Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Steve Ditko

I was going to wait until after reading the Bell biography and some other odds 'n' ends for a massive Ditko post, the kind of thing with such shattering critical insights that you'll weep with joy at being alive to witness it. But after seeing the Jonathan Ross documentary and almost immediately a new Ditko screed it seems like worth just starting part one.

The more interesting part later but this blog has just posted Ditko's "Toyland", a long prose rant about, uh, well something. He doesn't like Joe Quesada apparently and believes "either Marvel Comics is Marvel Comics or Marvel Comics is not Marvel Comics". I'm going out on a limb and say he's dead right about that last. Everything else of course seems to be typing, highly motivated to be sure, even though he appears to have moved from Rand to Korzybski (& everything I know about the latter came from Van Vogt and Burroughs so it's safe to say I know nothing about him).

"Toyland" can be compared to his recent release titled Ditko, Etc... (2008). (There's been another this year and one more due in a few months.) "32 pages, all new art" the cover tells us and inside is mostly single-page posters attacking the U.N., the idea of compromise, the comic book business, comic book fans, compromise again, and some stuff that makes little sense at all. What else to make of a character called The Negotiator in something called "Peace in Our Time" that apparently is fully conscious of the Chamberlain reference. It's that bad, gray-area compromise again. There's even a little poster to explain the difference between force (coercion) and violence (damage) though the "why" is left hanging. As Neil Gaiman says, "I wind up reading them as something closer to classic American outsider art. They move more into the realm of just sheer beautiful, wonderful, straight-from-the-heart American barking madness."

Gaiman was actually talking about Mr. A and makes that comment in Jonthan Ross' In Search of Steve Ditko, a 2007 BBC Four documentary that's fascinating but also appears to have been a rush job. (Ross did a short piece for The Guardian at that time.) As you might expect, the documentary is an overview of Ditko's life and work, trying to explain to probably-uninterested viewers why Ditko was so important and giving some context. There are interviews with Gaiman, Alan Moore, Stan Lee, Mark Millar, Ralph Macchio, John Romita and others. The visual look is well-designed with an anchor setting of comic book cover enlargements (about eight feet high) and a nice pool-of-light approach to the talking heads. Ross says he's a huge fan and his enthusiasm comes across.

But In Search wasn't completely thought through. For one thing the chronology is a bit off - it jumps from Ditko's apprenticeship straight to Marvel without mentioning his start at Charlton. When Ross gets to Charlton later he mixes that period up with some of the DC work and the independent Mr. A. Not a huge problem but it just feels sloppy. There's also way too much emphasis on film and TV adaptations, probably so the TV show can use clips of all these instead of comic enlargements (though it's great to see something from 3 Dev Adam) but this is all very tangential to Ditko and takes up time that would be better spent elsewhere. Ross makes another other odd emphasis when he tries to talk about creator freedom at Charlton which makes me think he hasn't actually read much from that company (and doesn't even mention Ditko's stint at Warren). Admittedly The Question does show some of Ditko's worldview but it's not like he or any other comic creator was doing radical, ground-breaking work at Charlton. There are even a few mistakes, the oddest when Ross says that one theory about Ditko leaving Marvel is because he didn't want Parker to graduate college. I immediately thought he means high school and sure enough literally seconds later Macchio says "high school". Did Ross or the editor not notice they were contradicting each other in probably half a minute? Or was there not time to change?

One of the most interesting moments is when Ross gets Stan Lee to admit that he deep down believes that he's the sole creator of Spider-Man. Lee's argument actually makes sense and leaves the question even more open than it had been before. Basically he claims that the person who thought up the character is the true creator and anybody else is just the illustrator or assistant. So if Lee's idea was a high school kid named Parker who got bit, Uncle Ben, burglar, etc then he probably should be called the sole creator even if Ditko came up with such key elements as the costume and webshooters. On the other hand, if Lee's idea was something like let's have this kid superhero with spider powers and that's all then yeah the two are co-creators. But this just means we'll never really know unless there's documentation in the Marvel offices (and how likely would that be to ever come out?).

The end of In Search is a bit odd. Ross and Gaiman (the latter oddly says he's Etta Candy to Ross' Wonder Woman - that's an image I didn't want in my head) visit Ditko's NYC office and when he declines by phone to see them they just march right up to his office (off camera) and spend almost half an hour. (If Ditko is so easy to find then why haven't fans photographed him on the street?) After returning, the two won't say anything except they liked Ditko and had a nice time. As Ross says, "Although you might feel a little bit let down, I'm afraid that's tough. I'd rather respect the wishes of a reclusive 80-year-old genius than bow to the baser instincts of my beloved audience." At first that seems fair enough but y'know not really. Huge parts of TV are turned over to vicarious experience but this should be something different. If Ross isn't going to even tell us what he discussed with Ditko then why even include the build-up? It's just a taunt and an unacknowledged break of the contract that he's in this with the viewer, that if we're on (let me get flowery here) a voyage of education and discovery then we should be equals. For Ross to say I learned something that you can never know - well at best that's bad manners and at worst it's arrogance. For all we know he didn't learn anything new - in fact that seems most likely.

But back to the start of the post. Ditko's worldview seems to be the main reason so many people are fascinated by him. It's not that the comics & SF worlds are exactly lacking in right-wingers (even not counting libertarians) but Ditko seems bizarre even by those standards. Gaiman's outsider comment isn't far off the mark but the temptation for so many is to read everything in light of this. If nothing else it should make for entertaining TV - let's look at the whacko genius. Too bad he won't leave the cave to dance for the camera. Oddly enough one thing this reminds me of is Moore's Promethea, an inventive, surprising and lushly gorgeous work about utter bullshit. If there has to be some kind of beginner's guide to magickal thinking I suppose that's better than the stuff that clogs up bookstore shelves but it's still a lot of effort expended on oddball personal beliefs. If nothing else Moore is certainly wrong but Ditko seems mainly naive and misguided even if he's screaming that out as loudly as he can.