Thursday, July 12, 2018

Steve Ditko 1927 - 2018

Most of the time now we settle for half and I like it better. But the truth is holy, and even as I know how wrong he was, and his death useless, I tremble, for I confess that something perversely pure calls to me from his memory – not purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known and for that I think I will love him more than all my sensible clients. And yet, it is better to settle for half, it must be! And so I mourn him – I admit it – with a certain . . . alarm.

A View from the Bridge

I remember the '80s, when for a while it looked like a company called Pacific was going to break the Marvel vs DC duopoly. They launched with a comic called (and if there's any giggling there'll be trouble) Captain Victory and His Galactic Rangers: 25 pages of post-New Gods Jack Kirby and 5 or so pages of post Mr A Steve Ditko. A symbolic act: two of the three pillars of Marvel working for the new upstart imprint. Jack Kirby still looked and sounded exactly like Jack Kirby, although perhaps not quite as good. (As so often he was ill-served by his inkers.) There were spaceships and aliens and Galactus shaped space gods and no actual plot. The Ditko piece, Missing Man, I could make no sense of, and still can't. There were some gangsters, and a supporting cast who didn't seem to be properly introduced, and an awful lot of talking. And yet, somehow, the magic lingered.

It lingered in things like Machine Man and Captain Universe and Speedball and oh god he did a run on Rom Space Knight, a comic about an Action Man accessory. It felt strange. Magical but strange. Comics that were almost, but not quite, like the ones I first fell in love with. The man who drew Spider-Man, still drawing like the man who drew Spider-Man.

So why the hell wasn't he drawing Spider-Man?

The sad but simple answer was "because he didn't want to." Which is fair enough.

Ditko never did anything else as good as Spider-Man. But everything Ditko did reminded us of Spider-Man. Yes, he did Doctor Strange and if we hadn't had Doctor Strange we wouldn't have had Sandman, not in  quite the same way. And yes, he did The Question and Mr A and without the Question and Mr A we wouldn't have had Rorschach, and everyone has already quoted the anecdote about him saying that Rorschach is "Like Mr A, but insane." But it is those 33 issues he will be remembered for. Surely the best 33 issue run anyone ever did?

T.S Eliot talks about The Tradition. There are writers who are great, but outside the Tradition, not really influenced by anyone who came before, and not really exerting an influence on anyone who came after them. (William Blake, for example.) And there are writers who are influenced by the ones who came before them, and who influenced writers who come after them, but whose effect on the tradition is, on the whole, bad. (Milton, he says. Paradise Lost is great, but it subjected the world to decades of mediocre writers trying to sound like Paradise Lost.) And there are writers who are both influenced and influential and whose influence is entirely benign. I understand that Mr William Shakespeare has given general satisfaction in this respect. 

Jack Kirby was so central to the Tradition, so definitively influential on everything which followed, that it is very easy for young people to look at the Fantastic Four or the New Gods and ask "Why is this so great? It's just generic Marvel Comics superhero art." But I think that Ditko's star may eventually eclipse even Kirby's just because Ditko was such a maverick. No one else could do what Ditko did; no one ever tried. The people who stepped into Jack Kirby's shoes, Buscema and Byrne and whoever, all made more or less decent stabs and drawing like Kirby. The people who drew Spider-Man after Ditko bailed didn't even make a serious attempt to draw like Ditko. John Romita made a more or less decent stab at drawing Spider-Man as Kirby might have drawn him. Since folklore tells us that Ditko got the gig because Stan thought that Jack's style was too heroic this was a very courageous choice. John Byrne makes no attempt to emulate Ditko's art style even when he's literally redrawing Ditko comic books. And Todd McFarlane only ever drew like Todd McFarlane.

So anyone can pick up The End of Spider-Man  or The Sinister Six and still be blown away by its idiosyncrasy and its weirdness and its distance from anything else there has ever been. There could never be anything else like The Amazing Spider-Man because there was no-one else like Steve Ditko.

Ditko's politics were not my politics. What I have read of Ayn Rand strikes me simply as nonsense. But Ditko's politics was never toxic in the way that Dave Sim's and Frank Miller's are arguably toxic. Not in the glory years, anyway. His recent pamphlets remind me of latter Alan Moore, trying to explain a private religion which is obvious to himself and hopelessly obscure to everyone else. But I have not read them at all closely because I find them hopelessly abstruse. Cruel people have compared them with Jack Chick's tracts; but then kind people have admitted that they admired Chick's single mindedness and directness and ability to put his beliefs across in impactful images, despite deploring those beliefs. 

Objectivism is not a political philosophy so much as a set of propositions. "I owe no one anything, and no one owes anything to me." "My only right is a fair day's pay for an honest day's work." "Fair exchange, honestly entered into by both parties, is the only basis for human relationships." "Your only duty is to be the best version of yourself you can possibly be." "Rational self-interest is the only true morality." Little of interest seems to follow: but I think I can see how the core credo would appeal to a man like Ditko. And the religion of individualism is obviously a compelling basis for heroic narrative.

And yet... Ayn Rand taught us that no man has any duty to any other man; but Spider-Man believes that with great power comes great responsibility. Why did the arch disciple of the rational conservative create a character who was, if anything, a Christian Socialist? (A Jewish Christian Socialist but let's not go there today) I am convinced that this contradiction is what makes the Very Early Spider-Man so un-repeatably, so quintessentially great. Perhaps there are two contradictory creative visions, two creators battling for the soul of Spider-Man in the actual pages of the comic book. Perhaps we are literally watching Ditko's belief that to be true to yourself is the only law colliding with Stan Lee's belief that you are responsible for every good deed at you fail to do. But perhaps Ditko intended that Peter Parker should start out believing that with great power came great responsibility so that he could spend the next 30 issues realizing what a foolish, unlivable creed that was. Perhaps Ditko created a miserable, neurotic liberal crushed by the impossible demands of liberalism so he could finally show him throwing off that unbearable burden and becoming his own man.

I work in a kids library, and the other day I saw a young lad glued to some old Spider-Man cartoons on his tablet. He didn't know about objectivism or Marvel Method or even that Aunt May had a weak heart, but he did know that Spider-Man had a red and blue costume with webbing over it, and slanty white eye pieces and swung on skyscrapers with his web and had a big red spider on his chest and stuck to walls and captured thieves just like flies. Not Galactus. Not the Shadow, Not Tarzan. Not Cerebus the Aardvark: Spider-Man.

There are not many characters who have persisted for 50 years and who we can be fully certain will persist for another 50, but Spider-Man is one of them. (So is the alien with the red cloak and the problem with his underwear; so is the guy from Baker Street with the pipe and the attitude problem. The person in the blue box with the screwdriver is reaching the end of their natural life. I will be proved right about this.)

I don't know if Ditko would have taken comfort from that. Probably not. I think his attitude was that he did a job of work 50 years ago to the best of his ability at the time, and got paid the going rate, and that's all anyone has any right to. He would have certainly been pleased that his obituarists, without exception, and in the face of decades of corporate Stanology, took it for granted that Steve Ditko was the creator, if not quite the onlie begatter of one of the most famous fictional characters in the world.

Ditko died; Spider-Man will live forever.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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JWH said...

As someone still coming fresh to most of this stuff, I find it fairly jaw-dropping that someone took Ayn Rand's "A is A" riff and made a comic character out of it!

Gavin Burrows said...

I'd never previous associated that Arthur Miller quote with Ditko, and now I suppose I shall never be able to see it any other way. It fits him like a glove. But anyway...

"The person in the blue box with the screwdriver is reaching the end of their natural life. I will be proved right about this."

...seems quite big thing to drop in passing. Any plans to develop that one in future posts? Certainly the show has most recently fallen into a fallow patch, as agreed on by such ends of the spectrum as SK and myself. And I'm not expecting the next season to break the cycle, if I'm honest. But down for good? That's a statement of quite a different order.

In the meantime, when they come for you I'll let you hide in my attic. And say I haven't seen you all day...