Speedball: The Last Stand Of Steve Ditko

Posted: May 8, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Welcome back Satellite Subscribers we are receiving transmissions from 1989. Marvel Comics, during its initial launch in the 1960s created a universe of characters unlike anything that had been seen before. Characters like The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers and the X-Men  which broke the mold for a newer more dynamic group of heroes than ever seen from established companies like DC Comics. From the fertile minds and pencils of such masters of the form like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the reclusive Steve Ditko, came a group of characters that not only addressed the fact these individuals had Super Powers but showed that they had real lives outside of their Super Heroic adventures.

Speedball promo poster crop

 

This was such a departure from the traditional DC characters who were super powered to a fault and almost completely invincible.Marvels heroes were the everyman. The guy or girl next door who just happened to be super powered. Spiderman was one of the best examples of this, as mild mannered Peter Parker was the story of what happens when an ordinary kid reacts to being given extraordinary super powers. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee weaved believable down to earth tales that have been plagiarized over and over but have yet to be really duplicated.This is the story of a character I feel that had a shot at capturing that original Marvel magic. The tragic story of an artist, a once revered mainstream celebrity in the comics world that became diminished by the very company he helped build. Strap in Satellite readers as we set course for the late 1980s Marvel Universe just in time to witness the birth of the most underrated character in comics and the last stand for comics icon Mr. Steve Ditko. Seat belts on Heroes our next journey takes us to the breaking point for comic books in the LATE  1980s..

 

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Transmission Date: May 8 2013

I picked up this comic book off the spinner rack of a pharmacy in Newfoundland Canada. It intrigued me the first time I saw it. The Amazing Spiderman Annual number 22 was part of a not so great EVENT series called The Evolutionary War which painfully unfolded in the annuals of many of Marvels key books at the time. The cover was visibly different as it was drawn in the vintage mold of classic Kirby hero jumping off the page.It boasted the catch phrase “Move Over Spidey Enter: Speedball, The Masked Marvel” it was an old school debut for the character and it jumped out at me immediately! This new character had the old school feel that could have fit perfectly in the 1960s original Marvel run. I remember reading the story inside which admittedly was not very good but this new character was a hit with the fanboy in me.

1988-_Drug-War-Rages_

I collected Amazing Spiderman all throughout the 80s and had a significant run of books including a bunch of Marvel Tales reprints of the original Ditko run on ASM. Steve Ditko who is a Co Creator of Spiderman despite numerous battles between him and Stan Lee (Marvel Legendary Publisher),..mostly a one sided argument where Ditko felt Lee took all the credit for the creation of Spiderman when the design was all Ditko’s but the concept was Lee’s. That of course is the Spiderman for Dummies version of events but I digress. Ditko was a loner in the comics world in part do to his beliefs in Objectivism. He lived and breathed the teachings of philosopher Ayn Rand and much of his work was heavy handed in the way he approached a character and how were portrayed in the comics. Ditko passed over many jobs and was turned down for several others for he was garnering a reputation as being hard to deal with. It was his beliefs in regards to how his characters and creative direction that made Ditko walk off of Marvels top tier title. Spiderman and Doctor Strange which were Steve Ditko’s masterworks.Ditko found work elsewhere in DC comics and Charlton comics as well.

 

 

His work on characters like The Creeper and The New Gods for DC and Captain Atom and Blue Beetle for Charlton kept Ditko working at least. Odd jobs for Marvel on titles like Rom SpaceKnight and dubious titles such as Marvels Star Imprints Chuck Norris and The Karate Kommandos. Ditko had seemingly run out of gas. He had become something of a Pariah in the industry. He was viewed as being too weird, and his artwork had not updated with the times which would be a criticism of his latter day career.

Ditko Atom

 

As it would happen Marvel happened to be experimenting with a new concept about a new set of characters living in a stand alone Universe outside of the Marvel Continuity dubbed the New Universe. It created a host of new characters such as Star Brand, DP7, and Nightmask, to name a few. The New Universe however did not make it due to creative issues and lack of interest in the product. The Speedball concept was originally created by Ditko as a New Universe character but the imprint became extinct before the character could see the light of day. Ditko was struggling to get any sustained contract work and as a favor to a friend writer Tom Defalco went to bat for Ditko and Speedball at Marvel resulting in getting the green light as a regular ongoing series. Steve Ditko was about to get the chance that had eluded him in recent times. Speedball made his debut in The Amazing Spiderman Annual #22 and I grabbed it off the rack immediately. I loved this new character. He had a vintage look, cool powers and was a perfect fit in the classic Marvel Universe and was to be penciled by the man who brought Spiderman and Doctor Strange to life. It was a sure fire hit….on paper.

 

Speedball 1

I sat in a water tunnel next to our stadium where my friend and I often went after we visited the local drug store and would leave with a paper bag full of comic books every week,and I held Speedball #1. As we sat that day and studied these colorful tabloids I wanted so bad for this book to be the next big thing. I felt like I was on the ground floor of the next generation of Marvel heroes. Honestly the cover to issue one was a let down. Where as the cover to his first appearance in ASM Annual #22 was everything I looked for in a comic book, his debut issue one looked like a panel you may find in the middle of a comic as a part of a sequence of action but not a cover shot for an #1 issue? This was a bad Omen. Instead it showed the character battling a group of mono colored generic bad guys back on? The main character of the title was not really featured prominently on the cover of his own book? His design was not visible as he was depicted back on?? and this cover was an epic failure in one mans opinion. The interior story inside gave me hope.

Speedballs Rouges gallery were certainly not the most serious badguys. The Sticker for example put Speedball in many “Sticky” situations. (Insert laughter here!)

We met Robbie Baldwin and his family. Robbie, aka Speedball, acquired his powers the old fashioned Marvel way through a laboratory accident. Hammond Research Facility had been playing with the idea of Interdimensional energy sources which of course is never a good thing. Robbie ends up smack dab in the middle of a lab accident but finds himself surviving the incident but suddenly surrounded by Kinetic Energy Bubbles and dressed in a super cool blue and yellow costume. As with classic Marvel his pet cat Niels, is also affected by this incident and adds a comedic element to the issues. The Cat even adopts the name Hairball as a play on the name Speedball.

Here comes the Diabolical Leaper Logan? Top tier Superbad!

The Book was full of the classic Marvel character traits. Robbie was the teenage boy who inherits powers he struggles to harness while juggling his real world issues. His father Justin Baldwin is a high profile attourney, while his mother Madeline, a retired stage actress who is now settling in as a teacher. In an interesting spin Robbies parents are not happily married and often are seen arguing especially when it comes to the actions of their son..Speedball. Of course then there is Robbie’s adopted cat Niels (Hairball) who also has powers of its own. Toss in some small town criminal activity and Speedball is a tour de force of classic Marvel lore. I enjoyed the possibilities of what this character brought to the table and you could not ask for a more classic style of character. However would the world of the late 80s be accepting of this old school form of storytelling?

What evil lurks in the Halls of Springdale High. Its up to our Kinetic Bouncing Hero to find out!

Ditko himself once again found himself placing his belief system on the characters in the cast. Mostly his vision of how justice is handled through his objectivist point of view once again poured to the surface through the character Justin Baldwin. Ditkos own Black and White view of justice was a central bone of contention in all his works and this book would be no exception. In this case it would be the creators own style and political viewpoints that would put the final nail in the long storied career of Steve Ditko.

The Basher and The Two Legged Rat are such great badguy’s they have never appeared in another comic again. The true mark of a great creation.

The first issue of Speedball would come in with a disappointing launch. Reviews and fan comments were mixed. While some jumped on to get another number one issue the critics came out fast and hard. Ditko was on the defensive from the get go.The late 8os were the genesis of the mega artist. Super stars like Frank Miller and John Byrne were the undisputed kings of modern comics at the time with their bombastic styles that made the characters leap off the page in a manner no one had ever seen at the time. Batman and Superman had a rebirth of sorts and comics had taken on a more serious gritty approach. Gone were the bubble gum candy of the 50s and 60s. Fans wanted their heroes and villain’s with an edge to them. We were only a couple of years away from the 90s Image explosion where comics would change forever. Its was like the end of the world for comics and Ditko was not the artist fans looked at to bring them into the future.

Not really sure what the thing in the white background is? On first look..well use your imagination.

What had happened? How could the man responsible for the creation of Marvels most recognizable superhero fail so dramatically with a brand new chance? Fact was the industry had moved ahead without Steve Ditko. His beliefs were a source of irritation for publishers who had long since given up on his erratic behavior. His art style had not changed with the times. Ditko drew like he had woken up in the afternoon in 1965. It was painfully obvious that change was needed. Ditkos characters where drawn in a 60s fashion as well. From their hair styles, to their clothes the characters looked very dated and wooden. Dynamic poses seen in the works of Byrne and Miller at the time were lacking in the book. The fun bouncy vibe of Speedball also seemed very alone in the world of The Dark Knights and The Man Of Steels. Had fans given up on classic light hearted fun in trade for a dead pan serious world of late 80s comics?

The Harlequin Hitman clearly has his vision impaired by that mask as he is not exactly skilled with that gun!

The characters were a big concern. They were not reflective of the modern times. Bad Guys like The Ghost Of Springdale High, The Sticker, The Bug Eyed Voice, The Bone Head Gang, The Harlequin Hitman, and the Two Legged Rat were all 7th to 8th string, one and done characters. Speedball’s rouges gallery looked like rejected characters from the old 1960s Batman Tv Series.

The end is coming as sales at this point in the books run had gone past critical levels and this book was doomed by issue #8

There was little support from Marvel either. When a title is struggling for sales Marvel would usually go for a final Hail Mary to save the title by bringing in in Co Stars from other books. Where were the “HOT” appearances of Wolverine, The Punisher or even Spidey himself? Where were the Super hero team ups? Where were the wars against established super bads? Speedball was given no form of life support and it was obvious by all who were on the pulse of comics at that time that this title was given the death sentence from issue one. This was the brain child of one of the founding fathers of the Marvel Universe, but the publishers, the company, the industry, and the fans had given up on Speedball and more importantly Steve Ditko.

Issue #9 rolled around with the end of its run insight and Marvel does nothing to support this book or pull it from the clutches of death. No guest stars, no major bad guys, no hope.

After a mere 10 issues, just 2 issues short of making it to the one year mark, the book the plug was pulled on the title and in 1989 Speedball The Masked Marvel was cancelled. Steve Ditkos final run with Marvel ended with a whimper rather than a send off for a legend in the business. Steve Ditko would go on to grab minor jobs with upstart companies like Defiance, a guest spot for DC on a New Gods and some smaller work for independent presses. Ditko in desperation for paid work took a job to do  Transformers coloring books and even an ad for the restaurant Big Boy at an all time low point for one of the industries former top artists.Ditko officially retired from the business in 1998.

Not a year into its fabled run Speedball was cancelled without making it to issue 12. #10 marked the final issue.

While Ditko went out with a whimper,  Speedbal,l under another creative team, was brought back to life as he joined the very popular teen team The New Warriors which seemed like Marvels answer to the New Teen Titans and it was a success for the majority of  its run. Speedball also later factored into being a key player in the major event cross over called Civil War. Like all good characters it would far outlive the creators work life cycle.

Newwarriors

 

Speedball has a special place in my comic loving heart. For those of us who enjoy retro books like early Amazing Spiderman comics, this title captured that fun. I would recommend these 10 issues as it was rejected at the time due to its lack of support and was a victim of the times. The comic was a bad fit for the era and the changing landscape of comic books beginning in the late 80s and exploding  in the early 90s with the coming of Image comics. The title itself is a self contained an expression of what fans in the 60s experienced when Marvel comics first entered the market. Classic comics that did not take short cuts with swearing, violence and nudity. This was good clean fun that you could pass over to your 6 year old child and they would enjoy it. I think with a push from Marvel, some cross over with the Marvel Universe characters that Speedball could rise again in a solo title. I may be alone in that hope, but a fanboy can dream! So gang if you have some money hit your local comics shops dollar and quarter bins and you are sure to discover some of these gems hidden in a Longbox Graveyard.(For Paul!)

Heroes..it is once again time to head back to the Satellite. Our time in the late 80s is slowly slipping away..our records indicate the comics world is about to explode if we do not leave soon.

Hope you have enjoyed this venture into the world of 1980s Marvel comics. The SuperHero Satellite offers many more fun blogs like this one. Feel free to leave a comment below or contact me directly to share feedback on Twitter. I am @charlton_hero and I answer all questions or comments. It has been my honor to bring these to you and I enjoy writing these posts as much as I do sharing them! Take care Heroes, Satellite Transmissions are shutting down.
End Transmission…

For fans of Steve Ditko out there I encourage you to check out http://ditkocultist.com/ for all you Ditko needs. The site is a comprehensive visual history of the works of Steve Ditko and was a resource that I used here to compile my cover gallery. Big thanks to the folks at that website for all their hard work!

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Comments
  1. Nick Caputo says:

    While I agree with you that Speedball was not one of Ditko’s shining moments, I think the problem was that management was looking backward, not forward, and tried too hard to duplicate the Spider-Man formula. I suspect with Speedball he had to make concessions and tailored his work for a younger audience.The visual look and concept were fine, but Ditko and Marvel at that point, were not a great fit.

    My disagreement is with some of your statements about Ditko’s art being old fashioned. While he may not have been contemporary with clothing or hair styles, his storytelling continued to be strong. Also, your categorization of Ditko being desperate because he worked on coloring books and Big Boy (a comic story, not an ad) was likely more his own choice of not wanting to work on the dark, gritty heroes (or Anti-heroes) that Marvel and DC portrayed. Throughout his career Ditko has chosen a path that many find problematic, but I admire the fact that he has gone in his own direction and produced work that means something.

    Ditko has not faded away. He has continued to produce comics with publisher Robin Snyder, and his work has more in common with small press, independent publishers than mainstream comics. In fact, some of his best work of the mid-late 1980s was not at Marvel or DC, but on his own creation, Static. Even if you don’t find his writing or ideas to your approval, I’m sure you would see the brilliance of craft on those stories.His pencils and inks are outstanding, some of the best work in his career.

    Having studied and appreciated the work of Ditko over many decades, I’ve found many of his concepts, ideas and designs worthwhile, even the lesser ones. Ditko is one of a kind, a distinctive, unique artist whose work will continue to be dissected for decades to come.

    If you’d like to read about one of Ditko’s earliest stories, along with plenty of varied comic book content, please take a look at my blog:

    http://nick-caputo.blogspot.com/

    • charltonhero says:

      Thanks for the comments, On the topic of Ditkos work being old fashioned much of this came from being around comic book owners back in the late 80s and as well cemented in the book Strange & Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko which I highly recommend. I loved this book and I was merely addressing the comments that were being put out there at the time of the titles. It was unfortunate and cruel the lack of support from Marvel editorial and the industry in general.

      I am a big Ditko fan. If you read the bottom of my post you will see that despite industry criticism I loved Speedball. I am a big Charlton fan as well and Ditko is the heart and soul of that company in the day. Love his work on the horror titles.

      As for the Big Boy work Ditko did his struggles to find paid work are well documented and not an opinion of mine.Oh the Big Boy was an advertisement in the form of a comic story.

      I am interested in knowing more about his more recent independent work. His older material on Static and Mr A was very cool!

      Ditkos work is to be admired for its uniqueness and depth.

      I appreciate your comments and thanks for reading. Ill be sure to check out your blog!

      Thanks

      Hero!

  2. Nick Caputo says:

    Charltonhero,

    I question the term “struggles” when describing Ditko’s personal choices. As the 1970s and 1980s wore on there were less mainstream comics Ditko was comfortable working on. Ditko chose to not produce certain comics, which limited his work. As you noted, there were many editors and retaliers who thought his work old fashioned, but he did get jobs from editors such as Danny Fingeroth and Jim Salicrup, so not everyone felt that way.

    There are many perceptions that people have about Ditko, and when it enters the field of personal information most of it is hearsay. The truth is, none of us know Ditko’s financial status, so everyone speaking “for” Ditko are only guessing. I think its much more important to talk about the work. That is worth dissecting, and certainly worthy of criticizm without personal attack.

    Big Boy was a promotional comic book that has a long history, beginning with Stan Lee and Bill Everett. Later Sol Brodsky (Marvel production man and artist) drew the comic for years, as did other comic artists, so it was a decent gig. You can read all about Big Boy Comics on my blog, if you’re interested:

    http://nick-caputo.blogspot.com/2012/06/marvels-unknown-1960s-comics.html

    I’m glad you’re a big Ditko fan and I appreciate your discussion of a character that is rarely mentioned. I thought the character was a lot of fun but hoped for something a little more novel. Ditko is one of my favorite creators and while I find many articles and books on his work interesting, I think many falter when they attempt to analyze his personal life and his percieved failures.

    • charltonhero says:

      Amen to that. When someone does their home work like you did I appreciate the notations and ads to the blog itself. Big thanks for the input. Hopefully someone takes our advice and checks out Ditkos work. That degree of uniqueness is not seen as much today. Take care.

      Hero out.

    • charltonhero says:

      There is a lot of discussions on Ditkos failures and financial “struggles” but it’s true that Ditkos was so private who could truly confirm those comments.

      I do like your point on perceived failures. Is it truly a failure if you are satisfied with your work. Is it a failure when you walk away from work or denied work for being true to your values. It may have been the industry that failed Ditkos.

  3. Sage says:

    were they ever planing on making a penance

  4. I am not sure where you’re getting your info, but great topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.
    Thanks for wonderful info I was looking for this info for my mission.

  5. Pork Pie Hat says:

    CharltonHero, your comments below the cover of Big-Eyed Voice and the ones below Harlequin Hitman constitute the most astute written assessment of Ditko’s disappointing final mainstream comic assignments I have ever read. And I’ve read a lot. In fact, you and the equally astute Mr. Caputo (nice website, mate) are the only Ditko essayists who really have something thought-provoking to say that I’ve seen in years on the internet. I wholeheartedly agree with Nick and your opinions. Like Ditko, I appreciate unvarnished honesty.
    My first glimpse of Swingin’ Steve was in October 1962. That month the Cuban Missile Crisis was scaring the hell out of America, especially 9-year-old boys, and the only beacon of hope for this 9-year-old was Spider-Man. A fourth grade classmate loaned me Amazing Adult Fantasy #15 and my eyes surely bulged from their sockets in this moment of epiphany (Ditko’s been eliciting insectoid eyes from me for over 50 years). This same classmate waved Spider-Man #3 and # 4 under my nose and my eyes bugged again. Doc Ock became my favorite Spidey guest star; that changed in #17 when Gobby was really yanking Parker around, even the fabled #31-33 epic with Dr. 8 didn’t change my mind, but I digress.
    The day I read this blog I recognized a Ditko trope near and dear to me: a masked man in a suit and fedora. The Harlequin Hitman is another in a long line of Ditko lookalikes: the Big Man, the Crimemaster, the Question, Mr. A, et al. Dr. Strange lammed to Hong Kong seeking to evade Dormammu’s ethereal thugs outfitted in identical togs, sans mask. An evil trio planted a bomb in his Greenwich Village digs a dozen issues later, one of them looked like the Crimemaster’s brother, or in this case his sister, for when this character unmasked—he was a she! After I read this blog I bought Harlequin Hitman, got it today and it is full of the pedestrian old school suckage you said it is, C-H.
    But I liked it anyway.
    Because Steve Ditko was, is and always will be one of my favorite illustrators, especially when he inks himself (like Steranko). Again I digress.
    I’m chomping at the bit to know if either of you guys have any blog verbiage on my favorite Ditko characters Spidey, Dr. Strange and the Question? I liked the Speedball dialog so much it really doesn’t matter who: Creeper, Blue Beetle, Hawk & Dove, Shade . . .
    Keep up the good work. Peace.

    • charltonhero says:

      Check out the Satellite posts Count Down To Retcon and Crisis On Continuity Earths for more about Ditko characters and their eventual fates. Thanks for reading Super Hero Satellite and there is more Ditko stuff planned very soon!

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