested and they're upset when witnesses stand against the mugger. At the end the witnesses scream at the hazy-line-things "Speak for yourself and not for reality!" So this one is very much a Ditko diatribe story, but it's just a page. I'm not sure why he's done so many versions of this kind of story over the decades, but at least this time it was brief.

And there you have it. The art features Ditko at the zenith of his power; the stories run the gamut from predictable to engaging. It's worth owning for the art alone.

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