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Sunday, August 17, 2008

An interminable examination of the Ditko/Stanton contradiction that isn't

As long as we're on the subject of Ditko (and yes, I know there's a whole weblog devoted to Ditko that I run, but things like this don't fit there).

I'll warn you right now that I doubt one person in a million finds this as interesting as I do, and even most of them won't like the long way around I go to get there. For that matter, it's not even so much that I find the topic interesting as I'm tired about the way it's discussed every now and then, and I expect it to get worse. There's a quick summary at the end, and don't worry, you won't miss any bondage artwork, there is none.

Some of you have probably heard something like this about Steve Ditko:

"Ditko denies working on several of Eric Stanton's bondage/fetish comics, despite clear evidence that he did, out of either embarrassment or some later Randian-based philosophical objection to the material"

Overall this is a minor thing, but there there are a few things that never quite seemed right about that version (and that's pretty much how it's always presented, including in the recent STRANGE AND STRANGER, where most of the quotes below are taken from, pages 50-51), and I sometimes see it used to cast doubt on other things Ditko writes, in an "If he'll lie about the Stanton stuff, why trust him on the Spider-Man stuff?" kind of way. Something not obviously related that I read a few years ago pointed me to an alternative way of looking at that situation that seems to match more of the facts and is much more satisfying.

Some background.

You probably know who Steve Ditko is. Eric Stanton was also a comic book artist, who Steve Ditko shared a New York studio with for about a decade (circa 1958-1968, according to Stanton). He's generally known for some pretty raunchy work, featuring frequent themes of bondage and the like, quite different in theme from the work that Ditko produced.

Except that there are a number of Stanton signed and credited stories that feature a strong resemblance to Ditko's work. Apparently there were at times even rumours that "Stanton" was a pen-name that Ditko used, although that's long debunked. Anyway, while I don't think Ditko has ever commented on the record about any of that, Stanton has said a few things, like he "asked Steve Ditko to ink" some of those comics. So, if you care about that stuff, look at the comics, look at Ditko's work of the era, look at Stanton's other work of the era and weigh Stanton's public statements and come to your own conclusions or lack of conclusions.

Whether Ditko worked on the material and how much is actually a side issue.

Upon noticing the visual similarities between Ditko's work and those Stanton stories, some people have asked Ditko about the work, or written about it accepting the premise that it was Ditko's work, and Ditko's reaction has provoked some comments and speculation. Cat Yronwode has said that she "felt that he lied" in his denial of the work when she asked him about it for a checklist she was producing. Other accounts, such as Joe Rubinstein's, are that his denial came in the form of a carefully worded statement that he "dare[d] anyone to prove [he] inked that". Since Yronwode doesn't actually quote what Ditko said, just that she "felt" it was a lie, I think the possibility is strong that Ditko's statement to her was equally carefully worded.

So let's grant that Ditko's statements on the work can be described as carefully worded and perhaps agitated non-denials that amount to "no comment".

The trouble I have is when people try to read into his reaction to questions about that work and that reaction's apparent contradiction to statements he's made about "earned credit" and honesty. The reading generally takes the form, as Blake Bell puts it, that he reacts this way "either from adopting the tenets of Ayn Rand's philosophy, or perhaps through some kind of old-school embarrassment". I don't really see the conflict with that work and anything Ditko's written about his philosophy based on Objectivism, or even what I know of Rand's version of it, although some like Yronwode seem to. I guess embarrassment is possible, but again, nothing else really suggests that.

Is there a third explanation that actually does match some other reported Ditko behaviour?


A tangent, if you'll indulge me.

When Ditko left Marvel, he had an incredible workload on Doctor Strange and Spider-Man. 30 pages of plot, pencils and inks a month, plus a cover for Spider-Man, and even some other work, plus he had already started plotting and pencilling the bi-monthly revival of Captain Atom for Charlton. That's impressive even if that work didn't include some of the greatest super-hero comics of all time. And that means when he quit, he had a lot of time open in his schedule, so it's no surprise that his work began popping up all over the place. The work at Charlton continued and increased. His work quickly began appearing every month in Warren's alternating bi-monthly horror magazines CREEPY and EERIE. He did some work with Wallace Wood for Tower's THUNDER AGENTS.

And some work appeared at ACG with the Ditko/Trapani byline. Ditko/Trapani work also appeared at Dell, some signed, some uncredited.

Now, Sal Trapani, I'll quote Mark Evanier on this one:
Often, when one hears that Sal Trapani was the artist of some comic, that would mean one would have no idea who'd pencilled it. Mr. Trapani was a fine inker and he was credited with pencilling a lot of comic books during his career...but his modus operandi was to farm that part of each job out to someone else. Among those who did his work for him at different times were Jack Abel, Dick Giordano, Steve Ditko, Chic Stone, Bill Molno, John Giunta and Charles Nicholas.

Around the time Ditko's last few Marvel stories were appearing, two stories, "The Valley Where Time Stood Still" and "The Way-Out Worlds of Bertram Tilley" appeared in DC's science fiction anthology STRANGE ADVENTURES (#188 and #189, respectively). Those two uncredited stories certainly have the same look as the Ditko/Trapani material of the era, and Ditko had never done any work for DC prior to this, and wouldn't for almost two years (and after some major editorial shifts at the company) when The Creeper launched in SHOWCASE #73 [1968].

So it's not surprising that people interested in such things would be curious, so I'll quote Evanier again, this time from a note that Fred Hembeck quoted in 2005:
That "Bertram Tilley" story in STRANGE ADVENTURES was almost certainly a case of Trapani getting the job and calling on Ditko to help. Somewhere in the files I have in storage, I have a letter Ditko sent me around 1969 in which he responds to a question I asked him about it. He said that the first CREEPER story was the first time he ever worked for DC, and that if he helped a friend out on some job, it was none of anyone's business.
End of the tangent.


So what does Sal Trapani have to do with Eric Stanton? What do some mildly entertaining but staid science fiction comics have to do with some notorious bondage/fetish comics?

Ditko's response to inquiries on both, lacking exact quotes, seems pretty similar. No one's business, can't prove it. Does anything in those STRANGE ADVENTURES stories violate the "tenets of Ayn Rand's philosophy"? Is there anything in them to be embarrassed by?

The (paraphrased) wording that the Creeper story was the first time he "worked for DC" is key. If he did indeed work on those stories he wasn't doing it "for DC", he wasn't contracted to do it by DC, he wasn't paid by DC, he wasn't credited by DC (I doubt that particular editor would have wanted Ditko in his book). He was doing it as a ghost artist for Trapani.

Which seems to be the relationship with Stanton if he did indeed help draw those stories that people identify as having Ditko art. Stories signed by Stanton, contracted to Stanton, if any part drawn by Ditko then ghosted by him, "helped a friend out on some job".

Told you this would be a long way to go for not much payoff. I think it's a plausible statement that Ditko does not comment, for whatever reason, on work contracted by friends that he might have helped out on in any capacity, what would be considered "ghost work" and thus not a credit that he has earned.


So, for those skipping to the end, I think that while it's entirely possible that Ditko does not acknowledge the Eric Stanton work that resembles his style out of some unspecified philosophical objections or out of plain embarrassment, I would propose that a more viable third alternative is that he simply does not wish to acknowledge or comment on any ghost work he's ever done, a policy consistent with a report of his reaction to questions about some possible work with Sal Trapani which does not carry the same "issues" that the Stanton work does.

So look at the work or don't, see what you want to see, weigh the evidence of your eyes, knowledge of art styles and Stanton's words and believe what you want to believe. To the extent that I care, I choose the version consistent with the most facts.

10 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:58 pm

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. I have no idea what you're talking about "Anonymous". If you want to impugn anyone's integrity here, post with a name and give specifics.

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  3. Nick Caputo9:28 pm

    Bob,

    An interesting theory and one that makes a great deal of sense. Ghosting someone else's work might not be considered important to Ditko.

    Studying the artwork I have, I think Ditko's lettering is as distinctive as his artwork and that stands out on some of the stories I've seen. It's also interesting that not much of an issue has been made of Stanton possibly assisting Ditko on some of his stories.

    Nick C.

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  4. Neat theory, well exposed

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  5. Makes sense to me. Ditko wouldn't want to take credit for "someone else's job" without their permission. Is Stanton still alive? Anybody ever ask him about it?

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  6. Stanton passed away about a decade ago. The extent of his comments on Ditko that I've read are like the "asked Steve Ditko to ink" quote above, vague stuff that they'd help each other out when deadlines were tight.

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  7. I saw a collection of Stanton comics at a Half-Price Books last year and his style seemed wholly unrelated to Steve's. It wasn't bad, just nothing anyone could mistake for Ditko. Stanton "possibly" inked by Ditko looks--to me--like pure Ditko. I think your theory is probably correct that he just looked at such stuff as helping friends.

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  8. There's also the stigma many cartoonists still associate with ghosting -- not one shared by my generation (Veitch, Totleben, Yeates and I often helped one another on jobs, and snuck in credits whereever we could or acknowledge such ghosting in interviews, etc. whenever opportunity arose to do so). But I've often heard the prior generation shrug off such discussion as being beneath discussion.

    That said, I've also seen plenty of cartoonists shun discussion of their adult venue work. Tom Yeates paid the collective 'Flying Dutchmen' rent (the house shared in Dover, NJ by Yeates, Veitch, Totleben and yours truly) with spot illos for BEAVER, which paid better than comics work at the time, though I've never seen Tom discuss that. I'm happy to cop to inking my bid for adult comics fame once (a story for Phil Foglio's XXXENOPHOBIA), but plenty of cartoonists did work for adult comics under pseudonames, too, and still do.

    Still, few of those carry the culture shock of so clearly seeing Ditko's hand at work in Stanton's erotica. It -- just -- doesn't -- compute! for a lot of folks. Ditko's aversion to the topic makes it (like all forbidden fruit) only more alluring.

    Great essay, Bob.

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  9. Thanks Steve (and that's XXXENOPHILE).

    I want to clarify one thing that someone asked me about in e-mail. I have no problem with a ghost artist claiming credit for his work if he wishes. I applaud DC when they dispense with that "Bob Kane" fiction and give the likes of Robinson, Sprang, Moldoff, Schwartz and others proper credit for Batman stories that Kane probably never read, much less drew. At the same time, I would hope that if, hypothetically, one of those ghost artists declared he did not want to be identified, DC would respect that.

    Same with adult work. If you want the credit, claim it, if you don't, feel free to deny it, and anyone who decides to read psychological gobbledygook into the denial is just being obnoxious. The big problem is the reading of motive without evidence.

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  10. i have some of those Stanton comics-Lady In Charge looks like it has panels that Ditko could have either drawn or inked-the stuff is pretty tame ( compared to some of the beautiful but explicit erotic art of Wallace Wood) i dont see why he would even bother to deny it

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