"Quest for a Stolen Soul!"/"Darkling Death at World's End Sea"/"The Freezing Flames of the Burning Isle"/"Invade the Inferno"
Written by Paul Levitz
Penciled by Steve Ditko
Inked by Wally Wood
Most of the titles in DC's Adventure line were mediocre pap like Beowulf and Claw the Unconquered. But the good titles were amazing, and the best of those was Stalker — the man with the stolen soul!
The story is classic fantasy — a young orphan becomes the slave of a wicked queen, with the understanding that she'll allow him to join the army and better himself. But when the queen reneges on her end of the deal, the orphan swears that he'll have is revenge. In desperation, the orphan strikes a bargain with Dgrth, the god of war, and is transformed into the greatest warrior of all time — Stalker! The only cost? His immortal soul!
But Stalker discovers that without a soul, his emotions are dulled. His revenge is now meaningless, as he no longer has the capacity to enjoy it. Instead, he turns his hell-spawned strength against his benefactor in an attempt to regain his stolen soul. The climax of the series is a real doozy — Stalker fights his way into Hell and leads the legions of the dead against Dgrth, only to discover that the demon lord and his soul have merged permanently. Indeed, the only way for Stalker to reclaim his soul is to destroy the god by killing everyone who believes in him. On the last page, Stalker declares his intentions to do just that!
It's a cliffhanger ending that hasn't been resolved in thirty years. Maybe it's time for a Stalker revival?1
As written by Paul Levitz, Stalker is full of affected purple prose and stereotypical situations — but you know what? It all works! The situations are familiar enough to be comfortable, but with character-based twists that liven things up. The narration and dialogue is hokey, but in a fun, Stan Lee way. An issue of Stalker won't blow you away, but you'll still be solidly entertained.
The other attraction is the art team of Steve Ditko and Wally Wood. I love Ditko, but sometimes I think he's his own worst inker — he has a habit of accentuating his worst habits and turning his eccentricities into grotesqueries. On the other hand, he's hard to ink — accomplished artists like Romeo Tanghal to John Byrne have tried, usually obliterating Ditko's style in the process. Wally Wood is a heavy-handed inker too, frequently imposing his own style on other artists' pencils. But he's actually a good fit for Ditko — he captures the off-kilter nature of Ditko's designs, while smoothing over some of the rough edges and accentuating their balletic grace.
It also seems like Ditko was drawing up a storm for these four issues. Stalker is filled with fantastic sequences that rival his best work on Dr. Strange, like this double-page spread from the opening of issue #1...
This is a rare two-page spread from Ditko — he usually avoids them because they interrupt the flow of the story. But it's very well done, capturing the feel of an old Errol Flynn swashbuckler. The fifth panel is particularly well-composed. The dark areas lead you from the wall in the foreground to the archway to the background, to the shadow right behind the Queen's chair and then back to the figure of Stalker in the foreground. Notice how the beginning of the dagger's arc in the fifth panel lines up with the end of the dagger's arc in the sixth panel, providing a greater sense of continuity despite the otherwise jarring use of a reverse shot. The folds of the curtain also line up with the Queen's goblet and sleeve and the shading in the background, easing your eye from one panel to the other.
There's also this page, from issue #3...
This is a really nice drawing, and another unusual panel layout for Ditko. The establishing shot is really nice, making a weird and alien environment seem stunningly real. The black shadows sinuously lead your eye down to the inset panels, and the area around the inset panels is deliberately simplified so that it's not competing for your attention. The gutter placement in the inset is a bit awkward — it's obviously intended to aid the flow of the dialogue, but the way it section's Srani's face makes her look slightly deformed.2 Nice use of the red skies to make the inset pop off the panel underneath.
It shouldn't be too hard to find copies of Stalker — any Bronze Age dealer should have them. I snagged the entire series for $4, and you should be able to find it for about the same.
Now if only someone would pick up on that cliffhanger ending...
- Actually, I understand that a considerably older "Stalker" popped up in JSA a few years ago, but no one has picked up right where the series left off.
- I would have moved the word ballons outside of the panel boarders, giving the drawing some room to breathe, but that's not how it was done back in the '70s.