The Failure Is Not in Our Stars: Blake Bell’s Failure in his Introduction to Steve Ditko’s “The River’s Wrath”

Jonathan Alexandratos

“Sometimes, however, not even Ditko could save a truly terrible 1950s Charlton script.”

-Blake Bell

Series Editor of The Steve Ditko Archives

In Vol. 3, referring to a Ditko short comic Bell calls “The River’s Wraith” ([sic], it’s actually “The River’s Wrath” – one of Bell’s many errors)

How many articles on failure have begun with a quote on the awesomeness of failure?  Something quickly googled, very broad, and probably said mostly by C.S. Lewis or a Roosevelt or “Unknown.”  Let’s resist that.  Let’s instead start with a quote that is, itself, the failure.  Thus, the above.

This article will use Steve Ditko’s “The River’s Wrath,” printed in the November 1957 issue of Out of this World, the sixth installment of this candy store magazine.  Blake Bell, in his sloppy attempt at a third volume of Steve Ditko’s early comics Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives, Vol. 3, is quick to dismiss this piece in his introduction as “hilariously florid in its ‘prose,’ seemingly written by an aspiring novelist from another era” (Bell 14).  In addition to the adjectival phrase employed by Bell in my primary quote, “…truly terrible…,” Bell gives absolutely no thought to the significance of this text.  Instead, he chooses, in one easy paragraph (in which Bell misspells the title of the comic!), to discard it as a failure.

It isn’t.

The comic bustles at a quick five pages.  In those panels, we see the Nadina River, a once “majestic, proud river,” become dammed in order to provide power to a local town.  The river, standing for Mother Nature, doesn’t react well to this.  The Nadina, now truly the story’s main character, thrashes at the walls of the dam.

She, and the story does assign her this gender, uses a rainstorm to rise to the point of overtaking the dam walls and flooding the town.  Two dam workers narrowly escape the tide.  Soon, Ditko gives us panels of a calm – but still magically rising! – river, a destroyed town, and a twist ending.  (There’s always a twist ending.)  As it turns out, the Nadina only stopped thrashing because she thought she had claimed a dozen victims from her rage.  In keeping with Comics Code Authority standards, though, she hadn’t.  A townsman had opened a wax museum the day before the flood.  The bodies the river thought were human, in the end, were all made of wax.

This is the plot whose art and writing Bell attacks in his introduction.  But one needs to understand what is going on here:

1.  This is November 1957.

That means the Cold War is in full swing, and nuclear tests have been ravaging nature for some time.  The idea that Mother Nature could strike back in some way was surely even more foreign then than it is today.  (And, as we are constantly reminded by America’s Tea Party, Mother Nature could surely – surely! – never do anything to hurt us.)  In support of this, Operation Plumbbob was active from May through October 1957.  The biggest series of nuclear tests performed on the U.S. mainland, 58,300 kilocuries of radioiodine were pumped into the atmosphere (more than twice the amount given off in previous similar tests) which was estimated by the National Cancer Institute to eventually cause 38,000 cases of thyroid cancer, which would lead to some 1.900 deaths (“Operation Plumbbob”).  In five pages, Ditko along with an unnamed writer from Out of this World crafted a gutsy comic that urged readers to consider what mankind has done, and continues to do, to the planet.

2.  This is November *1957*.

As if perfectly timed, on November 1st, 1957, the Mackinac Suspension Bridge opened in Michigan – the longest in the world at the time.  During its construction, the project claimed the lives of five workers (Mackinac Bridge Michigan).  The mind of a science fiction writer might not have to work too hard to read into that a story of a vengeful river.  Couple that with the June 1957 Hurricane Audrey, which killed roughly 500 people, and it is not difficult to conceive of a newspaper-buying public that was used to the idea of nature-related disasters (“Hurricane Audrey”).  Thus, the idea of man (and, in this story, it is only men) “conquering” a body of water was readily accessible.

3.  This.  Is.  November.  1957!

Being familiar with the other issues of Out of this World, I have not found much difference between the language and art of this particular comic and others of the magazine.  Bell claims the language of this story to be particularly outrageous, but it seems to fall perfectly in line with the standard set by the magazine.  If anything, it stands out in its thoughtfulness, as the Nadina River is an actual river in Canada that was, and is, often used for shipping goods.  Ditko’s art, too, falls in line with the work he was doing in this period in stories like “The Atomic Clerk” and “The Man Who Lost His Face.”  It, like the script, goes further by showing mankind as small, weak, and, frankly, ugly, in light of the more powerful river.

Yet, while “The River’s Wrath” does give readers a god-like portrait of nature, it also assigns her restraint, much more than that of mankind.  Even if they weren’t wax statues, the “river’s wrath” would have only claimed 12 lives.  Now, while one life lost is tragic, 12 are dwarfed when compared to the number killed when mankind thrashes about in places like Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

In deeming this story a failure, Blake Bell does a disservice to comics studies and literature as a whole.  By simply writing off the story in his poorly-edited paragraph, Bell devalues the wealth that this story holds.  When, however, one reaches past Blake’s ignorance, past the waves of time that have washed over this “The River’s Wrath,” past the ease of simply leaving the idea of failure as a quickly-researched sound bite, one may succeed in promoting a forgotten gem and encouraging new groups of readers to curiously seek those texts arrogantly stamped “Failure.”

Works Cited

Bell, Blake, ed. Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives, Vol. 3.  Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012.  Print.

Hurricane Audrey.” Srh.noaa.gov.  The National Weather Service, 26 May 2014.  Web.  1 July 2014.

Mackinac Bridge Michigan.  Mackinac Bridge Authority, 2014.  Web.  1 July 2014.

Operation Plumbbob.” Nuclearweaponarchive.org.  N.p., 12 July 2003.  Web.  1 July 2014.