Tag Archives: Steve Ditko

Interlude 2: The hidden story of Marvel comics.

22 Jan

(I recently read Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. It’s a very fine history of the comic company, and also a disturbing saga of betrayals, reversals, backstabbing, and the clash of egos wrestling for creative control, all against the backdrop of big and bigger money swooping in to get control of the vast repertoire of characters. What follows is my rambling response, in 28 unbelievable bullet points.)

• Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is one of the great books on comics. The others are The Ten-Cent Plague, Super-GodsThe Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Understanding Comics.

• Howe’s book is a sobering—and often repugnant—read. He keeps his opinions sewed up tight. His disdain for Stan Lee seeps through.

• Marvel began as a small part of a large magazine empire. Stan Lee started out as an intern. He hid his ambition from the handful of the original oldtimers; he wanted to rule the world. In some sense, he succeeded.

• Stan Lee, to most people outside of comics, is Marvel. Fans know better. Half-huckster, half-public relations patchwork humanoid in the vein of a celebrity-obsessed Frankenstein’s monster, Lee was one of the original writers in comics. He created the myth of the Marvel bullpen, the merry group of prankster artists pushing the consciousness of American youth. He was, in a word, a liar. Read his later work, when he wasn’t paired with a strong artist, to see how weak his writing could be.

• Lee is an easy target. His scripts haven’t aged well; he sided with the corporate suits over his friends time after time; he turned himself into a brand at the expense of his soul; and his claims to being the creator of all the major Marvel characters have turned out to be a goddamn lie.

• The key to understanding how Lee got away with his chicanery is the Marvel method of comics he invented. The artist would plot the story out (with or without Lee), then pencil in the pages with word balloons and boxes for exposition. Lee would write the scripts based on the existing pages, then they would be inked and colored and printed and shipped. In many cases, the worst part of those 1960s Marvel titles is Lee’s words. He loved puns, cornball jokes. He often misunderstood the power of the characters he was writing. And he benefitted from two oddball geniuses fated to draw for him: Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

• Jack Kirby was ripped off, mistreated, undervalued, and remains removed from the very characters that have, in a sense, conquered the second half of the twentieth century. The entire structure of the Marvel universe—read Earth X number 0 to see it laid out, it’s fascinating—was created by Jack Kirby. While Stan Lee was paid $500,000 a year to do nothing in his dotage, Kirby was left near destitute and furious at his mistreatment. This was wrong. Kirby is comics John Ford and Orson Welles and Michael Curtiz combined.

One of Jack Kirby's many, many evil gods.

One of Jack Kirby’s many, many evil gods.

Steve Ditko is a stranger case. He walked away from Spiderman, the most popular comic in the world, giving no reason for it. He spiraled into the circular madness of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, wrote and drew a few comics here and there, but has been quiet and withdrawn ever since. He is the Thomas Pynchon of comics.

• Kirby and Ditko weren’t great writers, but they had mountains of ideas. Together, they built most of the Marvel we know today. Kirby provided the weird cosmic madness of the Fantastic Four. Ditko provided the Peter Parker portions in Spiderman, insisting that the comic would only work if it spent equal time with both halves of his psyche, and that Spiderman’s success would hurt Peter Parker, and vice versa. He was a goddamn genius.

• In Mutants and Mystics, author Jeffrey Kripal makes the argument that Kirby was obsessed with Gnostic and occult ideas. And that the Marvel Universe is built around the Gnostic principles of evil, alien gods and archons and so on. This is exactly right.

• When you first look at Kirby, his art strikes you as blocky and rushed. It takes years to see the immense creative power—it’s like being dunked into a blue ocean of pure imagination—of his work. His best work is The New Gods.

• John Buscema has always been underrated as an artist. Ditto for Wally Wood, John Romita, and Paul Ryan.

• Howe doesn’t mention Mark Gruenwald’s ten-year run on Captain America. He achieved greatness. Ditto for Roger Stern on The Avengers. Both provided rich characters and epic storylines that effortlessly moved one to the other. These were superhero comics done right.

• Gruenwald, Stern, Archie Goodwin—one of the pure souls in the shady business of comics, his decency radiates through the pages—Bob Layton and Carl Potts all emerge as minor heroes in the Marvel saga. They had talent, vision and basic decency. Jim Shooter, Roy Thomas, and Jim Salicrup all come off as difficult, arrogant and untrustworthy.

• The great, underutilized character in Marvel comics is the Silver Surfer. The most interesting hero in the Marvel Universe is the Vision. The most fascinating villain in the Marvel universe is Doctor Doom. The problem with all three is that they are so very easy to get wrong. I remain convinced that the Black Panther is one of the great black characters in American pop culture. Power Man[2], on the other hand, was a goddamn disgrace.

Dreadstar remains one of the great, underrated comics. Jim Starlin[1] rules.

• Marvel succumbed to the blockbuster mentality that shook the movie world in the 1980s and continues to reverberate through book publishing right now. It started with Secret Wars. Marvel began overlapping their stories between titles, often pointlessly. The result was an escalation that damaged the individual mythologies of the characters and forced readers to buy titles they didn’t want. The best writers held these larger stories at bay to focus on their little corner of the world, but many didn’t.

• This is when I started collecting. (My favorite villain was The Lizard.)

• The low point for Marvel was the specialized collector’s covers in the mid-1990s. Speculators entered the comics market. Prices went up. Fans were bewildered. The value of individual comics ceased to be about the characters; the value of individual comics was judged in terms of dollars. This was, and is, obscene. (Blame New Mutants # 87.) Comics used to be mini-novels, modes of expression, often hemmed in by a culture and format that simultaneously liberated some writers—like the old Hayes’ Code—while bedeviling others. But with the rise of the 90s artists, comics became a product, like candy, foisted on an ever-aging fanbase.

• Almost everyone fell into the speculator’s trap; all of my comic book collector friends bought multiple issues of the ever-increasing issue number ones.

• The nineties sucked, comic-wise. The reason is simple: Rob Liefield.

I'm speechless; to this day I can't understand how Liefield got rich off this crap.

I’m speechless; to this day I can’t understand how Liefield got rich off this crap.

• Liefield had no talent for writing or drawing, but somehow snookered the industry into giving him the keys to the kingdom. I think he made a Faustian deal with the devil. What else explains his career? (Visit here for the best denunciation of Liefield I’ve ever read.)

• I left Marvel in 1995—which means I left comics; I’ll cover DC later—over my distaste over the myriad X-titles, and the ever-expanding list of lame mutant characters, as well as the drop in storytelling quality and the dissipating weirdness that made comics matter. I washed my hands of the entire medium.

• I wasn’t gone long. Six months later I returned. Vertigo—especially The Sandman and The Invisibles—brought me back[3]. Vertigo was a dark fantasy line of comics for adults. It was modeled on Marvel’s ill-fated Epic Comics.

• The same problems that bedevil Marvel now—too many titles, too many restarts, too many retreads of the same stories, too few new characters, too many crossover events, too much reliance on a byzantine mythology built by other people, many of them dead—was there at the beginning.

• Marvel’s business strategy—and this is a book on business—was to flood the market with product, and crowd competitor’s off the newsstands. Marvel does this same thing today. They don’t learn anything from the history of their own company, pushing themselves through boom/bust cycles that could be avoided if they focused on quality writing and drawing. Having said that, the art at Marvel right now is superb.

• If, as Kundera says, all that we have is the present moment that we cannot truly experience, comics are all present. Put another way, comics can’t escape the past and they can’t escape the future. They are fixed in the present. The way forward seems to be to reset the characters at a zero point, forever wedged between possibilities in both directions.

• Marvel should salvage their universe by copying DC’s 52, illuminating the dark corners of the universe through the minor characters, such as a rogue doombot; Dugan; Mockingbird; the Zodiac supervillains; some LMDs; Scourge[4]; and Ben Urich navigating it all with his sights on a major story. If anyone from Marvel reads this, let’s do this thing.


[1] His Warlock is my vote for the weirdest superhero comic ever written.

[2] Marvel has retrofitted him with more strength, no jive talk, no more mercenary nonsense. He now goes by Luke Cage.

[3] And Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing remains one of the strangest, most thrilling comics ever written. That said, it went on too damn long.

[4] I’ve written a Scourge treatment. The first issue is titled, I am a Scourge, like my father before me.

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My life with Ayn Rand and Steve Ditko.

26 Nov

1.

I’ve been a busy beaver over Thanksgiving. I read Woes of the True Policeman, by Roberto Bolano—it’s superb, but more on that in another post—and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I also finished Heaven’s Gate, the notorious nearly four hour flop by Michael Cimino[1]. I finally got around to watching Bunuel’s The Avenging Angel, a movie I’ve wanted to see for ten years.

And I finished reading Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko. It’s a coffee table book that examines the odd life and even odder work of one of the great comic book illustrators of the 20th century.

I cut my teeth on Steve Ditko’s comics. I bought the reprint digests of the first fifty Spiderman comics[2]. They were little pocket books and I loved them.

Ditko insisted on Peter Parker’s personal life sharing half the time with Spiderman, and even more importantly, he insisted that Parker’s personal life be negatively impacted by his superhero alter-ego. Unlike all his costumed counterparts, Parker’s powers ruined his life; they shackled him with an unwanted responsibility, and led to the death of his uncle. Fearing for the health of his aunt, he couldn’t take credit for any of his good deeds. He was misunderstood, maligned and mistreated. And when he did do something right, it often came at the expense of Parker the teen. It was brilliant, and so powerful a storytelling device that all four of the big-budget Spiderman films continued with this same theme.

Parker wins and Spiderman loses. Spiderman wins and Parker is caput. Parker is so hopelessly inept at balancing his two lives that he skirts by in each, an anxious wreck. Good writers toy with this psychic dissonance in the character.

Ditko’s artwork was elegant but strange. Odd perspectives, jagged otherworldly dimensions and simple but disturbed faces. He was marvelous at pacing his stories and draw action scenes with a spare panache.

An example of Ditko’s funky yet elegant artwork.

His scripting partner on the series was Stan Lee.

Ditko and Lee were an odd pair. Lee was a shameless self-promoter, left-leaning, and hip to the sixties counterculture. Ditko scorned publicity, despised liberal politics and had nothing but disdain for many of the causes of the 1960s. Their working relationship deteriorated quickly, and soon they were hardly speaking. (Lee was busy with other Marvel titles, adding jokes and gags to Jack Kirby’s grim, Gnostic, despairing stories in the Fantastic Four, among other titles.)

Ditko did the plotting, the layouts and the story ideas. Lee filled in the dialogue in the word bubbles. This is an essential point: Ditko did the creating; Lee was scripting in existing comic pages. Ditko created the Vulture, Mysterio, the Tinkerer, Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, Kraven, the Scorpion, Chameleon, Sandman and Electro. These are more or less still the major villains in the Spiderman universe. He created Dr. Strange, Dormammu, the Hulk, and the Leader. For Charlton Comics he created Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, The Question and the Creeper. These Charlton characters are the basis and inspiration for Alan Moore’s Watchmen, arguably the most influential comic of all time.

A creepy old dude who can fly; one of Ditko’s greatest characters.

Lee became rich and famous, Ditko poor and unknown. Just as Spiderman was becoming a major hit, Ditko walked away from the project and never looked back. It’s one of the big injustices in a system that thrived on stealing ideas from the creators. The answer to why he left is straight-forward, if strange. He became a hardline objectivist.

2.

You can’t kill an idea, not even a terrible one. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is silly, elitist, unsustainable and, well, wacky. She marries antiquated notions of chivalry and heroics while eschewing the moral, religious, and cultural fabric—the things that left-leaning people feel need to be strengthened, not weakened—that holds society together. Her novels are creaky morality tales with little morality. Her heroes are the elite, venture capitalists, bankers. Her characters withdraw; her characters subvert; her characters destroy their work instead of agreeing to any compromise. No welfare, no social security, no empathy, no pity. No common cause, no greater good, no treatment for inter-generational poverty, no understanding, nothing but the relentless pursuit of personal gain. She codifies selfish acts in a way that makes them seem noble. She argues that we have a moral obligation to be selfish. Only in this way can we make the most of our potential and make the world a better place. The world of business is an ambiguous place, yet somehow Rand and her acolytes see it as the most moral of undertakings. She turns most of our assumptions on their head, presenting a potent challenge to conventional liberal thinking. On the surface anyway.

It’s a simplistic, and self-serving paradigm that allows its adherents to act like, well, assholes, and challenges them to live a life without compromise. It’s the cult of the individual, what Alan Moore calls, “white supremacist dreams of the master race, burnt in an early-20th century form.”

Boo. Hiss. Boo.

Ditko picked up on Rand’s Objectivism sometime in the 1950s. He wasn’t alone. Reagan bought into aspects of her philosophy around this time, wedding them (strangely, as Rand was an aggressive opponent to all religions) to conservative Christianity of Randian ideas bubble up from the philosophical sub-basement every fifteen years or so, cause plenty of silly talk about the role of government, equating some baseline for the good of the many ideas—ideas that almost every human being basically agrees with; for instance, I’ve never met anyone who would argue that as a society we should just let people starve to death in the streets—with the food shortages and gulags of her Soviet-collectivist childhood. People are selfish. Governments attempting to abridge this selfishness cause harm to everyone. No one ever made a great scientific discovery, one acolyte of hers told me some ten years ago, out of some sense of helping other people[3]. She utilized a kind of simpler form of existentialism. There is no such thing as fate. We are free agents acting out our grandiose lives on an untethered stage.

How conservative Christians glommed onto this materialistic philosophy—antithetical to the gospels—is material worthy of a book. The Biblical gospels are, at their essence, socialist texts. Jesus and his disciples live in a communal way. There’s no advertising or publicity, no exchange of money for Jesus’s services, no ownership of land. It’s heal and help the poor, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and a more than apparent disdain for the wealthy.

Right wing thinkers have over the years extrapolated a free market cosmology from a single phrase in the new testament, ignoring the pages and pages of caring for the poor,  So Jesus throwing the moneylenders out of the temple gets book-length exegetical treatment. But his advice to discard material things is passed over.

We’re still living with Rand’s ideas today. The core of her political beliefs is that governments are evil, and only in a free market system, with no external control or meddling, can people achieve their true potential. She’s a tough nut: no regulations, no welfare, no taxes, no social security, no charity, and no pity. I haven’t read her deeply enough to discover what she thinks should be done about the disabled, or trans-generational poverty, slums, environmental catastrophes, sweat shops and the like.

I’m not giving Rand a totally fair shake—she was quite funny in interviews—but I don’t think I need to. Her ideas harm individuals and the boy politic. I should know. I was a follower myself, I just didn’t know it.

3.

As a teenager, I flirted with Rand’s ideas. I was raised in the Southern Baptist milieu. I went to a conservative Christian school as a child, and a (mostly) conservative Catholic high school. I moved to Montgomery, Alabama, for college, a more conservative town than Pensacola, which was a shock.

At 19, I went out to Colorado Springs to Summit, a two-week conference for burgeoning Christian intellectuals. There I was bombarded with Christian and far-right political doctrine. One speaker would rail against the (communist-backed) environmental movement, and the next would give tips on how to minister to strangers. Christian charity could solve all of the social ills of our country if the government would just stop preventing young people from praying in schools.

The big threat to us, the Summit speakers kept hammering home, was moral relativism, secular humanism, and the cult of liberal thinking.

It was an intense time. I read Stormer, Bastiat, Jobe Martin and the like. I quit drinking. I bought into an ascetic lifestyle. Joy was for wimps. Pleasure was for sinners. I would walk the golden road.

I took these ideas back to college and became a vocal opponent of many of my professors. I argued against evolution. I bickered about moral relativism[4]. I combated every instance of bias I perceived in the classroom. I was a little David Horowitz, a junior neo-conservative in long pants. I dismissed the U.N., had contempt for foreign intervention. I complained of government spending. I obsessed over the national debt. I brooded over the immorality of taxes. I deified the founding fathers[5]. I subscribed to the cult of the individual. It was a house built on sand. I would say things like, “You can’t legislate morality,” and then I would give my own moral take on things. I would complain of activist judges, but laud judges who ruled in a way that aligned with my beliefs.

I was full of disgust. I was a machine of raw resentment. I carried a bilious taste in my mouth. I operated with a negative enlightenment. I was a libertarian, and proud of it, with a penchant for Coors Light and trangressive literature. I’ve discussed this elsewhere (read it here) but there’s one immutable fact to my Randian beliefs and its cruel disconnectedness to community, history: these beliefs did not make me happy at all. I felt removed from the people around me. Lucky for me, literature saved me.

4.

Back to Ditko. He operates as a cipher to understanding how bad ideas can ruin a person’s talents. Ditko’s intransigence has soiled his gifts. He refused to collaborate in a collaborative medium, and he abandoned his vast storytelling abilities for preachy didacticism.

Rand’s hooks in Ditko ruined his career. He sabotaged good projects, refused to even minute changes, refused to budge. His later comics are didactic and boring; characters preach Rand’s precepts with just the slightest veneer of a story. He denied help, he shrugged off praise, he intentionally turned in inferior work, he distanced himself from the most popular comic book character of all time, a character he created. It’s infuriating, rooting for him, and puzzling.

Ditko at his finest.

Still, Ditko is a sad case. He’s been denied proper credit for his role in creating Spider-man. He’s made next to nothing on the character he invented. He lives off of a military pension, while Spiderman continues to be one of the most recognized and powerful fictional characters in the world. Rumor has it that for a while he lived in a common rented room at a New York Y.

He is one of the greatest innovators in comics history. Yet he spent much of the 1980s doing cheap television knock-off books, and even did a Transformers coloring book for the Marvel television division. It breaks the heart.

He could make a living selling his original artwork, or even prints, but his philosophy prevents him. He has deprived the world of his art, and inflicted decades of financial hardship on himself. And all for nothing. He’s changed no hearts, altered no minds. He’s Sisyphus, and the stone is his own absurd beliefs.

postscript:

There’s a very entertaining documentary on Ditko made for BBC television. You can watch it here.


[1] A pretty good movie, and at times, absolutely stunning.

[2] John Romita was the second artist on the book, and a very fine artist, too, probably better in his technique, but more straight-forward in his renditions. With Romita, Stan Lee did all the writing and plotting himself. Spiderman lost some of its essential strangeness.

[3] I tried arguing with him but saw quickly that you can’t argue with an objectivist. They refuse to see any trace of logic in any position other than their own.

[4] I still do.

[5] Except Jefferson.