Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko

There came a point in reading Blake Bell‘s excellent biography and artbook about Steve Ditko that I had to laugh at the irony; I had come to the first time that Ditko felt disaffected and betrayed by someone in fandom that had gone against his wishes. I laughed because I realized Bell probably fits that description now, and hell, by writing this review, I probably do too. It’s almost impossible not to imagine you’re displeasing the man if you choose to write about him. I’m genuinely sorry that Ditko’s fame has made him a fair subject for historical, biographical and critical writing. And I mean that, I’m really sorry for him that the course of his career so often has made him unhappy or uncomfortable or angry. It’s clear throughout Strange and Stranger that Ditko was, from very early on, an extremely sensitive artist who had trouble coming to grips with the inevitable loss of control an artist must have once his work is out there for the world to see. After reading Bell’s book, one is left thinking Ditko could only have been happy if he had created his work in secret, and shared it with no one. And of course, that would have been a sad fate, too. Ditko truly is trapped in a world he never made.

Or, perhaps, he could have been happier if he had worked in an industry that was fair to its writers and artists. If he had been properly remunerated and allowed creative control over his work, perhaps he could have been less frustrated, more able to take joy in the work he created, which, after all, has given millions of people untold joy now for decades.

But A is A, I remember, and I realize that this is the world both Ditko and I live in. “It is what it is,” as people like to say when they have nothing to say. Ditko never had a problem finding something to say, but in his comics work, there was a definite sweet spot of expression and form, and Bell hones in on that pretty brilliantly as he talks about the earliest days when Ditko’s Ayn Rand/Objectivism fixation influenced but did not consume his work.

It began with an issue of Blue Beetle that focused on art criticism and probably culminated with the early-1970s release of a Mr. A one-shot, independently released and violently iconoclastic in its content and impact. Bell recounts how poorly the book sold, and how West Coast comics retailing innovator Bud Plant bought up the remaining copies. Thank God, that’s where I got my copy, by mail order, in the early 1980s.

As a teenager, I knew and loved Ditko’s style, but was too young to fully process his single-minded determination and focus on his, and Rand’s, beliefs. Mr. A did directly lead me to read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and even some biographies of Ayn Rand herself. If half of what most histories of her life contain is true, she was batshit out of her mind, and hardly the type of hero she demanded others be. Ditko would probably dismiss such examination of her life as either lies or irrelevancies, but if you’ve read much about Rand and Ditko, you kind of think he better met her standards than she herself did. Sadly, it seems to have cost him a far better career than the one he ended up with in this world.

It’s hard not to feel sadness and pity for Ditko, as Bell’s narrative wears on into the 1980s and 1990s and Ditko ends up illustrating Transformers colouring books and meeting again and again with industry figures like Dick Giordano and Stan Lee and yet is unable to ever again find a place in the corporate comics industry that he had a key role in creating, and that his most well-known creation has had a large part in sustaining. But Ditko doesn’t want our pity, and he seems to have navigated even the lowest points of his comics career on his own terms, prideful and determined to meet his own rigid demands, which only occasionally bent, it seems, and hardly ever broke.

Bell’s chapters in Strange and Stranger are all discreet packets of important segments of Ditko’s life, and they do create as complete a picture of the man as is likely to be created, barring some unlikely latter-day autobiography, which probably would not be be truly self-examining in any case. But what stands out are the weird little twists and decisions Ditko’s career was built and then dismantled on; most noteworthy, perhaps, his battles with Stan Lee over the direction and scripting of Amazing Spider-Man. Most telling, perhaps, a scene (reprinted in the book) of Peter Parker angrily dismissing participants in a 1960s college campus protest. Ditko’s real self, his real values, came more and more to the surface of his work, and for a few years, as Bell notes, that combination of stoic self-expression and his unbelievably fluid and trippy artwork resulted in some of the most beautiful and memorable comics ever created. Not only late Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, but his bold, innovative black and white Warren work, often done in stunning inkwash, and his truly underrated Blue Beetle, Question and Captain Atom work for Charlton.

I said above that Ditko truly is trapped in a world he never made, and I believe he is. But based on the available evidence — say, the Jonathon Ross BBC special from a few months back — he at least lives out his days now in the way he has chosen for himself. Many people — most people — don’t understand his need for privacy or his desire to be left alone. Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger may or may not be one more violation of his wishes, but for anyone who approaches it with respect for Ditko’s art, it’s a more or less balanced and even kind look at the transformational life’s work of a very difficult, and perhaps very troubled, man.

And it goes without saying that the art on display is mind-blowingly beautiful and complex and almost impossible to fully process. John Romita Sr. admits in the book that he could never draw like Ditko, when he replaced him on Amazing Spider-Man, and no one else ever really could either. Much like his only peer in superhero comics, Jack Kirby, Ditko’s mind and thought process and the visual expression of all they contained were a universe all their own. Ditko’s art is a wonder to behold in the way very few other visual artists could ever even approach, in or outside of comics. It is at once utterly alien and strangely familiar, and the vast majority of Ditko’s work was, whatever the era and whatever the circumstance, uncompromising and utterly arresting. Strange and Stranger captures, in words and pictures, as much of Ditko’s world as it is possible for us to understand. It breaks my heart to think how unhappy he might be to hear how much I loved this book about him and his work.

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is published by and available from Fantagraphics Books.


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