Friday, June 10, 2005

The Last Temptation of Steve Ditko

The art of Steve Ditko exerts a massive gravity that, to me, surpasses the appeal of all but a few of his peers in the history of cartooning. His work is strange, famously awkward and even stiff, especially when compared with more graceful and kinetic contemporaries such as Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Alex Toth and John Romita. But there is more to be found in his ungainly figures and drooping inklines than initially may meet the eye, something fascinating that manages to repulse in the same proportion as it attracts.

The Comics Journal recently devoted part of an issue (#258, during the tenure of Milo George) to a multi-author exploration of Ditko's appeal. While many of the essays were interesting, they also seemed to dance around some of the very specific and baffling issues conjured by Ditko's expressionistic worldview. Of all the artists who compose our modern cartoonists' "canon", Ditko has traditionally been the hardest on which to get a proper bead. Mention Kirby and most understand the appeal: the power and dynamism, the angular tension between sublimated anxiety and energetic expression. Likewise Barks has his lyricism, clarity and masked cynicism; Kurtzman is defined by the interplay between insightful satire and cerebral craftsmanship; Crumb is an understated social critic in the guise of a bomb-throwing anarchist. Whether or not you agree with these succinct encapsulizations, they still provide entryways to very well-trod schools of thought: people can disagree as to why Carl Barks is an important cartoonist, but most people don't have trouble agreeing that he is important. But Ditko's work, although appreciated by many, has so far defied the kind of ready-made analysis that provides an easy-access to any artist's critical corpus. People like Ditko, but as the recent Journal spotlight proved, it's not easy to explain why.

Part of the blame for this, of course, has to be leveled on Ditko himself, for better or for worse. He has always cultivated an invincible air of privacy, refusing to speak with the fan or mainstream press under any circumstances. He is, by all accounts, a gracious and friendly gentleman, but he doesn't want to have anything to do with any of the many, many people who would dearly love to glom onto him. He doesn't need us, and that considering how small and incestuous the comics industry is, that fact stands out like a sore thumb.

Kirby never stopped being open and accessible to every fan who made an attempt at communication, especially in the later years of his life when he became increasingly involved in the fan press in an attempt to publicize his legal maneuverings against Marvel. Barks was singularly anonymous for the bulk of his career, but after his fans tracked him down he spent the rest of his life basking in the warm glow of their appreciation (and, of course, charging them for his goofy paintings). Crumb may try to cultivate the image of a reclusive iconoclast, but he's never made a convincing hermit, preferring some degree of engagement with the world as the price of his relative autonomy. But that's not a bargain that Ditko has ever seen the need to strike: his autonomy is already absolute. His philosophy ensures his solidarity, because he doesn't need anyone else, either fan, sycophant or critic, to reinforce his own sense of worth or validity.

Or, to put it another way, even Dave Sim, famous for his bizarre beliefs in a field that embraces bizarre beliefs, keeps in touch with his fans and maintains a rudimentary presence on the Internet. On some level Sim recognizes the utility of keeping a public profile to ensure that Cerebus is not forgotten in his lifetime. But Ditko, to judge purely on the basis on his (non)-relationship with the greater world, seems blessedly free of any insecurities regarding the value of his own work. He continues to work and manages to find outlets for his personal polemic work when he wants to. Until relatively recently he was even still a fairly prolific presence on mainstream comics shelves, content to produce work for a different Marvel, under different circumstances (but never, to my recollection, on Spider-Man or Dr. Strange). But at some point in the mid-90s, probably around the time of the Image exodus when comics took their turn for the flashy, most veterans stopped getting calls from mainstream editors (except for occasional token "prestige" projects), and Ditko was no exception. (Incidentally, I’ve always found it amusing that one of the last editors to regularly use Ditko was Jim Shooter, for whom Ditko was a mainstay during his tenure at Marvel as well as, later on, at Valiant and [briefly] Defiant. Considering how many people then and now have regarded Shooter as the living incarnation of Satan, the fact that Ditko was consistently loyal to him is somewhat curious – Ditko’s loyalty is not, I imagine, easily bought.)

The fundamental core of Ditko's Objectivist beliefs is that Right is irrevocably Right; A=A and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it except ignore or accept it. So, in terms of his legacy, I think its fair to say that by choosing to maintain his silence, Ditko has - either consciously or simply by happenstance - chosen the long view, believing or assuming that his legacy is intact for those who bother to educate themselves. And, for the most part, he's correct. Sure, there will probably always be mistaken newspaper reporters who declare Stan Lee to be the sole creator of Spider-Man, but that's not his fault: anyone with even a modicum of sense can do the five seconds of research required to verify the truth. By being confidently and quietly in the right, he essentially puts the burden of proof on everyone else. Whether you're an Objectivist or not, you have to admit it's a pretty efficient system. Certainly, by remaining silent and refusing to enter into the industry's political infrastructure on anything more than an oblique level (the odd small-press tract), he seems a lot more secure in his modest claims than many who squawk far more loudly.

But even if Ditko doesn't need us, we desperately need Ditko. His work remains powerful and evocative, a reminder of the communicative force of a single brushline in an era of institutional opacity. Despite - or perhaps because of - the overriding clarity with which Ditko's worldview enables him to tackle and dismiss heady ideological conflict, his artwork remains mired in almost existential fatalism. His heroes are uniquely positioned to discern the forces of good from evil. Some, as in the case of Spider-Man, are almost universally beset by the forces of moral disrepair which surround them, and helpless to do anything but struggle forward in the almost-Christian conviction that doing right is its own reward, because to do wrong is an insufferable, self-evident obscenity. Others, such as Dr. Strange and the Question, are not so universally beset, and are much more able to compete with the negative forces of society (or the universe) on their own levels. The cards are less obviously stacked against Stephen Strange and Vic Sage than Peter Parker, but for all these characters the reward for their righteousness is not the acclaim of their fellows but merely the satisfied silence of a clean conscience.

Ditko's universes are dark and slightly soggy places. If Kirby's Marvel was brighly-lit soundstages and grand Technicolor, Ditko's work has always seemed purposefully shabby. His monsters were never as grand as Kirby's, but were sometimes genuinely creepy whereas Kirby's were merely fun. His panels are coated in shadows. His characters' cheekbones are accentuated to make them seem gaunt and the bags under their eyes drawn to make them seem constantly harried. Although Rand's Objectivism was conceived in diametrical opposition to socialism, it is of a cloth with Marxism (and particularly Stalinism) in that it conceives of the world as a compromised realm - but whereas Marx viewed the compromise as originating in the degrading structure of capitalist society, Rand and her followers see the compromise not in the essential nature of our economy but in most individuals’ inability to recognize the flaws of collectivist ideals and moral relativism. In Objectivism, as with Ditko, the individual's responsibility trumps the authority and prerogatives of the body politic every time. It's the difference between a conception of society as a class-based organism and the conception of society as a contract between autonomous individuals. The dirt and the grime - the droopy inklines, vast vertiginous mystical realms and awkward flailing limbs of Ditko - represent the forces of moral turpitude which continually assail the singular righteous individual.

Ditko’s work remains inaccessible to a large portion even of those who ostensibly enjoy it simply because it represents the primal communication of a coherent worldview which is alien to most. But you don’t need to be an Objectivist to appreciate the massive importance of Steve Ditko: you simply need to understand how completely his work, almost all his work, is sublimated to the purpose of this ideology. In Ditko’s work do we see the ultimate expression of cartooning as personal revelation, severed from any conception that does not follow his essential prerogatives: form follows function, meaning forever welded to aesthetics.

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