A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Month: July 2011

The Fascinating, Frustrating Enigma of Steve Ditko

I love books about comics, the comic-book industry and the people who make comics. I wish there were a lot of them, because I think it’s worthwhile to document these events and people while we still can.

Which brings me to Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics, $39.99), in which author Blake Bell examines the life and work of one of comics’ greatest enigmas.

Almost anyone interested in superhero comics knows Ditko was the artist who co-created The Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Stan Lee. Those who go a bit deeper will know that Ditko also created some cool characters at DC Comics in the late 1960s and 1970s, including The Creeper, Hawk and Dove and Shade, The Changing Man. A few more willl remember him for doing layouts on the cult 1980s Marvel series Rom, and a dedicated few will have perused Ditko’s independent creations such as Mr. A. But given that Ditko has refused to be interviewed or appear in public for decades now, little else is really known about this artist, who created some of the most unnerving and interesting comics in the medium’s history.

Bell does the best job of any attempt I’ve ever seen to bring together everything we know about Ditko’s life and work. The result is fascinating, frustrating and eventually presents a sad portrait of an immense talent that withdrew from the world and denied it of his work and himself of the audience, acclaim and success that was easily within his grasp.

Unlike Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and most of the artists that broke into comic books in the so-called Golden Age, Ditko always wanted to work in the field. He was part of the first generation of comic book fans, specifically seeking out work and a career drawing and writing stories like those they had admired as children and fans. Both the quantity and quality of Ditko’s early comic book work surprised me. The glimpses Bell offers of the 1950s stories for Charlton and the company that would become Marvel are fascinating and have a quality that makes the idea of tracking down the best of those tales very attractive.

Where the tale of Ditko’s career starts to go off the rails is in the early 1960s, when he starts subscribing to the philosophy of Objectivism as put forth by author Ayn Rand primarily in the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I got about as far into Rand  as I did with L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth, and stopped reading the book before getting through even 100 pages of her preachy, boring and profoundly awful worship of fascist ideals.

The specifics of Rand’s philosophy aside, Ditko obviously found something in it that, at the very least, obsessed him. Obsession is a common theme with comics — fan is short for fanatic and everything about comics from the collecting to continuity to trivia to cosplay evokes some level of obsession. Whether there’s a direct connection, I doubt we’ll ever know because there are so few details about Ditko’s life, even in a book as relatively thorough as Bell’s.

To read about how Ditko’s strict adherence to Objectivism infected his work, of how he sought to inject Randian ideas into first Spider-Man and then series like Hawk and Dove, The Creeper, The Question, Blue Beetle and Shade and then walked away at the first sign of conflict is sad. It’s even sadder to see how much he pored into his Objectivist-inspired works like Mr. A while passing up repeated opportunities for commercial success at nearly every opportunity the moment they demanded even the slightest compromise of his ideals is even sadder.

It’s almost impossible to imagine, given what little we know, that Ditko hasn’t spent most of the last 40 or so years in the same studio with little to no contact with the outside world. No mention has ever been made of him having sustained a romantic relationship (though Will Eisner said in Eisner/Miller that Ditko has a son), or enjoying much of anything outside of ruminating over Rand or drawing comics. 

Could Ditko be a first-generation fanboy, an 83-year-old whose life was spent obsessing first over comics and later over a juvenile political philosophy that only makes sense within a self-imposed bubble? Is he that cut off from the world, that afraid of compromising even the slightest ideal that he’s completely shut himself off from the world around him? Is he happy with his life and his work? Or does he have regrets?

It’s not like Ditko has been completely silent, though he mostly has put his side of things out in letter and essays that disallow any kind of direct questioning. I was similarly annoyed and frustrated by Ditko’s lengthy essays in The Comics newsletters (passed on to me by Batton Lash shortly after I served as a judge for the Eisner Awards a few years back). He’s also written letters of protest to various magazines and writers, though he never makes himself available to answer questions. I found it odd that Ditko has no problem lambasting Stan Lee in writing but, according to an episode Bell recounts, got along famously with Lee at their last meeting to discuss a potential comics project sometime in the early 1990s. Does Ditko lack the courage to voice his convictions in a public forum, where he and his ideals can be tested and questioned?

I truly hope not, but it’s hard to argue that Ditko’s adherence to Objectivism hasn’t cost him dearly. He’s passed up chance after chance to continue to make comics with impact, that speak to and entertain a wide audience while bringing him more personal acclaim and financial success than he’s found doing his small-press rants.

Nothing would make me (and, I’m sure, Bell) happier than for Ditko to come forth and answer some of these questions. Unfortunately, that seems highly unlikely, leaving only the chance that some clues to his life and work will come to light only posthumously.

The Strange, Fleeting Fun of Jack Kirby’s ‘Devil Dinosaur’

Devil Dinosaur Omnibus

Jack Kirby was always a powerhouse comic book artist, but his work in the 1970s is among the most amazing of his career as well as the most divisive. I say divisive because Kirby’s work in that decade took some often strange turns — sometimes producing amazing classics and sometimes producing fascinating failures.

I have to place Devil Dinosaur in the latter category. This short-lived series only ran eight issues in 1978 and, according to Tom Brevoort’s introduction in the Devil Dinosaur Omnibus edition I just finished reading, it was an attempt by Kirby to capitalize for Marvel on some interest an animation studio had in the Kamandi series he created for DC.

Kamandi itself was an oddball series, reportedly inspired by the Planet of the Apes movies, the first issue of that series prominently featured a destroyed Statue of Liberty and was set in a post-apocalyptic future full of mutated half-animals and, of course, the titular last boy on Earth. Even though Kamandi borrows its premise at least partly from a popular movie series, that comic book’s storyline had somewhere to go.

Not so Devil Dinosaur, which flounders partly because it’s a pretty thin concept to begin with and partly because there’s not really any place to take the story. For those who’ve never read this series, Devil Dinosaur is a T-Rex style dinosaur living in prehistoric times who is burned by a mad mob of early human “small folk” and emerges bright red in color. He teams up with a young “Dawn-Man” named Moon-Boy, and together they defend their valley home from various threats.

A typical panel from Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur.
The first problem is that Devil Dinosaur is not human and can’t speak. Kirby constantly attributes human emotions to Devil, both in the narration and through Moon-Boy’s dialogue, such as loyalty and a willingness to fight. But in the end,he’s still a dinosaur drawn so that even Kirby can’t get any kind of expressiveness into his fang-filled face. And Moon-Boy’s habit of shouting out plot points and talking to himself may be in the good tradition of comic book heroes, but it’s also very strange with a partner who can’t even add a “Great Scott!” to the discourse.

The first three issues concern threats from various beasts and tribes of ape-like men attacking Devil and Moon-Boy, and in each case Devil’s too strong and strong-willed for anyone to beat for more than a moment.

The next few issues concern aliens coming to prehistoric Earth, forcing Devil and Moon-Boy to evade alien weapons and such, followed by an attack from the “Dino-Riders” and a final issue in which Devil falls through a time portal to 1978 Nevada.

Devil visits modern Nevada in Devil Dinosaur #9 (Dec. 1978), written and drawn by Jack Kirby, inks by Mike Royer. 
Reading these stories, I can’t help but think there’s not too many more ideas that were going to really work with this series had it managed to continue beyond its meager nine-issue run. Unlike Kamandi, where all kinds of strange things could be invented and thrown into the plot, the prehistoric setting of Devil Dinosaur left the only believable opponents to be other beasts and cavemen.

Despite those limitations, Kirby’s scripting on the series is, I think, pretty good and on a par with a lot of the better-regarded series he did in this era.

It’s also interesting to note that there are no connections of any kind to the Marvel Universe — something that would just not happen anymore given the corporate demands for synergistic universes in comics.

An example of how Kirby could compose the hell out of any panel, courtesy of Devil Dinosaur #1 (April 1978).

The strongest element in the entire package is — no surprise, I’m sure — Kirby’s artwork. The early issues particularly have some fantastic compositions, designs and that distinctive Kirby design style. Every issue has a double-page spread right after the splash page, and each of the is worth soaking in and enjoying. Early issues also have some fantastic panels and sequences in which Kirby shows more command of composition and style than any dozen of today’s comics artists put together. The effort does seem to slack off a bit in the last couple of issues, however, perhaps because Kirby knew at that point that poor sales was about to claim yet another of his comic series.

In the end, these are some pretty-to-look-at comics that offer only a fleeting — if strangely satisfying — thrill.

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