The Art of Ditko
Review by Gene Kannenberg, Jr.
Steve Ditko is best-known as the artist and co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange for Marvel Comics in the 1960s, his lithe, angular figures (with their expressive hands) defining those characters to this day. Comics cognoscenti also know him for various other superhero work at Marvel, DC Comics and Charlton Comics; his supernatural tales for various publishers, including Warren Publishing; and, most notoriously, his creator-owned work like Mr. A., based on the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.
So as titles go, The Art of Ditko is a bit misleading. Apart from a dozen or so scattered – but gorgeous – pages of original art spanning much of Ditko’s career, the bulk of the book reprints short stories published only by Charlton Comics. (Because Charlton isn’t remembered for the highest quality work overall, it was probably a good commercial move not to title the book The Charlton Comics Art of Ditko.) Editor Craig Yoe has, however, chosen some of Ditko’s most innovative Charlton tales for inclusion in this volume, and the art shines.
Produced from the original comics, the stories all look gorgeous. Given a choice, I prefer reprints like The Art of Ditko which reproduce the original coloring over those which re-color the comics with modern computer techniques. Sure, there are some registration errors, but that’s how the books were published initially, and that’s how they were originally read and loved. And, just to show I’m contrary by nature, I’ll add that I also love that the book was published in an over-sized format (9-3/4″ x 12-3/4″); the larger-than-originally published pages really allow you to wallow in the nuances of Ditko’s images.
And the art is the thing, after all. As stories, some of these tales aren’t very, um, good. By which I mean well-crafted, gem-like stories, the kind you admire more each time you read them. As editor Yoe reminds us in his introduction, Charlton’s comics were created to keep the presses going, with Ditko working from scripts which often were written to, let’s face it, make a quick buck more than to create timeless narrative treasures.
Even still, there are some stand-out tales here. “A World of His Own” (pp. 18-23) gives us a world-behind-a-painting yarn, with Ditko’s experimenting in surrealistic minimalism; even the coloring seems inspired. The O. Henry-esque ending to the spy yarn “All Those Eyes” (pp. 150-154) isn’t unique, but Ditko takes the opportunity to work on setting; there’s some highly detailed architecture on display here. (There’s also a precursor to the Spider-Man villain The Chameleon!) “Escape” (pp. 126-129) finds Ditko playing with shadow and light: shadow in the world of our protagonist (a thief who needs to lay low) and light in the world that he escapes into, a land where open shapes and “futuristic” fashion and architecture mirror clear-cut laws and punishments.
Some of the original art is amazing to behold, especially at this size. With the title page to “The Time Machine” (pp. 102 & 103) we’re given the rare opportunity to compare an original art page to its printed result. The original page is fairly immaculate – there aren’t any noticeable paste-ups (apart from the title) or corrections anywhere. It’s wonderful to look closely at the wealth of detail Ditko included in the symbolic splash-panel’s ever-receding timeframes. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the linework wasn’t degraded much at all in the published version, only obscured in a few places by overly dark coloring.
Two original pieces come from Ditko’s work with Warren and do a remarkable job of showcasing Ditko’s painstaking finishes for black-and-white comics. A page from Eerie #9 (p. 154) is done almost entirely in wash, leading to some striking lighting and tone work, especially on the creature in the center panel. On a page from Eerie #6 (p. 198), Ditko mixes wash with much more straightforward pen-and-ink rendering, adding healthy doses of correction-fluid drawing throughout. This “nightmare dimension” bears more than a passing resemblance to similar otherworldly locales Ditko produced for “Doctor Strange.”
Given the book’s Charlton-centric content, we nevertheless do get a couple examples of Ditko’s more personal, Ayn Rand-influenced Objectivist work. First is an original page from “Middle of the Road,” a Mr. A story from 1971 (p. 83), in which a man quite literally balances on the borderline between Good and Evil, justifying his questionable choices as he teeters ever-more-precariously on the moral edge. Mr. A’s calling card, white on one half, black on the other, represents this duality, becoming an abstract background for the man’s internal struggle. It’s a deft visual device, simple but used to striking effect.
The second example is less typical, and therefore even more interesting. In the Ditko-penned “The 9th Life” (pp. 167-174), published in Charlton’s Ghostly Tales also in 1971, Michael Hoyt decries not just his own lot in life but the state of humanity: “Man destroys himself in wars, he pollutes the air he breathes and the water he drinks!” A mysterious woman named Felicia takes him on a “Christmas Carol”-like journey to show him that the world has always been unfair. Upon his return, he realizes that “I’ve complained about my lot in life but I’ve never tried to change it! From now on, I will.”
What’s fascinating about this story is Ditko’s use of triptych-like panels. Similar to Mr. A’s “white/black” motif, here Ditko brackets individual panels with positive and negative images, usually to symbolize Hoyt’s psychological state.
At the tale’s end, Michael’s new attitude on life is illustrated in two symbol-filled panels. The first, with its “True/False” motifs, directly parallels the symbology Ditko was using in his Mr. A. tales. The second, though – Wow. Just, wow. A caged gorilla? Predatory fish? I guess these are meant to represent those things he must accept that he cannot change, as the narration tells us. But what strange ways to show it!
The final panel seems to wrap up the tale neatly. Michael and the flesh-and-blood Felicia march away from the remnants of a broken world and toward a gleaming, futuristic city. In the foreground a black cat looks back over its shoulder, enigmatically, at the reader. But what fascinates me here is that the panel’s bottom border is mostly missing. Combined with the cat’s backward glance, the missing border extends the “broken world” into the reader’s own space; we all must become like Michael, the story suggests. (I think it does so even without this final, silent panel; but the formalist in me loves this small touch.)
The book also includes a typically gush-filled introduction by Stan Lee, and essays on Ditko by cartoonists Jerry Robinson, John Romita Sr., and P. Craig Russell. Lee states flat out that “Steve Ditko and I co-created” Spider-Man (p. 9), a credit-sharing he hasn’t always been comfortable expressing. Robinson, Ditko’s teacher at the School of Visual Arts in the 1950s, praises the artist’s “concentration and dedication” (p. 54); Romita briefly recalls how difficult it was to fill Ditko’s shoes when he took over the art duties on Amazing Spider-Man. Of the essayists, only Russell (apart from Yoe) talks in any detail about Ditko’s art – e.g., his wash work at Warren, “in its range of velvety blacks[,] can only be described as voluptuous” (p. 130). I would have loved to read more writing like this, particularly in a book about the art of Ditko. I’ve heard that a second volume might be in the works; if so, let’s hope for more analysis, especially by other cartoonists. I’d love to see Russell do a close reading of an entire story, for example.
Ultimately, The Art of Ditko celebrates not just Ditko’s quirky storytelling, but storytelling itself. When you read these tales, you’re transported to places new, and strange, and often utterly charming. How could it be otherwise, with Steve Ditko as your guide? As Gigi Keene says to her squaresville boyfriend in the splash panel of “Way Out, Man” (pp. 71-75), “Isn’t this the uttermost, Stanley? Get with it, feel the beat! Take off, cube, and fly!” Can’t argue with that.