Comics’ Greatest Enigma, by Mike Gold
If you’re interested in comics creators, it’s been a good couple months for biographies. First, we had Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King Of Comics (Abrams, $40.00); now we’ve got Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko(Fantagraphics, $39.99). We’ve covered Mark’s book extensively, and our very own Rick Marshall did a swell interview last March.
My column today is not really a review of Blake’s book; it’s a blather about comics’ greatest enigma. Blake is the ultimate Ditko historian, and his book (and website, Ditko Looked Up) reflects his passion. It’s well-written, well-researched, and wonderously designed by Adam Grano. If you’re into Ditko or comics history, it’s a must-have. Kudos to Blake; that’s my review.
Steve Ditko is another matter. I can’t say he’s been denied his rightful place in history – his is always the third name in the phrase “Marvel Comics as we know them was created by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and together they brought comic books kicking and screaming to an adult audience.” If he gets short-shrift, it’s because Steve refuses all interview requests, convention appearances, and celebrity signings. He says he prefers to let his work speak for itself, and I’m sure that’s true. He’s also very shy and has no problem with one-on-one (or two-on-one) conversations in his studio, at the publishing houses, or in restaurants. That’s his prerogative.
On the other hand, he’s a public figure – even inadvertently. This makes him subject of many an article, long-winded editorial (like this), and Blake’s book. I’m told he’s not happy with the attention focused on him from Strange and Stranger; having known Ditko. I’m not surprised. Maybe a little disappointed, but again, that’s his prerogative.
I think from the commercial perspective Steve Ditko’s role in the success of Marvel Comics and its transcendence to the college-student market has been severely underrated. It was The Amazing Spider-Man that put Marvel on the map and in the college bookstores. It was Spider-Man that became the first comic book character to achieve icon status since Superman, Batman and arguably Wonder Woman. That’s the first in a generation. And, maybe, the last to date.
As the 1960s progressed Steve became more and more political, embracing the values of a form of Objectivism so fundamentalist that it even scared its founder, Ayn Rand, who asked Ditko to print a note saying his work reflected his values and not necessarily hers. Objectivism, for the Google-challenged, is the philosophy that holds “there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else.” (Excerpted from The Atlas Society).
Steve Ditko has employed this philosophy in every aspect of his life, often resigning from projects because they did not reflect those beliefs. That’s his prerogative. He always put his money where his mouth is, eschewing potential windfalls such as creating signed prints when the movie Spider-Manwas released, even though the income he could have derived from that effort would have been both quite substantial and, according to those who had seen him around that time, well-needed.
I may disagree with him, at least in part, but I respect his stand. As Alan Moore told Blake Bell in Strange and Stranger, “I felt that, though Steve Ditko’s political agenda was very different than mine, Steve Ditko had a political agenda, and that in some ways set him above most of his contemporaries… I would basically disagree with all of Ditko’s ideas, but he has to be given credit for expressing those political ideas.”
I couldn’t agree more. If this is a medium that is supposed to be taken seriously, then we have to go beyond the simple heroic fantasy and reflect upon the concerns of the society that reads these stories. That’s hardly commonplace today; it was virtually unheard of when Steve Ditko created The Question and Mr. A. If you are old enough to drink and you find something intellectually satisfying in an American comic book, you’ve got Steve Ditko to thank for opening that door.
Not that he wants your thanks.
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.