Few images are as iconic in Western culture as the grinning gourds that populate our harvest festivals. Initially, such sturdy fruits made practical lanterns. The artistry of carving faces, and weaving religious and secular folklore into them, then developed through the centuries.
Irish immigrants were the primary gifters of the Jack O’Lantern tradition to American shores. Today, the smiling pumpkins are a ubiquitous symbol of the autumn months, ranging from kid-friendly grins to sinister smiles.
The same can be said for the Jack O’Lanterns reflected in popular culture, from Washington Irving’s frightening folktale of the Headless Horsemen, to the friendly pumpkin-headed Scarecrow in the original “Oz” books, to ghoulish modern horror movies.
One of the more memorable attempts at translating that familiar Halloween iconography into comic book storytelling has been Marvel’s Jack O’Lantern, a villain created by Tom DeFalco and Steve Ditko in Machine Man no. 19, February 1983.
Nearly twenty-years after masterfully delivering the Green Goblin (a character that, in 1983, continued to find new fans, thanks to a one-of-kind design that translated perfectly into toys and other media), Ditko was again tasked to create something original from common concepts. What’s more, this feat was made doubly difficult since, like the Goblin, Jack O’Lantern’s primary mode of transport was to be a one-man glider.
Undaunted, Ditko cut through the centuries and managed to create a wholly-unique pumpkin-head for his flying mercenary. His simple solution – as “simple” as Alexander’s sword to the Gordian Knot – was to make one eye bigger than the other.
You couldn’t teach that.
Not only was the left eye bigger, but the outline surrounding it was more pronounced. The asymmetry creates intrigue in the design, but that darker outline suddenly creates intrigue in the character: What does it mean? Why is it like that? Are some sort of electronics housed there to calculate aim and distance?
Whatever the answers to those questions, that singular design choice invests the reader in the character.
To further cement Ditko’s uncanny design sense, he offsets the bulbous head by resting it not atop a distractingly skinny neck, but a muffler that widens the neck area. This creates a smoother visual line connecting the normal shoulder width to the over-sized head.
As for the glider, Ditko again kept it simple, but with purpose. The glider surface is an orange circle; the impression of a pumpkin without overstating it.
Where does he put the glider’s power source? Not on the back where you’d expect a rocket thruster to be, but on the bottom center of the glider – to give you the off-putting feeling that it must always be in the air to balance. This is not the glider of a hero, but of a villain; it visually creates agitation.
Bafflingly, future incarnations of the character stripped away all of the forms that made Ditko’s Jack O’Lantern different from anything else out there. This is especially ironic as Jack is one of a handful of common-name characters (Thor, Beast, etc.) owned by Disney, that requires the branding of “Marvel’s” in the marketing of them.
In 2016, Hasbro released an action figure of Marvel’s Jack O’Lantern. Since every proprietary element that Ditko employed is gone, the result is that “Marvel’s Jack O’Lantern” is now indistinguishable from any other Jack O’Lantern.
(Image Courtesy of Preternia.com © Jon Moll)
The update of the mercenary’s chain mail and buccaneer boots to tactical gear is to be expected, though it is an unfortunate sign of our military-minded times. Artist Bryan Hitch’s groundbreaking redesign of Captain America’s costume (with writer Mark Millar, The Ultimates, March 2002) set the modern template.
First and foremost, the character’s bulbous head is sitting atop a skinny neck. This distraction creates a thought process that results in you telling yourself to suspend your disbelief. This is an example of the design taking you out of the story, versus Ditko’s use of the muffler, which fills in your thought process. The muffler allows the over-sized head to flow into the shoulders. You don’t question it. You’re not taken out of the story.
The 2016 version has a classical Jack O’Lantern face (previous versions resembled horror movie Jack O’Lanterns). Unlike Ditko’s asymmetrical innovation, there is nothing particularly unique, memorable or inviting about this typical pumpkin face.
As for accessories, the Halloween theme is mined to include a scythe and also a broomstick glider, an on-the-nose concept versus Ditko’s subtle circular one.
Another point of irony is that when the Green Goblin debuted, he also rode a broomstick glider before Ditko created the more famous bat version. Whereas this 2016 broomstick glider resembles… a broomstick, Ditko’s 1964 design was pure machinery that, again, gave the impression of a broomstick; a common concept that only a master could successfully reinterpret.
A final point of irony is that although this character was introduced as a foil to Jack Kirby’s Machine Man, he is now firmly entrenched in the rogues gallery of Spider-Man, Ditko’s most famous co-creation, and one he told Marvel executives he would never revisit.
Steve Ditko is a “master” of this art form, and Jack O’Lantern is just another example as to why. How else do you describe an artist who takes concepts as timeless as broomsticks and pumpkin faces, reinvents them, and those reinventions are more current than the modern and just as timeless as the inspiration?
He is no different than Picasso. I recall a story on the theme of metamorphosis in which Picasso dismantled a bicycle and made a sculpture of a bull’s head using the seat and handlebars. Someone commented it was remarkable, and the master replied it would be more remarkable if someone turned it back into a bicycle!
Maybe that is what has happened here. The master made something extraordinary from the ordinary, only to have it transformed into something pedestrian once more.