Saturday, July 12, 2008
STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO review
Blake Bell's new biography on Steve Ditko is a long-overdue retrospective on one of comic's most imaginative creators and true iconoclasts. "STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO" takes us on a 216 page odyssey covering Ditko's 50+ years in the comics business. And every step of the way we're following the path of an artist whose independent streak remains unfaltering year after year.
A few years ago Fantagraphics co-publisher Gary Groth approached Bell with the idea of producing a monograph on Ditko, immediately after Bell had conducted a successful panel on Ditko at the 2002 San Diego Comic Con. Blake soon began researching a subject who hasn't given any formal interviews, or made any appearances at comic conventions, since the late 1960s.
The end result is this exceptionally written book detailing the professional career of one very private individual. Beginning with Dikto's early life in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the book details young Steve's love of comic books (Will Eisner's THE SPIRIT, The Batman) and his development as the class artist. Comics were all Ditko really wanted to do, and by the early 1950s Ditko is working in New York as a professional comic book artist. Some 10 years later, in 1962, he and Stan Lee co-create create The Amazing Spider-Man for Marvel Comics.
The chapter dealing with Spider-Man is probably my favorite part of the book. If only because of Bell's analysis of all aspects of the creation of the strip, guided so strongly by Ditko himself, and for best portrait we have on how the partnership began to grow increasingly difficult to maintain. It's Ditko's steadfast belief in fighting for what he believes to be right that made him stand up to Stan Lee and demand he get the plotting credit on the book, in addition to the art credit. The 'Marvel Method' in which the early books were created would often involve no more than a suggestion of a storyline from Stan, at which point Steve would basically create a whole 28 page comic book from scratch. Stan would afterwards write the actual dialog and add the captions, endowing the book with much of it's success. The day came though when Ditko turned in his last pages and walked off the book, the reasons put forward by Bell.
The co-creation status of Ditko on Spider-Man has long been a point of contention between the two legends. Lee often claiming sole 'creator' status for coming up with the initial idea, Ditko maintaining that as the person who came up with all the visual elements (costumes, physical appearances, gimmicks, etc), co-creator credit is an indisputable fact. Regardless of whatever Stan Lee believes, his very own Marvel Method gives validation to Ditko's claims, (and Jack Kirby's, for that matter) of co-creating the characters he worked on with Stan Lee. As young kid in the 70s, when I read Stan Lee's ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, I immediately realized that the Lee-Kirby-Ditko partnerships were responsible for creating the original Marvel universe. To dispute that is intellectual dishonesty.
© Fantagraphics Books 2008.
After Spider-Man, Ditko continued to work in comics, creating characters such as The Creeper, Hawk & Dove and Shade the Changing Man for DC and working on Captain Atom, The Blue Beetle and The Question for Charlton (these three would later inspire Alan Moore's creation of the Watchman). For Ditko though, he would never work on as high-profile an assignment as Spider-Man. Bell's book chronicles Ditko's adherence to the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand and how the decisions he made regarding work, and even the way in which he would tell his stories, have had a hand in taking Dikto further away from the comic book spotlight.
An unexpected and welcome account in the book chronicles Frank Miller's contacts with Ditko to collaborate on a project. My friend Mort Todd, who in his capacity as Editor-in-Chief of CRACKED Magazine hired Ditko as an artist, and again at Marvel on a line of Marvel horror reprint books in the early 90s, also shows up in a chapter.
The majority of Ditko's career is formed by his Objectivist views, and Bell covers this in detail, providing the reader with an understanding, and critique, of Ditko's career choices. But also, the book spotlights the virtuosity of Steve Ditko the artist. With a rich variety of artwork covering everything from many rare pieces (Ditko's 1970s contributions to the San Diego Comic Con program) to the landmark iconic imagery of Spider-Man and Mr. A, this book also functions as an exquisite coffee table book. With virtually every page containing artwork from Ditko's entire career, the visual power of his inventive cartooning and design skills are really why Ditko is in the upper pantheon of comic book artists.
If you're interested in comic books, you owe it to yourself to read about this iconic practitioner of the art form. And if you consider yourself an independent artist, or thinker, then I would suggest to read about this man who steadfastly stood by his core values, regardless of the cost to him socially or professionally. A man who co-created on of the top three comic book characters of all time. And a man whose artwork is teaming with innovation and imagination.
FYI: I had the good fortune to interview Blake Bell on my radio show, PLANET COMIC BOOK RADIO, a few weeks ago. You can listen to it here.