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.

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