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This is an incredibly entertaining book. Looking at the cover, one can tell they are not looking at just another comic book artist. Opening the book one sees the first glimpse of Ditko, a five page black and white story called "Stretching Things". The story is a look at a man grown bitter by his handicap, so much so that a possible cure to his condition doesn't bring a happy ending, but a descent into evil. This isn't your average "comic book artist". The book is a entertaining yet somber look at the career and art of Steve Ditko. The author touches lightly on his pre comic book days, perhaps too lightly in that the interesting tidbits of his life that the author gives us wets the appetite of the reader but leaves us wanting. The book quickly jumps into his career as a comic illustrator, Eisner, Foster and Jerry Robinson being his early inspirations.
The book has a nice balance between text and what most Ditko fans really want to see, his art. There are nice full page splashes of art opposite the beginning of each chapter. The chapters covering his time at marvel and charlton are laced nicely with art of Spiderman, Dr.Strange, Captain Atom, as well as his later Charlton work with pictures of Blue Beetle and The Question. There is a very interesting chapter on his time working at Warren, the publisher that put out the "Eerie" and "Creepy" magazines of the late 60s. This is interesting in that it shows some of Ditkos "wash" technique, a water/ink brushwork style of art of which Ditko was a master. The book covers his time at Marvel and the historic clashes with Stan Lee that drove him to work at other companies such as DC where he created characters such as "The Creeper" and Hawk&Dove and Charlton where he had more creative reign if less pay.
The book examines Ditko and his objectivist philosophy which he would incorporate into his work often. Such work as "The Question" and his "Mr. A" are examined at length, and holds the reader captive and left wanting more. The efforts of Ditko to keep his work uncompromising are as epic as any Ayn Rand novel. There are a lot of treats for those looking for rare and often unseen Ditko art. The last thirty pages of the book are dedicated to nothing but Ditko art and sketches. A chapter on Ditkos relationship with comic fandom has plenty of examples of his "fanzine" work.
Stories of comic book artists who didn't receive proper credit or compensation for their work are frequent when talking about gold and silver age artists. The book is, if anything, as much an indictment of the industry as it is a look at the artist. The battle over who owns art (and in some cases who "stole" art), over who created what and who didn't are exposed with jaw dropping effect. With Ditko however, the stain on the industry looks even greater by comparison than it does when held up to giants like Kirby or Superman creators Seigal and Shuster. Ditko doesn't come off as being "handled" or "paid off" or "swept under the rug" like so many companies did with artists who were vocal about creative rights. He comes off as an artist who kept his integrity intact, a rare character trait in any era. Ditko was about the "work" not about the money. One can't help reading this book and walk away looking at Marvel, DC, or Stan Lee in the same light.
The end result is both a sad and heroic tale. But Ditko is not easily defined, and when the author tries to do just that in the last chapter, he misses the mark. The author seems conflicted in the end, longing for the Ditko of old, bemoaning the increasing amount of "telling" text in his art rather than "storytelling". He wants to both exalt and scold Ditko for his uncompromising attitude at the same time. The author talks about how Ditko found Marvel/DC just churning out the same old bland retreads of characters come and gone, unwilling to be innovative. He complains about how Ditko spent too much of his story on the villains juxtaposed with Ditkos objectivist vision of "Hero" as opposed to the flavor of the day, the conflicted, or "anti-hero" that had gained popularity. Yet the author makes statements about how Ditko had "become chained by the trappings of the superhero genre".
It's not hard to see that Ditkos work was a scathing commentary on the "anti-hero" and on what superhero comics had become in general. Clearly, Mr. Bell seems somewhat conflicted about exactly what he wants to say regarding Mr. Ditkos legacy. This is a thankfully short bit of editorializing on the authors part to be sure. Yet the author, by trying to define what Ditko is, or had become fails to allow for the possibility that Ditko might have been evolving into something that has no definition. An artist, a master at visual storytelling, an essayist, a commentator on society, one might even say a political illustrator. Combining all of those, one comes up with something that hasn't been seen before or since. Something that eludes even the author. Something new, creative, sometimes polarizing, but definitely original and always indefinable. I couldn't begin to put a name to it, all I can say is that it's pure Ditko. This book tells and shows an incredible story. I wish it was a hundred pages longer. A must have for any comic collector.
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Steve Ditko was one of the iconic yet unsung popular artists of the late 1950s and especially the early and mid 1960s. Before his groundbreaking work creating Spider-Man and Dr. Strange in the 1960s, Ditko spent the late 1950s honing superb visual storytelling skills by illustrating horror and science fiction tales in popular but disposable comic books of the pre- and post-Comics Code eras. There, he learned how to draw readers in immediately, how to use lights and shadows, the drapery of clothing, and unusual perspectives to create mood. When superheros returned to comic books in the early 1960s, Ditko used those skills to create moody pieces and offbeat heroes. Unlike most artists who drew heroes in long underwear, Ditko's strengths included drawing ordinary, often unattractive people with lackluster frames and wrinkled faces marked by life experiences.
Bell traces Ditko's early life and career, showing how even small motifs, like Ditko's penchant for showing the interiors of crowded curio shops, were often traced to his experiences as a young man, or how Peter Parker's high school mimicked Ditko's own high school layout.
In the early 1960s, Ditko created Spider-Man. Writer/editor Stan Lee got 99% of the glory, but nearly every feature of Spider-Man that is famous today came from Ditko, and Bell does an excellent job of tracing individual features of Ditko's style and artistic theories in the creation and evolution of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. In a similar fashion, he dissects another extraordinary Ditko creation, Dr. Strange, showing both in words and in superbly chosen illustrations how Ditko's unique visual style created a unique comic book character and world.
Serious comics fans of the era know only a hazy outline of Ditko's developing feud with Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, which culminated in Ditko quitting Marvel right at the time when his artistic powers were arguably at their height, and just at the point when Spider-Man's popularity was on the verge of spilling over into an animated TV show for the first time. Ditko's intense sense of privacy and his personal prickliness mean that the full story will probably never be told. Bell, working with a variety of sources, digs deeper than most outsiders have been able to, and shows that part of the reason for the split was not only personal and philosophical differences, but also the issue of royalties for what would eventually become a multi-million dollar franchise. The bottom line is this: Steve Ditko was paid a few bucks a page for work that is now worth tens of millions of dollars. He claimed at the time that the owner of Marvel Comics reneged on oral promises to share royalties. Nowadays, Ditko survives in part on Social Security, while the latest Spider-Man movie grosses hundreds of millions of dollars.
An entire chapter of Bell's book is devoted to the influence on Ditko of Ayn Rand and the philosophy of Objectivism. It's difficult to say when exactly Ditko became a follower of Rand, but Bell meticulously traces her influence on Ditko's writing on Spider-Man and, later, his art as a whole. Under the sway of Objectivism, Ditko viewed the world increasingly in black and white terms. This resulted in the creation, first, of Hawk and Dove, a pair of heroes that had limited success at DC Comics, along with The Creeper, also at DC, whose worldview was more stark and rigid than most superheroes. Ditko's evolution culminated in the characters of The Question and Mr. A, two iconic but commercially unsuccessful characters who fully articulated Ditko's ever-starker views of good and evil.
In his personal and professional life, meanwhile, the world became divided into friends and enemies. Rand's writings glorify creative people who she says are dragged down by the uncreative masses who mooch off of the creators, and who dilute the creators' visions. Applying her ideas to the publishing world and his personal life, Ditko grew unable to compromise with editors and writers who wanted characters who were less bleak and preachy. Disgusted with his work-for-hire jobs, Ditko's work became so perfunctory that many editors and other artists didn't like to work with the inferior product that he was putting out. Bell's book does an excellent job of quoting editors and other artists on the subject, and draws comparisons to Rand's works to show the philosophical linkages. Accompanying the text are copious illustrations of Ditko's sketches alongside the finished product, demonstrating graphically Ditko's declining work quality and quantity.
I have admired Steve Ditko nearly all my life. My brother gave me a gift of Spider-Man #1 when I was six years old, and I read it until the pages nearly fell apart. I was nine or ten when Ditko fell under Ayn Rand's spell, and I remember reading Ditko's Spider-Man stories at the time and wondering why the writers were turning Peter Parker into such a prig. Even at that young age, I saw an immediate decline, a year or so later, when Ditko walked off the job and was replaced with a decent but pedestrian artist under whose pen Spider-Man became just another long underwear guy. Gone were the weird shadows, the stoop-shouldered old ladies, the odd rooftop perspectives, and the outrageous acrobatics. In my early teens I followed Ditko's professional work at Charlton Comics and then DC, watching his detailed, fluid work devolve into static sketches, while his heroes became stiffer, more self-righteous and more brutal. By the time Ditko was writing Mr. A, the dogmatic good versus evil prose had completely overwhelmed the art itself, literally crowding the pictures off the page. Ditko became an unreadable tragic parody of himself.
Speaking as a Ditko aficionado and one who has followed his work for several decades, I would say that Bell does a superb job of detailing Ditko's rise and fall as an artist, both stylistically and commercially. In the early chapters, Bell details not only Ditko's artistic influences but also analyzes Ditko's broadening repertoire of artistic and storytelling techniques. In the later years, he satisfies the fan's desire for inside scoops on Ditko's most famous creations while simultaneously applying a sharp eye to the artistic aspects that made Ditko such an extraordinary graphic artist. Last, Bell does not shy away, as many biographers might, from analyzing the slow but steady decline in Ditko as an artist, which coincided with his increasingly rigid social views and his personal isolation. Through it all, Bell's choice of illustrations is excellent, making the book succeed as both a biography and an artistic retrospective. Fantagraphics Press deserves kudos, as well, for the excellent reproductions of Ditko's work.