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Strange and Stranger - Introduction by Blake Bell Print
Written by Blake Bell   

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko
Price: $39.99
By the 1950s, the superhero genre had been reduced to a minor piece of the comic-book mosaic. Patriots like Captain America — designed to boost the country’s morale and soothe wartime angst — ran aground of purpose with the end of World War II. The majority of heroes had been retired by the late ’40s, including the entire Timely Comics line, featuring Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch.

The industry’s postwar output splintered into several distinct themes — crime, teen, funny animals, Western, war, and romance. Yet in the popular imagination the defining 1950s comics genre was horror.

It happened almost by accident; certainly an accident helped trigger it. In August 1947, Max Gaines — instrumental in creating the superhero genre with his All-American offshoot line of DC Comics — was struck and killed by a speedboat in Lake Placid, New York. Gaines’s recently formed independent company, Educational Comics, fell into the hands of his son William, who had little interest in either comics or publishing. After a few unsuccessful years of continuing his father’s innocuous line of books, Gaines (egged on by new editor Al Feldstein) moved the company into Western, romance and crime, and renamed the company Entertaining Comics, or EC.

Then, on a whim, Gaines and Feldstein added horror stories as backup features in EC’s crime books, and fans clamored for more of these gruesome suspense tales. They obliged in 1950 by introducing the classic EC horror titles, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and The Crypt of Terror (later renamed Tales from the Crypt). A horrible — and highly profitable — new genre was born.

Steve Ditko
Self-portrait from witzend #1 (1966)

One ideology in America’s consumer culture remains constant: if an idea sells, copy it a thousand times until it drowns in its own excess. Accordingly, most comic publishers in America quickly followed EC’s lead.

Timely (later known as Marvel) Comics, which was run by owner Martin Goodman and his editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, began a policy of saturating the market with multiple titles featuring any trend that had proven successful, horror included. By 1953, Timely published as many as 50 titles a month, hoping to squeeze its competitors off the newsstands. Smaller companies like Stanmor and Ajax-Farrell stayed afloat by hiring cheap talent to produce third-rate EC knockoffs. With hopes of matching the financial success of the trendsetting EC, both large and small companies pushed their imagery and storytelling to gory excess.

Post-WWII America, however, was determined to maintain an idyllic portrait of family life — the “Ozzie and Harriet” approach to morality and family values. Religious and political leaders won validation, donations and votes by claiming to preserve the innocence of America’s youth. With communism allegedly threatening the country, it was an environment ripe for the regulation of any influence that appeared to sully the American way of life.

Leading the charge, psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham published the best-selling book, Seduction of the Innocent, which argued a correlation between comic-book images and the corruption of American teenagers. Out of the unrest grew the Kefauver hearings, a Senate Subcommittee created to investigate juvenile delinquency in the United States. Chaired by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, the hearings were specific to crime and horror comics, estimated by the committee to represent 20% of all output. Cheap and easily accessible, comic books were seen as an unregulated transit system into the inculpable minds of young Americans.

Of more immediate concern to publishers was increasing pressure from the distributors who controlled the newsstands. This finally led the industry to take a more proactive stance and establish the Comics Code Authority, adopted on October 26, 1954. Not coincidentally, many of the C.C.A. regulations specifically targeted EC titles, effectively driving the company out of the comic-book business.

The industry muzzled itself before a single law needed to be passed. Creativity and innovation were jettisoned in favor of bland, repetitious material deemed safe enough to entertain even the most gullible child.

Remaining above the fray were the superhero titles from the ivory towers of DC. A rookie artist rarely received his start in those hallowed halls. It was the smaller publishers of the early 1950s — relying on shock value and excess to compete against superior talent — that were happy to give work to first-timers, paying them a pittance for the opportunity. “When Stanmor got a story that was a cut above the standards they were willing to publish, they’d peddle it to some other house for a profit, and Farrell was one,” recalls comic-book historian, archivist and publisher Bruce Hamilton (who also wrote for Stanmor in the 1950s).

In 1953, Stanmor Publications completed such a sale — one of many forgotten daily transactions that fueled a chaotic and transitory industry. The comic-book career of Steve Ditko had begun.

 
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