Bending Reality With Steve Skeates

« Carefully, the old man utters a cacophonous incantation… then lets his mind go blank. » — Stephen Skeates

We recently (last March 30) lost a fine fellow and writer in Steve Skeates (1943-2023). I’ve long appreciated his work, as I felt he was among the very few ‘mainstream’ comic book writers who could actually be funny, not to mention gripping or thought-provoking*, whatever the situation demanded.

At its peak, his writing also stood out by virtue of its containing actual creative ideas rather than the usual mishmash of bromides and creativity-stifling continuity that the fanboys clamoured for.

Today, I’ll showcase a bicephalous favourite, The Spectre in « The Parchment of Power Perilous » and Dr. Graves in « The Ultimate Evil », both springing from the same author… and the same plot.

How did this come to pass? Skeates told the story in an article entitled « Graves Acting Strangely: The Ultimate Evil Reconsidered », published in Charlton Spotlight no. 5 (Fall 2006, Argo Press, Michael Ambrose, editor).

« … at that particular point in time, I was totally unaware of the unique manner in which Julie [Schwartz ] approached his profession, typically in the dark when it came to the fact that this longtime comic book icon was far more actively involved in the plotting process than any other editor up at DC. […] I ambled into Julie’s well-kempt office armed with an intricate plot… something I had stayed up half the night before constructing, working, reworking, polishing and repolishing, only to have Julie read it over, extract a couple of ideas he liked, and unceremoniously toss the rest of it away. […] the two of us set about constructing what basically amounted to a brand-new plot based on those couple of ideas of mine that Julie liked, ideas that had somehow gotten his creative juices flowing. »

Charles J. “Jerry” Grandenetti (1926-2010) shows to breathtaking advantage his mad compositional virtuosity, anchored by Murphy Anderson’s rational inks. Skeates again: « … inker Murphy Anderson was the perfect stabilizing force, his meticulously detailed inks reining in Grandenetti’s insanity just enough so that even the latter’s wildest notions — colliding planes (no, not aircraft — planes of existence), his frequent disdain for panel borders, the same character shot from two or three separate angles within seemingly the same panel, etc. — became perfectly understandable, making the story so much utter fun to follow (even for someone like me who obviously knew exactly where it was going. ) »
Grandenetti’s two previous issues on the title, illustrating Gardner Fox’s Pilgrims of Peril (check out a stunning excerpt here) and The Ghost That Haunted Money!, had demonstrated that he likely was the only match for Ditko when it came to depicting hallucinatory other-dimensional vistas. Let’s face it, just about all who followed Ditko on Doctor Strange either half-heartedly aped Ditko’s designs or drew other dimensions as if they were Wally Wood’s outer space (or Dali’s The Persistence of Memory). Well, save for Tom Sutton, I guess. Grandenetti could have done a great job, but honestly, I like his career as it is. The day Steve Ditko walked away from Doc Strange is the day the character ceased to exist, as far as I’m concerned.
Five pages from The Spectre n. 8 (Jan.-Feb. 1969), edited by the… mighty hand of Schwartz. Special kudos to the uncredited colourist (though DC’s assistant production manager Jack Adler surely supervised), who did a superlative job, making discerning use of bold contrasts and close harmonies. It would have been so easy to end up with a garish mess!

Unlike (with one notable exception, initials SD) his colleagues who scampered from Charlton to DC along with editor Dick Giordano (Denny O’Neil and Jim Aparo, for instance) in the late 1960s, Skeates maintained his Charlton work for a time. He explained: « I simply possessed too much affection for what I was producing for that Derby, Connecticut company to do anything along those lines. » Skeates enjoyed « … contributing to Charlton’s take on the “mystery” anthology, ghostly compilations somehow edgier, funkier, and far more fun than those produced by DC and Marvel. »

« Furthermore, unlike DC, Charlton didn’t require that I first submit a plot outline, get it approved, and then write my story. Instead, I could just suddenly turn in a finished product, on spec, a way of working I very much preferred — diving right in with the plot idea only sketchily there, not boxed in even by myself but allowing the story to work itself out, to go where it wanted to go. » Amen.

The one time we saw the Doctor M. T. Graves truly get his mystical groove on was in this tale of two Steves, Skeates and Ditko, a splendid bit of recycling-but-not-quite.

And he’s how the whole ball of wax coalesced: « I suddenly remembered that fairly intricate Spectre plot that Julie had long ago summarily tossed aside. Hey, y’know, I might just be able (especially if I placed most of my emphasis on those portions that Julie hadn’t extracted, working on the bulk of my original plot while rather downplaying those couple of ideas that Julie and I had built our new plot on) to transform that baby into a workable Dr. Graves adventure! »

This is The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves no. 12 (Jan.-Feb. 1969, Charlton). Edited by Sal Gentile.

« Boom! I was into it, writing this story nearly as fast as I could type. Of course, to in effect have Graves play the role of the Spectre, I could see no way around making certain alterations to my protagonist’s makeup, making him far more mystically powerful than he had ever before seemed, more like Marvel’s Doctor Strange than anyone else…

Yet I could see no real problem in any of that, unless of course someone up at Charlton wound up doing supremely silly like assigning the art for this story to none other than Ditko himself — which, as it turned out, is exactly what happened! »

Some — perhaps all, who knows? — of this tale’s original art (or at least production photostats) has survived, and gives us the opportunity to gaze upon Ditko’s artwork in its raw state, so to speak.

Hail and farewell, Mr. Skeates. You will be missed.


*From the thought-provoking aisle, may I steer you towards Skeates’ intriguing Dr. Thirteen tale, « … and the Dog Howls Through the Night! »?