For someone with an interest in the work of writer and artist Steve Ditko, the last year has been a bonanza of material, culminating in Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and a new publication released by the Ditko/Snyder team. Initially, I wasn’t interested in Bell’s book– career retrospectives tend to be good introductions for the general reader and frustrating for the conversant– but having attended Bell’s panel at the San Diego Comic Con, I came away with the feeling that, whatever else, the art in Strange and Stranger had been selected with enormous care and taste, and this alone made the book worth acquiring.
To my surprise, the text, admirably, never transgresses into the tawdry. Speculation about Ditko’s life has been a staple of the comics industry for almost forty years, so Bell should be applauded for keeping out as much as possible. I wouldn’t presume for a moment to know whether or not Ditko himself approves of Bell’s approach, and, really, why should I? Why should anyone presume, before having any direct evidence, that they know or understand what another individual is thinking?
And yet assumptions of this nature abound through nearly all critical writing about Ditko, and, sad to say, when Bell reaches the Randian-influenced period, there is a bit of the same. This is particularly galling when one considers the direct and unabashedly didactic nature of Ditko’s creator-owned work; one of the obvious themes of this material is an insistence by the creator that the work not be read biographically, or as part of a continuum, but rather as individual statements of the same ideas. A = A requires no a priori knowledge. If the reader is incapable of reading the work in a vacuum, after it has become clear that the vacuum itself is part of the work, then I would argue that this is a failure of the reader and not of the artist. For decades, Ditko has been demanding that his work be read ahistorically; isn’t it time to start considering this insistence at face value?
The last chapter of Bell’s book, in particular, left me deeply unhappy. With its dismissals of Ditko’s later Randian-influenced work and questions about the methods employed– the reduction of characters to outlines, the amount of text, the seeming adherence to the superhero story– I was reminded of a passage in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, in which the narrator-artist Gully Jimson, now in his elder years, forges a drawing from his earlier period. In the novel, Jimson has entered a phase not unfamiliar to many, if not most, artists with long careers: his latter work has become something entirely different than the earlier work, and the earlier work is judged superior. The passage in question:
Thank God it wasn’t Sunday. And before four o’clock the next afternoon I had the prettiest early Jimson you ever saw. Sketch for the Bath. Or rather, from the Bath, but bearing on its face all those indubitable marks which as the crickets say, testify to that early freshness of vision and bravura of execution which can never be imitated by a hand which in acquiring a mature decision of purpose, has lost, nevertheless, that je ne sais quoi, without which perhaps no work of art is entitled to the name of genius.
The Horse’s Mouth is copyright 1944. Let’s compare and contrast with the final paragraph of Bell’s book:
Ditko failed to acknowledge that while many of his fans may not have appreciated being force-fed right from wrong, almost all of them recognized the decline his increasingly didactic material had wrought on his storytelling and art. Had Ditko been able to maintain the same approach to graphic narrative that informs his best work, his status as a true visionary in the art of visual storytelling would be afforded its due, confirming his place alongside the medium’s serious practitioners who are leading the charge into the new millennium.
(Let me note: I am not likening Ditko to Jimson. Merely pointing out an echo.)
The frustration elicited by Bell’s final chapter is a familiar one. I’ve been feeling it from the first days of my interest in Ditko’s work, dating back to about 1999. I have become royally tired of hearing the Randian-influenced work dismissed and I am royally tired of hearing Ditko discussed as though he were an idiot savant who had a few good years and then disappeared in a fog of reactionary thinking. Thus I am now going to science and knowledge out my thoughts on this matter and be done with it.
No One has ever been Ripped Off
as badly by the Comics Industry as Steve Ditko
Not Siegel and Shuster. Not Jack Kirby. No one.
How badly has the comics industry ripped off Steve Ditko? Last year, Spider-Man 3, a property which Ditko co-created and on which he was promised a royalty share that never materialized, grossed about $900M globally. This year, Iron Man, featuring a visual look based on Ditko’s redesign of the character, has grossed about $560M. Next year, Watchmen is on track to earn at least $300M domestically. (This is a deeply conservative estimate.) The trailer of the film has been well received enough that DC has printed about a million copies of the graphic novel, a work so indebted to Ditko that he might as well have been listed as a co-creator. (This is not to take away anything from either Alan Moore or, especially, Dave Gibbons or John Higgins. But I was looking at Ditko’s issues of Blue Beetle and it hit me. They are Watchmen. Beyond inspiration. It’s all there.)
After 2009, there will have been three solid years of major, headline grabbing films that are by-products of Ditko’s creative work. As much as Kirby was the King of Komics, it’s been Ditko’s aesthetic, primarily, that has translated outside of the medium. This makes a certain amount of sense: although at the center of the Silver Age, Ditko was somehow on its periphery. The easy translation of his aesthetic to a billion dollar industry– and the relative failure of Kirby’s (c.f. Fantastic Four films)– is perfectly logical if you consider that the received wisdom of what makes “good” superhero art is utterly disconnected from the visual values of the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, Ditko’s reward has been scraps from the tables of companies that he personally enriched and forty years of incessant second-guessing by his so-called fans, by other professionals, by his editors and by his critics. How could he leave Spider-man? Why are these new comics so preachy? Why doesn’t he sell his original artwork? Why doesn’t he want to meet his public?
And that last question contains a barb of its own: no comics professional in the 1950s could have envisioned that the industry would spawn a knock-off showbiz stuffed with quasi-celebrity. Creators from later eras who’ve been cagey on the point of their own weak fame should be considered, at best, disingenuous. No one who entered the industry after, say, 1980 can reasonably or honestly say that they didn’t expect what they got. But with Ditko’s generation, and generations previous, this sentiment is completely true. Most of these men viewed themselves, I’m sure, as artists or at least artisans, but none signed a Faustian bargain with the American fame machine.
We should be ashamed that it is considered, amongst some, legitimate to criticize Ditko’s reluctance to engage with his quote-fans-unquote. In an era where celebrity has become a coin as common as pennies, only a depraved jackal would want to see Ditko transformed into another drooling mummy wrapped in wisps of pseudo-celebrity and wheeled out beneath the fluorescent lighting of the Jarvis Center.
The comics industry has always acted as a mortar-and-pestle towards creators who deviate from its central value of lucre acquired regardless of spiritual or intellectual cost. Nothing confuses most mainstream comics creators, or their fans, more than one of the Brethren opting out of easy money. Thus, there is something right and fitting about the current round of disrespect over Alan Moore’s handling of the Watchmen adaptation. You wanted to play with Ditko’s toys, Mister Big Hairy Magician Man, well, watch out, you’ve now become indistinguishable from Mr. A, only another uncompromising creator suffering Ditko’s fate, and washed over by the rage and disgust of sports fans towards a player who refuses the rules of the game.
What I would have liked very much to see in Bell’s book is an analysis of how the comics industry itself may have played a heavy role in shaping Ditko’s beliefs about both business and money. I’ve read enough of Rand’s writing to have a sense of the Objectivist worldview, and while it is one for which I have a certain amount of abstract sympathy, I find that in many ways it engages in a series of self-supporting rhetorical fallacies with little connection to my day-to-day existence. There’s a very distinct reason for this: I haven’t spent my entire life being screwed over by the people for whom I’ve worked.
The comics industy of the 1940s, 50s and 60s– and to a certain extent, as demonstrated by Moore’s endless issues with DC, continuing into the present day– must be one of the very few places in which Randian principles are demonstrably, and consistently, present. Comics were, and are, ground zero for unethical and unconscionable business practices designed to strip Producers of their rewards. Superman’s acquisition by National may have been the industry’s original sin, but it was, and remains, the working template for the intake of intellectual properties.
As the most talented creator of the Silver Age, Ditko suffered its worst indignities. I can only imagine– and this may be wrong– that seeing his work harvested amidst endless broken promises, did to the man what life does to us all: left him in search of an ethical system of thought that could explain his experiences. It’s inconceivable that any individual with a working knowledge of the last seventy years of broken promises, lies and outright theft should then blanch at a creator rejecting the cores values of the companies that produced these abuses.
The recycled canard offered in defense of the Big Two is thus: the creators signed the contracts. This has been demolished a million times over, but I think it’s unnecessary in the case of Ditko, who did what the Apologists are always suggesting was an alternative: he walked away. And was promptly second-guessed for the next four decades.
One of the strengths of Strange and Stranger is in documenting Ditko’s mistreatment not only at the hands of the Big Boys, but also the fan press and some of the smaller companies. This is, unfortunately, off-set by too much hand-wringing about Missed Opportunities in the later years. I understand the impulse to bemoan choices that appear Questionable, but in light of Ditko’s consistent mistreatment by everyone other than Charlton, it isn’t clear that anyone should sit in judgment on which subsequent choices were or were not appropriate.
Bell’s final chapter proceeds from the assumption that because Ditko’s techniques no longer adhere to the standards of the mainstream comics industry, they are somehow lesser or less-skilled than the previous decades of work. This is true only if one presumes that Ditko in any way cares about the collective assumptions about what does and does not make a “good” comic. This presumption is an historical bias based on Ditko’s earlier work and the audience’s unwillingness to allow an artist’s development off established paths. With any creative mind, some of these paths will be terrible and some will be good, but most will be ignored by the Afficinado, who craves nostalgic reminders of Earlier Days like a three-toothed junky longs for her junk. My guess would be that if Ditko’s creator-owned work were being judged independent of What Came Before, it wouldn’t be spoken of as a Decline, but rather in the same way that we have begun to discuss an outsider artist like Rory Hayes. (Note: not likening Ditko’s work to that of Hayes.)
Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person alive of whom this is true, but I enjoy, genuinely, the didactic Randian-influenced work. I’ve own copies of nearly all the Snyder/Ditko publications, and I plan to acquire the new one. I like their look, and I like the direction in which Ditko has gone. I don’t agree with their philosophical underpinnings, but that’s okay. I’m not interested in being reassured of my own rightness, nor am I affronted by the expression of a political and ethical system that is not my own. I’m an adult.
UPDATE, LATER: Steven Grant attacks this piece.
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