On Steve Ditko

By | Friday, June 03, 2011 1 comment
I've been reading up on Steve Ditko lately. Like, I suspect, many of you, I'm primarily familiar with his work via Spider-Man and Dr. Strange from the early 1960s. I'd seen a few of his Charlton stories and some later Marvel and DC work from the 1970s and early '80s. But, aside from anecdotes about his reclusive nature and his deep appreciation of (devotion to?) Objectivism, I didn't know much about him or how to reconcile his mainstream work against his more personal pieces. So when I stumbled across Avenging World, which reprints much of his creator-owned material from the 1970s through the early 2000s, I snatched the book up.

The works here range from text essays to full-page illustrations to comic stories. The only constant is that they are entirely and exclusively the work of Ditko. The text pieces seem largely responsive in nature, with Ditko reacting to what seem to be very specific articles or incidents, but they're mostly centered around creativity, art and intellectual property. One piece, for example, goes at length providing his thoughts on the ownership of original comic art and seems to stem almost exclusively from his being asked to sign a petition in the 1980s to get Jack Kirby his original pages of Marvel work back.

The comics primarily revolve around the basic precepts of Objectivism. Some are more fictionalized narratives, while others are decidedly more direct in saying, "Here's what this philosophy is." But they all center around the same ideas.

The first thing I learned about Ditko himself is: he's not a very good writer. Good artistic storyteller, but not a good writer. While there are no real issues with grammar or spelling, his actual writing style is very dry and unengaging. He also tends to get sidetracked with some minutia that isn't particularly germaine to his larger point. Consequently, his longer text pieces took me forever to read because I found myself literally nodding off while wading through them.

Despite that, though, I did get a better sense of where Ditko is coming from, I think. Certainly not a complete understanding, but a better one. Most significantly, I've realized the problem people have with his adopted philosophy.

The issue at hand is usually obscured by the examples. Many of the arguments Ditko presents in his pieces, regardless of the specific topic, focus on a binary solution set. You're either good or evil. You're either for creative expression or against it. Readers see that and try to point out the grey areas in between. What about the good person who inadvertently commits evil acts? What about those people who are so invalid that they simply cannot live without support but are still able to contribute things of benefit? Where exactly does the boundary lie between true creativity and repurposing existing ideas? People on both sides get caught up in these types of arguments, and miss the broader issue: a basic assumption that runs underneath all of the discussions.

Namely, that man is a rational being.

There's a tacit belief than man, because he can think, is rational. The problem is, man is NOT rational. Even the most rational among us behave irrationally. If we were rational beings -- truely rational beings -- we would not respond to art. We would have no need to create art. We create and respond to art on an emotional level; that we have emotions means that we act on those emotions. We can react beter or worse in any given situation, and try to keep things under control, but we are all subject to happiness, fear, hate, love...

So, as long as we have emotions, we'll continue to act irrationally. We're going to make "incorrect" decisions because we have an overwhelming fear of rejection or a burning desire for acceptance or whatever. As long as emotions are part of our makeup, Objectivism in the strictest sense won't be possible.

Which isn't to say that the ideal isn't a valid one anyway. But that ideal is necessarily different from the reality, and Ditko's central basis for most of his arguments glosses over that point. I doubt that it's a deliberate obfuscation of the issue, but it sets up all of his personal comics work (Mr. A and the like) in a reality that's fundamentally unrecognizable, despite a veneer of normalcy that it has over, say, his Dr. Strange stories. It's an odd dichotomy, if you think about it -- Ditko's almost surreal Dr. Strange art is more approachable and understandable than his mundane-looking personal works...
From what I read, I don't think Ditko's not aware of the irrationality of people. I think he understands that emotions DO get in the way of rational thinking. There's just enough in his work to see that. But that he doesn't formally acknowledge or address it, I think, prevents people from understanding what his inherent assumptions and biases are. They don't know how to even meet him half-way because they can't even tell what direction he's coming from, much less where a half-way point might be. That he's so reclusive doesn't help, of course, but I think part of his problem is that he's just not a very good writer and people can't follow along very well.

Which is a pity, because there's some interesting ideas worth considering in his work. He winds up asking more questions than he answers and can really make you think, but it's only in something approaching the body of his work that it looks like you can get an appreciation of what Ditko is bringing to the table. And that that requires such a concerted and ongoing effort means that few people are going to do that much digging.
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Nick Caputo said...


You make some interesting and fair thoughts regarding Ditko's independent work. I've been collecting and enjoying Ditko's art for over 40 years (yike!) and have written about his work from time to time (some of which has appeared on my blog). I find Ditko to be endlessly fascinating, even though some of his work is ponderous and sometimes puzzling. there is thought in everything he puts on paper, and an obsessive quality that I quite enjoy.

I also appreciate the fact that this is a guy who has chosen to go his own path, despite what anyone thinks. An artist who co-created Spider-Man is now drawing comics that largely are sold through the mail. Quite unique.

I don't think Ditko is reclusive, though. He does shun interviews, but is accesable and almost always replies to letters. He just doesn't consider himself a celebrity in any form, and is only concerned about the work.

Nick Caputo