Friday, July 6, 2018

Steve Ditko, Marvel and Beyond

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

One day a man will ring your doorbell and offer you CELEBRITY! He will offer you fame and fortune and recognition. He will fight your battles for you and gear up the troops to go after your perceived enemies.

And all you have to do is give him everything you have…your privacy, your intimate moments, your private thoughts, your old artwork, your new artwork and details from events fifty years old. You’ll be expected to show up at conventions and sit and autograph comics that someone will sell tomorrow on EBay and sit in on panel after panel examining your work from fifty years ago and dismissing what you are working on now.

There are those who accept the offer love the money and attention, but then complain about the lack of privacy and the wave of criticism.

Those who don’t take it are called eccentric, outsiders, has-beens and hard to work with. With their subject out of the limelight, people can write newspaper articles and books saying outrageous things that bring publicity onto themselves knowing their subject will not bother to respond. They will tell you that they tried to get Ditko to cooperate with them, but it is never unconditional. They want something from him: his opinions, his personality and most of all his approval. They will have people who never meet him, write about him, make claims about him and, by keeping him out of it, they seem to validate their own absurd remarks. This is not journalism; in fact, it is not even common sense.

Some people’s work speaks for itself. In the world of serious comic books no one’s works speak speaks more for itself than Steve Ditko’s.

The Marvel Age of comics was built on Jack Kirby’s creativity, Steve Ditko’s ingenuity and Stan Lee’s continuity. Jack Kirby gave wonder to the Marvel Universe. Steve Ditko gave it awe. Kirby externalized the quest for knowledge, Ditko internalized it. On a journey to the Infinite, Kirby took us to the outer reaches of the universe. On a journey to find Eternity, Ditko took us into the minds of the Ancient One and Doctor Strange. In Doctor Strange’s first adventure in Strange Tales #110, Ditko introduces us to Nightmare, a villain that personifies an anxiety that we all share. Ditko places us in another dimension, one that exists in all of us, where the laws of physics are not relevant or even observed. Soon, this will be developed into the intangible home of Dormammu and all that follow. The Hulk is a great example of Ditko recognizing what made a character work and what didn’t. When Kirby introduced him, his change was caused by external factors, dusk and dawn and later a machine. Ditko’s Hulk changed for an internal issue, uncontrollable anger. This made The Hulk unique among comic book characters and disturbingly compelling. In a small but meaningful way, we are made to examine the question of “control” and how its loss can lead to unwanted consequences. Ditko also changed the character of Bruce Banner. Kirby’s Banner worked for the government and built bombs; Ditko’s Banner ran away from the government and then tried to prove himself loyal.

The Rawhide Kid, in August 1960, had a similar origin to Spider-Man, which would come in August 1962. A teenager, Johnny Bart, was raised by his Uncle Ben and gained great ability as a marksman. Bad guys kill his uncle and Johnny adopts a new identity, Th­­­e Rawhide Kid, to track them down. Because the Kid is a vigilante, the good guys as well as the bad go after the new hero. The saga of Spider-Man also uses all these concepts. Heck, without Ditko Spider-Man could have turned out to be another Ant-Man!

o a child in and of the 1960s, at first glance, the sight of a human looking like an insect walking up walls did not seem unique. Simon and Kirby had presented The Fly, who could scale sheer vertical surfaces, for Archie Comics in 1958. To say that Spider-Man was connected in any way to the Fly is silly. But to say that Ditko didn’t learn from reading those stories would be just as misleading. Some of the poses that Spider-Man has in the early issues are not dissimilar from Kirby’s in The Fly.

I was introduced to Ditko by his short, five-page stories in Amazing Fantasy, Tales of Suspense and other Marvel anthology titles. I quickly learned that it did not bode well for someone if they were too rich or too greedy and appeared on a Ditko splash page. Of course, it was always to be their own actions that caused their bad endings. And we often saw their reaction to that.

Ditko, who never worked from a finished script at Marvel, took an outline by Stan Lee and created a unique mood, style and story line for one of the greatest characters in fiction. Not just in comic book fiction, but popular fiction. No one else created as much emotional impact in his an effect often due to his expert pacing.
Ditko made Spider-Man complex and compelling. It was truly a one-of-a-kind artistic achievement. Like Clark Kent, bespectacled Peter Parker worked for a great metropolitan newspaper and was interested in a co-worker. But that’s where the similarities end. Parker was a character no one had seen before. To Peter Parker it wasn’t a day-job. He didn’t punch in every day. Betty Brant was not a co-worker.  She worked at the place where Peter sold his pictures. The emotional threads that Ditko wove into the story arcs were powerful and unforgettable and you never, ever thought the stories were anything like Superman… or anything else. The interactions Parker had with the cast of characters Ditko introduced made the reader identify with him and have complete empathy for the character. That’s right; you rooted for a creation of pen and ink. When things seemed to work out with girlfriend Betty you felt good and when trouble arose between them you got concerned. When they broke up, it didn’t just break Peter’s heart, it broke yours, too.

Unique to the comics of that time, Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Betty, had a terrible family history. Her worthless, criminal brother, Bennett, owed money for gambling and Betty is forced to borrow money from the mob. She is first attacked by the Enforcers and later, confronted by Doctor Octopus.

J. Jonah Jameson also had a unique vendetta against Spider-Man. In issue #10, J.J.J. admits that although he has money and promotes causes he was jealous of Spider-Man, who risked his life to save people, getting nothing in return; he just wanted to do the right thing. This was complex thinking for a 1960s comic. These were mature concepts, not seen in comics since the Comics Code had been implemented in 1955.
I was too young when Doctor Strange debuted in Strange Tales #110 and I didn’t fully appreciate it. The world therein was askew and the characters didn’t look right. Then one rainy day years later, I reread all of his published adventures (midway through to the Eternity saga) and realized its brilliance. Ditko showed that comics were not just for kids but for adults. Doctor Strange’s powers did not come from cosmic rays, freak lightning bolts, or radioactive insects. His power was knowledge and how to use it. He read, he studied and he practiced his profession. Strange reads the book of Vishanti in Strange Tales #120 (May 1964) to find a solution. He then visits a haunted mansion to eliminate its ghosts. This is the last time a New York City doctor ever made a house call.

When Doctor Strange appeared in Strange Tales #110, I figured Ditko was reworking the magician idea that we had seen in comics with such as Mandrake and Zatarra. He  reimagined them just as he did with The Hulk and Iron Man. I just assumed that Ditko wanted to re-work Doctor Droom, the mystic hero that appeared in Amazing Adventures #1, who was drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko. I was wrong. We know now that Steve plotted and drew it out and then gave it to Stan. The series started off a bit slow, but interesting, as a five-page filler.

Stan Lee wrote (The Comic Reader #16, 1963) “Well, we have a new character in the works for Strange Tales, just a 5-page filler named Dr. Strange. Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him. T’was Steve’s idea; I figured we’d give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much.” 

Doctor Strange graduated from filler to being the first double feature of the Marvel Age because it was brilliantly done. When the segment grew to ten pages, it allowed stories to become more complex and characters to be developed.  In fact, the 170-page story (starting in Strange Tales #130) remains a highlight of complexity, emotion and storytelling of the Marvel Age. It became one of the most memorable story arcs of the era and it helped usher in the concept of longer stories, which has evolved into the graphic novel. Doctor Strange was a brilliant character, magical and mystical, with no real history. As his collections have been released in Masterworks and Essentials, I have suggested to people NOT to read Strange Tales #115, the Origin of Doctor Strange, until they have finished the other stories.

Unlike many other comics Doctor Strange does not have a backstory; no parents, friends and no baggage. Peter Parker had an uncle and aunt and had lost his parents, Superman came from another planet. Doctor Strange just showed up, just him and The Ancient One. They were just there. (Somehow, this seemed fitting for their world. Things just happened, there was no long and convoluted explanation, which comics often had.)

Throughout the years, there have been discussions, among comic book fans, on the influence of Stan Lee on the origin of Doctor Strange. In the origin story, the only glimpse we see of a history, we see that he was once a skilled but arrogant surgeon who injured his hands. He learns the mystic arts and seeks redemption for his past life and acts. Redemption was a very common theme in most of Stan Lee’s works. Daredevil, Thor, Iron Man and so many others sought redemption. This includes Peter Parker. Stan Lee mentions in the letter’s column in Strange Tales #115, that fans felt that an origin story was necessary. My only disappointment with Doctor Strange is that the final chapter of Ditko’s epic seventeen-issue story arc, in Strange Tales #146, “The End at Last!,” leaves one with the impression of having been rushed. He was leaving Marvel and must have felt that he owed the fans a conclusion and could not leave without one.

Ditko seemed to be the “go to” guy at Marvel. Ditko was aware of what comics were out there and what was working and what was not. It seemed to me that if something wasn’t working right, they brought it to him to fix. Ditko was able to understand the fundamental nature of the character and even if he changed things, Ditko kept its essence. Ditko took Iron Man out of a bulky, heavy costume and made him into the sleek, colorful jet-setting modern playboy.

Ditko’s work on The Hulk was frankly incredible. He took an character whose own book had failed and made him interesting and compelling. Jack Kirby had said that he had modeled The Hulk after the Frankenstein monster. The Hulk behaves very much like that monster and is treated very much the same: an innocent haunted and hunted by people. At first, the Hulk seemed more like the Wolf Man because he turned into an uncontrolled creature at night. The first five issues lacked consistency.

It was also hard to like Bruce Banner because, like Tony Stark, he was a weapons manufacturer, a brilliant bomb maker, and a bit of a dweeb. (Whereas Clark Kent and later Spider-Man pretended to be meek and mild, Banner was.) In Avengers #3, Banner turns into the Hulk when he is calm and sleeping and back to Banner when he gets upset. When Dick Ayers drew the Hulk (in Tales to Astonish #59, the issue preceding The Hulk series) we see that the cause of Banner’s transformation is simply high blood pressure. The heck with gamma rays… had he stayed away from salt he would have been okay.

Ditko gave the Hulk his anger management issues. By introducing Major Talbot he not only gave Banner an adversary but he also gave him a motivator. Talbot accuses Banner of being a communist or at least working with them. To prove that he is not, to prove that he is a loyal American, Banner now continues his research to make more weapons. We don’t feel that he is doing this absent of consequences, but he is doing it to show that he is loyal. Also he is showing himself that while part of him may be destructive, he is also a worthwhile person, not inventing anything for personal gain, but for the good of his country.

In contrast to Doctor Strange, Spider-Man had a detailed back story. This indicates that Strange’s lack of one was deliberate, for even when the stories became longer, his past was not addressed. Spidey suffered great consequences from not stopping that burglar. He lost his uncle and his aunt lost her husband. Their finances were destroyed for years.

In the era of Batman and Dick Tracy where villains were misshapen, grotesque, and often looked like their evil names, Ditko took a more unsettling route. His villains look like normal people, they weren’t overly ugly with distorted features although some did wear masks. Most of his villains, the Green Goblin, the Crime Master, Mysterio, Electro, the Sandman and even the Enforcers, looked human, but menacing. So the real villains in Spider-Man’s world could be your neighbors.

Steve Ditko kept a chart on his wall that clearly outlined the Spider-Man story line for the next three or four issues. To Steve Ditko, criminals were little men, almost faceless like Frederick Foswell, in Amazing Spider-Man. One of my favorite stories is the “Man in the Crime Master’s Mask!” (issues #27-28) This was a two-part story that had me guessing for 40 pages. It’s a brilliant concept: A whodunit with a high-powered villain being someone no one even knew, and therefore no one would suspect. Years later, when I would hear these strange rumors that Ditko left Marvel over a conflict about the identity of the Green Goblin, I would also be told that Ditko wanted it to be no one we had ever seen. Ditko would never do that. He would never repeat a theme that he had just done a year earlier. For example, in issue 36, Norman Osborn, while holding a rifle, threatens to go after some people. I think that was a clue
In Eye Magazine, 1966 Stan said:  “I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko thinks he’s the genius of the world. We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories. He won’t let anybody else ink his drawings, either. He just drops off the finished pages with notes at the margins and I fill in the dialogue. I never know what he’ll come up with next, but it’s interesting to work that way.”

There have been many articles and references over the years regarding Ditko and his identification with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Well, he did name Doctor Strange, Stephen didn’t he? Many assume that Ditko identified with his heroes. If so, did J. Jonah Jameson, a cheap, penny-pinching publisher who insisted that all stories be written from his point of view, represent Martin Goodman or Stan Lee or an amalgam of both? Of course, if this is true, does that make Flo Steinberg the model for Betty Brant, J.J.J.’s secretary and Parker’s first girlfriend?

J.J.J. was to become a direct threat to Spider-Man. Earlier, J.J.J. worked in the background to encourage villains to stop Spidey. This changed with issue #25. This was the first time J.J.J. became the actual face of a villain when he manned the Spider-Man seeking robot. Perhaps Ditko felt that was just what Goodman and Lee were doing. But Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had stopped talking to each other about one year before Ditko left Marvel. Ditko would draw the pages and send, or bring, them in for Lee to add his dialogue.

By issue #35 (Apr 1966), Peter Parker is deserted by friends, threatened by unseen enemies and feeling isolated. Steve Ditko was plotting the books by himself and there is none of Lee’s exuberance or optimism in the character or the stories.

If there was any regret in Spider-Man for me, it was the way his graduation and entrance to college took place. It was common in comics to have change without really having change, to give the appearance that something is new and different but it kind of stays the same. When Parker went to college, it changed the scenery but it really didn’t change his environment. He still had Flash Thompson in his classroom, antagonistic as always and blonde Liz Allen was replaced by blonde Gwen Stacy. Ditko probably did not want this change because he did not want to lose his characters, so he kept them despite the change in locale from high school to college. What, for instance, was Flash Thompson, in college on an athletic scholarship, doing in the same science and chemistry classes as (science major) Peter Parker? No one held his ear to the ground to sense what the fans were thinking more than Stan Lee. Comic books had begun losing their adult male audience in 1945, when WWII ended. Now, on college campuses, Marvel was getting them back, as evidenced by Esquire’s choosing Spider-Man and the Hulk as two of the people who counted on campus in 1966 Stan Lee wanted to keep his characters relevant and popular in this new market.

In 2015, in the Robin Snyder/Steve Ditko Four-Page Publication, Mr. Ditko clearly explains why he left Marvel in Nov. 1965. It had nothing to do with The Green Goblin.

Steve Ditko: “I always picked up pages from Stan, he’d tell me about anything to change, add, etc.” Until one day, he continues, “I went to the Marvel office. Silent Sol (Brodsky) handed me the pages to ink… NO comment about anything. I left with the pages. I inked the pages, took them in, Sol again took the pages from me and into Stan’s office — came out saying nothing — and I left…. I always wrote down any ideas that came to me about the supporting characters, any possible, usable story idea. At some point after they had been dialogued and lettered, I got my original, penciled pages back and inked them. That became our working system on S-M and DS. One day I got a call from Sol. The next S-M annual is coming up.… I asked myself, “Why should I do it?” Why should I continue to do all these monthly issues, original story ideas, material, for a man who is too scared, too angry over something, to even see, talk to me? some point, I decided to quit Marvel.”

In 1975, Stan said in the Fantasy Advertiser:
"Steve was a very mysterious character. When he first started he was the easiest character we ever had to work with. I used to think that if everybody was as easy to work with as Steve, it would be great. I would call him in the middle of the night with an emergency ten-page script and Steve would bring it in the very next day without a complaint. He was just beautiful.  But, little by little, he became tougher and tougher to work with. After a while he’d say to me, “Gee, Stan, I don’t like those plots you are writing for Spider-Man.” So I’d say okay, because I couldn’t have cared less, Steve was so good at drawing stuff, I said, “Use your own plot, I’ll put the dialogue in.” So he’d do his own, and I’d switch them around, and I’d put the dialogue in and make them conform to what I wanted. Then he’d say “I don’t like the sound-effects you’re putting in.” So I told him to use his own, I didn’t mind. I’d bend over backwards to accommodate him, because he was so good and the strip was so successful. But it was like Chamberlain giving in to Hitler, the more I appeased him, the harder he got to work with. Finally, it reached the point where he didn’t even come up to the office with his artwork —he’d just mail it in. Then, one day, he said he was leaving. You now know as much about it as I do. What bothered him, I don’t know.... He’s another guy I’d take back in a minute, but I have a feeling he’d be impossible to work with."

Ditko influenced many artists, but none could ever recreate his world, try as they might. Ditko was an essential, irreplaceable part of the foundation of the Marvel Age. He was able to take a concept or character, new or old and develop it into something completely fresh and different, even unrecognizable from its first germ of an idea. I will remember him and miss him  for that.