An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
It seems like you can't go two minutes without running into Spider-Man these days. You round a corner and he's there, pointing his web shooters at you and saying, "I've finally found you and justice will be served." You roll over in bed and he's there saying "How's it going honey?" On top of that, there's a new Spider-Man movie out and every magazine on this side of Croquet Monthly is doing a cover story on Marvel Comics' most popular superhero. Spider-Man has arrived in pop culture - arrived in a big way.
I'm a huge Spider-fan, having been introduced to him at the age of five, by Marvel's successful toddler-aimed comic book series, Spidey Super Stories. (Produced in conjunction with the Electric Company, each issue had a small picture of Morgan Freeman in his "Easy-Reader" incarnation, stating, "Easy Reader says this comic is easy to read.") Later I graduated on to a book entitled Marvel Premier which had taken to reprinting classic Spider-Man stories from the seventies. I loved the character for a gamut of reasons. I adored his costume, I related to the travails of Spidey's alter-ego (Peter Parker), I thrilled to the stories, and I loved feeling a part of something. The world of Spider-Man was a place unto itself, with its own cast of characters, complicated plotlines, and a sense of history.
The quest for some sense of the history of Spider-Man, invariably led me to the early issues of the Amazing Spider-Man comic book, particularly the first 38, which were written by Marvel headmaster Stan Lee and drawn by a fellow I was then unfamiliar with - Steve Ditko. I managed to track down some reprint versions of the Lee/Ditko stories, opened up the pages, perused Ditko's art and. hated it!
Ditko's drawings seemed juvenile to me. unschooled, sloppy, the work of a kid. Compared to later Spider-artists like John Romita, Gil Kane, or the vastly underappreciated Ross Andru, Ditko could not hold up. I can remember reading those early issues (what many now will agree to be some of the greatest comics in the history of the industry) and thinking "I can't believe they even gave this guy a job!?" To add to my disbelief, I started to read various comic fanzines and would come across articles praising Ditko as one of the demi-gods of the comic world. They complimented his "superior draftsmanship" or "unique use of shadow and light" I would read these articles and be baffled. "Are we talking about the same guy? This Ditko cat couldn't draw his way out of a paper bag."
So how then, did I arrive at the peculiar headspace I am in today, where I regard Ditko as one of the preeminent comic artists of the past century? Why is it I can spot Ditko artwork from two hundred yards with one eye tied behind my back? Why now, when I come across some yet unseen Ditko artwork, do I experience a slight increase in salivation, as if I've been trained like one of Pavlov's dogs? How did the transformation from Ditko-Hater, to Ditko-Lover occur?
I think one
reason is that, even as a cursory fan, it's impossible to not acknowledge
the Ditko legacy. From those early Spider-Man comics emerged some of the
most memorable villains in Comicdom. The Green Goblin. Doctor Octopus.
Mysterio. The Vulture. Kraven the Hunter. Those guys existed on a level
of pop culture even your Mom was aware of. They've constantly reappeared
in Spider-Man (and other) comics for the past thirty years, simply because
they were terrific villains. Ditko's artwork was at the foundation of
the Marvel Comics Universe - there may have been better artists, or more
prolific artists - but there were few more important artists!
(Hell, I can count them on one hand - Jack Kirby, John Byrne, Frank Miller,
Neal Adams - that's about it!)
unfair to just focus on Ditko's Spider-Man work. Let's not forget the
other noteworthy character he created (with Lee) at Marvel: Doctor Strange.
I discovered the exploits of master magician, Steven Strange, in a much
different manner than I did Spidey. I was already well versed in the iconography
of super heroes and had taken to picking up several of Marvel's weighty
tomes that collected the classic stories ("Origins of Marvel Comics,"
"Son of Origins," "Greatest Battles" etc.) wherein I came across the adventures
of the good doctor. What was so appealing about Doctor Strange was that
he existed in his own sub-universe. Whereas the typical Marvel characters
- Spidey, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four - existed and often interacted
with each other on the streets of New York - Doctor Strange traveled to
whole different dimensions; alternate realities populated with creatures
who'd taken a left turn at the last H.P. Lovecraft novel: The Dread Dormammu,
Nightmare, Baron Mordo. Comics were about escape, and the Doctor Strange
stories offered and even deeper pit of fantasy to get lost in, an even
thicker blanket of non-reality to pull over your head.
And I think it was during my sojourn into the world of Ditko's Doctor Strange that my opinion started to turn. Ditko's art still seemed amateurish compared to more realistic draftsmen such as John Romita, or John Bucema, but there was something there. a degree of passion that not many other artists could pull off. You could feel a genuine sense of excitement in what Ditko was doing with the Doctor Strange stories. He was creating whole new concepts of reality, and what was cool was in the details. The circular blobs that Doctor Strange would use to cross into different dimensions, the arcane hand gestures he would make when proffering blasts of ectoplasmic energy (a gesture not far from the one Spider-Man would make when ejecting webs from his web-shooters), the alien plant life that seemed to hang, unsuspended, in the alternate realities Strange visited. To me, Ditko's work has lasted in the same manner of 60's special effects great Ray Harryhausen - there are newer, better special effects, but in Harryhausen's work, you can see the elbow grease, the creativity. The same is true with Ditko in the sixties: no one had the ratio of creativity per pencil stroke that he had.
But, you know, even if you ignored the sheer importance of what Ditko did from a historical viewpoint, I came to see that as an artist, Ditko was really quite good. The whole "shadows and light" thing I had originally mocked in the comic fanzines had a lot of credence to it. (In this regard, it's easy to see Ditko's influence on later industry stars like Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.) Jack Kirby probably created the classic, bright color comic-book "look," later appropriated by pop artist Ray Lichtenstein, but Ditko held true to an earlier influence of comic-noir - the black and white oppressiveness that was found in Jerry Robinson's Bat-Man comics, the gritty storylines of Raymond Chandler and paranoid angles as seen in the sexploitation films of Doris Wishman. (Indeed, rumors abound that Ditko inked some of Eric Stanton's bondage pin ups, a claim that Ditko denies.) It was Ditko's streetwise sensibility that grounded Spider-Man in the metropolitan mire that has always been a key facet of his character. And in the Doctor Strange series, shadows could hold more than an axe wielding serial killer, but a passageway to a whole 'nother dimension.
With Ditko's stature as the one of the key collaborators of the Marvel Legacy (a role, much to the chagrin of ivory tower culture critics, that makes Ditko one of the most important storytellers of the modern age) came a degree of controversy. Though Stan Lee is credited as being the writer on most of the classic Marvels, his role in the plotting of such stories has increasingly fallen under attack, with the assumption made that it was the artists themselves who actually created the plotlines, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby in particular. (Lee's role as that of a master of comic dialogue has never been disputed, as it is so unique and has had an undeniable influence on many of America's key authors, such as Alan Moore, Leonard Pitts Jr., and myself.) It is known that while working on the early issues of the Spider-Man comic, Lee and Ditko's relationship deteriorated, eventually resulting in Ditko leaving the book after issue 38.
But the game was not up for Ditko. In the past 30 years, he's bounced from Marvel to D.C. Comics and even established himself as one the more successful independent comic artists. Along the way, he's left his mark on many entertaining, if not particulary popular, comic characters, including The Question, Shade the Changing Man and The Creeper. But the character that undoubtedly brought Steve Ditko to the forefront is Spider-Man. And in the midst of the Spidey-explosion sweeping the country, it's not too much to hope that some attention gets cast in the direction of the man without there would be no Spider-Man.
(Of course, being the subject of an Interesting Motherfuckers column is more fame than most people can handle.)
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!
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