Thursday, March 25, 2010
Into The Void: Intro
The DC comics of Steve Ditko
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Steve Ditko is easily one of the most discussed artists to have worked in comics; there are volumes on his general craft and style, a million appreciations of the minutiae of his art (from the impossible hands to the impossible landscapes), plenty of talk about his hardline right wing-Objectivist philosophies... and of course, his early/mid-'60s Marvel work has been a hot discussion topic since the beginning of comics fandom, and will probably continue to be long after everyone reading this article has died.
Ditko's as close to immortality as pretty much anyone else who's worked in comics -- his Spider-Man issues alone have given him that much. But the thing about half-century-long careers is that they always leave a few relatively unexplored shadowy areas, and Ditko probably has more of those to his name than most. For the first three decades of his career, he was an absolute chimera, moving rapidly in basically every direction his field allowed, and a few that it didn't. From penciler to inker to writer to letterer, from commercial hack to fetish artist to superhero revivalist to fanzine contributor to alt-comics trailblazer and back again, Ditko did every conceivable job there was to do in comics, usually more than one at a time. But the brightness of the spotlight shone on Spider-Man, and to a lesser degree on Dr. Strange, has for decades all but eliminated even the barest general knowledge of the rest of Ditko's output.
Lately, there have been moves toward claiming the entirety of Ditko's career for the history books, of presenting a more comprehensive, well-rounded story than the "superhero artist gone mad" bit that's characterized him for so long. Blake Bell's generally excellent 2008 biography was a good start; and Fantagraphics and IDW have recently published books that place Ditko's rarely-seen 1950s horror/suspense/romance work in the context of his broader career. Ditko's later, self-published work is a bit more of a problem, containing as it does some of the most intense philosophical screeds ever to come out of a comic artist, let alone such a well-regarded pioneer; but even these "packages" are of late garnering more critical attention than they have in years. And surprisingly, Marvel have not done badly in the way of Ditko reprints, giving his pre-superhero revival monster comics lavish hardcover treatments and spotlighting some of his post-1970s commercial work in a "Marvel Visionaries" hardcover. Over the last decade, piece by piece, year by year, volume by scattered volume, a fleshed-out career narrative has begun to emerge for consumption, a fascinating picture of the rise and decline of a truly massive talent.
Through it all, though, a significant (if not particularly large) piece of the puzzle has been missing. After leaving Marvel in 1966, Ditko did absolutely inspired work at DC and Charlton for the remainder of the '60s, until his increasingly rigid Ayn Randian ethics and general artistic dissatisfaction took him in the direction of creator-owned work and self-publishing. The Charlton comics have been reprinted (at least the superhero ones -- by DC, oddly enough) in prohibitively expensive, confusingly branded hardcovers with rather cruddy production values. The DC work, however, has been more or less lost to time since its original publication.
It's a shame, too, since the three series Ditko created for DC are intertwined, yet notably different portraits of the artist at the absolute zenith of his powers. Having learned every artistic lesson he needed to, enthused at his new milieu, and improving his craft every day in the testing ground that was his low-paid Charlton work, Ditko's two '60s DC creations, the Creeper and Hawk & Dove, abound with energy, virtuosity, and a wealth of sheer style unleashed by Ditko's escape from the overbearing presence of Stan Lee. A decade later, Ditko was back with Shade the Changing Man, a showcase for the last throes of his prime, containing perhaps his best cartooning and a concerted attempt to create a comprehensive world of his own. None of the series were hits -- Ditko didn't stay even ten issues on a one of them -- but nonetheless they were, and remain, a crossroads between Ditko's straight superhero work for Marvel and his intensely personal creator-owned comics. They showcase both the good and bad in both these "sides" of Ditko; comics done as well as they can be done at times, nearly impossible to get through at others (often in the same issue). They are a portrait of a genius struggling with his medium, his situation, and himself. They are essential.
to be continued
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3