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The Unholy Three

Steve Ditko, an American comics titan, died last week, and Michael Dean wrote our obituary for the man.

Steve Ditko, the comics artist whose vision brought Spider-Man and Doctor Strange to life, passed away at his New York City home on June 29th, 2018. Stan Lee, in his credits for The Amazing Spider-Man, called the artist “Swingin’ Steve Ditko” (issue #10) and later “Scowlin’ Steve Ditko” (issue #27), but if you had to choose one adjective to attach to Ditko’s name, it might be “Uncompromising.”

Consider these facts:

  • At a time when Marvel cultivated a house look based on Jack Kirby’s muscular explosiveness, Ditko stuck to his own style — all rubbery sinews and urban shadows. In an extreme version of the famous Marvel Method, Ditko said he told the stories visually, often with little or no input, inventing villains and situations, which Lee retroactively scripted. When communications broke down between the artist and writer, Ditko simply walked away without explanation.
  • Ditko’s independent Mr. A comics for Wally Wood’s witzend magazine in the late 1960s expressed his objectivist philosophies in bluntly abstract scenarios, even though they had little appeal for most young comics readers and were out of sync with countercultural ideologies of the time. He continued to draw Mr. A for more than 50 years.
  • When Renegade Press publisher Deni Loubert accepted an Inkpot Award on Ditko’s behalf at the 1987 San Diego Comic-Con, Ditko was reportedly outraged and insisted that she return it.
  • Plans for a late 1990s comics series to be written and drawn by Ditko and published by Fantagraphics were scuttled after the first issue when Ditko took offense at a coloring mistake on the cover. Offers to make amends by printing the art with the correct coloring in a later issue were rejected by Ditko, who refused to do any further issues.
  • In 2007, a BBC documentary, In Search of Steve Ditko, tracked Ditko down to his New York office but could not coax him to appear on camera or be interviewed. Although Spider-Man co-creator Lee made a career of being in the public eye, Ditko gave no interviews after 1968, turning down even a request from his hero, Will Eisner.
  • He declined to cooperate with Blake Bell’s 2008 Ditko biography Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, calling the book, sight unseen, a “poison sandwich,” and turned the biographer away from his door, as he had many journalists over the years.
  • When prominent novelist Jonathan Lethem asked to include a Ditko story in the 2015 volume of The Best American Comics, Ditko turned him down.
  • Despite living a Spartan existence eking out a meager living his final years, he refused to sell his original art, which would have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Small-press publisher Greg Theakston told of finding the artist using original Ditko art from 1958 as a cutting board.

We also have the final installment from our 2012 roundtable about fine arts and comics, with Michael Dooley's followup interview with Joe Coleman.

MICHAEL DOOLEY: Rather than “outsider” or “lowbrow” art, the important thing for you is, there’s good art and there’s bad art. Right?

JOE COLEMAN: Yes.

DOOLEY: So how would you define those terms, good art as distinguished from bad art?

COLEMAN: There could be a number of different qualifications for that. You know, I’m also someone who enjoys comics as well, so I don’t feel that comics are in some way an art form that is lesser. But just as there are good paintings and bad paintings, there are good comics and bad comics. In any art form, there are different criteria for what makes good and bad, as well. For instance, some works may be well executed with a formal quality that makes them stand out in a way, and with other works of art, there may be something that is very thoughtful and makes you really think. And there are other works of art that just reach you on an emotional level or hit you in the gut and your response comes from that. So, to me, it’s like the three places are the mind, the heart and the gut. And I think the works that are really successful touch on all of those, but are usually stronger in one or the other. Probably the most successful, are the ones that reach me in the gut first and then the other places later. Like if something is just, say, painted or written really well, that may be enjoyable to some degree, but it just doesn’t stay with you, or stick to your ribs. And if something is really provoking and you can’t add one thing, it kind of becomes like an infection and you’ve become infected with it and it changes your life. I remember when I read the prison diary of Carl Panzram, Killer: A Journal of Murder, it changed my life, changed the way I looked at the world. He had a certain quality about his writing. He had no formal education. But, here is a guy reading Immanuel Kant and Schopenhauer, searching for that kind of literature in prisons in the early 1900s. He spoke from his own experience. It is very profound and speaks in a way that touches anyone. He might be considered an “outsider,” but it’s powerful writing and it doesn’t need to be apologized for.  It doesn’t need to have parentheses around it saying it’s not literature or that it’s in some other category. And I think that’s true for any art form. It doesn’t have to be qualified, like the word “comics.” I have no shame in the word comics — you know how some people talk about “sequential art” or some other pretentious words.

DOOLEY: So your entry point, no matter what the medium, is a visceral one.

COLEMAN: Yeah.

And finally, we have a brand new contributor to our regular Cartoonist's Diary feature this week, Sarah Horrocks.


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