Monday, March 9, 2009

Strange and Stranger

Review of Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell. Toronto Star, July 2008.

Even the most casual of comic-book fans know who Stan Lee is. As the main writer at Marvel Comics in the 1960s, Lee helped create countless costumed icons, from Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four to the X-Men. Now less active as a writer, he’s still the public face of Marvel, accepting tribute in the form of ceremonial cameos in the company’s Hollywood blockbusters. (Most recently, he can be spotted in Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.)

Less well known – and less well compensated – are the artists who rendered Lee’s fantasias, and sometimes served as unofficial co-writers, too. So there’s a distinct air of redress in a couple of recent large-format art books devoted to other Marvel creators. Kirby: King of Comics, which appeared earlier this year, hailed the late Jack Kirby. Now Toronto writer Blake Bell has published Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko.

Ditko’s legacy mainly rests on his co-creation, in 1962, of Marvel’s single most celebrated character, Spider-Man. Bell argues that Ditko developed not just the hero’s powers and look, but also the series’ focus on Peter Parker’s teenage travails, so crucial to its appeal. There’s more to Ditko than the webslinger, though. Before joining up with Lee and Marvel, he illustrated horror and suspense comics in the 1950s. At Marvel, he helped created at least one other memorable hero, Dr. Strange. And in the 1960s and ’70s, he worked on a host of lesser-known titles for various comic publishers, while also publishing more personal work in fanzines.

All of this work is well represented in Strange and Stranger, which above all is a lavish objet d’art, stuffed with covers, pages, and panels in Ditko’s hand. Psychedelic characters like Shade the Changing Man burst off the page in vivid colour, but the black-and-white stuff is scarcely less striking, marked by Ditko’s clear line and solid draftsmanship. The images are occasionally crude, but they actually benefit from being pulled from their original context. Without having to follow along with the clunky pulp storylines that Ditko’s work accompanied, readers can better appreciate the drawings as a kind of pop art.

Bell’s analysis is a crucial aide to that appreciation. In both the main text and the crucial image captions, Bell charts the evolution of Ditko’s style. He notes the artist’s early influences and shortcomings – such as a tendency toward clutter – and highlights his many innovations. These may have been throwaway tales of mad scientists and hoodlums, but even non-fans will be duly impressed as Bell shows how Ditko varied his page and panel layouts, captured light and shadow, and played with cinematic shifts of perspective.

Ditko is a fascinating figure for other reasons, too. From early in his career, he was enthralled by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy, which touted the ennobling virtues of brazen self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism. In Ditko’s work, the Rand influence found expression in a black-and-white sense of morality, an infatuation with vigilante justice, and a disdain for do-gooder liberalism. These themes coloured much of Ditko’s work, but were most apparent in two similar characters, the hard-ass urban crime-fighters The Question and Mr. A, who were only too happy to leave small-time hoods to their deaths. (The Question was later the inspiration for the Rorschach character in Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel Watchmen – another facet of Ditko’s legacy, however tangential.)

Where Strange and Stranger is weak is in capturing any real sense of its subject as a person. Bell runs down Ditko’s childhood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and his early years in New York, but about Ditko’s adult life we learn practically nothing. This can largely be put down to a lack of access – now 80 years old, Ditko has always been reclusive and suspicious of the media. But unavoidably or not, Strange and Stranger is something less than a full portrait of the man.

However, Bell does amply cover the way Ditko’s personal quirks manifested themselves in his career path. After battling Lee for creative control over Spider-Man, Ditko left the series less than 40 issues in. This dynamic would be repeated throughout his career, and a series of standoffs left Ditko struggling for meaningful work by the 1980s. For a devotee of Rand’s principles of self-interest, Ditko was also surprisingly cavalier about money: one witness says he used his old original drawings as cutting boards, and he reportedly turned down a large cash offer from Marvel during the run-up to the Spider-Man film, claiming disinterest, although he did fight to be recognized as the character’s co-creator.

To Bell’s credit, he doesn’t try to claim that Ditko was purely a misunderstood genius. Strange and Stranger is probing and acute about its subject’s limitations. Bell outlines how Ditko’s later characters often served clumsily as mouthpieces for his Randian views, and argues that the artist’s work-for-hire was increasingly tossed-off, as the pencilled pages grew sparse, leaving more work for the inkers to fill in. While Bell is sympathetic to Ditko, his book leads the reader to a melancholy realization: that the artist’s storytelling sensibilities never achieved the same level of sophistication that his visuals did.


Review of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Toronto Star, November 2008.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is monumental in more ways than one. A 900-page opus that spans decades and ranges from Europe to Mexico, the novel is the most potent distillation yet of its creator’s themes and techniques. Sadly, the book also serves as a monument to Bolaño himself. The Chilean-born author died of liver failure in Spain five years ago, at the age of 50, while still putting the final touches on 2666.

Not that the book feels unfinished – or, at least, it doesn’t feel any less finished than its predecessors did. Since Bolaño’s death, as his work has marched forth in English translation and garnered rightful acclaim, it’s become clear that he had no interest in neatly groomed little narratives. Whether sprawling like The Savage Detectives or short and concentrated like By Night in Chile, his novels are shaggy by nature. They’re structurally haphazard and unpredictable in tone; they can be demanding and willfully perverse. They also tend to be unforgettable.

2666 is no different. It’s made up of five discrete sections that build on each other thematically but not necessarily narratively. In typical Bolaño style, the novel’s title is never explained or even mentioned in the text itself, though it does come up in the earlier novella Amulet, whose narrator imagines “a cemetery in the year 2666” – a vision of death, neglect, and moral decay.

As the various sections of 2666 echo off of each other, the novel’s shape and meaning gradually gather around two main elements. The first is Benno von Archimboldi, a mysterious and reclusive German novelist who’s nearing the end of a long life. In the book’s first section, a clique of European academics tries in vain to locate the elderly writer. In the last section, we see Archimboldo as a young man, wandering amid the apocalypse of World War Two and forging himself as a writer.

The book’s other major force is Santa Teresa, a lawless and hellish Mexican border city to which all narrative roads seem to lead. Beginning in 1993, Santa Teresa is plagued by unsolved murders – dozens and dozens of them, going on for years. The victims are mostly young women who work in the city’s many maquiladoras, thrown-together factories churning out cheap goods to meet the implacable appetites of NAFTA. (Appallingly and staggeringly, this is not just some grim fantasy of Bolaño’s. Santa Teresa is modeled on Ciudad Juarez, a real border town in which literally hundreds of women have been murdered.)

By placing the German genius and the desert cauldron of modern industry in implicit opposition, Bolaño works his favourite theme: the pursuit of art and the way it collides and overlaps with the messy, ignoble, and sinister aspects of real life. His novels are full of fictional poets, but they’re also haunted by the Pinochet coup in Chile; one of his early books, Nazi Literature in the Americas, is a mock encyclopedia of imaginary fascism-enthralled writers.

The terrifying centrepiece of 2666 is the fourth of its five sections, “The Part About the Crimes.” Nearly 300 pages long, it’s primarily made up of short episodes that relate the discovery of one corpse after another. Wounds are described and clues are sifted in a terse, documentary prose style, making for a kind of police procedural parody. It’s a black and bitter lampoon, though – we see no real law and order at work, just apathy and corruption and outright depravity. Bolaño intercuts this material with several horrific side stories: an American sheriff scours the city in search of a missing woman, and an aloof German immigrant is charged with one of the murders and thrown into a Boschian pit of a prison.

There are other sections and other characters, but to summarize 2666 any further is both difficult and unnecessary. Suffice to say that Bolaño stuffs the novel with anecdotes that open up into other anecdotes – everything from the story of a mad artist who hacks off his own hand to the long church sermon of a former Black Panther. These tangents are usually intriguing, though their relevance sometimes seems subliminal at best. The prose has a similarly freewheeling quality. Sometimes it’s lyrical and striking and sometimes it’s offhand and artless, more testimony than narration. Bolaño is fond, too, of long sentences with clauses that wiggle and multiply – the rhetorical effect is of a steady murmur that you have to work to keep your attention on.

All of which is to admit that reading Bolaño can sometimes be a struggle. But he’s a true original, and the struggle is a rewarding one. 2666 is a fascinating and powerful book, in the end a hallucinogenic portrait of a great evil gathering on the surface of the world. A reader completes most 900-page novels with some measure of relief, and this one is no exception. But it’s also hard to think back on the book without itching to read it again.