Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2 (2010) - Blake Bell, ed.
Hardcover, 240 pages
Back in the 1950s (and for a long time afterward), Charlton paid the lowest rates in comic book publishing, about half of what everyone else was paying. But working for Charlton carried two advantages: although they paid little, they paid on time and you could always count on plenty of work.
Work was exactly what Steve Ditko needed in 1955. After being out of commission with tuberculosis for nearly a year, Ditko was eager to get the creative juices flowing once more. To say that he did so is putting it mildly: Ditko produced over 450 pages of comics for Charlton in 1957 alone (some of which is reproduced in the 240 pages of Unexplored Worlds).
Again, work was plentiful at Charlton, but you had to work fast. Since the rates were so low, you had to produce twice as much material to make a decent wage. And Charlton didn’t really care that much about the quality of what their comic book writers and artists produced; Charlton published comics primarily to keep the printing presses moving so they could produce their real breadwinner: song lyrics magazines.
You could write anything you wanted: westerns, sf, fantasy, horror, romance, war stories, crime stories, suspense, anything. Many of their comics were anthology titles featuring short tales from various writers and artists, usually with no unifying theme. Charlton didn’t care as long as they had enough pages of something to call it a comic book. That being the case, and since work was cranked out quickly, quality suffered.
Most of the stories in Unexplored Worlds are not very good. Many are bad. Some are truly awful. Most of these stories were probably written by Joe Gill, but are uncredited. It’s easy to blast Gill; several of these stories start strong, only to fizzle out with weak endings, such as “The Conquered Earth” and “Mystery Planet.” Some of them simply stop with no resolution whatsoever. Others are truly lousy from start to finish, but most at least begin well. Yet don’t criticize Gill too harshly; he was simply trying to crank out enough pages to earn a living.
But it was different for Ditko. He also was trying to earn a living, but he didn’t cut corners. While he no doubt practiced his craft while he was recovering from tuberculosis, once back at Charlton, Ditko began exploring, learning, stretching his skills and expanding his artistic dimensions, at least as much as the newly-formed comics code would allow.
While the stories in Bell’s first volume, Strange Suspense, The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 contains better stories overall, Ditko’s work was clearly still a bit rough around the edges. With Unexplored Worlds, we see an artist breaking out of his comfort zone, trying new things, taking stylistic gambles. Ditko’s suspense stories are creepier, with more mood and shadow coming into play, his sf stories more ethereal, his characters more expressive with their emotions through the drawing of their hands and eyes. In short, Unexplored Worlds shows Ditko’s imagination running wild, which is, despite some less-than-average stories, a wonder to behold.
Despite the lesser quality stories, the artwork makes Unexplored Worlds a must for any Steve Ditko fan. Those new to Ditko might prefer to start with his work on The Amazing Spider-Man or his run on Doctor Strange before encountering these archives. (Your local library might have them.) But no matter where you start, be prepared for a unique artistic experience.
Unexplored Worlds, The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2 is part of an ongoing collection of books beginning with Strange Suspense, The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1 (2009), which unfortunately is out of print and difficult to find. (If you do find it, expect to pay a lot for it.) Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 3 was released in 2012 and the next installment, Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 4 will be released in May, 2013.