Tuesday, July 10, 2018

90 Years of Ditko

Steve Ditko died recently, at the age of 90. He chose to be reclusive and it's believed he'd been dead for two days at the time the police found his body.

I was exposed to Ditko's work pretty early in my life as a comic book fan thanks to reprints of his Amazing Spider-Man stories which were then appearing in Marvel Tales. Over time I saw his work in various places - and being principally a fan of Marvel Comics, that meant a lot of strange Marvel Comics Presents and Marvel Super-Heroes inventory stories.

Gradually it began to dawn upon me: "Hey, this guy is Steve Ditko, he created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange." I began to carry a sense of reverence for him, the way every Marvel fan is encouraged to revere Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko as the three most important figures in Marvel history (we're almost never told to think about Larry Lieber; Don Heck is usually brought up as a scapegoat; John Buscema is considered great, but late to the party). I would say that by the early 1990s I had a healthy understanding of Ditko's existance and major contributions to Marvel. And yet, I wouldn't have called myself a fan.

Steve Ditko's artwork has always stood out. Although there are many artists who can convincingly imitate Jack Kirby and seem to have great fun at it, there are so few 'Ditkoesque' artists and usually they are only attempting to reference specific covers/panels which Ditko drew, not his general sense of aesthetics. Again, Ditko is one of the most important artists in comics history. Everyone from Wally Wood to Will Eisner is lovingly homaged in the works of contemporary artists, but most artists leave Ditko alone; only Ditko could ever be Ditko.

I began to truly transform into a Ditko fan after reading the reprint series Doctor Strange Classics, which republished a 12-chapter Doctor Strange story from Strange Tales by Lee & Ditko. I was amazed to discover how long the serial had gone on and how every chapter stood on its own as a fast-paced fantasy adventure tale brimming with big ideas. As a fan of continuity in all things, I was particularly fascinated at the the amount of world-building, of the little moments which explained the limitations of Doctor Strange's powers and introduced various other mystics who lived on the periphery of Strange's adventures. There was a sense that the people inhabiting Lee & Ditko's Doctor Strange had lives transcending the boundaries of the panels, that their universe was much more vast than the typical Silver Age comic book series.

More than anything, I began to appreciate the ways in which other comic books Ditko drew were clearly in-continuity with his more famous Silver Age works. That is, the mystical world of dragons found in his 'Dragon Lord' story for Fantastic Four is entirely in-keeping with the mystical realms found in Doctor Strange; his Speedball villains were not all that different from his Spider-Man, Creeper or Blue Beetle villains. If the Dimensional Man were to round a corner and discover the Question waiting for him it wouldn't be all that surprising.

When Marvel began the first publication of Essential Spider-Man I was there and finally able to appreciate the Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man from the beginning and in sequence, which raised my estimation of that comic book run to a considerable degree; Spider-Man is a character I've enjoyed at various times but don't have a particularly strong affection for -- that is, unless we're talking about Lee & Ditko's Spider-Man, the young, frustrated, wise-cracking, depressed bundle of contradictions found in those issues, which are certainly the pillars upon which the sub-genre of 'novice super hero' were built.

Then I began to delve deep into Marvel's history of science fiction/fantasy/horror tales of the 1950s & 60s, an avenue which is still quite fascinating to me. Although many of the stories I read were primarily of interest academically, Steve Ditko's stories tended to be the most thought-provoking in terms of ideas and page layouts. In many of his fantasy stories, Ditko played around with the conventions of comic book storytelling and it definitely stood out against the more conventional artists.

By then I was on the internet and began to hear about Ditko's personality. Since he was such a private person, much of his story was being told by others, with frequent errors, omissions and miss-attributions. It was difficult to gain an understanding of who Ditko truly was, but I definitely learned to admire his principles. I could not and cannot subscribe to his objectivist beliefs, but I admired that he had a moral code he attempted to live by and that he would take a principled stand when he felt he had to.

It was a bit deflating when I began reading Ditko's creator-owned works. After reading all of his Mr. A stories I was definitely a little less infatuated with Ditko's work as a whole. Of course, what I see as the flaw of Mr. A, Ditko no doubt saw as the entire point. That is, in Mr. A stories and other objectivist tracts, Ditko is unable to convey a persuasive argument to his audience because objectivism is, by its nature, unwilling to stoop low enough to curry a person's favour. There are great ideas in his various philosophical works, but they'd be even better if Ditko weren't the scripter; but then, the entire reason they exist is because Ditko himself needed to tell them.

I bought several of Ditko's latter-day works published with Robin Snyder, including several of the Kickstarter-backed projects. At some point I decided I had enough of them for my collection as they really don't vary that much from one book to the next: here's a straw man objectivist argument; next up, Ditko trolls his audience with a 'u mad?' cartoon. Over and over. There were still traces of his vibrancy and it was unmistakably pure Ditko, but it wasn't polished Ditko. Ditko's latter-day work is amazing primarily because he kept producing it into his 90th year while most of his contemporaries were dead or retired.

Ditko's weird alien dimensions, dark trenchcoat-wearing figures, nervously sweating businessmen, gesticulating fingers, bedeviling mystical bolts - the elements in Ditko's unique style are what first drew me in. Those clean lines, efficient layouts and inventive ideas kept me engaged. As Ditko has died, we have lost the last truly awesome talent of the Silver Age. There are a handful other talents from that time still with us, but none with Ditko's impact on the medium. Fortunately, his work is very easy to come by.

Cheers, Mr. Ditko.

A few of my earlier posts about Ditko's works:
Captain Glory #1
The Destructor #1
The Destructor #2
The Destructor #3
The Destructor #4
...Ditko Continued...
Ditko Public Service Package
Doctor Strange Classics #2
Mr. A #18
Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men #3
Murder #1-3
Out of This World #20 & 25
Strange Avenging Tales #1
Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #19
Tigerman #2
Tigerman #3
Tomb of Dracula #2
What Is... the Face #1

No comments: