« 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. »
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! »
« 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! »
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! »?