Steve Ditko’s 1950s’ fantasy stories offer examples of one of his running themes: the hidden defender.
Unheralded and unrecognized by the people he protects, the hidden defender is some ordinary-looking person who has access to strange powers that enable him to protect humanity from equally hidden threats. This “unappreciated hero” angle can also seen be in the novels of Ayn Rand, a writer Ditko admires.
In The Old Fool (Charlton’s Tales of the Mysterious Traveler 6, Dec. 1957), Ditko presents us with an old man in the Greek village of Derniani, a silent, self-absorbed character so odd that many villagers talk about having him “put away.”
What they don’t know is that each day the old man sits on a mountainside overlooking the village, meditating and gathering the powers of nature. He uses them to detect and avert various perils — quenching a fire that would have destroyed many houses, calming a runaway horse that would a crushed a little girl. If the contemptuous townspeople ever succeed in having the old man locked away, their village will be plagued by disasters.
In From Out of the Depths (Charlton’s This Magazine Is Haunted 14, Dec. 1957), one of Ditko’s fluid, shadowy creep-things crawls out of the Gulf of Mexico.
A poor peasant named Juan, plagued by drought and at the end of his rope, is the first to see the mysterious horror, which lurches toward the one pathetic crop he has left. In desperation, little Juan channels his fear into anger and charges straight at the giant thing. The very force of his outrage renders the alien being into its constituent elemental gasses, one of which causes rain…
One of my favorite Charlton stories by Ditko is The Human Powerhouse (Strange Suspense Stories 48, July 1960). Accountant George Clinton finds himself mysteriously charged with electrical power, capable of burning down trees and destroying boulders. Then he somehow senses something far out in space, “…a flock of gruesome living entities bearing new and terrible diseases to Earth from another galaxy.” Clinton discharges all his electrical power into the sky, destroying them. Some mysterious natural balance is achieved.
In a broad sense, all superheroes who have secret identities are expressions of this “secret protector” theme. And in a specific sense, so was one of the two most popular characters Ditko ever created. Ordinary people thought of Dr. Stephen Strange as just a Greenwich Village eccentric. They didn’t know that he was the only thing standing between them and unimaginable horrors…