The Strident Hermit King of Comics

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

In reviewing Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger — about the artist-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange — Geoff Boucher declares Steve Ditko the strident hermit king of comics:

For students of comics history, there are few names that strike the ear and the imagination quite like Ditko’s. In a field defined by brilliant oddballs, embittered journeymen, penniless geniuses and colorful hacks, Ditko is the strident hermit king. He gave the world Spider-Man but then more or less bugged out, deciding in 1969 to stop doing interviews and making public appearances. Now 80, Ditko lives in New York City, and although you can track down his studio, nobody I know who’s done so has gotten past the front step. It’s not that Ditko is unfriendly — he’s willing to talk, apparently (in one case, for more than an hour), but only while standing in his doorway, blocking any view into his home and his life.

If you’re a journalist, however, it’s a different story. Last year, the BBC aired a documentary, “In Search of Steve Ditko,” in which reporter Jonathan Ross, accompanied by Neil Gaiman, sought an audience with Ditko. He refused to speak on camera, which only reinforces the idea of him as the J.D. Salinger of super-hero comics. This, I suppose, makes Peter Parker a wall-crawling Holden Caulfield.

When Ditko drew Peter Parker, he drew him as a nerd — a proto-nerd, I suppose — which made perfect sense for the character, but later artists drew him as just another idealized male. Boucher gives this description of Ditko’s style:

Although Ditko grew up loving the art of Jerry Robinson and Will Eisner, for much of his career, he had a spindly and off-kilter style that rubbed the heroic off the page and replaced it with an odd, anxious ballet of the surreal and the grotesque.

The recent Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme DVD played down Ditko’s “anxious ballet of the surreal and the grotesque” as well as Stan Lee’s impressive-sounding mystic mumbo-jumbo, which always alluded to otherworldly things you assumed someone understood.

Ditko is also famous for creating the Question — and infamous for creating Mr. A — which both inspired Alan Moore‘s Rorschach, from The Watchmen.

Secret Origins of Mr. A

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

After watching Jonathan Ross ‘In Search of Steve Ditko’, I couldn’t help but research the Secret Origins of Mr. A, the Objectivist hero Ditko created after he left Spider-Man and Dr. Strange behind.

Dial B for Blog has the entire five-page first Mr. A story scanned in and online — and, yes, it’s black and white.

Jonathan Ross ‘In Search of Steve Ditko’

Monday, September 24th, 2007

BBC4′s Jonathan Ross ‘In Search of Steve Ditko’ is up on YouTube — at least for now — and, if you ask me, it really gets going in part 3:

Ditko is best known for co-creating Spiderman with Stan Lee; Ditko was the artist, Lee the writer. Ditko is also known for creating Dr. Strange, the master of the mystic arts, who travels via astral projection through psychedelic tableaux — which led liberal hippy fans to embrace the politically conservative Ditko as a Leary-like guru.

Where things get particularly odd is when Ditko leaves Marvel to create independent comics featuring his own crazy brand of Rand’s Objectivism. The Question is a bit odd, but Mr. A? Wow.

I’ve been meaning to pick up Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko for some time now. I suppose I should really pick up the 1088-page Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus, which includes the entire Ditko run. It’s a shame that the Essential Doctor Strange doesn’t come in color.

The Amazing Steve Ditko

Friday, June 3rd, 2005

The Amazing Steve Ditko shares some things about the co-creator of Spiderman and Dr. Strange that I really should have known:

Sixties hipsters thought that Ditko’s urban realism and trippy visions meant that he was one of them. They couldn’t have been much more wrong. Around the time that Ditko fell out with Marvel Comics in 1966, he became fascinated with Ayn Rand and objectivism, and his work started to take on a severe and increasingly strident right-wing tone. He spent a few years working for the small company Charlton Comics, where his most significant creation was the Question: a hero in a suit, hat and tie, with no face — just a blank pink blot — and a ruthless contempt for moral relativism. At a subsequent stint with DC Comics, he created the Hawk and the Dove (a pair of superhero brothers, whose personalities were exactly what you’d guess) and the Creeper (a yellow-skinned, green-haired, red-maned, screeching maniac).

And then, by the end of the ’60s, Ditko retreated into the world of the small press — fanzines and self-published comics — where he could write and draw whatever he pleased. Comics like ‘Mr. A’ and ‘Avenging World’ became his venue to rant semi-intelligibly about objectivism, how there’s no middle ground or gray area in morality, and so on. He spent most of the next 30 years creating Rand-inspired comics that are beautifully designed and composed but almost unreadable; they’re explicitly didactic, but so heavy-handed that it’s impossible to imagine them swaying anyone’s opinions. (Ditko continued to draw hundreds of pages a year through the ’90s but hasn’t published any new work since 2000.)