The Amazing Spider-Man three-part series that played out from issues 31 through 33 get most of the attention from Ditko fans. Indeed, they probably do constitute the single best superhero story ever written and illustrated by Steve Ditko. However, the story in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 actually stands as something of an equal. Whenever I look at Ditko's run on that book, I am always searching for outward signs of the point at which Ditko had made the decision to leave the title. It could be argued that issue #33 was the beginning of the end for his career at Marvel Comics and that issue is probably the best one he ever wrote and illustrated.
But one should stand back and take an objective look at the story in the second Spider-Man annual. As with the first annual, Ditko went out of his way to create a truly grand story. In the first annual he seeded the Spider-Man mythos with material that the company would mine for years afterward. With the second annual it really does look as if one of two things were happening:
Either Ditko was very happy in his work and position and had decided to write and illustrate one of the best superhero team-up stories ever created or...
he had already decided to leave the company and was just putting the icing on the cake. Indeed, the art in this issue is as accomplished as anything he did at Marvel or anywhere else he worked. It even compares favorably to the art he produced at Warren when the pay rates were much higher and he was pushing the envelope and experimenting with form as he never did for the traditional comics. The cover itself is exceptional, creatively one of the best he ever did.
Also, the story here is superior. He has teamed up his two major creations for Martin Goodman: Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. Here, in this 20-page story are both of his major characters working together to best a truly sinister and extremely dangerous foe. As usual, the philosophical subtexts are seething just beneath the fantasy of the yarn: altruism versus the sickened souls who stand all around, dragging down the best of us.
"The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange" shows off the fact that Ditko had moved well beyond the journeyman comic artist working in the trenches and had entered the world of the industry's superstardom. He went out of his way to show off his illustrating talents here and his characters seem to be fully three-dimensional, all but escaping the two-dimensional confines of the four-color press. The principle villain of the tale, Xandu, has trapped a pair of weak-willed thugs to act as his enforcers. Xandu has sapped them of their independence and made slaves of them but has imbued them with unimaginable physical strength. And that strength seems real as we view these juggernauts striding about the pages, mowing down all in their paths. I don't think I've ever seen physical power as convincingly illustrated as Ditko did it there in the form of this duo. Looking at this story, you can't help but wonder how much influence it had on artists like Jim Starlin who would later use such physically similar characters throughout his career.
Scanned from my personal book. The mindless and unstoppable thugs beat the crap out of the hero. The good guy doesn't always win. Sometimes a good heart is just not enough.
The story is a solid one, if not on a par with the Master Planner series. And I can see it standing as part of the tapestry of Steve Ditko's steady realization that he could no longer work for Marvel Comics creating characters that were making the company richer and richer while he remained out of the loop, existing as not much more than the enslaved thugs who feature so prominently in this tale.
Yep, I can well see this story as the beginning of the end for Ditko's days with Marvel. He wrote it, and he illustrated it, and had to share the glory with the boss's nephew. Alas.
This book really is a bonanza of Ditko art for the collector. In addition to the 20-page original story, the entire contents of The Amazing Spider-Man #1 are reprinted, along with the story from The Amazing Spider-Man #5. So for kids who'd missed those and didn't have them in their collections, here they could fill in the blanks for a mere twenty-five cents! What a deal!