The haute couture of Steve Ditko's Shade
(This is Your Monday Panel 13.)
For all my thousands of words of analysis of Steve Ditko's DC work, some of the best things about the comics he did there are the things that are just cool or look good, no illumination needed. So in that spirit, let's take a look at the girls of Shade.
Ditko was hardly a "girl" artist. His idiosyncratic style, expressionistic brushstrokes, and singular vision of humanity could result in comics where everyone looked like they were mentally ill. There's an indefinable weirdness to Ditko's human beings -- often as not they aren't even characters, but stand-ins for moral states or ideological abstractions. Whatever the reason, Ditko rarely managed (or maybe bothered with) attractive men or women, any sexual allure usually drowning in the vigor of his brush lines.
But the clothes Ditko drew are another thing entirely. From the sharp, occasionally beatnik influenced early-'60s style shows Peter Parker's high school quad was grounds for, to Dr. Strange's silky and elaborate magician's garb, to the cool, buttoned-down fury of Mr. A and the Question's slimline suits, Ditko always used clothes to his story's advantage. Never mere coverings, they're always saying something: about the people wearing them, the action's setting, or the moral tone of the story.
Shade features some of Ditko's best costuming (despite the rather unfortunate Kirbyist-stripper's togs the protagonist spends most of his time in), but it's also notable for finding a place, at last, on some pretty girls. Ditko's stylistic lean toward cartooning in Shade stripped a good deal of the strangeness from his human faces; the men's jaws are squared, their features regularized and slid into handsomeness. And the women are often gorgeous, long-lashed, Caniff-influenced svelte beauties. And outfitted in Ditko's fashion-forward designs, they become some of the most visually-absorbing visions of femininity ever to grace superhero comics. Let's take a look.
Shade's true love, Mellu, is the book's female lead and Ditko's main canvas for women's costumery in it. She first appears in this psychedelic jumpsuit, which is like a road map to all Ditko's stylistic quirks. There's the thick-on-thin ink lines, the unusual shapes, the extreme asymmetry, the unmistakable squiggles, and those weird bubble-shaped things on the tights that could only have come from Ditko's brush.
The brushwork on the skirt is peculiar to Ditko, but this is an R. Crumb girl through and through; the meaty legs, the rolling, purposeful gate, the extreme pear-shape... there's even a Crumb-ish look of base cunning about the facial features. (Side note: I can't figure out whether that's her left arm tousling her hair or just some ill-placed background lines. Anyone?)
Oh, it's Frank Miller-o'clock! Maybe it's just the retro-futuristic, Clockwork Orangey yellow and green skirt/sweater combo, but I can see a lot of Carrie Kelly as Robin in this girl. Her big, flat feet are another late-period Miller adoption. And look at her walk! The cartoon feet, the shoulders pulled back, the severly swishing skirt -- there's so much motion to her that she almost jumps off the page. This is a great drawing and an excellent example of what Ditko's interest in simplification on Shade added to his style.
Look out! This girl's a gangster's moll, a bit player with a "silly feminine" interest in the occult. I love how Ditko just splashes a total '20s femme fatale in the middle of all the futurism of Shade -- but he makes it work perfectly with the minimalism of her outfit. Another cartooned pose ramps up the sexiness; and look at those thick, uninhibited brushstrokes on the dress!
Another great look for Mellu, again based around those trippy circular designs that were so purely Ditko's. The real story here, though, is how well Ditko cartoons a gorgeous woman: like I said, there's a lot of Caniff in her face, but the full lips, button nose, and mischievous come-hither look are entirely the work of their creator. If Ditko ever drew a pretty girl, I say it was in this panel.
The women of Shade weren't all set dressing or heroines, however; villainess Gola Zae was perhaps the most terrifying human Ditko ever brought forth, from the blown-out, crazed eyes to the striped, what-the-hell hair to the jumpsuit, which features the almost carven-looking concentric circles seen as design motifs in the darker Dr. Strange stories.
The alternate dimension of Meat was the setting to a lot of crazy costume concepts like the above, but it also gave Ditko a chance to design the Metan security uniforms, consummately slick unisex jobs that gave the bob-haired policewomen an achingly mod, British army-influenced look. And as if it wasn't enough already, he tops it all off with a perfectly elegant, snappy hotel-bellboy short-brimmed cap. Fab. This picture showcases another especially pretty face, as well.
The costume Mellu gets wears to fight equally well-designed villain the Cloak is as close as anyone in Shade ever really got to a traditional "superhero costume". Though no less impressive, it's got a different vibe than the rest of the Shade couture -- almost an Apollonian, Alex Raymond-on-Flash Gordon tone to it. Jerry Serpe's classy white/blue/gold color palette really give it a striking flash, and that headdress is equal parts antique feminine tiara and futuristic warrior's helm. (Grant Morrison's Aztek would later adopt a similar look.) This outfit is especially suited to Ditko's meaty, arcing brush lines, as well. A look at what might have been a different vision for the costuming of Shade had it been allowed to evolve. The chance to see that evolution is just one of the regrettable victims of Shade's cancellation.
Read "Into The Void": Intro Part 1 Part 2 Part 3