Saturday, July 07, 2018

RIP Steve Ditko (1927-2018)

Many of us today are mourning the loss of Steve Ditko, who died this past week at the age of 90. His  greatest and most fertile period of work was produced half a century ago - in various horror comics (THE THING, OUT OF THIS WORLD, TALES OF THE MYSTERIOUS TRAVELER) of the 1950s, in science-fantasy and super-hero comics for Marvel (TALES OF SUSPENSE, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, DOCTOR STRANGE) and Charlton (BLUE BEETLE, CAPTAIN ATOM) in the 1960s, the remarkable black-and-white ink-wash horror stories he produced for the Warren magazines CREEPY and EERIE, and the experimental and emphatically philosophical material he contributed to WITZEND in the 1970s. However, he was active right up till the end, illustrating a series of unabashedly unique, and sometimes sketchy (uninked) comics for Robin Snyder with titles like THE HERO, THE MOCKER, DITKO PRESENTS, OH NO! AGAIN DITKO, and sometimes with just a succession of numbers, #25, #26, #27. Just a few days ago, on July 4th, the latest Ditko/Snyder fundraiser on Kickstarter ended having doubled its stated goal.

As Steve Bissette has noted on Facebook, regardless of this success, the public support of this material has actually been minimal considering how many people are now reminiscing with such reverence about Ditko's work and its impact. I understand these outpourings, and I don't doubt their sincerity. Ditko's work coincided with the pre-teen and teen years of the post-war generation, the Baby Boomers, and he and Jack Kirby largely carried the weight of Marvel Comics during its heyday years. For those of us who received that work when it was new, we were young and our mental chemistry was at its most vibrant and receptive, and it was being felt by a lot of people our own age simultaneously, so that if you met someone who knew Ditko's name, that was it: you became friends. Now that we're all a bit older, in our sixties a lot of us, we may still avail ourselves of the new material as well as the wealth of handsomely repackaged vintage work, but I don't find myself discussing it with anyone - certainly not in the depth of the old days. I think what largely constitutes the impact of this work is not only what it is or was, but how we shared it, how it enriched our lives.

A one-shot, but a great moment in comics.
Ditko was the first artist of any sort whose work I learned to recognize by its style and technique. The work made me pay attention to the name, and vice versa. This must be one of the very first steps anyone must undertake to engage in the appreciation of art. There are, and always have been, people who don't like Ditko's work; they find it stilted, disjoined, unnatural, eccentric, unrealistic. To me, this was the whole point: to break away from naturalism to create one's own world - and in his case, to break even from one's own world into universes beyond. It is true, I believe, that his work was not well-suited to every character he was asked to draw, but when he had a strong hand in inventing that character, there was no one better. He may have been the first artist to streamline Iron Man's armor, for example, but the character remained hopelessly metal-bound, as Ditko lacked the linear sensuality of that character's definitive artist, Gene Colan. Ditko wasn't a sensualist, but he more than made up for it as an expressionist.

Ditko was also essential to my education in cinema. His best work is not only proudly cinematic, it can be like a highly concentrated form of cinema in which all the variation that goes into the building of a sequence must be invested in a single frame. When I look at his work, I can intuit some of the questions he likely asked himself as he began building up those images, like: What is most essential about this facet of story? What do I most want this moment to express? What is the psychological truth of this moment? What am I not seeing that I am feeling, and how can I make that phantom feeling visual? I believe, without a doubt, that when Ditko's work most meaningfully came into my life with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #13 - the first Mysterio story - the path was paved not only for my interest in Ditko (and thus comic book art itself) but for the work I discovered later by Mario Bava, whose films evoked a similar atmosphere of horror and mystery.

Original Ditko art for CREEPY #12's "Blood of the Werewolf."

Much has been written about Ditko's influence by the works of Ayn Rand, and how he lived a hermit's existence - because it's just about all the general world seemed to "know" about him. He always preferred to let his work speak for him. I know that the second point has been highly overrated; he was not a self-publicist, he didn't care about fame or fortune, but I know he got around, met people (I know several people who met or had brief encounters with him), and I have good reason to think he probably answered every letter he received from those people who took the trouble to look up his address and reach out. I mean, handwritten letters, stamped at his own expense. This is a civil and generous discipline that exists among very few people today. What I find especially remarkable, from evidence I've seen on eBay and elsewhere, is that he would sometimes write at length to a stranger to explain why his answer to their request had to be "No." On eBay at this moment (and think of this when you reach the end of this paragraph) is a Ditko letter of reply stating that he doesn't sign index cards, and pointing out that the person requesting such did not include a blank index card with their request! However, think about what that individual received - a personal explanation, returned at Ditko's own expense of time and materials, and signed twice, as was his custom - his signature underlined by his hand-printed name, as if his hand-printing had been typewritten. In essence, he was telling this correspondent, "No, I don't deal in the impersonal, but here is a reply you can take personally."

The trouble is, the few facts we know about him are evidently misleading, and there is much that we may never know. Besides Rand, which authors did he most admire? I think we can safely say Poe (what is his tale "The Terror of Tim Boo Ba" if not a retelling of "The Sphinx"?) and Lovecraft; I see a lot of Doctor Strange in Sax Rohmer's stories about Morris Klaw, collected in THE DREAM DETECTIVE. Was he inspired by music? I think his work makes it quite plain that he loved film noir - so much of his work seems to take place in the years and amid the urban scenery of his own youth in the 1940s and '50s. In his panels, you can find Dutch angles, wide angles, low-angled stage lighting, rooms turned upside down, close-ups that delve into a character's fear and perspiration, even images that seem to shout with a movie's brass sections - as in Betty Brant's nightmare about Peter Parker revealing himself to her as Spider-Man. His work is supremely cinematic, so he obviously loved movies - genre film perhaps moreso than the classics. The people I would identify as the most discerning Ditko fans seem to prize his ink-wash work for CREEPY and EERIE as his career best. Some of this is due to the unusual and highly polished medium he was working in, but it also comes from (I hesitate to say "the fact that") his sensibilities were forged in the black-and-white realm of film noir. A black-and-white he would elevate to new levels of meaning and morality in his Mr. A stories.  

This is how you draw a sock in the gut. 
I loved and admired his work deeply. I could write about it for days, but what is the essential facet of this blog entry? What do I want most at this moment to express? What is the psychological truth of this moment? What am I not saying that I am feeling, and how can I make that phantom feeling verbal?

From my heart - thank you, Steve Ditko.

More than most of the artists I've chosen as my masters, you made me who I am.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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