Review: Steve Ditko's '#9teen' is the latest puzzling, amazing work by a comics master

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

For some books there's so much to say that I could write about them for days. I'll try to keep my thoughts about Steve Ditko's latest comic, #9Teen, down to a manageable level here on Comics Bulletin. If you want to read more thoughts about this comic, there's plenty to be found from other writers via the Google, or you'd also enjoy ordering my pal Rob Imes's fanzine Ditkomania, to which I'm a frequent contributor and in which an expanded version of this review will run.

I hope that doesn't sound like too much of a cheat, but this is already a long piece

First of all: this book was available as a Kickstarter, which I happily supported (there's my name on the inside front cover, about 25th on the list of supporters). That doesn't mean I had skin in this game, but it does mean that I paid $30 for the privilege of owning a comic that has a $4 cover price. That was maybe not the most financially prudent decision for me to make, but I'm happy to have supported this book.

Because like so many great cartoonists, Steve Ditko is still creating notable comic book art even though he's now in his late 80s. Cartooning, it seems, is a craft that one never quite grows away from – after all, Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson and Joe Kubert were all producing quality comic art nearly to the end of their lives

It's fascinating looking at Ditko's comics these days because there's so much mystery in his linework and in the manner in which he constructs his stories. Ironically the man who so often preached the virtues of Objectivism in his art (literally preached, mind you – he evangelized his philosophy in hundreds of comic pages that were at times brilliant and at times impenetrable) is creating art that is thoroughly subjective. It's art that requires the reader to stretch and strain to divine meaning, in which clues are boundless but cryptic.

In his latest comics Ditko requires readers to work to understand the content he has created. Or, more to the point, he seems from my perspective not to care on some level whether you make the effort to understand his material because he's fundamentally producing comics for himself. As has been the case for several decades, Ditko is writing and drawing the comics that he wants to make, in the way that he wants to make them, and market forces are irrelevant. The stories are legion and manifold about his uncompromising behaviors. There's no doubt that he would sell more copies of his comics if he wasn't publishing them through a tiny publishing house – it's kind of shocking that the co-creator of Spider-Man, of all things, has to resort to Kickstarter to get his comics funded while his peers in the elder-statesmen set have always had their full libraries published in deluxe, magisterial editions.

But what matters to this elder statesman is, above everything else, his integrity, which in his case is to say his total freedom allows him to produce work that he cares about, without interference of any sort. If that means publishing comics through the very small press, from a company that doesn't appear at conventions or even have a web store if its own, so be it. Unfortunately, what results from that freedom is material that is strangely subjective in approach. It's full of sequences that are cryptic for the uninformed – that is, those who also don't lurk inside Ditko's head or don't share his intellectual framework – and the sequences that are intended for general audiences are often so strangely put together, with such weird artistic and creative quirks, that they can be hard to comprehend.

"The Madman", the lead eight-pager in this issue, is a perfect example of that problem. It's a non-polemical comic by Ditko, so it's intended to be understood by most any reader.

The first thing that struck me reading this story were Ditko's strange choices for his art. The piece opens with people silhouetted against the outlines of buildings in a city. Surrounding the panel – literally surrounding it like a frame at the top and bottom of the page – are word balloons that sketch out part of the scene for us, setting the tone for the story to come: "When will things get normal?" "Rosie has to die…" It's a clever technique to set up a scene, but the sketchiness of the art in the panel doesn't give readers much of a sense of the place that's being discussed. As the story moves to the next tier, we start to see some of Ditko's odd quirks for this panel. Tier two, panel one opens with another silhouette, of a man who seems important, who might advance the plot and drama more if he were shown in detail, but Ditko chooses to display him in silhouette.

This notion of undrawn faces pops up all throughout #9teen. My impulse whenever I see an undrawn face is to assume that the features unimportant, that the identity of that person is not crucial to the story. The alternative explanation is that the lack of features has some sort of symbolic importance to the creator. Their absence means something to somebody. But on this page, as is the case elsewhere in this issue, the identity is key. It pulls me out of the story to see that the full face isn't drawn in; it has the same effect, later in this issue, when the "Hero" is chasing villains through city streets while those villains' faces aren't shown.

It's an alienating idea, but there's good reason to think there's authorial intent behind that idea. In his stark world of "A is A", in which villains are pure evil and heroes are pure good, the evil-doers may as well not exist at all. Philosophically they are almost literally non-entities, barely worth registering in the mind. That's a convenient theory, of course, but at times it's contradicted in the text, as on page seven of "The Madman" when Bage and his police friend are shown in silhouette in one panel, or on the final page of "The Ripper", when police officers are silhouetted in outline against a vague background.

Another of Ditko's unique quirks is to draw a series of lines -- sometimes horizontal, sometimes vertical, over a scene or character. I was confused how to react to that conceit. Is he trying to obscure the people he's depicting? Is he using the lines as a kind of oddball shading technique? Whatever the reason, on the pages with his "Hero" (whose costume is largely made up of horizontal lines) pages can get overly dense and confusing. There are too many visual stimuli to sort out for the reader – at least there is for me – and I'm forced to spend more time trying to simply figure out exactly what is happening than to enjoying the story. Simply from a storytelling standpoint, Ditko is breaking me away from his material rather than bringing me closer.

That's not to say that this book is an uncommunicative set of problems, though. There are some pages in this book that are as wonderful as any that Ditko has ever illustrated. The battle scenes between H and The Ripper are dynamic and beautifully animated. It's astonishing the quality of action scene that Ditko depicts with his seemingly simple linework. It takes a lot of experience to be able to draw so simply. Very few people could pull off scenes like that so clearly and so beautifully.

His pacing on many of his stories is also lovely. The four-page "The Trapper" sees him do some magical things with panel transition and facial gestures that seem channeled directly from the young, spritely Ditko to the more mannered, senior Ditko. There's an energy to this tale that drags the reader along, and here the long vertical lines actually add to the mystery.

Perhaps the strong aspects of this book are what make the weak aspects so frustrating and what makes this whole book so compelling. Ditko is drawing with verve and energy. He's creating material from his heart, producing exactly what he wants in complete freedom from editorial or financial concerns. In that respect, there's no way to see this book as anything other than a triumph even if there are some deep storytelling flaws that alienate me from the stories being told.

I feel like I'm just scratching the surface of this fascinating comic book. I haven’t talked at all about the most alienating aspects of it, namely his odd his two polemical pieces, one of which is incomprehensible to me and one of which is just frustrating. I'll save those for Ditkomania along with revisions to this piece, and leave you with this thought, dear reader.

Wouldn't you like to keep up with challenging work by one of the greatest cartoonists to ever lift a pen? This material may be alienating by design but it's also endlessly intriguing. And unlike me with my indulgent Kickstarter support, you can order it for not much more than the cost of a regular new comic. Keep up with the man who brought you to Doctor Strange's otherdimensional weirdness. Steve Ditko's world is still inscrutable and thoroughly unique.

Community Discussion