Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Not so Strange

The recent book about Steve Ditko, STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO, written by Blake Bell and published by Fantagraphics Books, is a very attractive but problematic book.

The attraction is obvious, hundreds of images drawn by Steve Ditko over a half-century can't help but be attractive, even if picked at random and printed from tracings of second generation copies (you know, what Marvel uses), and this book has a well selected cross-section of his prolific career, with excellent quality reproduction on most of them, whether sourced from printed comics, original art, copies or otherwise. With the high quality paper and large page size in this book, this is probably the best printing many of these images will ever seen.

On the production, though, I should mention that the quality is somewhat crippled by a puzzling design choice to frequently enlarge the images beyond the size of the book and print them with cropped edges. This mars over two dozen of the pages, and a few also have captions or insets over the images, drawing attention away from the content to the design. Combined with an inexplicable absence of an index or table of contents this makes the book a lot less than it could have been.

A few highlights, especially to those overly, maybe obsessively, familiar with Ditko's published work (yeah, I have a copy of his issue of BIG BOY, why do you ask?), include the following new to me, some of which I'd heard of before but never seen, others complete surprises:
- Action figure packaging for Archie's Mighty Crusaders (page 147)
- "Albert Grossman's Ghost" illustration for a music magazine (page 155) (I'm trying to figure out if I can justify saying any of those background faces is Bob Dylan)
- Elaborate pencil sketches for Speedball (pages 160-161)
- Character designs for an unrealized humour series, "Ooky and Zooky" (page 199)

Numerous Ditko illustrations for fanzines and other limited distribution venues are also reprinted, most of which I'd seen before, but it's nice to have them all in one place.

A number of published pages are also reproduced alongside copies (of variable quality) of Ditko's pencils, including pages that would ultimately be inked by Ditko himself (late period AMAZING SPIDER-MAN) or by others, including P. Craig Russell (ROM), Tom Palmer (ROM), Mike Esposito (CHUCK NORRIS, don't ask), Jackson Guice (SPEEDBALL), John Severin (WHAT THE--?!), Art Thibert (ACTION COMICS) and Bill Reinhold (PHANTOM 2040). That provides an interesting look at what Ditko brought to those works, where the finished product roams all over the map. His pencil drawing is very loose compared to his usual final art, and understandably considered "breakdowns" by many inkers (some who chose not to work over them for the page rate offered for inking full pencils), and it's interesting to see the tactics various inkers use, and easy to see why Ditko was always his own best inker. Although I always thought Reinhold did an especially fine job of making inking choices that emulate Ditko's own finishes. I don't know if he was paid nearly enough to justify the work, but if I was an editor picking someone to ink Ditko he'd be first on my list.

Three short stories are also reprinted in full, all of them dating from before 1957. "Stretching Things", the Bruce Hamilton written story that is believed to be Ditko's first story bought by a publisher, opens the book, with some sharp black and white reproduction. A section on Ditko's humour work includes the two stories he drew for Charlton's FROM HERE TO INSANITY, which are more interesting than good, but a nice look at his range.

Of the other artwork, nearly every major facet of Ditko's public career is represented to some extent. Highlights include several pages of his brief period with Warren, a few apparently from the original art, which shows that even the original printings didn't do the work justice, much less the reprints. Hopefully the current owner of the work will do right by it in the upcoming reprints (and hopefully they'll do a collection of just Ditko's 16 stories for Warren, since I don't want to buy six $50 hardcovers to get them all). The closing selection of several 1950s Charlton covers demonstrate his strikingly effective early work and a number of well chosen later-day Charlton pages show that those stories are as under-rated for their visual inventiveness as they were ill-served by their printing.

Depending on your taste there are some things you'll consider serious omissions (seriously, no Killjoy? If I was laying out the book my second day would be spent deciding which specific Killjoy page to use and if I can justify putting it on the cover), but that's inevitable with an artist as prolific as Ditko and a limited number of pages to work with. Fans of his DC work will be especially disappointed, with only three non-cover images.

So, overall, I think anyone attracted to Ditko's art (and if you aren't, would you really be reading this far?) will get at least the on-line discounted price of value from it before they read a single word of the text.

That's where we get to problematic...

I don't think it's any secret that this probably isn't the kind of book Ditko would have wanted written about him, and he wasn't involved in the production of this book at all. That has a kind of limiting effect on the book, which Bell seems well aware of, and he does an admirable job, for the most part, of working within that, keeping his sources of information identified and keeping to the facts. I don't know what specific information Ditko might object to having been included here (probably including the photographs, and I think every known available photo of Ditko is in here), but personally, I don't think that most of the information that was dug up about his pre-professional life presented early in the book are really more than trivially edifying on understanding his life or work, certainly not enough to justify the research that uncovered some of it in the 1980s for an unrealized biography was done. Research that Ditko later termed a "violation", after his participation in the project was secured as an art book (and as his feelings about it are reported in this biography). Don't misunderstand me, I think there's a place for an unauthorized biography of a living person in some conditions, but I'm not sure those conditions apply to Ditko.

So absent Ditko's involvement, much of this is derived from actual publishing evidence, anecdotes from various people who interacted with Ditko and some of Ditko's public statements. That information is carefully sourced, and I suppose it's useful to have it all in one place with the sourcing (I had heard a lot of these stories before but didn't know all the specific sources, and some are new to me), but building on that foundation does leave some structural gaps.

And filling those gaps is I think the big flaw of the book. Ayn Rand. Ditko and his work are often called Randian. I'm not sure that's accurate (it's possible Rand didn't), but it certainly is repeated a lot, and it's a well that Bell goes to often in his attempts to explain Ditko's actions from the mid-1960s to the present day. I think Rand's name is the second most common in this book, and in fact is featured in two chapter titles, and the characters and concepts from her books ATLAS SHRUGGED and THE FOUNTAINHEAD are referenced frequently both in comparison to Ditko's fictional works and the choices of the real life Ditko, and most of his actions are presented through a Randian lens. To switch metaphors yet again, Rand is in effect the Rosetta Stone that Bell bases his interpretation of Ditko's life on, and I remain unconvinced that it didn't all get lost in translation.

I don't question that Ditko read Rand, there's ample evidence of that, and I think it's reasonable to read a considerable influence of ideas that Ditko was exposed to through those readings in both his work and his attitudes, but I can't help but feeling that it's simplistic to think that the fiction and "philosophy" of this woman who, as far as I know, Ditko never met somehow provides the key to unlocking the vault of Ditko (another switch in metaphors), a safe which isn't even as tightly shut as many people believe (and Bell shows admirable restraint in not using the oft-applied misnomers like "hermit" or "recluse" to describe Ditko).

I suspect I'm going to have a lot more to say on this book in the future, as I've raised and will continue to raise specific line-by-line objections with Bell, and suspect that answers will be illuminating, and don't want to comment on some specific conclusions he makes that I currently disagree with until I've had a chance to weigh any responses and do some research. If my objections and those of others are posted publicly with responses I'll update this with a link.

For now, I think the book is well worth picking up for the art alone, and the text is very informative as long as you keep two important things in mind. First, consider the source for all information, which Bell does a good job of documenting (do not ignore the extensive endnotes, which also include the details of Bell's personal interactions with Ditko and some of Ditko's reaction to the long-ago announcement Bells intention to do such a book, terming it a "poison sandwich"), and remember that people lie, and so do publishers. Second, take any statement ascribing motives to Ditko and treat them as Bell's speculation, not fact (which I don't feel he always makes as clear as he could), especially if explained via Randian metaphor. What Ditko did at various times is a matter of public record. Why he did them, for now, usually remains with Ditko, to whom we give the last word:

"My work is me. I do my best, and if I like it, I hope somebody else likes it too."
attributed to S. Ditko, circa 1967
Books by Ditko

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:59 am

    I suspect that Ditko is Randian in the best sense of the word, that Ditko preferred to not become a "Randroid" who merely repeated what Rand said, but apply his own thinking via Objectivist ideas and try to express that through what he did best: comics work.

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  2. But in that case, do you think "Randian" is a proper word to use for "Randian in the best sense"? Seems to me it gives the exact wrong impression and gives short shrift to Ditko's original thought. Maybe "Objectivist" would be a better term, or "Rand-inspired" if you must drag Rand into it.

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