Written by Charles Meier
Waaaay back at the beginning of summer, I wrote a brief preview of IDW’s then-upcoming The Creativity of Ditko, the latest Steve Ditko compilation/career retrospective. (I’d always intended to do a full review, but somehow managed to completely miss the original release date. Sorry about that.) There have been a lot of these things, and not just from IDW–Fantagraphics has put out like six, DC’s released a couple, etc. If Charlton had survived they’d probably be putting out one a week, and considering how much stuff Shy Steve did for them they’d keep their release schedule full for twenty years. It’s pretty damn near to unprecedented for a living comic book artist to attract this much critical review–Alex Toth was five years in his grave before the first volume of the “Genius” trilogy came out, for example.
But you know what? Ditko deserves it. He is one of two creators–the other being Jack Kirby–who are pretty much singlehandedly responsible for the current Marvel Universe. I won’t go so far to completely rubbish Stan Lee’s contributions, as is current custom, but it’s abundantly clear he needed Kirby and Ditko far more than they–Kirby especially–needed him. When I called Ditko the greatest living comic-book artist (despite his being pretty much retired now), I meant it. I didn’t encounter Ditko until relatively late, when I was in college, but once I did I was hooked. Something about this guy’s freaky-ass art just spoke to me on a level I didn’t quite comprehend at the time. (I’ve more or less figured it out now, but that’s a story for another article.) I recall quite clearly buying up every volume of Essential Spider-man, and then abruptly stopping upon reaching the point where Ditko quit the series. I have nothing against John Romita; I’ve come to terms with his run in the years since–it’s not bad, just different. At the time, though, it seemed a betrayal of everything Ditko had been trying to get across in those first 38 issues of Amazing Spider-man, in both an aesthetic and narrative sense.
Not, of course, that you’ll be seeing any of those issues in this compilation. No, this is yet another compilation of Ditko’s third-party work, primarily from his Charlton output, sans the superhero characters he created for them (their being now owned by DC and all). Interspersed throughout are retrospective essays by those who know/were influenced by Ditko, along with original-art pages and previously-unpublished photographs.
If I’m being completely honest, this book verges on being a letdown. In terms of basic format, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The essays are illuminating enough (it turns out Ditko does, in fact, have a sense of humor; kind of a crappy one, sure, but it’s there nonetheless), but there’s little truly earth-shattering in them, apart from some revelations of studio-mate Eric Stanton’s contributions to the creation of Spider-man; I sense shit would have gotten powerfully real for Marvel had Stanton chosen to make an issue of it. I actually found myself wanting more essays to go along with the comics, which I suppose is a point in the book’s favor since I usually end up wanting the opposite. This book does paint a somewhat rosier picture of Ditko as a person than previous works of its ilk, the “unreasonable crabby bastard” anecdotes being entirely absent here. As for the photographs, yeah, they’re interesting in their own right, if only because they multiply the published Ditko photos by a factor of six or so. (Also, as it turns out, Ditko looked exactly like H.P. Lovecraft in high school. It’s actually kind of creepy.) At the same time, nary a one of them is a day under 53 years old! It’s pretty damn weird to think my favorite comic-book artist–hell, one of my favorite artists, period–is a guy I literally wouldn’t know if I passed him on the street. Also, you may recall my expressing a desire to see an actual interview with Ditko in this book? Yeah, that doesn’t happen. I always knew that was a longshot of the “shoot the tits off a nursing fruitfly from 57 miles away with a rusty BB gun using an iron sight” variety, but it’s disappointing all the same.
As for the comics, well, they’re awesome of course. At the same time, however, they are pretty much all Charlton comics–horror, mostly–and therefore awesome only because Ditko worked on them. Ditko aside, Charlton’s stuff was assembly-line sludge, indifferently churned out (even their printing press sucked) by faceless drones for slave wages. (They did, however, publish This Magazine Is Haunted, my favorite horror-comic title ever.) This is especially clear in the writing, which sucks pretty much across the board. Host characters are inefficiently used at best, and the plots are cookie-cutter even by pre-Code horror-comic standards; many don’t end so much as grind to a halt once the page-limit has been reached. I have no idea who any of these writers were; the decided lack of self-righteous lectures leads me to believe none of them were Ditko. Doubtless most or all of them have vanished into obscurity, perhaps to their preference.
And yet, lousy scripting aside, most of these comics still work. Ditko transcends bad writing with his usual neurotic aplomb, “The Ultimate Evil” being this collection’s particular standout. Seldom does the supernatural seem quite so ineffable, nor the human creature quite so powerless and insignificant in the face of it, as they do under Ditko’s pen. In a Steve Ditko comic, even trails of smoke become like unto spectral tentacles, ready to ensnare the unwary and drag them off to some sanity-blasting corner of the cosmos. The more mundane threats are little better–while beauty has never quite been in Ditko’s wheelhouse, he has malevolence and grotesquerie down pat. Just look at the antagonist of “Hide and Eeeeek”; that old bastard’s creepy as all hell, even if he is pretty much just a wingless Vulture. No wonder people in Ditko comics sweat so much.
While The Creativity of Ditko didn’t quite end up being the book I wanted it to be, that’s scarcely a point against it. Samey though the format may be at this point, there’s enough new-to-you material on display here to make it a worthy pickup. The Ditko completist in your family (every family has one of those, right?) will love it, assuming s/he doesn’t have it already.
The Creativity of Ditko is available now.