A Tribute to the of

The house ads in DC comics in the mid-70's were trumpeting a slew of new titles as the fabled "DC Explosion" began in earnest. One in particular featured seven new titles to include Jack Kirby's Justice, Inc.; Claw, the Unconquered; Joe Kubert's Tor; The Warlord; Beowulf; Kong and Stalker. Four of the above were shown brandishing a sword, too, so it was a new era at DC and one of those sword-wielders was Stalker, the focus of this review.

Stalker #1 had a publication date of June/July 1975, though of course it actually hit the stands in March of that year. The splash page described this debut issue as "A Saga of Sword and Sorcery by: Paul Levitz (writer) Steve Ditko and Wally Wood (artists) Joe Orlando (editor.)"

Stalker looks almost like a denizen of Sherwood Forest with his green, belted tunic over a yellow shirt and leggings with matching green boots and a scabbard for his sword. He is shown scaling the turret of a castle and overpowering a sentry in order to make his way to the grand dining hall where a large assembly is feasting. From the balcony, Stalker hurls a knife that embeds itself into the back of a chair occupied by what appears to be the queen of the castle. Thus begins "Quest for a Stolen Soul!"

As it happens, the woman is a Baroness and the hilt of the knife carries a note to her, recounting his suffering at her hands and his promise to repay in kind. It is signed "Stalker."

We are then given a flashback to the early life of this tortured creature, whose eyes are an empty crimson. He is ejected from his home by his father as a mere boy and he must then make his own way, a ragamuffin in rags, trying only to survive. He is successful, but dreams of so much more and one day seizes upon a chance encounter with the Baroness, offering his life to her in exchange for the chance to learn the art of warfare so that he may serve as her guard. The Baroness agrees to bring him to Castle Loranth, but her motives are only to enslave him and after a year of drudgery it becomes apparent to the youth just what sort of bargain he has driven. He confronts his mistress and she dismisses him by calling on the Slave-master, who takes him away for some discipline, but the spirited youth escapes, diving from a window into the castle moat and his freedom.

Within a week he finds himself back at the city of Geranth where he began and he notes the many temples to countless gods. He decides to enter the one devoted to Dgrth, demon lord of warriors. As he kneels at the altar an incredible occurrence as the huge and menacing Dgrth appears in full battle regalia with a face like a mask of iron with fangs; heavily spiked armor and probably twice the size of a normal man. Dgrth proposes to give the lad all the powers to be the "living messenger of death," and so eager is the boy to realize this ultimate dream that he agrees to the terms of payment: His immortal soul. In perhaps the most awe-inspiring panel of the story, Dgrth's arm, held at a 90-degree angle with the hand formed into a tight fist, beckons forth the soul of the boy, who is in mid-collapse as a light colored, stretched out apparition looking slightly like Edvard Munch's "The Scream" is pulled from his body.

When he arises his eyes are empty, save a red glow and his expression is grim. He is as alone as anyone has ever been, for he has lost his soul.

Back to the present, Stalker looks on in satisfaction as the guards are dispatched. He looks forward to torturing the Baroness for a year in return for the year he suffered. At that moment, however, the Slave-master discovers him and Stalker quickly engages and defeats him.

Stalker rappels down to his horse and his thoughts reveal that he isn't enjoying his triumph as he should. No satisfaction and no emotion. He is unhappy with his lot and rides for Dgrth's shrine where he finds only a priest standing on a rod over a fiery pit. The priest tells Stalker that only one knows of the gateway to Dgrth's realm and it is F'lan of the temple at World's End Sea. The two duel with quarterstaffs and Stalker tells the priest that he has been dealt with unfairly and will go to Dgrth to reclaim what he has lost just before knocking him down into the pit, ending this first adventure.

The future letter column titled, "The Sword and the Soul" contains a brief autobiography of our writer,Paul Levitz and a promise of good things to come in the next issue along with some information about artists Steve Ditko and Wally Wood.

The second edition of Stalker came along in August/September of 1975 and the lone man on horseback is working his way across a bridge lined with bones as he encounters the latest nightmarish gatekeeper, a four-armed demon, brandishing a sword in each hand. Welcome to "Darkling Death at World's End Sea!," produced by the same creative team as issue #1.

Despite the horror's boast of guarding this way successfully for a millennium, Stalker takes him down, but it is again a hollow victory. A soulless man cannot feel.

Continuing his grim journey, he notes a strange procession headed toward the temple with three captive women. Stalker overpowers a straggler, dons his hooded robe and joins the entourage as they enter the temple. Once inside he scouts around a bit and I took particular note that several panels contain no dialogue or panels of any sort. The story continues on the strength of the art itself.

Stalker is revealed when he tries to blend in at a ritual, but doesn't know how to proceed. He is overpowered by Dgrth's minions and awakens in shackles in a dungeon. It isn't long before a woman named Merilla comes to him, intent on her own escape with his assistance. She leaves a knife with him and tells him of crevices in the cliff where they will take him that can save his life. She then departs and he waits for the guards who eventually come for him. He is led to an altar at the end of the world, with a moon and yet another moon visible in the sky. Acting quickly, Stalker attacks the guards and leaps over the precipice, presumably to his end, but in reality, he's managed to secrete himself into an opening in the face of the cliff.

Somehow the men bent on Stalker's destruction have discovered the aid Merilla gave him and interrogate her in a torture chamber until she reveals where they can find the man with no soul. Stalker then arrives to fight Prior F'lan and to demand he tell him how to reach D'grth. F'lan reveals that he will find D'grth on the burning isle, but he doesn't know its location. Stalker places F'lan on the same torture device where he'd held Merilla and the duo depart. Merilla desires to go with Stalker, but he urges her horse on, stating flatly that he must go alone. He then boards a small craft and enters perilous waters to continue his quest.

This time the future lettercol explains that the promised words from the artists are not available because, "Steve prefers to let his work speak for him, and Wally's been wrapped up in moving, and was unable to get us enough autobiographical material to work from. Hopefully it'll be in the next issue." It then goes on to explain Stalker's world, which is most decidedly not the earth we know.

Issue #3 with a publication date of October/November 1975 and produced by the same creative team is entitled "The Freezing Flames of the Burning Isle!"

The splash page is vintage Ditko with two flaming creatures featured along with the figure of Dgrth wielding a short sword in this vision straight from hell. In the background, Stalker navigates his boat toward the nightmare.

As the story continues, Stalker's vessel is being tossed about by a vicious storm as he seeks the gate to hell on the burning isle. As if things aren't complicated enough, a winged fury soon descends to attack and Stalker is thrown from his craft into the waves, knocked unconscious.

Turning the page, we find the figure of Stalker washed up on a sort of beach, but the island is a frozen wasteland, but he soon deduces that it is indeed the burning isle and soon afterward he encounters a beautiful woman who introduces herself as Sriani and welcomes him to her home. She further elaborates she's been exiled there for a year on the isle and despite her efforts at escape via a small boat she'd constructed; there are underwater sentries that block her escape. Stalker decides to see for himself and is soon battling a horde of long necked monsters reminiscent of the Hydra. He discovers they all emerge from a common body and he uses his sword to do it in. The grateful Sriani asks him to accompany her to freedom, but he is intent on his quest, so she insists on escorting him.

Stalker recounts his history to his lovely companion, but as they journey onward he is attacked by another monstrosity, this one resembling a wolf-man. A titanic struggle ensues, but the man with no soul prevails, breaking the beast's back over a rock outcropping.

We are then privy to Dgrth's monitoring of Stalker's progress. Sriani leads Stalker to a place with a form of hieroglyphs on the walls and talks of legends of peoples form far away. It is then that Stalker realizes Sriani is not what she seems and indeed she transforms before his eyes into a winged demon similar to the one he encountered on the waters. She carries him up into the air where he loses his sword, but not his will. He then engages her in mid-air, forcing her into a crash-landing. Another transformation reveals "a living, burning column of flame," as we saw on the splash page and Stalker hurls his retrieved sword at the creature, but she evaporates and he then advances on the doorway to his destination, ending this chapter in the ongoing saga.

Before I go into the final issue in the 4-run series, I wanted to mention that I took the liberty of contacting Paul Levitz about Stalker, specifically asking whether Stalker was a victim of poor sales or the infamous DC Implosion. Here is his reply:

Stalker was years before the "Implosion.". It was first cancelled as of the end of #3 (and you can judge for yourself my attempt to provide a neat ending), and then reprieved thru #4 when the secretary who typed the production schedule accidentally listed it.

With that, the fourth and final installment of Stalker, from December 1975/January 1976 was called "Invade the Inferno!"

We find Stalker literally at the gates of hell, otherwise known as the lair of D'grth and once again he's up against an unholy gatekeeper, this time a three-headed creature with, what else but a sword? A tremendous battle takes place and the gatekeeper tries treachery with a fistful of dragon dust that Stalker deflects back upon his foe, dropping him helplessly to the ground, the six eyes burning.

Not knowing which way to turn, Stalker next encounters a small demon who offers to guide him through this flaming Hades, seeing all manner of carnage around him as they journey forward. As they come upon a pit filled with bones, the small creature pops out of sight and the skeletons become animated and attack the man with no soul. In the midst of the fight, the small demon reappears, holding a glowing skull. Stalker deduces that it could be the source of the power for the skeletons and hurls his sword, shattering the skull and freeing himself in the process. The evil imp reappears and taunts Stalker, then disappears again and this time a flaming creature of lava with dragon-like features appears to vex Stalker. A burst of flame barely misses him and at that moment, noting that his sword hasn't melted, Stalker stands fast for the next blast, which is ineffective. The beast shifts back to the form of the imp demon, and Stalker walks on.

Segue to D'grth (who suddenly seems to be sporting 4 fingers rather than the 3 we saw him with before) who continues to monitor his nemesis' progress, and gloats that Stalker's continued success in meeting each challenge is forging him into the ultimate slave for D'grth.

The tiny demon continues to harangue Stalker, and again pops out of sight and the next eerie scene shows Stalker floating fully lit, but utter nothingness. He struggles for a while with his sanity, but focuses on an image of the castle, drawing him back into reality and passing another test. The laughing demon greets him again and invites him into Castle Carnage and the service of D'grth. Stalker, however, turns away and heads back from whence he came, toward a legion of warriors who have been waiting for him to lead them on an assault against their tormenter. Mounting the steed provided, the man with no soul does just that, leading the charge against the castle with flaming creatures attacking the horde.

Battling his way through, Stalker enters the inner sanctum of D'grth to challenge the dark lord at long last. He demands that D'grth return his soul, but the demon-god refuses, suggesting that the only way that Stalker can regain it is to successfully destroy all who follow D'grth. In essence, the task before Stalker is to eradicate all evil from this world. He then transports Stalker back outside and Stalker shouts that he accepts the challenge, ending this issue and ultimately the series itself.

I'd long been curious about Stalker and was glad to finally have that curiosity satisfied. While I'm not much on sword and sorcery tales, this series, short-lived though it was, contained plenty of action, beautiful women and truly imaginative monsters, which I believe are one of Steve Ditko's true strengths, right from the beginning of his career. He has long had one of the greatest imaginations in the annals of comic book artists, producing countless numbers of characters over the years, even when they may have appeared only once. Witness the above, with living flame creatures, and at least half a dozen new and unique horrors for Stalker to face off against. Take into account also that Steve produced this work when he was nearing 50 years of age, after doing his first professional work at the age of 26 and giving the world Spider-Man at a less than youthful 35.

I've come to the conclusion that I like Steve Ditko the artist; I just haven't been able to warm up to Steve Ditko the writer. I would also be remiss in not mentioning the important addition of Wally Wood as inker. He was a tremendous complement to Steve's work and much as Bernie Wrightson, another occasional inker of Steve's pencils told me in an interview, no matter who inks Steve, it is such strong work that it always looks like Ditko. I heartily agree, and as such, this 4-issue run on Stalker was immensely satisfying to me, despite not being a favorite genre. The panel construction, the incredibly detailed aerial shots that were equal or superior to a classic splash page, the menacing creatures, the dynamic battle scenes, the alien landscapes and the wretched scenes from another world's underworld was a tour de force showcasing the limitless imagination of Steve Ditko. Kudos for this work and more's the pity that it didn't progress any further.

Long live the Silver Age!

2000-2009 by B.D.S.

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