Sunday, March 08, 2015

Do you think that one of the craziest yet perhaps BRAVEST actions ever taken in a career move was when Steve Ditko upped and walked out on the pumping on all cylinders Marvel Comics Group in '66, and right after having drawn (and even plotted some of) the earliest and downright BEST Spider-Man stories ever? Not to mention his scribbling on the wildly esoteric comic capers of Doctor Strange, only to end up working in relative "obscurity" for DC as well as the less-renowned Charlton publishing house where at least the guy could get some of his philosophical hero messages across without ol' feet-of-clay himself Stan Lee tampering with the formula? And of course who could forget all of those Mr. A. and Avenging World fanzine/underground comics that really bummed out the bell bottomed readership of the late-sixties who were probably STILL getting high while staring endlessly at some old Doctor Strange panel that Ditko oh so lovingly delineated a good five or so years back!

I sure do---I mean here's a guy who was perhaps second only to Jack "King" Kirby as far as instantly recognizable comic book artists went, and right at the tip top HEIGHT of his powers he ups up and splits his most highest-profile gig in order to draw Blue Beetle and Creeper cartoons that I'd guess a hefty portion of the comic strip kiddoids out there really couldn't care one whit about. Sure he was about to give us those esoterically individualist Mr. A. sagas as well as the commercially friendly version known as the Question, but I kinda get the feeling that if Ditko had stuck it out with Marvel his popularity would have increased even more than it had during his late-fifties/mid-sixties sojurn there and alla them hippydippy types wouldn't have been turned off by the decidedly non-peacenlove "bummer, man" tone of those comics that Ditko eventually began churning out on his lonesome.

I haven't been paying attention to the Ditko/Robin Snyder titles as of late, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that there were a slew of new Ditko comic books released o'er the past five or so years. True the ravages of time have reduced Ditko's style to what more or less look like rough drafts and the stories are fractured to the point of near abstraction, but for a guy like myself who can still recall SPIDER-MAN lettercols relishing the original Ditko days of the title as well as the early-seventies fantasy reprints via WHERE CREATURES ROAM etc. and so forth, these tales still pack quite a wallop even for a jaded fanabla like myself. It's almost as if there's still some tangential connection to my young suburban slob days extant via these comics and that the adolescent ranch house jerk that I was CONTINUES to live on, at least through the work of this unheralded master who has been working in the comic book field for over sixty years which I believe has to be some sort of record in a biz that has been known to spew out even the most talented of artists once their style has become even slightly "passe" (or at least I get that impression sometimes).

The MR. A. comic that appears on the left was to have come out (as the first of a revival which was also to have presented the character's origin story) way back '90 way, only some disagreement happened between Ditko and whoever was going to publish it so the series was put on hold. One story from the revived MR. A. where he's pitted against a murderer called the Knifer who offed the sons of the rich and successful did appear in one of the Ditko collections that had come out during the previous decade, but this is the first time in forty years that the infamous moral avenger has gotten his own title which is something I would have thought would have gotten a whole slew of Silver Age survivors in a big huzzah mood! Guess these olde tymey fans are either croaked or totally disgusted with the state of comics because hey, other'n a few rah-rahers out there all I'm hearing regarding the return of this important character are a buncha crickets.

However, I do get the feeling that many of those long-time comic book fans and followers might be disappointed in these. Gone are the fine, detailed artwork, fancy lettering and panel-packed pages that decorated many a fanzine of the past, and not only that but the stories aren't even as lovingly long-winded as they were during the late-sixties. Next to Ditko at his sixties best these may seem like total denouement to most. At least the Ditko spark that made those earlier self-produced sagas so appealing even to the hippiest of early-seventies longhairs is still intact, but unfortunately I don't think even they really care about those comics of yore all these years later.

There are two stories here. The first one's a fairly interesting moosh up dealing with the typical Ditko themes of corruption as well as social justice dollops via THE DAILY CRUSADER, the paper where Mr. A.'s secret identity Rex Grainge works as a decidedly non-collectively conscious reporter who has a guaranteed job as long as CRUSADER owner Mr. Reder is at the helm. (Continuity never was important in the MR. A. scheme of things---earlier sagas had it that the paper's editor, sort of a bleedheart J. Jonah Jameson, would lose control if Grainge were fired due to a stipulation in his late brother's will, while another one had the BIG boss of the entire paper/television conglomerate giving Grainge all the leeway he needed in order to work free despite such definitely anti-Grainge organizations as "The Committee to Protect Criminals From Justice".)

I had bigger hopes for the second one where Mr. A. deals with a villain called the Exploder---drawn at the height of the "trash art" controversy when the threat of government (read: National Endowment for the Arts) cutoffs for offensive (or as its defenders say "cutting edge") art were getting armchair liberal types all in a huff,.I thought Ditko would have gone all out both barrels blasting in exposing the obvious chicanery and hypocrisy of the arts crowd who were merely trying to bum a free paycheck offa the same hardcore working people they insult and loathe. But he does play it comparatively reserved-here in a saga dealing with a rather Marvel-esque bad guy in an Iron Man-styled suit who goes around destroying the artwork of a realistic, man-at-his-best sculptor at the command of Messa Jubi, a chubby harridan art critic who not only believes in grotesque art that represents man as his "true self" but actually makes Andrew Dworkin look cuddly in comparison.

Past commentaries on modern art (such as one that actually popped into one of Ditko's Blue Beetle sagas) were way more potent---this one doesn't quite charge at'cha the way a MR. A. story of the seventies dealing with the same subject matter would have, but at least his etapoint commentaries regarding the average Joe Blow featured in the final panel where the news is switched off so's the viewers could watch some PBS documentary on "The Benevolent Dictatorship of the People's Utopian Republic" will still strike
 a raw nerve with some of the more, er, benighted knowitalls seen these days. Of course I like it, and of course I'm glad to see Mr. A. back in action after way too long an absence.
The spate of titles with relatively BRAND NEW material might confuse the old timers even more, not only with the even baser art mentioned earlier but with the fragmented stories and even some characters who just don't quite fit into the Ditko hero/antihero antithesis he had been pushing for fortysome years already. Two of Ditko's new "heroes" come to mind, Madman and Miss Eerie. Both of these entities operate in what Ditko calls small, prosperous cities in the 1930s, one called Zane and the other Mizzen (I tend to think that Ditko was perhaps referring to his own thirties upbringing in Johnstown Pennsylvania but I do tend to speculate more than I perhaps should). But the fact that both of these rather grotesque beings are what Ditko would consider "heroes" (especially when his past good guys tended to be clean cut short haired well-doers who have been the butt of many a superhero spoof o'er the years) really is surprising considering how both look the standard Ditko badskis who would eventually come to a sad end especially after enduring a long Mr. A. lecture whilst they slip into the ether.

Madman's current situation ain't exactly the fault of his own. Mad Madder's a convicted jewel thief and murderer (claims innocence, something not exactly part and parcel to many a Ditko knave) who was somehow (not exactly explained) injected with a mystery drug which turns him into the crazed Madman who looks like one of Ditko's disheveled bums always mooching off the public teat. He does have spells of "normalcy" as they say but when the drug just happens to kick in causing uncontrollable pain Madder turns into a killing machine. Of course there are those who disagree and say that Madman actually ain't the hideous rampager he is made out to be, but we'll have to leave that up to plainclothes detectives I. Barge and J. Ogic to get to the bottom of this typically twisted one-direction-to-another Ditko mystery. One that comes in many parts too with Ditko teasing us ending his li'l installments with coy comments such as "Ooo, I may be too scared to continue this..."!

Miss Eerie and Madman look as if they would be the perfect date material, him with his bloat and unshaven face and she with that evil-looking smirk. This 'un is actually a young nice looking clean 'n wholesome type of female who transforms herself into the grotesque heroine whose powers are once again rather vague. Come to think of it sometimes the stories themselves get on a weird tangent almost to the point of vagueness but I've come to expect that. In fact such twists and turns that made other sags look like pretentious twaddle don't ruin any of these Ditko masterpieces one tiny bit. If corruption and an avenging power is your bag, you just can't beat this new entry into the costumed crimefighters brigade!

Some old Ditko favorites pop up here/there in the mix of recent entries. Remember THE AVENGING WORLD, the series featuring a rather Political Cartoon-ish globe with a human body that ran in the pages of WITZEND?  Y'know, the one which really got the laid backs uptight with the decidedly anti-vibes that were extant in the tireless repetition of the "A IS A" mantra so commonly found in Ditko's personalist work? The ol' globe makes yet another re-appearance here, more or less aided/abetted by a new un-named superhero who works as a symbol of man/heroism at his/its best pretty much in the same way that Mr. A. would pop into a smattering of one-page broadsides throughout the late-sixties fanzine world. Also present is yet another new Ditko character called the Grey Negotiator, a weird costumed guy who looks like one of the teenage thugs in an old MR. A. (or better yet Ditko's old Charlton Kid character after a good walloping) who could perhaps be Ditko's only true antihero. Well maybe a "sorta bad guy but with some good making him a total roadkill" kind of creature who gets stuck inna middle of situations trying to mediate,  usually getting slaughtered mercilessly as a result.
Continuing on the Ditko juggernaut of ideas you just don't see in WENDY THE GOOD LITTLE WITCH are ONCE MORE and OH NO, NOT AGAIN. Of the latter, The Avenging World globe character makes yet another appearance and although the artwork ain't as crisp as it was back in those late-sixties sagas the philosophical intent remains pretty much the same. I will admit that Ditko seems to have toned down some of the rhet which ain't as knock you out with a sledgehammer as it had been in the past, but this will still shock more'n a few of the pampered pooches out there who you think had copped their entire philosophical outlook from Billy Jack films. Oh, and the second part of another mew MR. A. story appears making me wish I knew which comic book had part one!

ONCE MORE gets even more abstract as the steamroller of ideas flattens you silly, with a slew of one-page critiques featuring more split faced shows of contradiction as well as a tale of sorts featuring a Ditko monster with clubs for forearms (one labeled "Faith" and the other "Force") who meets up with that aforementioned  new Ditko hero and naturally gets vanquished like potrzebie. One issue that separates this Ditko title from the rest regards his tackling of a new sort of adversary that the man has dealt with before on occasion, mainly the comic book fans who whine on about Ditko not giving interviews and being reclusive, not to mention blab on about his views which they so obviously find morally repugnant as if they can actually crawl into Ditko's mind and suss out his intents and purposes without coloring them through the gauze of postmodern piousness. Sheesh, I can sure empathize with Ditko on that one, but I'll leave that subject for a future post!
An even stranger entry into the Ditko self-produced archives is THE AVENGING MIND, a title which believe-it-or-leave-it contains mostly essays regarding various philosophical/cultural concerns rather than such ideas drawn out in a superhero or educational format. Ditko had been writing such missives for quite some time or at least since his "Violence, The Phony Issue" popped up in GUTS #5 way back '69 way, and if you were one who enjoyed the man's crafty dissecting and dismissing of the then-prevalent argument that pop culture causes the world's woes (y'know, the same frame of mind that had tee-vee stations editing BUGS BUNNY cartoons and newspapers dropping DICK TRACY due to the upswing in senseless violence during the late-sixties) you'll probably enjoy Ditko's various opines regarding everything from the destruction of cognitive thinking via groupmind to just who "created" SPIDER-MAN re. Jack Kirby's claim to have been the honest-to-golly originator of it all. (There's also a big ditto regarding Stan Lee and Dr. Strange which must prove that bad blood has been flowing from many a quarter for nigh on fifty years awlready, even if Lee seems to have nada but niceties to say about his former artist!)
Do you remember Laszlo Toth, the crazed guy who went on a hammer rampage smashing up Michelangelo's Pieta back '72 way?  Didn't think so even though I do remember a political cartoon of the time where some concerned citizens were calling for stricter hammer control laws after the incident, but Ditko reminds us of the dread villain in his LASZLO' S HAMMER title, which come to think of it would have made a boffo name for one of those under-the-covers New York bands that used to play CBGB in the mid-seventies. In this 'un Ditko draws some interesting parallels between Toth's actions and the way some ruin an individual's creative juices by tampering with the original intent, usually making some quite different than what the originator had intended. Most of this reads like a combination AVENGING WORLD/HEADS display of views and counterviews which are naturally weighed heavily in Ditko's direction (but what else would you expect?). Some sour turds can be discerned regarding Ditko's own experiences in the comic biz (he thinking that maybe some of the bigwigs at the various companies he worked for didn't give some of his characters a fighting chance, even though he shoulda realized that the bottom line of moolah always rules 'cept when some trendy liberal view is being espoused), but the points that the guy makes are sure refreshing especially after being bombarded with candy-coated paradiddles of patented pablum custom-made for today's vacuous with-it types who, once you get down to it, are nothing but a buncha Maynard G. Krebses with rectal dysfunctions.
I never got to read the entire run of STATIC which was presented in two installments back in the late-eighties, so you can bet that I was more'n glad that Snyder decided to release this "graphic novel" in one lumpen book rather'n split the thing up like he originally did way back when. This 'un's an equally potent wowzer as well, perhaps Ditko's last great effort in presenting his philosophical views within the frame of an extended story complete with all of the action, plot twists and head-scratching wonderment that made those old MR. A. and QUESTION stories so well respected even by readers who hated their messages back in the sixties and seventies. This morality tale (with loads of boffo ultra-violence tossed in for good measure) dealing with a superhero outfit whose powers might be used for mankind's benefit or its downfall for all we know is definitely Ditko at his best, and for the life of me I can't figure out why Charlton would have published these sagas in the first place, or at least the ones they did until they gave up the comic book business in the mid-eighties. But kudos to them because frankly, between these Ditko comics and DOCTOR GRAVES Charlton was perhaps the last company out there continuing the spirit of the Silver Age long after the Bronze era seemed to have been tarnished beyond recognition.

True the ongoing story can get quite confusing at times, and sometimes Ditko's personal opines might rub even someone like myself the wrong way (por ejemplo I just felt like taking the side of the unemployed workers even if they were being used as pawns by some of the more cagey wealth distributists around) but the ins-and-outs and plot twists that are extant should sate even the more self-consciously pious amongst us even if the standard reiteration of various Objectivist readymades'll snooze out those who've read early Ditko and heard it all before.

As for me well, I don't mind because hey, it sure reads a whole lot better'n alla that early-seventies hippie get along goo that the comic books were pumping out until even that became too embarrassingly obvious.
If you're game on getting any or all (or even more if readily available) Ditko comics, just try the fellow mentioned on the left. Ford is one of the bigger Ditko fans to be found, and if you're looking for any rarities or readily available Ditko material you probably couldn't do any better. And in this world where high quality comic strip art is hard to come by and the greats of the past seem to be slipping into eternal obscurity well, it's sure great to know that guys like him are still around! Even if you're looking for original Ditko art he may just be the man!

Boy, that Ditko's got me down to a "T"!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Chris check this out:

comes in a few parts so you may want to join them together.