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Steve Ditko — HA! / AH! — Laughing at Death.

We have yet to appreciate Ditko the philosopher, Ditko the comedian. Many readers lament the artist’s move away from the formulaic superhero story into the uncharted terrain of the philosophical comic. “Why couldn’t he do something more like, maybe, Spider-Man or Doctor Strange?” wonders the bemused fan when confronted with medium-reinventing works like 1969’s “The Avenging World” or 1975’s “Premise to Consequence.” Readers puzzled by Ditko’s independent work or frustrated with its Ayn Rand-based politics should take a hint from the spirit of these comics: read them with a black sense of humor.

Ditko created these works at a revolutionary moment in US comic book history, the era of Underground Comix, when counter-culture cartoonists rejected the practices of the comic book industry—a business committed to safe stories for children—by producing and distributing visionary work in new ways. When Ditko rebelled against the corporate constraints of Marvel and DC, he created moral tales that look nothing like the sex- or drug-fueled romps of his subversive contemporaries. But Ditko shares with them a radical, almost absurdist sensibility and a dedication to reimagining the medium’s possibilities.

I. It’s a Sick, Sick, Sick, Sick World

The humor of Ditko’s auteur work is not the cocktail banter of Spidey and Doc Ock mid-battle

but the dark wit that’s possible only when something deadly serious is at stake.[1] Ditko is a believer—and he believes in the absurdity of ‘things as they are.’ Peter Parker worries about Mary Jane, Aunt May, and the villain of the month. But Ditko worries about The World. It’s sick, and moral sickness demands the sardonic punch of “sick humor.” With a giant bandaged globe for a head and a bunch of broken bones, the narrator of “The Avenging World” could be a mascot for much of Ditko’s independent work, and even some of his corporate comics.

He’s symbolic of a world whose humor is black and whose heroes are morally (and literally) black and white: Ditko was angered when a fan diluted the purity of his hero Mr. A by printing an image of him on colored paper.

On “The Avenging World”’s opening page, the globe, with eyebrows arched and teeth clenched, looks directly at readers, chastising them and others for continuing to make his “condition . . . worse” (1).[2] Ditko creates nine portraits of those responsible for the world’s sickness that, taken together, form his “Rogues Gallery.” He replaces the fantasy menaces of, say, Spider-Man’s gallery (The Green Goblin, The Sandman, The Vulture, etc.) with caricatures of social types, such as the Middle Roader, the Humanitarian, the Neutralist, and the Enlightened, a hippie with a flower in its hair and a skull-like visage:

(This hollow face reminds us that Ditko’s jokes have death—the black humorist’s favorite subject—as their punch line.) In his rendering of these characters, Ditko revels in tropes of cartoony drawing, displaying forms of distortion, exaggeration, and excess long associated with visual comedy, all inked in a controlled, rational line that drips with contempt. Ditko’s villains often think of themselves as quite funny, and they are both funny-looking and morally grotesque. Many, such as the Neutralist, sport the grin of Dr. Seuss’s Grinch,

a facial expression that marks their villainous role in Ditko’s political masquerade.

“The Avenging World”’s first satirical victim is the Mystic, a big-eared, bewildered fool who wears a motley outfit assembled from the wardrobes of the papist, pagan, and ju-ju fetishist:

Ditko’s God confesses to the Mystic that he’s a cosmic con man: “Psst. God is my name. MIRACLES is MY game” (2). Life sucks, he admits, “but after you DIE, I’ll make it up to you” (2). Even Satan sees this for what it is: “HOLY CRAP!” (2). The Mystic’s outfit is adorned with bones, perhaps the last remains of those who once believed as he does. Though he doesn’t recognize the meaning of his sartorial choices, the bones identify the Mystic as a member of what Ditko would see as a death cult, a group of believers whose philosophy is fundamentally anti-life. Religion, the cartoonist tells us, is tragedy for the living-dead, while black humor is comedy for the living.

Unlike the Mystic, the Humanitarian—a morbidly obese, relentlessly sobbing, well-dressed do-gooder—is not a super-naturalist. His flaw, though, is similar: he believes in abstractions. As unassailable proof of his sincere concern for others, his tear-soaked word balloons weep. In a panel that recalls Swift’s satirical endorsement of cannibalism in “A Modest Proposal,” the Humanitarian watches suffering people paraded into a vast “state machine,” a bureaucracy that works like a blender/meat grinder, extruding a single drop of nourishment per person:

Ultimately, the Humanitarian and all members of the rogues gallery wear symbols of the dead because their irrational beliefs, Ditko argues, are purchased at the expense of the living.

The mission of “The Avenging World” is to expose the comic absurdity—and the misery—that results from believing in anything (even humanitarianism) other than the rational self: rejecting our rational nature, we metaphorically eat each other and ourselves alive. Behind Ditko’s satire lies a utopian impulse; he’s offering a secular “revelation” of “The Truth,” of what he would simply call “the facts.” In one very anti-utopian tableau, a villain stands on a heap of anguished human forms created by ink outlines over newspaper text: we are prisoners of the words we believe:

And the philosophical comic, which exposes false beliefs, can free us. If it fails to meet this lofty goal, at least it serves up a few sick laughs.

In a 1968 story from the fanzine witzend, Mr. A diagnoses the world’s bleak and bilious moral condition: “A cancerous sore becomes too unsightly so we cover it up, hoping it will just go away while we look for some other disease to cure . . . . The hidden diseases are spreading unchecked, contaminating everything until no healthy area remains. Not in a man, not in a society!” (2). A few panels later, thugs repeatedly punch Mr. A’s alter-ego Rex Graine in the gut and kick him in the face, acts of violence that spawn a barrage of wordplay based on the metaphor of sickness. These hoods believe that violence is a “treatment” that cures the spread of heroism, and they make a threat: if Graine refuses to take their dollar “bills” he will soon have to pay some hefty doctor “bills” (3):

And criminals are not the only ones who have sick fun with words. Shortly after this scene, Mr. A delivers a little gallows humor, taking the hoods’ violence to its inevitable conclusion: death. He promises to transform a criminal’s “net of protection” into a “noose around his neck” (5).

The Mr. A stories (as well as those featuring The Question or The Mocker) show a debt to 1940s and ‘50s crime comics, which, as one of comics’ best critics Frederic Wertham has noted, are marketed on a lie. The publisher tacks a moral on the end of a story featuring fisticuffs, bondage, and decapitation (or he titles the comic Crime Does Not Pay), believing parents will assume it’s an upright tale of justice. Yet in these stories, crime does pay. The young reader is rewarded with physical sensations caused by viewing unrelenting violence that, like scarfing a bowl of sugary cereal, keeps ‘em coming back for more. The images in these comics may be sick and their plots ironic, but the irony never reaches beyond the page to prod, provoke, or punish the world. These comics don’t believe in anything.

But Ditko’s comics do. They twist conceits of crime comics and morality plays into serious gags, offering an ethical critique typical of the black humorist, who wrings irony-based visual and verbal laughs out of deeply unfunny situations. Ditko’s naming practice parodies the transparency of traditional allegories, in which a character’s name tells his or her story: Faith is faithful, Temptation is tempting, etc. While many of Ditko’s names signify a character’s key trait, other names are ironic, and still others are misleading in ways the cartoonist hopes will be illuminating. The crime boss Baggot, for example, acts like what his name sounds like: a maggot (his minions are metaphorical “leeches,” “parasites,” and a rodential lackey named Roden). The ironically named Purity is an Assistant DA who goes bad. And Miss Kinder is kind, but, like the Humanitarian, foolishly kinder than she should be. Blinded by a desperate desire to help others, Kinder fails to see that a thug named Angel is anything but angelic. And there’s another irony in his name: angels fly, but Angel can’t. He plummets to his death from a building’s flagpole in the final panel, the sacred home of a comic strip’s punch line. As he hangs onto the pole, the emotion lines around his head form a mock halo:

Shortly before Angel dies, Mr. A lands a punch on his jaw. The hood screams “AH,” an expression that inverts the classic cartoon laugh, “HA.” Death, laughter, and justice are siblings in Ditko’s work. If black humor transgresses taboos, what could be more transgressive in 1969 than a comic book hero watching someone he could have saved die, and then feeling pretty good about it?

II. The Creep and the Maniac

Did Mr. A laugh beneath his mask as Angel fell? [3] Ditko’s Creeper certainly would have. [4] At the end of “Menace of the Human Firefly!” the villain plunges from atop a lighthouse. At first, the Creeper “stands stunned and silent,” but quickly his mood changes: he “laughs a long chill mocking laugh” (18):

His laughter (far weirder than that of his pulp precursor The Shadow) is a bizarre reaction to a death that had just stunned him into silence: who or what is chilled by it (does it evoke the “chill” of death?); who or what is mocked? (the dead villain, life?). Most important, why does the Creeper laugh at all? Perhaps it’s hard to reconcile (to adapt a line from Lenny Bruce) “what should be”—the criminal brought to justice—with “what is”—the criminal dead. Maybe all that’s left to do is laugh.

The cackle that arises from this irreconcilability is, not surprisingly, troubled and excessive: it’s the maniac’s laugh, a mixture of elation and dread. The Creeper constantly jokes and laughs as part of his performance—it’s a way to unnerve his opponents. Yet when he laughs after The Firefly dies, there’s no crowd for the comedian to work. Mania overtakes him. He can’t reconcile comedy and tragedy. Like those who suffer from mania, the Creeper often displays an irrational and excessive enthusiasm. And, as he admits in other stories, he loses part of himself in the part he plays. He acts “the maniac,” but then becomes one. Recognizing that irony, sickness, and comedy are everywhere can turn a comedian, or a thinking superhero, into a bit of a maniac. And excessive, maniacal laughter visually dominates the Creeper stories:

In some panels Ditko hand-letters more than 40 HAs, and one story feature nearly 150. The HAs often spill out of the panel and across the gutters, violating the borders and margins that rationally order the grid of the comic page. The Creeper’s laughter literally can’t be contained.

The Creeper’s mania is often an unconscious response to a character’s death, but even when he self-consciously parodies super-heroism by adopting and exaggerating its visual and verbal conventions (a very costumey costume and lines like “Taste my vengeance, Scum!”), his rhetoric articulates a tension at the heart of black humor: contraries (like pleasure and pain) merge into a complex of meanings and sensations that the Ego can’t assimilate. The Creeper threatens a villain with a punishment he would never dish out, but the villain is certain he will: “I’m going to make sure you experience such extreme pleasure that you’ll die laughing” (“The Disruptor” 8):

This line comes straight from the repertoire of 1940s and ‘50s horror comics, but filtered through Ditko’s imagination, such familiar tropes get a philosophical makeover. Horrified by the thought of the paradoxical “laughing death,” the villain flees, screaming for help from a criminal Ditko mocked in “The Avenging World”: “Oh, God!” (8). The Creeper’s comedy shows his audience that death, and the thought of it, can be creepy and funny—if you’re in on the joke at God’s expense.

III. The Comedic Silent Narrator

 The stories Ditko drew for Charlton Comics in the 1960s and ‘70s feature conventional plots of haunting and murder, but the cartoonist makes things strange by giving the familiar “horror host” a philosophical and comedic makeover. [5] Typically, this character’s role was limited to cracking a joke or two when introducing and concluding a story. Ditko had expanded the host’s role in his 1950s “Mysterious Traveler” stories and elsewhere by drawing the Traveler throughout the tale: he appears in gutters between panels, in the background of images, or even as the panel in which the scene takes place. He’s both inside and outside of the narrative, a character with god-like, third-person omniscience and omnipresence. The Mysterious Traveler typically doesn’t laugh; rather he looks disinterested, concerned, or angry.

Ditko’s later horror narrators share these expressions, but they grin, smirk, and laugh—even maniacally. Physically positioned within and above the story, the narrators become Black Comedians who see the humor we miss. Though the Charlton horror comics lack the political content of the Objectivist-inspired work, they dramatize new ways of looking—and laughing—at violence and death.

“Someone Else is Here!,” scripted by frequent Ditko collaborator Joe Gill, travels common ground. Newlyweds move into a house haunted by a beautiful ghost, and with each consecutive scene, the malicious wife grows more devious and the passive husband more frustrated, making the end fairly predictable: the wife gets “replaced” by the spirit. But to see this through the pantomime of the narrator, Mr. Dedd, is to see a story (and an approach to narrative and page layout) that’s stranger than the plot would suggest. The narrator’s visual “intrusions” function as extradiegetic reaction shots, in which his responses bear a curious relationship to the scene he’s viewing:

Ditko chooses expressions and gestures that echo, magnify, obscure, and sometimes contradict the violent and emotional content of the story panel. Dedd smiles at moments that, at first, don’t seem all that funny. Then he grins almost demonically, looking uncomfortably like the evil wife. When he watches a scene that should evoke emotion—the unhappy husband wandering alone—his face shows no expression.

In other intrusions, Ditko reveals more than just the narrator’s face: we see him with fists clenched or cape raised to obscure his expression (what’s he hiding?), or posed in gestures that intensify the emotional tone of the action. Near the end of the story a two-faced Dedd looks apprehensively to the left (into the narrative past) and grins intensely toward the right (into the future), a facial transformation that resembles the Creeper’s turn from sober reflection to maniacal laughter at the end of the Firefly story. No matter the expression, there’s just something funny about having a mysterious omniscient narrator pop up and shake his fists at a character or cover his face because he finds a scene too horrifying to watch. With all of these gestures, Ditko asks us to consider the ways that serious moments and themes—abuse, violence, death, and justice—can be strangely comedic.

Dr. Graves, another Charlton host, haunts “An Ancient Wrong,” drawing our attention to the humor and pathos in the story by making a joke out of a dark situation, and by appearing, like Mr. Dedd, where we least expect him. The tale’s villain, Lord Moldrie, makes a fundamental mistake. He believes he has stolen the magical statue of the Egyptian Goddess of Love but has actually boosted the Goddess of Justice. Moldrie is a hate-filled criminal, yet Ditko shows us his desperation as he looks for what most of us seek: love. In scenes pathetically funny, he sleeps in a mummy’s coffin placed at the goddess’s feet and later “tended . . . lovingly” to the lifeless statue (6). As Ditko scoffed at the Mystic for believing in god, he ridicules Moldrie for worshiping the dead. Graves doesn’t crack one-liners, rather he reveals, almost solely by facial gestures, what’s inherently farcical in the story and in the world—the absurdity and irony that envelopes us, but often goes unnoticed. Near the tale’s end, Moldrie looks into the eyes of Justice and, realizing his mistake, dies instantly. In the final panel, Ditko draws three faces in which Graves’s grin transforms into a full-blown, Creeper-esque maniacal laugh, with mouth fully open, eyes closed, and head tilted back:

The narrator’s faces slightly overlap, forming a kind of montage, which visually represents the complexities and contradictions present in his reactions to the story’s themes. The other characters find Moldrie’s death a somber occasion, but not our host, who knows what they don’t: the weirdly funny way the tale mixes, but never quite reconciles, love and longing, justice and death.

[A three-face inter-panel sequence: from "The 9th Life"]

Ditko’s Charlton stories, like his independent comics, have a philosophical aspect: they want us to recognize that things are not always what they seem, that seemingly familiar plots can be strikingly strange. Ditko disrupts the plots with visual intrusions to remind readers to pay attention to, and see black humor in, the story’s bleak scenes. On the cover of a collection of his Charlton stories, Ditko highlights their formal inventiveness, calling them “an experience in . . . story/art techniques.” One of the few photos of the cartoonist shows him at work, near a sign that says only “Think.” The narrators’ gestures can be seen as Ditko’s advice to readers to think about the effects of his formal choices. He wants us to realize that Graves’s and Dedd’s approach to watching the plot unfold is not that of a child reading for stimulation, but an adult deliberately looking, leering, and laughing at tales of death.

IV. Conclusion / Contradiction

Throughout Ditko’s Charlton stories, his auteur work for DC, and his black and white comics, he dramatizes an abiding concern with the psychological effects of contradiction.

He insists that the slightest inconsistency in philosophical beliefs is destructive to the believer. Yet he also knows that our inconsistencies are endlessly productive: they’re the polluted spring that feeds the comedy of the black humorist. It might seem odd to mention Steve Ditko alongside of R. Crumb or Lenny Bruce, two figures whose counter-cultural views are anathema to the man who created Mr. A, the black and white embodiment of moral perfection and philosophical consistency. But like them, Ditko attacks the status quo, ridicules government and religion, exposes hypocrisy, and, most importantly, sees irony and humor wherever he looks. Early in his graphic novel The Mocker, a giant poster with a politician’s face appears to laugh: “HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!”  Shocked by the laughter, a character yells, “What kind of sick joke . . . ? Who?!” (2). It’s Ditko, the mocker.

_______________________________________________________________________
A slightly different version of this essay, without images, first appeared in
Ryan Standfest’s anthology Black Eye.

Works by Steve Ditko Discussed:

“An Ancient Wrong.” The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves #20 (1970). Reprinted in Steve
      Ditko’s 160-Page Package
(1999).
“The Avenging World” (1969). Reprinted in Avenging World (2002).
“The Disruptor.” World’s Finest Comics #251 (1979). Reprinted in The Creeper (2010).
“Menace of the Human Firefly!” First Issue Special #7, 1975. Reprinted in The Creeper
     (2010).
The Mocker, 1989.
“Mr. A.” witzend #3 (1967).
“Mr. A.” witzend #4 (1968).
“Premise to Consequence.” ..Wha..!? (1974). Reprinted in Avenging World, 2002.
“Someone Else is Here!” Ghostly Tales #86 (1971). Reprinted in Steve Ditko’s 160-Page
     Package
(1999).
___________________________________________________________________

[1] Because Ditko’s visual and thematic sensibilities dominate the stories examined in this essay, I consider them as the productions of an auteur, even if Ditko did not script, letter, or color each story.
[2] “The Avenging World” was first published in 1969, and Ditko has added new sections and revised it a number of times since then. It is a vastly underappreciated and historically significant achievement in comics formalism, combining narrative and non-narrative sequences with diagrams, elaborate splash pages, detailed and abstract figuration, extended text passages, and collages.
[3] Baggot, Roden, and Purity appear in “Mr. A,” from witzend #4 (1968); Miss Kinder and Angel appear in a story also titled “Mr. A,” from witzend #3 (1967).
[4] Ditko created the Creeper for DC in 1968, around the time he began to publish Objectivist-based philosophical comics such as the Mr. A stories and “The Avenging World.”
[5] The Charlton stories I discuss were published in the early 1970s, shortly after Beware the Creeper ended in 1969 after six issues.

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50 Responses to Steve Ditko — HA! / AH! — Laughing at Death.

  1. “The humor of Ditko’s auteur work is not the cocktail banter of Spidey and Doc Ock mid-battle”

    And it’s just as well, because that dialogue is by Stan Lee. I’m also fairly certain that he didn’t script and/or dialogue those Creeper stories, either. Mike Fleisher did the Firefly story, for example.

  2. Brendan McCarthy says:

    Ditko created and plotted The Creeper and Mike Fleisher was drafted in to add dialogue, using the ‘Marvel method’, while over at DC. Shade is also an example of this approach. Here, the writer serves the aims of the artist-creator and not the other way round as is usually the case.

    My own view is that none of the DC creations, including Hawk & Dove, captured the same magic as the Spider-Man/Dr Strange stories, done with Stan Lee. But they are nonetheless great creations by one of comics’ most interesting artists and conceptualists.

    The pre-Marvel stories created with Stan Lee are also aniother highpoint of Ditko’s career. Why they have not been collected into a quality collector’s volume by Marvel (and edited by me!) is beyond me.

  3. Bill Wehmann says:

    Marvel did collect all of the Amazing Fantasy stuff together into an omnibus collection which is pretty great

  4. Alec Trench says:

    Marvel would totally cock that up, production-wise I reckon, judging by the reprints i’ve seen of Doctor Strange (old school palette mismatched with new school printing and paper) and Atlas-era horror (thin, rough, finger-drying paper with no colour at all) anyway.

    And, as it wouldn’t be promoting their properties (characters etc), probably not that exciting an idea for them.

    But, hopefully the splendidly completist Ditko Archives will keep coming out and all that juicy 1958-1959 Charlton and Atlas stuff will get a decent, tasteful presentation, that would be sweet.

  5. patrick ford says:

    If the banter in the Lee dialogued Marvel material is “cocktail banter” it must have been a cocktail party where the guests arrived already dead drunk. Lee’s dialogue reads like an 8th grader trying to imitate Milton Caniff.

  6. patrick ford says:

    Ken, This is a very fine essay. You are right to compare Ditko to other alternative cartoonists, and to focus attention on his writing skills which are so often ignored. If Ditko had never worked in the mainstream he’d be seen in a very different way.

    His reputation as “The Spider-Man” co-creator has served only to denigrate his talents as a writer/artist.

    Many super hero fans are angry that he refused to ever return to Spider-Man, and people not interested in super heroes often see him as a super hero comic book artist.

  7. Ali Almezal says:

    I love whenever Patrick Ford comments about Stan Lee.

  8. Nick Marino says:

    Good piece. I recently picked up A Ditko Act 3 and 5 (hey, they didn’t have 4 at my shop… SO SUE ME!) and I totally agree. I mean, he has flashes of traditional narrative in there, but it’s mostly satire and parody.

  9. Robert1014 says:

    I’m sorry, but to focus on Ditko’s “writing skills” (sic) is to focus on a nullity. As a comics artist, Ditko was, briefly, a great, if eccentric, talent, particularly in his early and mid-60s heyday. Technically, his greatest achievements as an artist were the stories he drew for Jim Warren’s magazines, where he deployed ink wash or crosshatching techniques to great effect.

    However, his enthusiasm for the works of Ayn Rand had only a deleterious effect on his work. I could never figure out how a man who believed so fiercely in the Randian idea of the superior man (or woman) who worked according only to his own lights and standards could produce more and more work of such ever-decreasing polish and facility. I can only assume Ditko became so enamored of the great secrets which he felt had been revealed to him in Rand’s work, and which he, in turn, felt compelled to regurgitate, became to him the only purpose of his work, with the actual language of his chosen medium–drawing–becoming merely an afterthought, a necessary means to convey his “ideas,” but not worthy of effort by him for its own sake.

    As for Ditko’s actual prose–the written language he employed with his ever more hacked out artwork–it was always terrible…leaden, humorless, repetitive…frankly, pure shit. As for his “humor,” well, it ain’t humor if it ain’t funny…and he isn’t, except perhaps to other smug Randian twerps who see themselves as vastly superior to the rest of humanity, (despite their never having produced any works of excellence by which their superiority was demonstrated…and this is true of Ditko and of his muse, Ayn Rand).

  10. Allen Smith says:

    Shame on you, Pat. Don’t disillusion the worshippers of Stan Lee who might see this. We wouldn’t want them to have to see reality through the ass kissing rose colored haze of their childhood memories of “The Man”, would we? That aside, a great essay.

  11. Considering how popular Ditko was when I first started reading comics in 1965, he seems almost completely forgotten these days. In spite of his horrid political and philosophical delusions, I am fascinated by the man’s work and collect it wherever I can find and afford it. He’s a living national treasure.

  12. Ken Parille says:

    Sorry for the delay in responding — hurricane clean-up etc.

    Thanks for the positive words on the essay, and if I revise it, I’ll ask Patrick if I can use his line about the “cocktail party where the guests arrived already dead drunk.”

  13. If I were handed some of these cartoons on the street, I’d assume a sick mind. That grinding, mechanical dialogue isn’t funny, satirical or even creative. Along with what Robert said, some of the examples indicate Ditko didn’t even much care about what he was drawing, only that his all-important dogma be expressed (e.g., Angel getting knocked off above a flagpole, then seen hanging on the flagpole above where he was knocked off, and on the opposite building; it’s Doc Strange with horns, now antennae, now just Doc Strange; etc.). Essentially, the “comedy” amounts to “keep your hands out of my pocket, commie, or I’ll punch you in the eye.” Rush Limbaugh is a better satirist. Really.

  14. Ken Parille says:

    I think they’re FUNNY! and INTENSE! and CREATIVE! So there!

  15. Ken Parille says:

    And SICK! like sick humor

  16. Ken Parille says:

    I like the way they look

  17. patrick ford says:

    What JR Smith is saying is almost exactly the way in which I see Ditko’s independent work. In a fantasy world I suppose I can relate in small part with some of Ditko’s positions, they just have no application in the world as it is reality. His drawing is still very impressive, and while his writing isn’t suited to popular tastes it is far more interesting than conventional comic book writing.

    Ken, the enduring appreciation of Lee’s dialogue (I wouldn’t call him a writer) is a mystery to me. I often wonder when the last time people read some of those old comics was. I read a lot of his stuff with Ditko and Kirby when I became interested in Kirby back in the 70’s. I was 12-13 at the time, and liked Lee about as much as I liked William Shatner. Dipping back into his stuff on a few occasions decades later while reading a couple dozen stories to my kids I find that today I still like Lee about as much as I like William Shatner. The thing is I don’t care for that style of acting anymore, it’s like orange marshmallow circus peanuts, I used to like those things when I was a kid as well. Lee’s about as fine a writer of dialogue was William Shatner is a singer, and I can only assume the people who still like his stuff see it in pretty much the same way.

  18. You’re just mad because the hippie in the drawing near the top is you.

  19. This is a wonderful insight into one more aspect of the many faceted worlds of Steve Ditko. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us. I have been a huge Ditko fan since first tuning into his work in 1963 when Spider-Man first entered our collective consciousness. Have read virtually everything Ditko made art for up until the we changed in the Common Era into a “new” century. His newer stuff is harder to keep up with though I track it down when it enters my consciousness.

    A former employee of mine in the Bay Area back before a warehouse flooding in Feb 1986 knocked out Best of Two Worlds, Mark Stichman, was the one who discovered that Black Magic 27 pre-dated Fantastic Fears #4 as the “first” published Ditko comic book back when many of us were still tracking down all the “unknown” data for inclusion in Overstreet. Twas I who then found the Ditko story in Black Magic 28. Mark’s BM 27 find stood for many years until some one discovered Daring Love #1, but I digress…..

    When he left Marvel, bouncing into the other companies like Charlton, Warren, Tower, National (DC to you younger whipper-snappers), many of us ate up his work. There was concern when he “left” Hawk & Dove mid-steam replaced by Gil Kane. Then he does not do the cover to Creeper #6. Then the books are cancelled. WTF?

    Back in early 1969 my friend Steve Johnson and I called up Steve Ditko on the phone. We got his number via directory information, I think it was Brooklyn, the first thing said to him when he answered went something like this,

    “We’ve been boycotting Spider-Man since you left…when you coming back?….”

    He laughed, completely disarmed for a bit, and he tells us a tale of WHY he left Marvel.

    There have been many myths and legends put forth why that occurred. Most all are bogus

    He put it forth plain & simple

    He had been promised royalties if/when Spider-Man took off, which it did

    Martin Goodman made promises of royalty sharing thru Stan Lee – the latter acting as conduit for his boss.

    Steve and I took notes, were going to publish them in our ditto fanzine, Fanzation, in #3, back in mid 1969

    We had gotten into making up the ditto masters for printing when a letter arrived from Ditko asking us not to run with that story, which we stupidly honored at the time

    He wrote us that if we wanted to run some thing by him in Fanzation, here was a letter on creativity to run instead, which we did print.

    Sidebar kicker to this story: Fredric Wertham had called me up to get a subscription to Fanzation (yes, THAT Fred -:) who a few years later in his final book The World of Fanzines (1974) wherein Doc W exonerates comics fans, admitting he was wrong about SOTI two decades previously, quoted Ditko’s letter without giving him a name credit almost in toto stating this was a fine example of the creative aspects of comics fans. (Fanzation is referenced at least nine times in TWOF)

    I very recently came across that original Steve Ditko letter amongst my stuff as I sort out the shattered remnants of my life once I got literally tons of stuff moved into a “new” 4000 sq ft warehouse space following losing half a decade seeking a medical repair, then long slow healing, as I have begun work once again to finish up a book on the business aspects of the world of comics I call Comic Book Store Wars.

    Part of the tale related above is told on page 95 of Blake Bell’s bio of Ditko

    Robert Beerbohm
    http://stores.ebay.com/BLBcomics

  20. patrick ford says:

    Bob, I’ve been looking forward to Comic Book Store Wars ever since parts of it were serialized in Comic Book Artist.

    The biggest revelation was your reporting that 70’s era comic books marked “low distribution” in the Overstreet Guide were in fact issues which had “escaped” being purchased by the 10,000 by large East Coast comic book dealers who for years afterward could offer to other dealers bulk lots of Conan #1, but not Conan #3 which had eluded the dealer network. Also telling was Neal Adams describing how Green Lantern was getting major national media coverage only to see the sales of the book sinking issue by issue. Dealers were going to local distributors and purchasing “hot” comic books direct from the distributor, and the distributors were reporting those copies as unsold and destroyed in order to get a credit for “returns.” This practice may well have changed comic book history in major ways. It’s a huge story, and one which has been largely ignored.

  21. Kurt Busiek says:

    The inconsistencies you see really aren’t — Angel’s flagpole doesn’t move, Mr. A does, going down to the lower level where Kinder is lying. Nor does the building change position, the “camera” does. If you look at that story in context, it’s clear; even in the panels shown here, it’s clear enough. You can see the drp down to the lower level past Mr. A in the first panel, and see it again, from below, in the third.

    As for Mr. Dedd’s disappearing horns, note that his clothing changes, too. It’s a transformation, not an error. I haven’t seen that whole story and can’t speak to the context (nice design on the ghost, though!), but it’s a deliberate change. He seems to be in the previous panel as the uninvited party guest, too. And the “horns” don’t change before they disappear; they’re smoke-like extensions of the white stripes in his hair each time.

  22. Kurt Busiek says:

    I just looked up “Someone Else is Here!” to see it in context, and that last tier shown above, where Mr. Dedd transforms, isn’t there; it’s from a different story, and I doubt it’s the end of that story, as this article states.

  23. Ken Parille says:

    I had that tier in there as another example, but just removed it for clarity: I should have used captions.

  24. Charles Hatfield says:

    Ditko’s black sense of humor is very close to that of a Chick tract, and has in common with Chick a mean-spirited self-righteousness. His writing (justly ignored) typically consists of smug, self-confirming, ideologically blinkered nonsense peppered with snickering contempt. A little of this stuff goes a long way, even with Ditko’s mad cartooning skills.

  25. Does any one see the Ditko art in this panel? I sure do, there has much speculation in this book one way or another for some time now.

    http://img.auctiva.com/imgdata/2/9/0/8/0/3/webimg/502200653_o.jpg

    Classics Illustrated #107 adapting Talbot Mundy’s “King – of the Khyber Rifles” cover dated May 1953 overlaps a time when Gilberton came into the art school Ditko was attending, this class is reputed to have produced about ten issues.

    There are as many as three hands in this issue. There are other penals which look to contain Ditko art as well. This sample one seems rather pronounced. Hope the URL opens for every one to see OK.

    I made the panel 20 inches across so you can blow up the detail adequately

    re “affidavit return fraud” – yes, it was very rampant. Neal Adam’s ego was crushed on this book for a long time. Every time I see him at a comicon here and there he always introduces me to those he is already talking with as the guy who vindicated him on his Green Lantern/Green Arrow run. Last time was last month’s San Diego Comicon. I think he has mellowed out that he does not have to “prove” himself any more as he had put his heart & soul into those Denny O’Neill stories. They were very powerful for their day.

    As the comic book store trip grew, the demand for certain “hot artist” issues grew expotentionally. (sp?) – since the regularly ID system had each local distributor on the “honor” system, of no one was counting the pieces for returns, circulations for anything “good” were going down in many cases, like Adams Green Lantern, Kirby 4th World, etc

    Coupled with the (mainly) east coast back door operations squirrelling away huge quantities of some of the over runs from certain print runs. When we were buying 3– case loads from this source, they had over 30,000 copies.

    cases of #1 started out $600 for a box case. Two bucks each. After a few months went to $900 a case, then some months later $1200 a case. We stopped when it hit $1500 a case

    They also had #2 #4 onwards, no #3 and Overstreet handled this then-common “”off the record” by stating “low distribution” in his price guide, the original lore seems to have gotten lost over the decades as this is all now approaching 40 years ago now.

    It was beginning to become pandemic for the survival of a future of comic books trying to make it on to the news stands

    The Direct Market as evolved by Seuling bringing Code comics in 1973 into an already existing frame work invented by Print Mint taking Zap Comics national in 1968 initially was targeted to satisfy the “speculator” who was sucking up all the oxygen in certain areas creating what was then known as “regional” scarcity, a term not too much bandied about in these environs any more.

    This “back door” aspect of what was materializing as a phenom was a factor into Seuling cutting his deals for these persons to per-pay him and their books would be shipped to Coney island, then reshipped back out. It refined over the next years, obviously.

    Anyway, as much as I like weighing out all the myriad levels of how and by whom “invented” the Direct Market for comic books this is a Ditko thread which I also find just as much fun to stay focused on.

    It appears I am going to be doing a day Oct 3 next month for Leonard Rifas’s comics class at a college in Seattle. A chunk of what he wants me to cover is the origins of the DM. Should be fun, have been smack dab in the middle of going back thru all this research i did earlier, then lost half a decade into medical repair purgatory.

    best,
    Robert Beerbohm
    http://stores.ebay.com/BLBcomics

  26. patrick ford says:

    Bob, The two women closest in the foreground look like they were swiped from Caniff’s Terry, the third one back, with her mouth wide open really looks like Ditko.

    The Joe Kubert Tarzan book was another “hot” book which was on fire for dealers yet supposedly had a very poor sell through percentage. I’d think 40 or 50 thousand copies sold out the back door, and reported as pulped would have a big impact on the way a books sales figures looked to the home office.

  27. Kurt Busiek says:

    Makes sense. You’ve still got that line in about how the story ends with a two-faced Dedd, though, and it doesn’t — not “Someone Else is Here!” at any rate.

    Where was the other tier from? I’d like to look it up.

  28. Some people might be astounded at what was gleaned from IDs and warehoused back in the day, much of that going on on back east where there was more mafia control of the ID system.

    Keep in mind that when the bootleggers went out of business in 1932, institutions such as Independent News were born initially utilizing the fleets of trucks which brought hooch down from Canada.

    There was a certain mentality which permeated the periodical business at that point much more than before.

    Those early IDs then went to war with American News, the first national distributor in the country created in 1865, by the 1880s a de facto monopoly in the USA.

    By the time Ditko gets into the business, the US Supreme Court had declared ANC a monopoly, told to divest their distribution business. The Comics Code played a bit into down sizing the comics creator world.

    Prior to the mid 50s, there were quite a few comics creators who were getting royalties on successful projects. Simon & Kirby springs to mind. Kirby, along with Simon, was totally used to a royalty plan on every thing they produced from 1942 thru 1955.

    The collapse which began in the periodical world 1955-1958 downsized the field quite a bit. All of a sudden there were way more creators than titles to be created – page rate, low at that a lot, became the norm.

    Ditko learned from S&K re royalty concepts. Then there was none in the late 50s as the market place contracted. Other magazines increased cover prices, the lowly comic book did not. What used to be more than a third of all sold magazines shrunk even further till we got to that first cover price increase beginning with the Jan 1962 cover dates. Hell, the last 10 cent Superman, #149, has that classic first “death” of Superman. Many were convinced the 12 cent comic book was doomed.

    That was the environment into which the remaining publishers were grasping for straws in search of the next “big” thing.

    I think Ditko’s bouts with Tuberculosis affected his outlook on life, and how to deal with it all. The classic symptoms are a chronic cough with blood-tinged sputum, fever, night sweats, and weight loss (the last giving rise to the formerly prevalent colloquial term “consumption”). Infection of other organs causes a wide range of symptoms so sez wiki

    Most people leave that concept out of the equation when trying to analyze Ditko’s out put.

    With his later stuff, it is unfair to compare his work in the 1990s when he was in his 70s and now he is in his mid 80s with his output back when he was in his prime age 35 in 1962. Back in the early 60s “they” were figuring out how to save the comic book

    Comic books made an obvious come back, by the late 60s the number of active collectors was increasing expotentially for a number of factors – the concept of the comic book store was beginning to take root, and their persons who wished to supply such a fever were figuring out how to accomplish such goals

    best

    Robert Beerbohm
    http://stores.ebay.com/BLBcomics

  29. Allen Smith says:

    It ain’t funny to YOU. And, the irony of the essays title is that the humor isn’t ha ha funny, but darkly funny. Sorry if subtlety escapes you.

  30. Ken Parille says:

    Patrick,

    I do like some of Lee’s dialogue, especially that in the humor and teen comics — he can reel off pun after bad pun in a way that I really like. I do find, though, that in his superhero comics, his dialogue can get in the way of the art/plot.

  31. Ken Parille says:

    Kurt,

    I’ll look up that tier’s source when I get to my stuff.

  32. Ken Parille says:

    In a way, that’s why I wrote the essay and started it with a reference to Spider-Man.

  33. Ken Parille says:

    Robert,

    Thanks. And I really enjoy all of the background information in your posts.

  34. Ken Parille says:

    “And, the irony of the essays title is that the humor isn’t ha ha funny, but darkly funny”

    This is my position, too.

  35. Ken Parille says:

    I certainly understand – I think – what people mean when they talk about “writing.” But that’s not really how I think about Ditko’s work. My essay is not about his writing per se, but about his cartooning.

    Just in case this needs to be stated, “I proudly proclaim that I am not a Randian.” My politics have nothing in common with Rand’s. But I love the art Ditko creates. Charles mentioned Jack Chick; his beliefs are the total opposite of mine, but I love his comics too.

  36. Ken Parille says:

    Nick,

    Thanks. I have gotten some of the new things, but mean to soon.

  37. patrick ford says:

    Ken, I’ve got a great ” 101 elephant jokes” book for you.

  38. Mike Hunter says:

    A fascinating article; regarding his highlighting of the “horror hosts” and having them appear throughout the story, it’s as if Ditko was giving them a “Greek chorus”-type position…

    One can certainly detest Objectivism — as I do — and still appreciate the verve and visual inventiveness with which Ditko expounds its viewpoints.

    The plots are simplistic as a Jack Chick tract, the dialogue crudely heavy-handed, the characters flat symbols rather than complex humans. “Smug, self-confirming, ideologically blinkered nonsense peppered with snickering contempt” is on-target, and goes along with my theory as to why all the best political cartoonists are liberal ones: because a simplistic worldview produces blunt-instrument cartooning to match.

    There’s inspired inventiveness to be found there, though: the Dr. Seuss on-a-bad-acid-trip image of the road to evil, splitting and splintering into twisted, ever-darkening variations; the “Mystic”panel mocking the premises of organized religion with a satiric pungency unmatched by any other cartoonist I’ve run across.

    ———————-

    Brendan McCarthy says:

    …The pre-Marvel stories created with Stan Lee are also another highpoint of Ditko’s career…

    ———————–

    Indeed! His art was at its peak then too, I think; as he moved into the realm of superheroes, his figures grew ever more simply stylized, gestures operatically broad, rendering linear rather than sculptural…

  39. steven samuels says:

    “If by “writing” one means cartooning, then we all agree.”

    No. By “writing” we mean dialogue that is readable, well-crafted and at least reasonably intelligent. Comics are both words and imagery.

    As if you couldn’t guess, I pretty much agree with Charles Reece on this one.

    I am curious about Ditko’s psychological makeup. How does one remain a Randian after experiencing those slights while working at Marvel? So socialism is “bad” but corporate socialism, the inevitable by-product of laissez-faire, is ok? “Mr. A” might as well call himself “Mr. M” — as in Masochist.

  40. Ken Parille says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks.

    “One can certainly detest Objectivism — as I do — and still appreciate the verve and visual inventiveness with which Ditko expounds its viewpoints. ‘

    I certainly agree.

  41. Ken Parille says:

    Kurt,

    “You’ve still got that line in about how the story ends with a two-faced Dedd, though, and it doesn’t — not “Someone Else is Here!”

    That panel appears on the last page of “Someone Else is Here!” — middle tier.

    The image I used to show other expressions (and have since deleted) comes from “Hide and Eeeek.” It has Dedd with horns in his narrator version shortly followed by Dedd without horns and wearing a suit and bowtie: here, he is a character in the story. As you say, there are no inconsistencies in this tier; it’s two related Dedds, but not the same one.

    I have added the opening page from “Hide and Eeeek” to the bottom of the essay.

    Ditko does something pretty cool in the splash panel: both Dedds appear, but you wouldn’t know it, yet. The narrator sits on a pedestal in the panel’s far left; his alter ego is, at first, unrecognizable, shown by the back of his head and shoulders near the narrator. The alter-ego’s face is visible only after he has moved across the scene and appears, dramatically, from behind the curtain.

  42. Rand Corporation says:

    Objections to Objectivism in the form of…feelings about Objectivism. I can see some of you read Ditko’s work without “getting” much of it.

    How about sharing some actual logical flaws you’ve found in Objectivism or in Ditko’s related writing?

  43. Kirk Greenfield says:

    Unfortunately, this out-of-print volume is trading at over $100 places it out-of-reach for me, but I keep looking for a nice used copy.

  44. nick caputo says:

    For those interested in new Ditko work, Robin Snyder has a Kickstarter campaign up now:

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1704592942/9-teen-by-robin-snyder-and-steve-ditko/posts/762328

  45. nick caputo says:

    For those of you interest in the latest Ditko product – a new Kickstarter campaign begins today: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1704592942/20-by-robin-snyder-and-steve-ditko

  46. Mike Hunter says:

    How about, the very idea that human beings can truly be “objective”?

    (Better late than never…)

    Oh, and Ayn Rand, champion of the Individual over the despised Collective, swooned over a murderer who kidnapped and dismembered a 12-year-old girl:

    —————————–
    “Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should,” she wrote, gushing that Hickman had “no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.’”

    …Rand denounced [his] hanging as, “The mob’s murderous desire to revenge its hurt vanity against the man who dared to be alone.”

    …“If [people] place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man’s life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite.”
    —————————–
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/08/12/1119294/-Ryan-s-Hero-Ayn-Rand-Worshiped-A-Serial-Killing-Psychopath

    More details about Hickman’s horrendous crime: http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/08/mark-ames-paul-ryans-guru-ayn-rand-worshipped-a-serial-killer-who-kidnapped-and-dismembered-little-girls.html

  47. nick caputo says:

    A reminder to Ditko fans, the latest Ditko/Snyder Kickstarter project has less than two weeks to go with more than $ 4oo.oo needed to complete the goal. It would be great if TCJ would post a notice or a short write up on their opening page to get the word out : https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1704592942/20-by-robin-snyder-and-steve-ditko?ref=discovery

  48. nick caputo says:

    For those interested in supporting the independent work of Steve Ditko, a new Kickstarter campaign begins today, featuring the return of Mr. A. Spread the word! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1704592942/mr-a-by-robin-snyder-and-steve-ditko

  49. Oliver says:

    I contributed to one of Ditko’s Kickstarters and specified I wanted no acknowlegement or reward for my donation. Robin Synder still bombarded me with e-mails asking for my address “to send me something”. Honestly, you’d think working for Ditko, of all people, would impress upon you the importance of respecting people’s wishes.

  50. Nick Caputo says:

    Hot on the heels of the Mr. A Kickstarter comes more new Ditko material:

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1704592942/2oww1-by-robin-snyder-and-steve-ditko

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