A Fistful of Dollar Comics 01: Ito, Pope, Kirby, and Ditko

Just before this pandemic quarantine hit, I decided to start digging through some comic store dollar bins, just to see what I could find and write about in Psycho Drive-In’s first attempt at an ongoing comic book centered column. And then the virus hit and I can’t go spelunking for a while. Luckily, I got my hands on a stack of stuff those first few trips to the shops, so let’s kick this thing off, shall we?

Everything discussed in these columns will be comics that cost one dollar or less. No Marvel or DC, unless it’s something old and weird. This is all about finding some gems that don’t cost an arm and a leg.

And there may be spoilers…

Shiver by Junji Ito

Published specifically for Halloween Comic Fest 2017 by Viz Media as a preview for the full Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Stories collection (released in December 2017), Shiver is the title story and oh, what a messed up little story it is. If you’re not familiar with the work of Junji Ito, then you need to educate yourself. Ito is the master of Japanese horror, having created Uzumaki, Tomie, Flesh-Colored Horror, Gyo, Dissolving Classroom, and dozens more books and collections. There is even an anime anthology series based on his work called the Junji Ito Collection. His work is consistently beautifully rendered, realistic, and profoundly disturbing.

Shiver is the story of Yuji, his friend Hideo, and Rina, the girl next door who screams about bugs all the time and seems to be riddled with holes in much the same way Yuji’s grandfather was before he died. Yes, that’s what I said; riddled with holes. If you’ve got trypophobia, you’ll want to avoid this one.

It’s a slow burn story the gradually leads up to multiple horrific reveals. Early in the story we get a glimpse of Rina’s arm as she points to the corner of her yard and giggles insanely, which triggers Yuji’s realization that he’s suppressed the memory of seeing his dead grandfather – in a graphic reveal of the old man’s face filled with holes. Despite the images of bodies covered with holes, Ito is still able to keep it from veering into outright horror as he controls the pacing with remarkable restraint, adding layer after layer of detail as Yuji and Hideo discover a journal that reveals the origins of Yuji’s grandfather’s ailment.

This is when the story takes a turn for the weird (as if it wasn’t already). The journal documents a visit from an old war buddy, who for some reason wears a heavy coat in the summertime, trying to pawn off a mysterious jade carving that had been passed on to him by another wartime friend who had since died of a mysterious illness and complaining of a chill.

Uncontrollable obsessions show up again and again in Ito’s work, most notably in the long-form work, Uzumaki, where an entire village is consumed by spirals, and in the short story, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” where an earthquake reveals a mountainside littered with body-shaped holes that attract people who recognize themselves in the holes. With Shiver, the obsession is with this jade artifact. Grandfather becomes obsessed with it, and before long finds his body breaking down as holes appear. Then come the visions of insects swarming through his window and crawling around inside him.

And then there’s the mysterious doctor.

The doctor appears on the very first page of the story (after a frankly unsettling splash page that is almost impossible to interpret sanely), and it isn’t until near the climax that it becomes clear that he’s a larger player in the story than we might have believed in the beginning. I think that’s all I want to say about this one, just in case you, dear reader, might want to track it down for yourself.

Suffice to say, when we finally get to the big final reveal, the final five pages of the story, it’s mind-bendingly horrifying and Ito gives it nearly an entire page so you can really see all the awfulness he’s worked into the image. One of the greatest things about Ito’s work is the way he’s able to render something that might seem unimaginable – or at least things we’ve never thought about before – in an extremely realistic way.

Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #15 by Paul Pope (writer/artist), Lee Loughridge (colors), RS & Comicraft’s Wes (letters)

Spider-Man’s Tangled Web from Marvel Comics ran for 22 issues from June 2001 to March 2003 and was conceived as an anthology series specifically geared toward attracting creators who were mainly known for their indie work or for appearing in Vertigo Comics for DC. The series featured a wide range of talent, all telling unorthodox Spider-Man stories, usually focusing on ancillary characters with Spidey only showing up briefly. Superstar writers and artist such as Garth Ennis, John McCrea, Greg Rucka, Eduardo Risso, Peter Milligan, Duncan Fegredo, Bruce Jones, Lee Weeks, Darwyn Cooke, Kaare Andrews, Zeb Wells, Ted McKeever, Jim Mahfood, and the subject of this Fistful of Dollar Comics review, Paul Pope all took innovative and adventurous swings at the Wall Crawler.

Of course, it was the worst-selling Spider-Man comic being published at the time.

Eisner Award winner Paul Pope is one of the most iconoclastic artists working in comics. He was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, but currently lives and works in New York. Pope has been producing some of the highest quality independent comics in America since his first work, THB in 1995. He’s probably best known for works like Heavy Liquid, 100%, Battling Boy, and Batman: Year 100. If you’re looking for a traditional-looking Spider-Man, this issue’s story, “The Collaborator,” is not the friendly neighborhood Spider-guy you might be expecting.

Everything about Pope’s art is gloriously messy and punk. There are lots of heavy shadows and an extremely cinematic eye in play with the way he tells his stories. Here, we get a one-off story focusing on a new criminal, The Stag Beetle, and his daughter Heather, who is a Spider-Man super fan. The opening pages of “The Collaborator” feature extremely strong visual storytelling as we open with an establishing shot of the run-down apartment building where most of our story is set. We move silently through the grimy hallways to the basement, where Krolnek (Stag Beetle) is hard at work constructing his super-villain armor. These first three page feature no dialogue, just sound effects as he works. The use of color adds to the cinematic nature of the art, with entire panels bathed in shades of single colors. First yellow in the hallways, then blues as we move downstairs, then we get shades of pinks and purples in Krolnek’s workshop until, on the fourth page, he takes a break to watch the news and the scene is bathed in the blues and greens of the TV screen and we get our first dialogue as the news announces that the First Amalgamated Bank of New York City is planning on unveiling its new multi-million dollar security system and we get a glimpse of what the Stag Beetle’s goal is.

This is where we finally get an idea of who Krolnek is in his everyday life. He’s the Superintendent of the apartment building, and he’s not very good at his job. The tenants are complaining as he’s been neglecting to take care of their leaking radiators and drywall problems. But the worst thing is that his daughter loves Spider-Man, his arch-nemesis (even though they’ve never met) – just like his missing wife did, apparently. Krolnek tears down her Spider-Man posters, but as soon as he sneaks out in the middle of the night, she tapes them back together and fantasizes about what he might look like under the mask.

The rest of the issue highlights Stag Beetle’s attack on the bank, again with glorious uses of color and heavy shading, while Heather sneaks around in the hopes of seeing Spider-Man fight a new super villain. Spider-Man’s brief appearance (six panels) is as freaky and frightening as one would imagine meeting a being who can cling to walls and creeps around in the dark. This is the Spider-Man that Ditko imagined all those years ago, lurking in the shadows and catching criminals in his webs.

Even his introduction here, the bottom third of a page focused solely on Spidey’s hand, clinging to the ceiling at an awkward, almost inhuman angle before dropping down in front of Heather, surprising her and silently crowding into her personal space, arms outstretched, fingers bent, getting his face as close as possible to hers, like some sort of nightmarish freak. When she mutters “He – He went that way –” he flips away, still silent, no quips, no thanks, just leaping away like some sort of inhuman monster.

It’s only after this that Heather realizes that Stag Beetle is her dad, thanks to noticing the New York Jets bag he was using to carry the loads of cash he stole. And that’s where we call it a day. Heather standing in the burning rubble of the bank, shouting “Dad!” who is apparently about to get his ass handed to him by her hero, Spider-Man. It’s not much of a resolution, to be honest. I guess Heather is the titular Collaborator, siding with Spidey, but the impact doesn’t really land solidly.

But you know what? It really doesn’t matter. Because this comic is beautiful to look at. Paul Pope didn’t just toss out a throwaway piece. Every page is laid out in a way that emphasizes the drama and the excitement. Those battle pages between Stag Beetle and the police are violent and chaotic as hell. And Lee Loughridge’s colors really help to make this story burst off the page. He and Pope make a good combination (although, as with all of Pope’s work, I’d love to see this in black and white, just to really get a sense of the linework and contrasts), that I’d pay to see again.

Also, to be honest, I’ve always like it better when Spider-Man was creepy and weird, rather than quippy and cartoony.

Silver Star #2 created, written, and drawn by Jack Kirby, lettered and inked by Mike Royer, and colored by Janice Cohen

In the mid-1970s, Jolly Jack Kirby developed a screenplay called Silver Star with Steve Sherman, but as with most of the good things in life, it was not meant to be. Nearly two decades later, however, Kirby adapted the initial screenplay into the six-issue Silver Star comic book that would be published by Pacific Comics from February 1983 to January 1984.

Who’s Jack Kirby, you say? Get the hell out of here. If you’re asking that, then I’m not sure what you’re doing reading this. Or anything, really. Long story short, Kirby is the visionary artist who co-created nearly the entire Marvel Universe in the Sixties after co-creating Captain America with Joe Simon in 1941. He’d been working in comics since the 1930s and was a walking, talking, Nazi-punching idea factory. Needless to say, he was used and abused, his ideas co-opted, his artwork stolen, and became the inspiration for generations of comics artists both for his work and as inspiration to reform the industry to the betterment of the creators. After falling out with Marvel in 1970, he jumped ship to DC and created the Fourth World saga, Darkseid, Mister Miracle, OMAC, Kamandi, The Demon and more, before finally returning to Marvel in 1976 to take on Captain America, and create The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, and Machine Man – who launched out of his extraordinary adaptation and continuation of the probably never to be collected or reprinted again 2001: A Space Odyssey. And that’s not even mentioning his work in animation.

There’s not another single creator on the planet with the vision of Jack Kirby. There have been many imitators, but nobody can match his imagination. And while some may argue that he never quite shined like he did when teamed up with Stan Lee, even in Kirby’s least successfully realized work, there’s a shit ton of greatness on display.

In the 80s, Kirby teamed up with Pacific Comics to create the new creator-owned properties Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and Silver Star. In 1983, I was fifteen years old and found Silver Star #1 at my local comic shop, snatched it up, and promptly never saw another issue. So, when I was flipping through the dollar boxes mentioned at the top of this column, I was very excited to find #2 to see what happened next.

But to be honest, even if I hadn’t had the first issue in box for the past damn near forty years, and maybe if I didn’t even know who Jack Kirby was, Silver Star #2 was coming home with me based solely on the strength of the amazing cover. It’s a cover with everything going for it. Not only is Silver Star touted as “The Next Breed” and “Homo-Geneticus,” this was “A Visual Novel” as well! The image of Silver Star standing with the planet earth beneath him facing off against the giant laughing face of the villain of the piece, Darius Drumm, is dynamic and like nothing else you see on the shelves. Then there’s the actual title copy that’s designed to get you into the specific story: “MAN MAY DESTROY TO GAIN POWER / HIS SUCCESSOR MAY DESTROY BECAUSE HE’S BORN WITH IT… / LOOK OUT FOR – – – / DARIUS DRUMM

How can you turn that down?

As much as I enjoy this issue, it’s not a fan favorite. Kirby’s writing is a bombastic and idiosyncratic as it always was, if not more bizarre, and his art isn’t Kirby at his greatest. But let’s face it. The man was in his mid-Sixties and Mike Royer’s inks are a little too heavy-handed and blocky to really let Kirby’s natural energy flow across the pages, which is disappointing as he’d been Kirby’s main inker during his time at DC. The colors also don’t do the story any favors, oftentimes muddying up the action. In fact, I’d love to see the penciled pages just to see what this comic really should look like (and after a quick Google search, I’ve discovered that TwoMorrows Publishing released Silver Star: Graphite Edition in 2006, which is exactly that! The entire six-issue series reproduced from Kirby’s uninked pencils!!!).

Most of this issue’s story is devoted to giving some background on Silver Star’s nemesis, Darius Drumm, and what a backstory it is! Silver Star is Morgan Miller, a man “blessed” with a genetic package by his father to give him the power to manipulate atoms with his mind, allowing him to do all sorts of crazy stuff, like remake his home into a palace, detailed in a gorgous Kirby two-page spread. Darius Drumm, however, is essentially a child in a mutated adult body, having also been given the “genetic package” by Miller’s father.

The dialogue is clunky, but Drumm rants and raves with Shakespearean bombast, at times directly addressing the reader during his soliloquies. He also seems to be able to not only create monsters from his own hands (??), he can see and hear everything going on with Silver Starr and his father, although he is nowhere near their home. Then we discover that thanks to the genetic package from Doctor Miller, Drumm was born with the mind of a genius adult, with a touch of emotional control powers. His father was an evangelist who called himself the Prophet of the Foundation for Self-Denial and his cult was eventually psychically taken over by little Drumm, who drove his followers mad until they brutally murdered the elder Drumm.

The story ends rather abruptly, with Drumm firing a massive cannon at Silver Star’s home, destroying most of it. On the final page of the story, Silver Starr vows to take the fight to Drumm with the help of the only ones Drumm fears, The Others – whoever they might be. We’re also introduced in a single panel to young Tracy Coleman who has been frozen in time and space for ten years, “alive in stasis!” Whether she will play a part to come, we’ll have to wait and see.

Oddly enough, the rest of the issue is dedicated to another ex-pat Marvel alum, Steve Ditko (I’ll get more into Ditko’s story in a future installment of Fistful of Dollar Comics, I promise), and his character The Mocker, in a story entitled “With These Hands…” This is an interesting story, but is very difficult to make sense of. None of the characters are really established, despite this being the first installment of what would eventually become a full-length story. Part of the problem is that Ditko intended the story to be published at magazine size, twice the size of the standard comic page, and in black and white, where the sixteen-panel grid that he uses to tell the story would be clear and easy to follow. Instead, the story somehow made it’s way to Pacific Comics as the back-up feature for this issue without Ditko’s knowledge! I’d love to get the full story behind how this happened. The colors used not only muddied up the art, they made the effect of The Mocker’s costume and powers extremely difficult to read and understand.

The story itself involves someone with the ability to utilize large robotic hands to commit murder, a corrupt politician who not only hangs around with criminals, but apparently has sex with fourteen-year-old girls. It all comes to a head as The Mocker confronts the man behind the politician, Hugo Boga, the guy behind the psychically controlled metal hands.

I honestly don’t know what’s happening in this story. Ditko’s art is, when it can be seen underneath the horrible coloring job, classic Ditko. But the sixteen-panel grid doesn’t work well on this size of a page. From what I understand, the eventual Mocker graphic novel was published in 1990 and received critical acclaim. I don’t really see any of that here. It’s still a treat to get a surprise Steve Ditko story out of the blue, though. It’s not Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, or even The Question, The Creeper, or Shade the Changing Man levels of work, but it does show that Ditko, along with Kirby, was still working and trying to take advantage of the new more creator-friendly world of the early Eighties.  

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