01/07/2009. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy
pub: Fantagraphics. 220 page hardback. Price: about £18.00 (UK) if you know where to look. ISBN: 978-1-56097-921-0.
check out website: www. fantagraphics.com
Steve Ditko did the pictures, Blake Bell did the text. It does feature a few words from the reclusive artist, usually quoted from obscure fanzines in which he all too rarely expressed a view. Strange indeed is the world of Steve Ditko.
Like most of his generation of comic artists, Ditko grew up fairly poor in the depression and loved comic strips as a kid. After brief army service, he enrolled in The Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York where he was tutored by the great Batman artist Jerry Robinson, then moved easily into work in comics. He soon got work at the Simon And Kirby Studio and eagerly studied the work of the master. Not Kirby, Mort Meskin. Ditko admired his art hugely and was greatly influenced by it.
Ditko's best work and for which he is best known was his sixties Marvel stuff on 'Spider-Man' and 'Doctor Strange'. However, as this book demonstrates, the techniques he used therein did not come from nowhere but were the development of his work in the fifties on lesser titles, mostly for Charlton. Because the bosses at Charlton didn't much care what went in their pages, as long as it was cheap, there was a great deal of artistic freedom which Ditko utilized to the full. The classic Marvel works which grew out of this apprenticeship are available in colour as 'Marvel Masterpieces' or, more cheaply, as black and white 'Essentials'. Ditko is one of those artists, like Gene Colan, whose work looks good in black and white though for the full psychedelic effect of 'Doctor Strange' colour might be the best option.
About this time Steve discovered writer and philosopher Ayn Rand and believed in her with all his heart and set himself on a path of steady decline as far as commercial success was concerned, which was odd because her greatest heroes were successful businessmen. Objectivism was a right wing philosophy, devoted to the rights of the individual and utterly opposed to altruism of any kind. Wealth creators are great, it said, and criminals are looters and have no excuses but should be punished ruthlessly. At least, that's how Ditko saw it.
Why Steve fell out with Stan Lee is one of the big mysteries of comic history and is revealed in this book. It's not fair to the author to give it away in a review. After the split, Ditko moved to Warren and worked on 'Creepy' and 'Eerie' for Archie Goodwin where in competition with such all-time greats as Frank Frazetta, Alex Toth, Wally Wood and Neal Adams, he produced more good work. These magazines are also being reproduced in nostalgic collections for old fans. Blake Bell rates this stuff as equal to and possibly better than Ditko's Marvel work.
Financial problems at Warren meant a move to Charlton. Here he revived 'The Blue Beetle' and 'Captain Atom' and started 'The Question', a watered-down version of 'Mister A'. The pure version, personification of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy featured in a low circulation magazine called 'Witzend'. Ditko was now starting to separate the work-for-hire from the stuff he really believed in, like 'Mister A'. The former paid the bills and the latter expressed his philosophy and broke every convention of the Comics Code. Charlton's super-hero line folded and he moved on to DC where he turned out 'Beware, The Creeper' and 'The Hawk And The Dove'. These were more watered-down expressions of his new black and white view of good and evil. They didn't succeed either. There was always work at Charlton to pay the bills but the next few decades saw a steady decline in Ditko's fortunes.
Strange and stranger and quite sad, the world of Steve Ditko. A Freudian, I suppose, would make much of the lack of women in his life. That may count but I think it's the lack of friends that shaped him. What Ditko really needed was some mate down the pub to tell him that Objectivism was a bit daft and he was taking it too seriously. Right now he needs someone to tell him that using his valuable original art as cutting boards is crazy but alas there is no one he will listen to. It's a shame. You admire his integrity and shake your head ruefully at his folly.
When comic fans grow up we get lots of disposable income and an understandable nostalgia for the innocence of our childhood. The market price for nostalgic goods gets inflated and a disposable 10 cent comic becomes a collector's item while the original art is worth thousands. Meanwhile, the creators are elevated to god-like status. Really, though, they were guys earning a living drawing comics for children, albeit in many cases with integrity and a desire to make something of quality. The ones who did that are the ones that are remembered and Ditko, rightfully, is among their number. But he's not a great man, not even a great artist, just a great comic-book artist. It's worth keeping these things in perspective.
Even so, the book is an interesting read, a valuable document in graphic art history and a must for any die-hard Ditko fan. As you would expect it is lavishly illustrated with the works of the eponymous chap in the title with a ration of about two-thirds art to one-third text. A fine, big, sturdy volume, it's available at a reasonable price and, for the aforementioned nostalgic middle-aged men - including me - worth every penny.
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