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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.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bolshevinks Stolt the State of Georgia

It's probably terribly inappropriate, given the serious nature of the conflict and its long-term geopolitical implications...

But I can't hear about the current Russian/Georgian conflict without thinking of this...

Selections by Walt Kelly from POGO'S DOUBLE SUNDAE [1978], which reprints THE POGO SUNDAY PARADE [1958], which in turn reprints some Pogo Sunday pages from 1953 and 1954, and I'd be able to tell you the dates if those bastards at Fantagraphics would get in gear and give me the COMPLETE POGO series they promised.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Cut Artwork

The Curious Incident of the Cut Artwork
A Cautionary Fable
Illustration by Steve Ditko

Whatever one has learned, understands, knows or experienced, is one's personal intellectual property, private property and individual property. Some facts and truths are available as "public knowledge."

Other facts, truths and knowledge belong to the individual who possessed (owns) it and paid the price in time, effort and experience. It is his earned knowledge and intellectual and personal property.
S. Ditko, AVENGING WORLD [2002], page 110

"Ditko cuts his artwork. He was using some valuable classic artwork as a cutting board."

If you care about the kind of stuff I write about, you've probably heard that said. Sometimes in a matter of fact way, sometimes in more irresponsible ways ("I heard Ditko's cutting up all his Spider-Man artwork!!"). Some argue that it's his right to do so if he pleases, others use it as evidence that there's something wrong with Ditko. There's been idle speculation about his motives for years. But almost everyone starts with the premise that Ditko has cut his artwork. Among the people who don't accept that premise, the general belief seems to be that the story (as told by Greg Theakston) is a lie. Theakston's motive for telling such an odd lie never seems to be specified.

Is this a valid premise based on the evidence? Either Ditko used some of his artwork as a cutting board or Theakston lied about it?

Personally, I don't think Ditko cut his artwork. And I don't think Greg Theakston is lying.

Let's step back and take a look.

The story has been around for over a decade. I don't know where I first heard it, but probably the most widespread telling was in this account that appeared in Wizard Magazine in 2002. Transcription copied from here, not independently verified. Please read this carefully.

Take for example, one of [Comic publisher and restorer, Greg] Theakston’s last visits to Ditko’s studio. While embroiled in a conversation, the historian noticed a piece of illustration board leaning up against a wall, slashed to pieces.

“He’d been using it as a cutting board,” Theakston said. “I looked a little bit closer and I detected a comics code stamp on it.”

He asked Ditko to turn the board around, a request met with a deadening gaze from the artist.

“I didn’t think he was going to do it,” the historian recounted. “It looked like a ‘Screw you’ look.”

Slowly, however, Ditko reached out and flipped over the board. It was a page of original art from a late 1950s issue of Journey Into Mystery, a splash featuring a hard helmet diver. Theakston couldn’t believe it. Not only was Ditko not displaying, preserving or prizing this piece of original art, he was using it as a cutting board.

Theakston quickly offered Ditko a deal: “Steve, I will go down to the nearest art supply store and buy you a cutting board that will mend itself-a plastic cutting board that’s so smart that when you cut on it, it mends itself-and you’ll have the finest cutting board on the block.” “Nope,” Ditko replied, twisting the artwork-turned-cutting-board back around.

Theakston pleaded. “Steve, geez. That’s worth a fair amount of money. At the very least-damn, Steve-it’s an artifact. It’s an important piece of publishing history in terms of comics.”

The artist turned and pointed to the drapery-obscured window next to Theakston’s chair. “Lift that curtain up,” he said.

The curtain, the historian estimated, was about 18 inches off the floor. He pulled the drape aside and saw a stack of original artwork from Marvel standing roughly a foot-and-a-half high.

“Can I look at these?” Theakston excitedly asked.


The writer was dumbfounded. “I was sitting next to a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand dollars, maybe, worth of Ditko artwork and he was cutting it up without letting people look at it.”

Did you catch it? Probably not. I'll get there. For the record, Greg Theakston has confirmed that the page in question is actually from a Charlton comic, THIS MAGAZINE IS HAUNTED #16 [1958], not Marvel's JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY (and thanks to the various people who helped to find it). A minor point, true, but a good lesson to not believe everything you read. Let's take a look at the alleged victim.

A nice enough page, but I can see why it needed to die.

Just kidding. Man, can that dude draw. Read "The Green Peace" here, by the way.

Okay, so back to the story. I want to make this clear. The artwork was standing against a wall with cut marks on the back. Nowhere in that story does Greg Theakston say that he witnessed Ditko, knife in hand, cut the artwork. No direct account from Greg I have read has ever stated that. Unless Greg comes out now and says he did see that, anyone who reports the story as "Theakston saw Ditko using art as a cutting board" is wrong.

Minor point? Not really. Because I'm going to ask you to read the story again, and notice that at no point does Greg say that Ditko says he was using the artwork as a cutting board. From what I see, it's something Greg assumed, and then spoke from the premise he assumed.

But, you ask, surely Ditko would have corrected Theakston if he was wrong? To that I say, you haven't read that much about Ditko, have you? Not volunteering information is entirely consistent with Ditko's behaviour. Now is the time to go back to the quote that opens this article and figure out why it's there.

Now, I've chosen not to run this theory by Greg before posting, but he's welcome to confirm if Ditko ever acknowledged using the artwork as a cutting board, or just let Greg assume he had.

Okay, now you ask, the artwork was still cut, how do you explain that? Honestly, I don't even want to try. Accidents happen. I cut my finger cutting some onions once. Doesn't mean I don't value at least nine of the little darlings (sometimes that left middle finger bugs me). I once spilled water on some comics, including a comic book I love more than half my family (fortunately not an expensive one to replace).

And one explanation, the one I believe pending further evidence? This was actually easier to make when I thought it was Marvel art, but it works almost as well for Charlton. Those companies, if you'll pardon my language, treated the artwork like shit for decades. They weren't housing the artwork in archival conditions. Professional archivists probably weep when they hear about how the art was treated. Besides the most valuable work being stolen, there are multiple stories of the artwork being deliberately damaged (especially in the Marvel warehouse). Reportedly some of the fraction of his artwork Kirby got back was ripped in half. Steve Bissette has talked about getting new artwork back with a "hole the size of a quarter punched through the dead center" of two pages. If you see a damaged page of artwork, why assume the damage was done by the artist, when it was the company that had physical possession of the artwork for over 90% of the time since it was created.

Or maybe he was using the art as a cutting board, as is entirely his right. Certainly I feel he has more right to do that than people who own Ditko artwork of questionable provenance (a polite way of saying "stolen artwork") have to own that work. My point is not to "prove what happened", it's to show that we don't know what happened, and it turns out we know much less than we thought we did, and when you step back and look at all the facts, strip away assumptions, you might find you can come up with a theory that has fewer contradictions, does not require assuming someone is crazy or someone is lying and just fits the facts better.

So believe what you want to believe, but if I've put even a hint of doubt in your mind, next time you hear the "fact" that Ditko cuts his artwork, politely point out that that might not be true, direct people to this page. At the worst they'll get to see a really good page of Ditko art.

So, this is my theory, which belongs to me.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Jack Kamen, R.I.P.

Jack Kamen has passed away at age 88.

Links below to some comments and samples of a few of his EC stories. "Kamen's Kalamity" is especially noteworthy at this time.

Beyond Repair -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Al Feldstein -- Weird Science #8 [1951]
Loved to Death -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Al Feldstein -- Tales From the Crypt #25[#9] [1951]
A Timely Shock -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Al Feldstein -- Weird Fantasy #10 [1951]
What The Dog Dragged In -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Ray Bradbury & Al Feldstein -- Vault of Horror #22[#11] [1952]
Kamen's Kalamity -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Al Feldstein -- Tales From the Crypt #31[#15] [1952]
Well-Traveled! -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Al Feldstein -- Shock SuspenStories #5 [1952]
Given the Heir -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Al Feldstein -- Weird Science #16 [1952]
Beauty And The Beach! -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Al Feldstein -- Shock SuspenStories #7 [1953]
The Screaming Woman! -- art by Jack Kamen, story by Ray Bradbury & Al Feldstein -- Crime SuspenStories #15 [1953]

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Ditko in 1998

Pursuant to some recent internet discussion, an account of Ditko's visit to DC, written by an anonymous DC staffer and published in some of their April 1998 books (including JLA #17). Unrelated image redacted since I didn't like how it looked.

Weblog by BobH [bobh1970 at gmail dot com]