Friday, 24 January 2014

Steve Ditko?...Who The Hell is Steve Ditko?

Steve Ditko. Not a name that will mean much too many, not unless, like myself, you grew up reading early Marvel Comics. You see, it is generally believed that Stan Lee was the mastermind behind all things that Marvel has come to represent: The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and, of course, the X-men. Stan Lee, or Stanley Lieber to give the gent his full name, certainly did play an instrumental if not vital role in shaping what has become one of the world’s leading distributors of comic books. He didn’t do it on his own, though.
I remember being given a copy of The Flash, It was illustrated by Carmine Infantino, It was 1961 and I was only seven. It was this comic that heralded the Silver Age of Comics but as far as I was concerned it was dullsville especially when what followed was so much better. Not that Mister Infantino’s art didn’t impress as it did but the story and the characters were insipid. The same couldn’t be said when Amazing Fantasy#15 arrived neatly stacked in the magazine stand at my local newsagent. The art was a little rough around the edges, a little spunky as though someone had gotten into the core of comic book art and had extrapolated the essence of all that was good and funky. It was 1962 and there on the cover was the most incredible superhero I had ever seen: Spiderman.

The story buzzed with a new sort of homespun gritty realism. It featured a young man who lived with his Aunt and Uncle. They were average people just like my Mum and Dad, maybe a little less well-off, a little more down on their luck and I could easily identify with them and the teenage Peter Parker. But it was the art though that did it for me. I had already hooked onto the fabulous Jack Kirby and admired his style enormously but this bloke with the strange surname, Ditko, seemed a little more leftfield, a little more edgy and a hell of a lot darker.

That first image of Spiderman on Amazing Fantasy#15 was not drawn by Ditko but by Jack ‘The King’ Kirby. It was the usual Kirby material but it was inside the art fizzed. The way Steve drew Spidey with his costumed legs spread wide whilst his arms hung between them clutching his now famed web was an image that not only remained with me but has been used again and again by countless other artists who have worked on the series.

Steve Ditko was born in Pennsylvania in 1927. His parents were working class and the young artist’s upbringing was modest. His father’s passion for newspaper comic strips inspired the fledgling artist so that when he first read Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Batman and then the remarkable Will Eisner’s The Spirit, his career choice was pretty much decided. After leaving school, Ditko enlisted in the army in 1945 where he, like many young men after World War II, did their duty and served their country. When he returned home after being de-mobbed, Ditko sought out an old idol, Jerry Robinson, Batman artist, who was giving tutorials on comic book art. It was now 1950. The Golden Age of Comics was coming to an end. The Silver Age was yet to happen.

Jerry Robinson was full of praise for the twenty-three-year-old student: "(Steve) could work well with other writers as well as write his own stories and create his own characters", "He was in my class for two years, four or five days a week, five hours a night. It was very intense." On one occasion Robison invited Stan Lee, editor of Marvel Comics forerunner, Atlas Comics to give a lecture to Steve and his fellow student artists "I think that was when Stan first saw Steve's work." Whatever it was that Stan Lee saw it clearly made an impression but not enough at that point for Lee to want to hire him.

Steve Ditko’s first paid job was in 1953 working for Bill Hamilton on the writer’s sci-fi comic story “Stretching Things.” The comic was published by Key. Shortly after this Ditko had the good fortune to work with Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the creators of Captain America, where he inked the Kirby drawn Captain 3D story. It was to prove to be a valuable exercise in learning his craft one that led to his long-term relationship with Charlton Comics. His cover for “The Thing” in 1954 was typical of the times featuring a vampiric blood orgy and is reminiscent of the sort of material that was produced by the hugely successful EC Comics Group.

Following a brief illness from tuberculosis where he recuperated at his parents home in Connecticut, Steve returned to New York where he finally started working with Stan Lee. It was 1955 and Marvel was yet to happen but already Lee was attracting ‘names’ to his roster including Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Paul Reinman and Joe Sinnott. This association, often fraught, was to prove to be the most fruitful in many ways and reasonably long lasting given the very nature of the industry the men worked for.

With Lee at the editorial helm, Atlas began to grow. Among the many and varied tasks given to Ditko was to take the bare bones of a plot and make a story of it. Stan Lee explains: "All I had to do was give Steve a one-line description of the plot and he'd be off and running. He'd take those skeleton outlines I had given him and turn them into classic little works of art that ended up being far cooler than I had any right to expect."

The other long-standing concept Stan Lee had was for a superhero initially called Silver Spider or Spiderman. Having gained permission from publisher Martin Goodman, owner of Atlas, to proceed, Lee first approached Jack Kirby to sketch out the character. The end results left Lee less than happy:
"I hated the way he was doing it. Not that he did it badly — it just wasn't the character I wanted; it was too heroic".
Lee then turned to Ditko who made several drastic changes. Kirby had drawn the character with large muscles while wielding a ray gun that fired a sticky web substance. Ditko had other ideas:
"One of the first things I did was to work up a costume. A vital, visual part of the character. I had to know how he looked ... before I did any breakdowns. For example A clinging power so he wouldn't have hard shoes or boots, a hidden wrist-shooter versus a web gun and holster, etc. ... I wasn't sure Stan would like the idea of covering the character's face but I did it because it hid an obviously boyish face. It would also add mystery to the character.”
Steve Ditko’s vision of Spiderman is the one that went to publication. The original idea was Stan Lee’s and he remained as editor but from that point on until Steve left the series in 1966 the stories, the dark invention was entirely Steve Ditko’s.

If Spiderman was to prove to be one of Marvel’s early runaway successes then the other Ditko creation, Doctor Strange, brilliant, better maybe, wasn’t. Doctor Strange had every element of Steve Ditko’s soul thrown into it. It was dark, phantasmagorical, incredibly ahead of its time, surreal at times and very much a part of the psychedelic age it came from. Filled with an eastern mysticism and with a vast range of quite incredible characters, it was far too weird and experimental for the public in general. Historian Bradford W. Wright had this to say: “Steve Ditko contributed some of his most surrealistic work to the comic book and gave it a disorienting, hallucinogenic quality. Dr. Strange's adventures take place in bizarre worlds and twisting dimensions that resembled Salvador Dalí paintings. ...Inspired by the pulp-fiction magicians of Stan Lee's childhood as well as by contemporary Beat culture. Dr. Strange remarkably predicted the youth counterculture's fascination with Eastern mysticism and psychedelia. Never among Marvel's more popular or accessible characters, Dr. Strange still found a niche among an audience seeking a challenging alternative to more conventional superhero fare.”

The list of characters gives weight of evidence to the books complexities:
  • Baron Mordo - Traitorous fellow student to the Ancient One, and disciple of Dormammu.
  • Chthon - Elder God of black magic, written down in the Darkhold.
  • D'Spayre - A Fear Lord created by the Dweller-in-Darkness to embody despair.
  • Dormammu - Strange's archenemy.
  • Dracula - Undead lord of the vampires.
  • Dweller-in-Darkness - Older than the universe and most powerful of the Fear Lords.
  • In-Betweener - The balancing agent between the forces of Chaos and Order, wishing to rebel and ruthlessly rebalance the universe according to its wishes.
  • Kaluu - Immortal archrival of the Ancient One, and the greatest human master of dark magic.
  • Lilith - An ancient demon connected to ancient Atlantis, and mother of the Lilin.
  • Mephisto - One of the most powerful Hell-lords.
  • Nightmare - A fear lord who rules the plagued dreams of all humans, and one of Strange's greatest enemies.
  • Nox - One of the fear lords.
  • Satannish - One of the most powerful Hell-lords, created by Dormammu billions of years ago.
  • Set - Elder God of chaos, and master of the Serpent Crown.
  • Shuma-Gorath - One of the greatest undying many-angled ones. Responsible for killing Strange's mentor, the Ancient One.
  • Silver Dagger - A former Cardinal in the Catholic Church, who went insane after reading the Darkhold, and turned into a fanatic witch-hunter, believing them an affront to God.
  • Umar - Sister of Dormammu. An entity motivated by hedonism, sadism, and thirst for power.
  • Urthona - An alien sorcerer that sought to usurp Strange's power and position.
  • Xandu - A sorcerer seeking power through the Wand of Watoomb.
  • Yandroth - The Scientist Supreme of his universe, pitting the combination of his technology and sorcerous knowledge against Strange's magic.
  • Zom - The most powerful demon in existence, beyond even Eternity's ability to defeat alone.
And not a spandex covered super-villain in sight, well, not very many. The stories were imaginative, adult even and filled with a sort of literary LSD that left the reader on an arcane mystical high. It was the art, though, even more than the stories that I loved.

Steve Ditko’s art is somehow balletic; the figures move as though to the narratives rhythm. They seem to flow from panel to panel as though choreographed.  They are often lean, athletic, sculptured but seldom have that brute energy so often displayed in other comic book stories. The features of the individual faces convey far more emotion than other artists ever succeeded in portraying. Often dark and sinister the raw emotive quality was as energizing as the scenes of action.

Fine artist and fellow cartoonist Seth had this to say of Steve Ditko’s artwork: "oddball for mainstream comics. Whereas Kirby's stuff clearly appealed to a boy's sensibility because there was so much raw power, Ditko's work was really delicate and cartoony. There was a sense of design to it. You can always recognize anything that Ditko designed because it's always flowery. There is a lot of embroidered detail in the art, which is almost psychedelic."

That word, ‘oddball, ‘is one that follows Steve Ditko around and is often used to describe the man himself as much as it is the work he produced.
Whether Ditko fell out with Stan Lee or not really depends on whose side you listen to. It really doesn’t matter but their relationship terminated in 1966 whereupon Steve Ditko took off and went to work with Marvel’s less successful competitors, Charlton.

Greg Theakston, a comic book historian, had this to say on the so-called Lee/Ditko fall out: "Spider-Man was the culmination of everything Ditko was up until that moment. Ditko had personal ties to the character. When people started to 'manipulate him' into bringing in more romance into the strip and changing the direction, Ditko felt slighted, crushed ... they were telling him how to do it. He wouldn't be told"

At Charlton, Ditko had all the creative liberty any artist could ask for and once again he set about designing fresh and innovative characters that once again were just a little off whack from the mainstream. My personal favorite was The Question. He owed a lot to the Philip Marlowe-type detective in his look even if the mask he wore gave him a rather freaky ‘non-face’ look. Years later Alan Moore reinvented the character after D.C. Comics had bought the rights from Charlton, as Rorschach in his masterwork, ‘The Watchmen.’
The following years saw Ditko slip in and out of the comics mainstream often with some puzzling material of work that simply was not of the age it was written in. He often seems at odds with the world especially the world of comic book production. He retired from mainstream comics in 1998.

His interest in Ayn  Rand’s Objectivism has often been food for concern in both his output as an artist but also his reclusiveness as a human being. Personally, I think we should all mind our own business and allow the man to live the rest of his life as he wants.

In 2007 England’s Jonathon Ross tried, with the assistance of Neil Gaiman, to interview the mastermind that created Spiderman, Doctor Strange, The Question and many others at his office in New York. Steve declined the offer marinating still, as he has since the sixties, "When I do a job, it’s not my personality that I’m offering the readers but my artwork. It’s not what I'm like that counts; it’s what I did and how well it was done.... I produce a product, a comic art story. Steve Ditko is the brand name".

Cranky is as far as I am concerned just another word for different which in turn is just another word for individuality. I for one am glad that such a creative man as Steve Ditko blessed my early reading years and that is adventurous spirit went on to influence the likes of Jim Steranko, Alan Moore, The Hernandez Brothers and Neil Gaiman.

For now and ever more Steve Ditko should be remembered among the all-time greats of comic book invention. His audacity in the face of what is a commercial enterprise was remarkable.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.


Faycin A Croud said...

Actually, I thought the name sounded familiar. I love those classic comics!

Oilsforfun-Cristina Homem de Melo said...

Fantastic and fun. Did not know about this great artist. Never was too much into comics and here in Portugal by that time, mid 60's, it would be very hard to find. Myself i was just a very small girl, still only into tom and jerry type.
Great to read and know and specially the remarcable much lighter and elegant....thanks
Loved to read

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog