Review: The Creativity of Ditko

A book review article by: Jason Sacks

 

One of the great things about living in the golden age of comics reprints, as we are now, is that more and more obscure material is continually making its way back into print. We've seen most of the true, bona fide classics of comics art back in print for years now, so the endlessly insatiable reprint market has to move to more and more obscure areas to find interesting material to reprint.

This is actually tremendously exciting for any fan of classic reprints because more and more material seems to be coming back into print that has only been rumored or that has sat in obscurity since the moment it was first published -- material like the amazing ACG horror comics of the 1950s and '60s, the remarkable Warren magazines of the '60s, '70s and '80s, classic Spacehawk stories by the truly incomparable Basil Wolverton, and some rather bizarre Marvel Comics from the "lost era" of the Atlas years, when the comics were rotten and fascinating -- all at the same time.

Craig Yoe has been one of the people who have led the vanguard on unearthing obscure and wonderful American comics work over the last decade or so, including work by such long-forgotten geniuses as Bob Powell and Dick Briefer. And Yoe has also famously produced two books featuring absurdly obscure material by Steve Ditko -- The Art of Ditko and this new book, The Creativity of Ditko

There are a few things that make The Creativity of Ditko special. There are some wonderful and intriguing essays that give readers interesting insights into who Steve Ditko really was -- not the legend of Ditko but actual facts about the man, reported by people who actually know the man (who chooses to never talk in public about himself). There are stacks of pages of original Ditko art pages reprinted in this book, which offer the opportunity to really appreciate Ditko's linework and virtuosity. But most of all, there are 20 never-before-reprinted stories presented in The Creativity of Ditko that span the master cartoonist's time working at Charlton Comics, the notoriously low-paying alternative to Marvel and DC. 

Charlton's wage scale may have been pathetic, but the material that the great Ditko presented for the line was thoroughly professional. The deal at Charlton was that creators could have complete freedom when working for the company -- they could do the work that they wanted to do as compensation for the low wages. This was a deal that the famously mercurial and individualistic Ditko enthusiastically embraced. Ditko worked his heart out on the material presented in this book. His work on the Charlton stories presented in The Creativity of Ditko spans two decades of the cartoonist's career and offers a fascinating insight into Steve Ditko's tremendous skillset.

Because this material spans a couple of decades worth of material, the reader is able to find his or her favorite era of the material. We can see Ditko's style evolve over time; see his line work and his figure work become looser, more confident, even happier over time. There's a tremendous contrast between the intense panel arrangements of 1957's "From All Our Darkrooms…" and 1975's much more dreamlike and loose "Kiss of the Serpent."

The 1957 story is a virtual clinic on how to create a feeling of claustrophobic paranoia on a comics page. The figures in this early story are incredibly ugly men and women, people whose appearances seem to be virtual parallels to the paranoia and stress that they're feeling. Mens' faces are lined and intense, with features like moustaches or glasses seeming to overwhelm the face and engulf even independent thought. These are tortured people, depicted with intensity typical of Ditko from that era.

These ugly people are overwhelmed by the world that they live in -- by the ever-present objects found on the edge of nearly every panel and by the architecture and everything else that surrounds them in their world. There's a feeling that their surroundings are literally closing in on these characters, that the mere act of trying to understand and counteract this horrible event that they're fighting is overwhelming them and rendering them impossible to function. These are broken people desperately struggling to understand and fight a creature of pure evil.

"From All Our Darkrooms…" is even filled with small tricks like the way that Ditko uses unorthodox panel borders as a way to build tension by making the story feel unpredictable -- a clever idea that the master cartoonist uses well. 

The story is also rendered in a style very similar to that which we would see five years later in the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man: there's a spectacular use of dramatic foreshadowing in this story, for instance. There's also a denseness to Ditko's linework on this story, a tight use of lines to emphasize the drama in the story.

Ditko's bravura art in this story brings a level of intensity to "From All Our Darkrooms…" that makes it far more compelling than seems likely based on a plot that's too stupid to even discuss here. And of course, that intensity can be defined as one of the things that differentiate a good artist from a great artist: the ability to use his own virtuosity and core skills to turn the metaphorical shit to Shinola. It’s impressive that Ditko had only been drawing professionally for four years at the time he drew this story; it's clear that his skills had improved rapidly after his graduation.

In 1975's "Kiss of the Serpent," we see a dramatically different style in Ditko's art. The master has honed his technique tremendously in the intervening years and we see a surprising difference in the amount of denseness of both his scene-setting and in his rendering of characters in the newer story. 

Ditko's linework in the '75 tale is looser, less intense and much more inviting. Gone is a lot of the almost noir intensity of the earlier story, replaced with a loose and almost playful attitude towards his storytelling. The people in this latter Ditko story are still ugly (except for the nasty snake woman -- she's beautiful and oh so deadly) and still seem to be carrying terrible secrets and pain with them -- but at the same time the characters seem lighter, less intense, less haunted by the stress that they carry around with them. 

Ditko's work in these '70s Carlton stories seems brighter, less inhibited, almost more exuberant than his work in the earlier stories. Looking between the lines here, we can feel that the man doing the work in these stories is the same man who would come into the Charlton offices and play ping pong with his friends on staff. As discussed in a wonderful essay in this book, Ditko seems almost deliriously happy while working at Charlton, and this story shows it. It's striking how often characters in the later Charlton stories are smiling -- and how rarely the characters are smiling in the older stories. 

Maybe the most interesting element of his exuberance in these stories comes with the way that Ditko uses his narrators to punctuate the stories. The rather generic hosts of these stories don't just do intros and outros of these stories like Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie or the Crypt Keeper do. Instead, these narrators interact with the story, often appearing at the periphery of the stories or inside panel borders dancing or walking or simply looking on as events unfold. There's a wonderfully uninhibited feeling to these panels, a feeling that the master cartoonist is simply playing with page arrangements and having a ball.

So while these latter stories like "Kiss of the Serpent" are less intense than the earlier stories, they're no less fascinating. It's bravura art, just displayed in somewhat different ways than we saw before.

I should say a few words about the essays in this book, too, because they give us a different portrait of Ditko than we've even seen in Blake Bell's biography about the cartoonist. 

The essay that's received the most attention is the piece by Amber Stanton, daughter of Ditko's longtime friend and business partner, the fetish artist Eric Stanton. In Stanton's essay, the daughter attempts to assign her father some credit for having helped to create Spider-Man, stating, "Steve was hired by a guy named Stan Lee to create a comic book super hero who was part man, part spider. My father contributed to the costume, the idea of the web shooting out of Spider-Man's wrist, and the movement which he made with his hands to release the web." She goes on to add that Aunt May was based on Stanton's own Aunt May. However, Stanton reports that Ditko denied her father's involvement in the creation of Spider-Man, stating that in a 2000 call with Ditko, the cartoonist, "Steve said my father had nothing to do with [creating Spider-Man]."

I'm not going to analyze Amber Stanton's claims about Ditko -- I'm sure those comic historians who know that era will soon share their opinions about Amber Stanton's assertions. But Amber's story adds another interesting element to the history of one of the great characters in comics.

Accompanying Amber Stanton's essay are two pages of erotic comics that Ditko and her father co-created, along with nine photographs of Steve Ditko and Eric Stanton together in their studio -- a real find since there are so few photographs of the famously reclusive cartoonist. Since some of these pictures are self-portraits, it's clear that Ditko wasn't always as camera shy as he is today.

We also get several other essays about Ditko in this book. My favorite has to be the piece by Ditko's longtime friend Jack C. Harris. Harris and Ditko were close friends and collaborators in the '70s and '80s, and the former comics writer shares some entertaining anecdotes that show that Ditko does indeed have a good sense of humor. And Harris lets out some tantalizing secrets. I'm not sure if even the most devoted Ditkophile had heard about some of the works that Harris and Ditko created together, with tantalizing names like Timmy Todd's Death Squad, The Street People, Dr. Ato (the Man with the Atomic Eye) and Fantasy Master, but here their existence is discussed like the everyday work of creative people that they are. 

One of the real thrills of this book is that we get nine pages of work from the Ditko/Harris Fantasy Master and Daughters of Time 3D. This work has never seen the light of day aside from Yoe's book, and the devoted Ditkophile will want a copy of The Creativity of Ditko just for that content.

It's also striking that both Harris and fellow essayist Mike Gold discuss Ditko as being a tremendously happy man; the reclusive cartoonist is described as pleasant, a practical joker, charming, generous and well-dressed, too -- hardly the unfriendly loner that I confess I've always imagined Ditko as being.

Gold tells a great anecdote about how Ditko explains the way he draws hands. I don't want to ruin the story by repeating it here, but the charming story really paints Ditko in a different light. The accumulation of all the stories in this book really changed my insight into Ditko's personality. Based on the testimonies of his friends, it definitely sounds as if Steve Ditko is a wonderful person to be around -- as long as you don't cross his imaginary line of overreach.

And as if the comics and essays in this book aren't enough, we also get reprints of pages of Ditko's original art from Spider-Man, Charlton, Mr. A stories and Creeper stories. Yoe is generous with the original art, and devoted Ditko fans will want to study that work closely.

I've been reading and thinking about Steve Ditko's work for just about my entire life, but this book added to my appreciation. I'm so delighted that we're getting reprints of these amazing stories at last; more than that I'm even more delighted that these stories are included in such a wonderful book. The Creativity of Ditko is a must-own for any fan of the man's classic work.



 

 

Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at jason.sacks@comicsbulletin.com or friend him on Facebook.

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