Click for larger image. Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko
By Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and others
Published by Marvel Comics; $29.99 USD

Steve Ditko is one of the most important and most influential North American cartoonists in history, and the past few months have seen quite a few of his older works brought back into print, including his Captain Atom material in DC's mostly excellent (if pricey) Action Heroes hardcover, and the fairly disappointing Space Wars collection. Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko is probably the nicest of this small batch of collections, if for no other reason than it gives a wider overview of Ditko's various eras at a reasonable price.

The book kicks off with a batch of pre-Spider-Man Marvel suspense stories, only one of which, "Goodbye to Linda Brown," had I read before. That story is noteworthy for being by Lee and Ditko and featuring an elderly couple named May and Ben who take care of a young person with unsuspected gifts. It's a wonder that no writer has yet to write the bridging story to explain how this same elderly couple later came to take care of young Peter Parker. But even discounting the unintended similarities to Spider-Man's familial set-up, the story is a nice example of the O. Henry ending so many suspense comics had during that time.

Another real gem is "Why Won't They Believe Me," which seemed to suffer from a serious logical flaw that Lee and Ditko manage to turn into the whole point of the story, which only seems obvious once you know the gag. It took me by surprise, and that's no small accomplishment for material like this.

The superhero-era stories are mostly good choices, from a Ditko Hulk story to the origin of Iron Man's third costume, the first one to not look bulky and ridiculous. I'd never read that story before, so despite a forgettable villain, I found the story suitable for inclusion and a minor pleasure to read.

The classic three-part Spider-Man story that climaxes with the near-defeated hero's struggle to get out from under tons of rubble and equipment is included, and good on Marvel for giving us all three chapters instead of merely the one issue everyone always references as the highlight of Ditko's run on the title. The battle against the Sinister Six is reprinted from Spider-Man Annual #1; this story was a huge favourite of mine when I was a young child, when I had it in a Treasury Edition reprint. I'm delighted to have it back again, with its many full-page depictions of Spider-Man in action against his worst enemies. Today we'd probably call this decompressed storytelling and complain about what a ripoff it is to waste an entire page on one image, but Ditko's images are spectacular, real showcases for both his artistic skill and dramatic sense.

There's a very nice variety of Dr. Strange material, including the character's debut story, and then his origin from a few issues later. A terrific story pitting Doc Strange against Dormammu is probably the visual highlight of the entire volume, as Ditko reaches new heights of bizarre imagery to convey the eerie, otherworldly nature of the battle. Just brilliant stuff.

One story I would never have expected to be reprinted anywhere is a fill-in Daredevil story Ditko drew that originally ran a few issues into the Frank Miller era. Between its fill-in nature and the justifiable esteem Miller's run is held in, I just would never have thought that this story would ever see the light of day again. It's a bit of a silly premise, as Matt Murdock loses his memory and basically relives his father's last days, but Ditko's work on the tale is very solid.

I wish I could say the same about the trio of stories that close out the book. A Hulk story, an Iron Man story (featuring "Squirrel Girl," gee, how come we don't see her around anymore?) and the first Speedball story all are extremely minor Ditko efforts, and while Ditko is nicely inked by Jackson Guice on the Speedball tale, it's a goofy character and, in my opinion, the inclusion of all three of these '80s pieces is a waste of valuable space that could have been given over to previously-unreprinted '50s or '60s work. Ditko scholar Blake Bell even lists some stories that should have been included, on his Ditko Looked Up website.

The very last pages of the volume show a couple of un-used covers and some original pencil art; not a bad thing to include, but a little commentary or history would have made them seem more an organic part of the book and less like the filler they very likely are.

Unlike the Space Wars book, the reproduction of Ditko's art in this volume is very good. The pages look clean and I noticed no pixelization or lines dropping out of the art, problems that have plagued some of Marvel's earlier efforts. For the Ditko fan or for anyone interested in the most interesting artistic corner of the Marvel Universe's early years, Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko is essential reading. Grade: 4/5

-- Alan David Doane

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