Monday, July 14, 2008

Appreciating Steve Ditko

In 1966, when I was just a wee lad of 11, what then seemed a very big honkin’ piece of my world fractured and dropped away. Steve Ditko split from Marvel Comics and forever left behind Doctor Strange and, most horribly, Spider-Man. Neither character has been the same since. And if I may be so bold, neither has ever again been quite as good.

Ditko was the first comic book artist I really paid attention to, and his famous three-part Master Planner story (Amazing Spider-Man #31-33) locked in a diehard fanaticism that remains today. I followed him through his days at Charlton (doing the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and The Question), his brief periods with DC (creating the Creeper and the Hawk and Dove), into those days when you only found his stuff in fanzines like witzend and Guts. Part of Ditko’s magic may have been the mystery surrounding him. He didn’t sit still for interviews. He didn’t rub elbows with fans. As years passed, his work became harder and harder to find. Not until the past few years, when so much old Silver Age material has been collected into beautiful hardcover volumes, have I been able to revisit much of Steve Ditko’s great work.

Now, long overdue in my opinion, here comes Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, an oversized, hardcover appreciation, biography, and analysis by Blake Bell. As soon as this bugger landed on my doorstep, I immersed myself in it. It’s fantastic.

Bell seems to have scraped together every bit of info, every mention he could about Ditko. There are wonderful things here, including a color reproduction (granted, it’s small) of Ditko’s original cover for Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man’s debut in 1962; it was rejected and replaced with a cover by Jack Kirby (though Steve did the inking). Likewise, Ditko’s original cover for Amazing Spider-Man #10, featuring the Enforcers, is presented in this lovely book for, I think, the first time. For 40 years, I’ve wondered why an absolutely horrible, plain-as-vanilla Kirby cover graced that issue. I still don’t have the answer, but at least I’ve now seen Ditko’s terrific version.

One of the things that makes Steve Ditko fascinating to me is his steadfast commitment to his principles and the promotion of those principles, which are rooted in Ayn Rand’s black-and-white Objectivism. Not only did Rand shape almost all of Ditko’s work for the past four decades, her philosophy impacted his career and way of doing business — usually at great cost emotionally and financially. Strange and Stranger, as you’d expect, spends a lot of time in this area. Both the author’s account of this long period and his analysis is really first-rate. It’s really a tragic tale, with the uncompromising Ditko playing a defeated Howard Roark in an industry that never fully understands him. You can’t help but respect Ditko's unflinching determination, but at the same time, you’re frustrated whenever he shoots himself in the foot. For instance, the book reveals that about 15 years ago, Frank Miller approached Ditko with the suggestion that the two of them relaunch Steve’s Mr. A, his seminal Randian hero from the late 1960s. Miller wanted to present the character without concessions to political correctness. In the ’60s, the hard-right Mr. A had struggled in a flower power world. But in the tougher ’90s, an era that embraced Miller’s hardboiled classics like The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City, Mr. A might have become a sensation, catapulting Ditko out of the doldrums and to heights he hadn’t experienced since his old Marvel days. But alas, Ditko declined Miller’s offer, believing that Mr. A just wouldn’t sell.

Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is essential for fans of the great artist. And if you’re a comic book fan unfamiliar with Ditko, this book might just pull you into his camp of devotees.

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At 3:20 PM, Blogger Warren Bluhm said...

Ditko rocks. It's irksome to me that you keep unearthing these essential way-cool Ditko books that I must own at all costs! and I must wait to purchase them in this loathesome economy. Maybe I'll put 'em on my Christmas list and grovel before Red.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Wally Conger said...

Sorry, pal. I understand your pain. But after suffering for years with not a Ditko book to be found, it's sure terrific to finally have a few available!


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