Saturday, July 28, 2018

Worlds within worlds: Deceased Artiste Steve Ditko (part one of 2)

Comic book fans can argue endlessly about which artist was (or is) the best-ever. Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, John Byrne, Frank Miller, Alex Ross — all have a place in the Patheon. But for the title of single “strangest” comic book artist (and writer and essayist and ideologue) the late Steve Ditko truly must take top honor.

Ditko had an incredible work ethic that kept him busy until his death at 90 last month. He also had a singularly stubborn political philosophy that infiltrated his comics and became a major stumbling block for readers, who had to embrace it or attempt to ignore it (most of us went the latter route).

Two biographies of Ditko have been published, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell (2008) and Ditko Unleashed by Florentino Flórez (2016). The latter is better for those who want an overview of Ditko’s artwork; the former is more of a view “behind the mask” at the man himself, and the little that was known about him. Ditko spoke through his comics — in the wordy and often off-kilter dialogue of his heroes and villains and in a series of rather dense essays he wrote that appeared in the self-published work he did with his friend Robin Snyder.

Thankfully, most of Ditko’s best comic work is currently in print in “archive” and “omnibus” editions. His 65-year output (1953-2018) is daunting indeed, but the books that collect his finest comics do much to spotlight his incredible creativity and innovation.

He put it quite plainly in 2010 in a quote for a book about the comic artist Mort Meskin: “The function of a comic artist is to TELL A STORY! He must get across an idea or point of the story and he should do it clearly so a reader knows what is going on….” [cited in Flores, pp. 15-16] His best work, however, finds his art driving the plot and warping the storyline to suit the two things in which he was just about peerless: conveying tension and anxiety, and limning an infinite space in which his most way-out characters dwelled.

The first stories he illustrated (starting in early 1953) appeared before the Comics Code lowered the boom on “adult” content in comics. The Fantagraphics collection, Strange Suspense: the Steve Ditko Archives Volume 1, offers this material in sequence, showing just how intense and crazy the young Ditko’s work was — the comics he worked on were major swipes from EC Comics, but his style was already recognizable, and the colors added to his work were truly bizarre (characters’ faces were primary colored when they professed their evil, or their fear).

Due to health problems (tuberculosis), he quit comics for a year; when he returned to New York in the fall of 1955 the Code was in place. His work from the late Fifties is still top-notch and was made richer by the fact that reaction shots had to substitute for graphic horror.

The next step in his career is the one that everyone — even those who don’t like comics — knows about. His collaboration with Stan Lee on dozens of short fantasy comics lead to Ditko becoming the “other genius” (along with Kirby) in the Marvel stable.

Reams of text have been written about Stan Lee taking credit for things invented by Ditko, Kirby, and others. This was a result of the ingenious system dubbed “the Marvel method,” whereby Lee would discuss the plot with the artist and then leave him (or her, in the case of the great Marie Severn) to fully conceive, lay out, and draw the comic with spaces left for dialogue and text boxes that Lee would fill in later (with the artists having indicated the content of the dialogue in the margins).


Ditko wasn’t as compliant as Kirby was (initially), and so became the first Marvel artist to get the credit “Plot and art by,” since he was in essence writing the damned thing as well.

Although he’s best known for co-creating Spider-Man (and for that alone became a key figure in comic history), Ditko pretty much single-handedly (minus dialogue and text boxes, of courses) created Dr. Strange. Truly the trippiest comic ever (until Ditko-fan Alan Moore came up with Promethea), Dr. Strange remains a high-water mark in terms of sheer weirdness and pure imagination, most specifically in the creation of alternative universes that one senses are just as internal as external. 


Dr. Strange never sold as well as any of the top-line Marvel comics, but it opened new doorways for those of us who grew up reading it. While the character has been handled by many other writer-artist teams, the 36 Ditko Dr. Strange originals remain the gold standard of Silver Age comic psychedelia, combining fantasy fiction and superhero adventures in an incredibly new and exciting way.

Lee claiming credit for having “created” the characters rankled both Ditko and Kirby, but the latter put up with it for a longer amount of time. By 1966 Ditko was done with Marvel, after having conceived of drawn and written (er… plotted) Spider-Man and Dr. Strange for more than three years. In the last few months of working for the company, Ditko and Lee weren’t on speaking terms, although they continued to collaborate.

An illustration by Ditko for one of his essays
about the nature of "creating" a comic character.
Over the years Lee has praised Ditko but has still claimed Spider-Man and Dr. Strange as his own ideas. One particularly galling quote that must’ve bothered Ditko is quoted in the Florez book [p. 138]: “I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko think he’s the genius of the world. We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories…. He just drops off the finished pages with notes at the margins and I fill in the dialogue.” [New York Herald Tribune, Jan. 9, 1966]

The most commented-upon aspect of Ditko’s work was his deeply held belief in Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. This belief led him to commit what many critics view as self-destructive acts, such as deciding that he shouldn’t earn money for work he had done in the past. The video below, from the documentary Masters of Comic Book Art (1987, hosted by Harlan Ellison!) was the only time Ditko allowed his voice to be recorded. He reads a very serious tract outlining his beliefs about morality, art, and heroes, specially his fascinatingly ardent (and identity-less) character “Mr. A.”


“Aristotle said that art is philosophically more important than history. History tells how men did act; art shows how men could, and should, act. Art creates a model, an ideal man as a measuring standard. Without a measuring standard, nothing can be identified or judged.”

The two most interesting things about this clip are the fact that Ditko not only thought in this fashion, he wrote this way (thus the denseness of his essays) and his accent. Ditko was born in Johnston, Pennsylvania, to parents with an Eastern European background (his father was a first-generation American, according to the Bell bio; no info is provided on his mother). In this video his voice moves back and forth between a proper, affected elocution and a more “familiar”-sounding Slavic accent.


Back to Ditko’s belief that he should not accept money for work he had done in the past (thus it being noted in the Bell book that at one point he was living on Social Security and a veteran’s pension). 


At a Ditko seminar held at the New School on Feb. 6, 2018, it was noted that he turned down any and all royalties from the Fantagraphics “Ditko Archives” series. Editor Craig Yoe has also publicly announced that Ditko refused to accept royalties for the various Ditko-themed comic-reprint books that Yoe has put out. The books published by both Fantagraphics and Yoe consist of reprints of comics that have fallen into the public domain, but both publishers wanted to remunerate Ditko, who turned down their offers.

In a similar vein, he didn’t look to earn profits from Spider-Man, a character he created and which has been an IMMENSE cash-cow for Marvel Comics. Kirby was not so doctrinaire — he pursued Marvel for the return of his original artwork (a project that Ditko did not support; in an essay about the matter he considered both sides of the situation and stated that all artists had to get their work back, or none should get it back).


While he sought to make no profit from his past work, Ditko did, however, want appropriate credit for it. Anytime Lee claimed sole credit for Spider-Man in an interview, Ditko fired off a letter of complaint to the publication in question. He also wrote several essays for his self-published comics and his friend Robin Snyder’s fanzine The Comics addressing this issue. In these essays he analyzed and criticized Lee’s specious claims.

The essays are as dense as Ditko’s other prose (confession: this reviewer finds Ditko’s text nearly impenetrable, repetitive, and, worst of all, both logic-driven yet still oddly vague in verbal terms). But this quote, cited in Florez [p. 170], lays out his true feelings about Lee, in 2015: “Why should I continue to do all these monthly issues, original story ideas, material for a man who is too scared, too angry over something, to even see, talk to me…

An illustration by Ditko accompanying an essay on the matter
of who is the "creator" of a comic-book superhero.
“The only person who had the right to know why I was quitting refused to come out of his office or to call me in. Stan refused to know why.”

The word that best describes Ditko’s attitude toward his work, no matter what it was, is “pride” — his deeply held beliefs insinuated their way into not only his writing but his deal-making in the comics world. In the Florez book [p. 349], it’s mentioned that Ditko withdrew from the comic Dark Dominion because the story professed Platonic ideals, and he was Aristotelian.

Thus Ditko’s view of the relationship of a comic artist and his employer was eccentric, to say the least. What makes him unique, though, is the fact that his art remained a space for experimentation and mind-melting surrealism throughout his life, from age 26 to 90.

His output included many works for hire that he took just to pay the bills. Alternately, even when they contained head-scratching dialogue and cookie-cutter plotting, his personal self-published remained unique and wonderfully psychedelic (although the man himself never, ever did drugs by all accounts). One can readily understand why Dr. Strange was the favorite comic of Ken Kesey (as noted in Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). 


Right after he left Marvel, he took two paths. For money he did procedural assignments, including pencils for the Get Smart (above) and Hogan’s Heroes (below) comics from Dell. This wasn't new right before and during his successful run at Marvel he had drawn several issues of Gorgo and Konga (both tie-ins to big-ass-monster movies) for Charlton. 


At the same time he started contributing his personal work for free to fanzines and creator-owned comics, most prominently Wally Wood’s witzend.

The most impressive work he did in the immediate post-Marvel period were the 16 stories he did for Creepy and Eerie. The stories were well-written by Archie Goodwin, and Ditko’s art was just amazing. He used the “wash” technique for most of the stories (the technique is described in the Bell bio as being “achieved with various degrees of water-and-ink mixtures applied by brush to create a series of tonal values”).

The effect is absolutely stunning, and the Warren stories are definitely a high-water mark for Ditko, ranking with his best comic work. Goodwin felt so as well, noting that Ditko did the layouts for every page and in fact added creepier elements to the storylines in his art.

The book that is now available which contains all 16 stories, Creepy Presents Steve Ditko is a beauty. It does great justice to Ditko’s art and lets one see what could have happened if he had continued to head in an “experimental” direction and had stayed away from inserting a philosophical message into his comics. 


He stopped working for Warren when Goodwin left — as with a few later situations, Ditko worked happily with many colleagues, but when they left the company in question, he was adrift and just stopped working for that particular company.

For several years in the Sixties and early Seventies, he was able to reconcile the two types of comics nicely with his work for Charlton, a company he preferred to the “big two” because it gave free reign to its artists — but paid incredibly low rates compared to Marvel and DC. Ditko’s solution was to do even more work for the company to make up the difference. The results of this flurry of activity included a number of memorable short horror comics and three influential but low-selling superhero titles.


Of these Captain Atom (an irradiated superhero) was the most traditional and the least interesting. Ditko’s revamp of the Blue Beetle was a more eccentric creation who gets into arguments about modern art in one fairly insane issue (in which a crazed abstract sculptor is driven mad by the notion that there exists perfect Greco-Roman art — the kind that Blue Beetle loves and gives to his girlfriend!).


The peak of Ditko’s unfettered creativity at Charlton was the Question, a TV commentator who fought crime in an odd guise, that of a nattily attired, faceless avenger whose views on human behavior were clearly Ditko’s own.

The famous and controversial last page
of the first Mr. A comic in witzend.
He noted in his last formal interview that the Question was a “commercial” version of Mr. A. He also stated outright his loathing for “flawed heroes” (this was the reason he became increasingly uncomfortable with the comic industry and turned down jobs that included such flawed superheroes and detectives). For Ditko, the only true hero is an unflawed paragon of virtue (who, as with both the Question and Mr. A, was an identity-less cipher who dealt justice to those who deserved it). “Where other heroes choose to be self-made neurotics, the Question and Mr. A chose to be psychologically and intellectually healthy. It’s a choice everyone has to make.” [the Marvel Main fanzine, issue 4, 1968]


Mr. A is an Objectivist hero who lectured other characters on right and wrong as he saved the innocent and condemned the guilty to death. Ditko introduced Mr. A in witzend and various fanzines in the Sixties; he revived the character in his more recent self-published work, and the character remained his most obvious mouthpiece.


The most unique aspect of Ditko’s career was that he steadfastly did not want to play the game of corporate comic book creation after he left Marvel in 1966. And yet he needed to keep the bills paid, so rather than devote himself to quality material that would be edited, he often took whatever job came along, as long as: a.) he wouldn’t be edited,  or b.) it was simply a work for hire.

Thus, while there are some excellent continuing characters he worked on and/or created after Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, there is an incredible amount of crap comics he cranked out merely for the dough. These began with the Dell TV tie-in comics mentioned above.

In the Seventies and Eighties he drew a lot of tie-in comics to keep the bills paid: WWE-licensed comics, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Gobots (children’s books), Transformers (coloring books), a tie-in comic for the Big Boy restaurant chain, and the as-good-as-its-goofy-title Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos. (more on this period in the second part of this piece)

But there were truly great things in amongst the works for hire. They were done for DC, where his old artist friends, and younger fans, brought him on board to do comics in his own style. There was no quibbling this time – he was given full status as the plotter (or writer) right from the first. He worked with a number of young writers, who supplied the dialogue and text; of all these collaborations the best were done with Michael Fleisher (yes, the man called “bugfuck crazy” by Deceased Artiste Harlan Ellison) and Paul Levitz.


The most grating of the DC books on which he had a continuing run was surely The Hawk and the Dove. The book’s gimmick was that two brothers receive super powers. The first brother is a brawler who believes that violence solves everything, while the other is a peacenik. Ditko added a “referee”/voice of reason character who seemingly voiced his (Ditko’s) own opinions – the boy’s father, a judge who encouraged them to find a sensible, ethical middle course.

Ditko only stayed with Hawk and Dove for three issues, again because of disputes with the editor. His second DC creation, the Creeper, was a more successful character that has been brought back in various contexts over the years. The character is a former TV commentator (Ditko’s heroes frequently were reporters for print or TV stations) who dresses in a patently ridiculous costume — a green fright wig, yellow body paint, and a red sheepskin rug for a cape — to scare evildoers.

The Creeper belongs to a small group of really weird DC characters, among them Metamorpho and  Ragman (some would throw Deadman on the list, but his insane, insurmountable angst has always appealed to this reviewer). Thanks to the taut writing of Denny O’Neil (who initially mentioned the silliness of the character in his thought balloons, which was a nice touch to “explain” all the weirdness) and the truly psychedelic nature of Ditko’s panel layout, his framing, and the color scheme, the comic is a lot of fun, in the manner of The Blue Beetle.

Part two to come...

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