Saturday, November 23, 2019

Why I Like Steve Ditko

Note: The following is a blog post that was originally presented on July, 28th, 2011.  Some of the content has been updated but the general tone has been retained and I've left some of the topical comments as is. (More on Ditko, indeed!) 

One of my earliest forays as a blogger finds me spotlighting Steve Ditko's contributions to comics. I believe it's entirely justified, and even incumbent upon me, for such an oversight would be comparable to chronicling the history of the New York Yankees and ignoring the achievements of Babe Ruth or Mariano Rivera. I encountered Ditko's art at a very young age and was captivated by it virtually from the start. Why did his particular style resonate with me on such a visceral level? While searching through my memories one image surfaced with vivid clarity: an Amazing Spider-Man panel where a gang of criminals are fleeing. Ditko's composition was brilliant in its simplicity, showing the miscreants from the waist down, clearly startled by the Spider-Signal illuminating the pavement. I observed how their trousers swayed rhythmically, with a sense of bone and sinew underneath (that's how MY clothes moved when I walked!). Even a six or seven year old recognized that the artist drawing these pictures had done his homework, providing an underpinning of authenticity alongside the fantastic elements.
Amazing Spider-Man # 19, Dec 1964
Ditko's work is distinguished by an understanding of what makes a comic book work. Following the lead of artists he admired (Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson, Mort Meskin) Ditko was able to delineate figures, forms, settings and people with a knowledge of the real world. Ditko studied how clothing flowed against a body in motion and innately grasped the complexity of hands and muscle structure. Like master cartoonist Alex Toth, Ditko was able to make the complex simple by knowing what to include and what to excise. 

                                   Amazing Spider-Man # 15, August 1964. 

Ditko brought a sense of realism to his characters by not turning them into superhuman powerhouses (not that there's anything wrong with that - but more on Jack Kirby in future posts). Another early recollection is the cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 15, the elements of which Ditko orchestrated with masterful precision. Every piece of information adds to the excitement: Spider-Man in the foreground, struggling to free himself as his pursuer approaches. The park setting is established by trees and rocks, capped off by a city landscape in the background. Unlike DC characters, who often faced absurd or gimmick-laden situations, Ditko's heroes were vulnerable and their predicaments transpired (as in this example) on the borderline of possibility. The curiosity of prospective buyers was probably aroused considerably in trying to guess HOW Spider-Man would escape. I know I was completely captivated by it.    

Rarely did a hero get a beating like this in comic books! Spider-Man's rouges gallery, including the Scorpion, were a distinct threat - more like the maniacal Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947) than Superman's Lex Luthor. Ditko made this clear by Spider-Man's crumpled posture and with little touches such as his torn costume. It also made a strong point; that doing the right thing had consequences. Amazing Spider-Man # 20, January 1965, Dialogue/co-plot? by Stan Lee; lettering by Artie Simek; coloring likely by Stan Goldberg.      

Ditko imbued his pen and ink creations with a palpable sense of fragility. They could get bruised and battered (although, due to Comics Code restrictions they could not bleed, certainly not in 1965) and had to use their intelligence to outwit opponents. Ditko plotted out stories with a level of thought and deliberation that was rarely reflected by his peers. Revisiting his work invites new observations and further analysis in much the same way one studies the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock or Miles Davis.

The above page encapsulates Ditko's ability to relay information and distinguish each character with distinctive personalities, often refining them over time. Two examples that would be appropriate here include Aunt May, originally drawn as a heavyset woman and Jonah Jameson, whose mustache was trimmed to the extent that it gave him a Hitlerian appearance. Amazing Spider-Man # 17, October 1964.

Another aspect of Ditko's art that immediately appealed to me was his whimsical nature, accentuated by an almost silent movie clarity through facial expressions and body language, most notably the use of hands as a tool to depict emotions. Some of these techniques were no doubt mastered by studying the industry's greatest storytellers (including newspaper strips such as Chester Gould's Dick Tracy and Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annnie, which were likely a strong influence on Ditko's artistic formation.) With the dexterity of a trapeze artist Ditko balanced fantasy elements essential to superhero comics alongside more down-to-earth situations. Whether it was Peter Parker frantically attempting to avoid a blind date, or, at the other end of the spectrum, plagued by doubts and fears that seemed insurmountable to a teenager, Ditko undoubtedly raised the bar in his chosen field.      

Ditko is an original. Unique, offbeat, compelling. Now in his 80s, he continues to draw comics. There are those who chose to denigrate the man on a personal level, criticizing his choices or seeking to invade his personal space. I've read too many articles, blogs and essays filled with distortions, inaccuracies and outright lies about the man which have nothing to do with constructive discussions about his work. I intend to pursue a more positive direction here.

Ditko's final panel to the Dr. Strange story in Strange Tales # 134, July 1965, is an excellent example of the artist's skill at composition. The reader's eye is directed to the solitary figure of the hero walking the dark, lonely streets of Manhattan. Much like his own distinctive characters, Ditko has always followed his own path.  

More on Ditko soon...

(I hope my efforts over the years investigating the world of comics and the creators who have made it endlessly fascinating continue to be worthy of attention and I thank so many of you who have offered comments and criticism.)