Saturday, August 02, 2008

I don't know if Steve Ditko is a religious man, but truly, no one has ever taken Matthew 16:26- "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"- more to heart than he has. That much is abundantly evident from the man's career, which is examined in Blake Bell's long-awaited STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO.

Most of us who are even passingly familiar with comics know who Steve Ditko is; chances are even casual fans are aware of certain aspects of his career, most likely his input on one of the most popular comics characters of all time- Spider-Man, from his co-creator credit on the films if nothing else. Those in the know are also aware of his groundbreaking work on another Marvel Comics character, Dr. Strange. Others who are really up on things are aware of his Warren work, his Charlton efforts, and so on. In print, I'm sure there have been overview articles here and there in different comics-related publications, but none come to mind offhand- and no one has really attempted (although I know Eclipse certainly gave it the old college try in the Eighties) to do a comprehensive, thorough biography of this most influential of creators. Part of this is because of the subject's legendary innate reclusiveness, which ties in to his philosophical beliefs, making it a daunting task for anyone who isn't fully ready to go the extra mile and do what they must do to dig up information without his input...and part of it is because so much has been lost to the sands of time, with so many of the man's contemporaries and colleagues dying or experiencing memory loss. Mr. Bell, fortunately for us, had the determination and stamina to see this labor-of-love project through- and while it's not necessarily as thorough as I'd hoped (and I'll elaborate on that later), it's still an outstanding work- and certainly a boon for all who, like me, were introduced to the man's work at an early age and have grown up admiring it and knowing it for what it was...but want to know more.

I can't say for sure when I first saw Ditko's work; as with a lot of things from my early childhood the dates get fuzzy, especially considering how many of Marvel's reprint comics I bought art the same time, catching up on comics that I missed before I could read. I am mostly convinced it was in Amazing Spider-Man #16, which was cover-dated September of 1964, a breezy, funny Daredevil team-up that remains a favorite comic of mine to this day. Another early Ditko effort that I recall is Strange Tales #128, cover dated January of 1965- I remember the Ditko-illustrated Doc Strange story, "The Dilemma of the Demon's Disciple", very well, as I do the Torch and Thing story, which featured guest appearances by the then-Evil Mutants Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Whatever it was, even at an early age there was something that captivated and fascinated me about Ditko's art- its odd poses and gestures, which often gave the impression that his people were floating in air rather than grounded as Jack Kirby's, Don Heck's, Gil Kane's, and many other early art heroes of mine were, his imaginative effects and renditions of otherworldly and supernatural subjects, its sheer storytelling smarts (even though I wasn't old enough to understand about that). Even though the first comics artist that I noticed and whose work I knew by name was Kirby's, it was immediately after that I knew and looked out for Ditko too. To regard his art on those old Marvel and Charlton comics is to look backwards in time at my own childhood- the sight of covers like the ones at above left and right of this paragraph evokes a feeling and mood that is certainly childhood nostalgia but something deeper, perhaps- the germ of my own creative impulses, perhaps, who can say. I bought Spidey and Strange Tales as often as I could in my pre-teen years, and when he started doing Beware the Creeper and Hawk and the Dove, I picked up an issue or two of them as well; I really liked the Creeper in particular. I was blissfully unaware of his personal philosophies, since a nine-year-old Kentucky boy just didn't have access to stuff like Wally Wood's Witzend and other venues by which he did Mr. A and that sort of thing. As I grew older, I always took note of Ditko's work when it appeared, but sadly as time passed by I could see that for reasons unknown but ones that I attributed to disinterest or just plain ol' old age and the loss of facility thereof, his work ceased to hold its sway on me. I suppose the last time I really was enthusiastic about a Ditko comic was his late 70's DC book Shade, the Changing Man- for a while there it seemed like Steve was interested in what he was doing again, and I got a little buzz of recognition there. But it didn't last long, to the point where I was shamefully annoyed when I'd see his work as fill-ins on titles like Daredevil or his backup features in various Eclipse comics of the 80's like the Djinn. In fact, I had ceased to follow his work to the point that I was really surprised upon discovering recently that his last published comics work was done at the end of the 1990's. Okay, self-indulgent establishment of bona-fides complete.

Strange and Stranger is, as I said, the most comprehensive overview of the man's life and work yet. Lavishly illustrated, it provides about as complete a look at Ditko's story- his early life, his career, and of course his embrace of the philosophies of Objectivism as articulated by (primarily) Ayn Rand as we're ever likely to get since the man himself is such a legendary recluse, who shuns the spotlight and who believes that his work, and his work alone, should represent him to the outside world, which he seems to fear and distrust. In that time-honored biography fashion, it begins with a look at his formative years, which I really didn't know that much about- interesting to find out his early influences; while his work has always struck me as totally unique, one can see how people like Eisner, Meskin, Jerry Robinson and Kubert shaped his style. Each phase of his career is at least discussed, some more in-depth than others, and the whole Objectivism/Rand personal philosophy thing is explored more than once- especially in how it infused his late 60's and 70's work. But even though there is ample text, this is also an art book, and an oversize one at that- the effect of seeing the many pages of Ditko art reproduced at twice that of a normal comic book size is somewhat breathtaking. Bell integrates the art and text very well.

Of course, I can nitpick (as I always do)- I was a bit puzzled as to why Bell chose to reproduce so many of the covers and interior pages sans color; one reason why covers like the above Spider-Man issues made such an impression on me was the mood-enhancing coloration (I know, Ditko didn't color them) and even though his work shines without it, I know color versions are easily available via the GCDb, and many other sources. Also, while I understand that omissions were necessary due to space considerations (Bell says so as much in the introduction), there's a lot of periods in Ditko's later career- his second stint on the Creeper in the late 70's, for example- that either weren't discussed at all or glossed over. I was also puzzled by the inclusion of a coda chapter of sorts, after Bell had seemed to wind up the book, which once again discussed the whole Ayn Rand/Objectivism thing- even though Bell went to pains throughout to discuss/explain and apply it to the man and his work. Apparently he felt it needed reinforcement, don't know.

More than anything, it gave me a lot of food for thought in regards to Steve Ditko and his life, career, and legacy. Most people are conditioned, via a number of sources, to lust after fame and fortune and revel in whatever glories they can achieve whenever they can achieve it; look no further than today's professional athletes, or rappers' glorification of bling, cars, cribs and the trappings of wealth and fame, or the intense interest and participation in American Idol and its spinoffs. To get personal satisfaction and adequate remuneration for a job well done and nothing more is anathema, or at least incomprehensible, to most. Ditko, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of this, and he has declined many opportunities that would bring him much fame and fortune as a result of his inflexible beliefs. To those of us whom he touched as children, this is somewhat sad- we want this man who brought us so much joy to prosper, or at least be happy and secure and reap the benefits of his work. But this is immaterial- his beliefs sustain him, apparently, and he has always managed to get by. It's easy and hard to understand, all at the same time. Obviously, his pensions and veterans benefits must bring in a decent income, because he hasn't done much published comics work for almost a decade now, and I'm sure it isn't cheap and easy to maintain a downtown New York City office! I also find myself wondering about the man himself, and what kind of life he must lead- does he have a nice cottage-type house somewhere in the outer boroughs, with a backyard garden; on his way to the office, does he stop at the local 7-11 and get a newspaper, a cup of coffee and a pastry of some sort? Does he have neighbors to which he speaks sometimes, or pets, does he go to movies, watch TV? Read anything but his dog-eared copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged? Does he drink? Does he smoke? Does he like music? Sinatra, Dino, Polkas, Black Sabbath? Is he one of those cranky old men that shouts "You kids get off my lawn!"? Does he like the Yankees? Mets? Or does he follow the Pennsylvania sports teams? Does he even like baseball, or the NFL or sports in general? Today's athletes and their salaries must certainly drive him up the wall! Or does he exist day-to-day in that mysterious office, doing nothing all day but reading Rand by a single lamp, eating delivered sandwiches and fielding phone calls from would-be biographers? Will he someday see fit to PUBLISH a biography of his own making, which explains everything in his own words before he's gone? Will we know when he's gone, or will someone find him in that office, weeks after he's expired?

Of course, we won't find the answers to any of these questions, or any sort of affirmation or denial of idle conjectures in Strange and Stranger; it's just not that kind of a book. But as an examination of his career, and as a showcase for what made his art so special, it is outstanding and well worth the price. Given the level of difficulty that it took to get this done in the first place, I give Bell all the credit in the world, even if the subject probably wouldn't approve of the results. As far as Ditko the man goes, all I can say is I hope he's happy and content with the life he's led, and can look back with no regrets, because he certainly made your humble scribe very happy when he was a young boy (and for that matter, as a theoretical adult, too) with his talents.

ETA 8/3: Of course, there's always a dissenting opinion.

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