Monday, September 1, 2008

My Debt to Steve Ditko

It's just really starting to come to my attention that there are a lot of people who don't know who Steve Ditko is. I know most people here are at least mildly aware of him but I still don't think he has the recognition he deserves (especially among Objectivists).This guy had a major impact on my life and I think for that. I owe him a debt I may never be able to pay completely. This writing is part of my payment.

Steve Ditko was of the first generation of comic artists who actually chose comics as a profession purposefully as opposed to just something to do between advertising jobs. His work began in the 1950's mainly on horror/sci-fi comics. Around this time one of the standards in the comic industry was "Twilight Zone" style anthology books. Ditko's work in this period contained what were to become his trademarks in interesting layouts, strongly set moods, and deep characters.

His most known work is the co-creation of super-hero Spider-Man with Stan Lee for the company Marvel Comics. Around this time, the company Marvel was using the plot style of writing... it's evolved over time but it basically consists of the writer coming up with a basic idea for a story, hands it off to the artist who develops it into pages of completed art filling in any blanks the writer may have had. Once the art is finished the original writer or another writer would come in and write the dialogue.Ditko excelled under this system. It's said eventually it got to the point where Lee's input pre-art would be a post it (or time appropriate equivalent) saying "this issue the Rhino" and Ditko would have to develop everything from there. Because of this change in format, Ditko effectively became a writer, in deed and name. Ditko’s deal for a writing credit as plotter, lead to similar credits for many other artists who were doing what he was. He used this opportunity to develop ideas like heroic individualism and answering the Hippie "counter culture" (The Master Planner Trilogy), the impotence of evil (Just a Guy named Joe) and the value of productive ingenuity (everything from page one panel one of Amazing fantasy 15 onward).

On a side note Ditko also co-created the "Master of the Mystic Arts" Dr. Strange during his time at Marvel. This was an odd creation for an Objectivist but the stories are great and the artwork strong. It's here he developed the quirkiest of his layouts (so quirky in fact that he gained many fans within the hippy culture who thought of him like another Timothy Leary... who were greatly disappointed to see a clean cut upright young man when many of them went to visit Marvel headquarters).

In the mid 60's the "Amazing Spider-Man" series was reaching its first peak in that it was finally selling amounts which were rivaling the book that had been at top since Marvel's inception (The Fantastic Four). At this time Ditko quit the book and ended his association with Marvel Comics as a company for decades to come. Several reasons are given for this but most people will never know which is true. I think it's a combination of many of them, and at times I find it like an entertaining equivalent of the "John Galt stories" in Atlas Shrugged. One of the most popular is the fact that he did not want his favorite villain "the Green Goblin" revealed as productive businessman Norman Osborne.

Once on his own after quitting Marvel, Ditko created his greatest work, by his own standards, on his own terms.He took the frame work of the Question and took it away from the editorial standards of other companies, and added a huge degree of abstraction.

The stories of Mr. A often seem to take place between the concrete world and the abstract principles which guide it. You see the black muck of corruption on government officials and otherwise decent men who turn a blind eye to corruption in any form. You'll see what the United Nations would mean in a single neighborhood. A committee of eight men, two gangsters, five mildly corrupt men who slowly shift further toward helping crime against innocence and the innocence destroyed within the single decent man whose honor the group steals. You'll see the only path to redemption from conscious evil. You'll see how mediocrity and jealousy breeds evil.

But bills beconed and he took jobs with DC comics and Charlton comics. I have to admit I'm not very clear on the timeline however. DC gave him high profile jobs but often softened his philosophical edge due to commercial factors.His best legacy at DC comics is available in the comics:

The Creeper about Reporter Matt Ryder who spends his night fighting crime and corruption as the monstrous Creeper

Hawk and Dove a story about two brothers who had completely different personalities and views, but had to work together in spite of this who were imbued with powers from an unknown source

And Shade the changing man, one man's fight with an illegal weapon against an oppressive state.

I however tend to prefer his Charlton work.Charlton left Ditko alone to do his work for the most part, with the exception of not trusting him to do his own dialogue. As a result sometimes his views come through, sometimes they don't.

He was best known there for revitalizing the classic characters The Blue Beetle and Captain Atom, as well as creating the faceless hero The Question.

Captain Atom was a military man transformed into a god of the nuclear age.

Blue Beetle had been a cop who spent his nights as a vigilante (THAT's dedication) and used a special steroid to get an edge. And then as an archeologist who used a magic scarab to gain powers which he used to fight crime. When Ditko got a hold of the character he gave the Beetle's secret identity an assistant... and promptly killed off the original. His assistant was to take over for him, but the scarab was lost forever. Did this stop the new Beetle...? This scientist became a master fighter/gymnast and invented enough tools and weapons to outdo the original.

And speaking of dedication Vic Sage was an independent reporter who would take on anyone anywhere. He spotted corruption no matter how powerful the person, or how respected he did not let it pass. And when an investigation called for it he pulled out the invention of "Aristotle" Rodor... a second skin which is toxic over an open would but a perfect mask. And as faceless avenger the Question he followed his black and white morals to enact the line"when someone chooses to deal in force, I answer in force. Do not say I am sinking to his level. I am granting his wish, destruction. And the only destruction he had a right to wish for, his own."

He did several other smaller works in this vein: superheroes, crime stories, and straight philosophical tracts (excellent ones).A few years ago when I was finally brave enough to pick up my pen and start working on comics again I drew inspiration from Ditko's originality. I drew further inspiration once I heard about how his unique philosophy had guided his amazing career.

Thanks to Steve Ditko I discovered the answers to all the questions I ever had, even the ones I was afraid to ask through the words of his most influential teacher (and I don't mean Will Eisner but I don't think I need to bother naming her here).That's why I owe him a debt. And that's why I'll keep paying it as long as I'm capable.



Bosch Fawstin said...


Thanks for giving the man his due, he hasn't gotten it the way he deserves, and for the reasons he deserves it. Whatever criticisms I have regarding his integration of Objectivist philosophy into his stories, that pales in the face of the fact that he did so and was a true believer of them, true believer in the best, most rational sense of the term. To Steve Ditko.

Michael said...

Some comments.

Mr. A. was actually created before The Question.

Something that Ditko seemed to do a lot was to have his hero's 'alter ego' be a sort of 'seacher of truth': a reporter, lawyer or the like.

The alter egos of the Creeper, The Question, and Mr. A. were all reporters.

The Shade tied into another theme that Ditko also seemed to do a lot with several of his characters: the hero's alter ego being accused of (or in some cases convicted) of a crime, tho innocent. So a big theme was the hero trying to prove his innocence.

The Shade was convicted and broke out of jail. So a big theme of the story was to prove his innocence. (very hard when his ex-girl friend was after him and convinced he was guilty).

He would use these them also in The Mocker, tho in that story while the hero was able to prove his innocence to his girl friend and a few others, they couldn't prove it in court to overturn his conviction.

When Ditko worked on Archie Comic's The Fly, he had the Fly's alter ego accused of a crime, but he left the strip before he could conclude the storyline (the next writer quickly had him proved innocent).

Landon Erp said...

Hey Michael, Thanks for the added info. Those are some good things to know and if I do another version of this later I might want to adjust for those facts.