Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ditko in Opposition

When you enjoy art you have to take the creator of the art along with what he or she has created. And in doing so, you should accept that creator, warts and all.

Often, I find myself enjoying the work of someone with whom I would not want to associate on any other level. For instance, I love reading the fiction and poetry of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. But I wouldn’t have wanted to spend one minute in the company of any of those men. Kerouac was a chronic drunk and a right wing jackass. William Burroughs was a murdering drug addict, and both he and Allen Ginsberg were pedophiles.

But I admire the artwork those creeps created.

I suppose this is how people who like the poetry of Ezra Pound must feel. They admire his skill as a poet, but remind themselves constantly of what a disgusting human he was.

I consider the world of comic books and their creators to be important parts of Americana. Comic books are a uniquely American art form. Things similar to comic books appeared before America coalesced, but by and large the form is completely our own. It rose out of New York publishing and flowered in the 1930s and 1940s and continued to grow from then and survives today. It is an important literary and art form, especially for Americans.

One great creator who came out of the second or third wave of creators spawned from the comic book industry was Steve Ditko. His work began to see print in the early 1950s, well after the pioneers of comics had established themselves, but relatively early in the history of comics. From the time I was an eight-year-old reading my Marvel Comic books, I admired Mr. Ditko’s style and would scour through the stacks of comics seeking out anything that he illustrated. His work was striking, imaginative, quirky, different. I liked it then and I continue to admire it now.

Even as a child I could tell that Ditko’s comic books were different in many ways. No one else drew like Ditko. There wasn’t another artist in the field who could understand anatomy the way he did and use that knowledge to adjust the images in such a way that one immediately recognized his work simply by glancing ever so briefly at a single panel. There was only one Ditko.

And of course the crowning achievement of his career was then, and remains, the Amazing Spider-Man. There had never been anything like Spider-Man, and there really has never been anything to equal it since. Ditko covered every base when he created Peter Parker and his alter ego, the Amazing Spider-Man. Who has since come up with iconography to match that costume? Those colors? What writer/artist has conceived a hero imbued with the qualities of that fantastic kid? Why has no one ever been able to create a comic book that held the sense of tension and angst that filled the pages with such emotion?

Also, beneath the surface, Ditko was teaching his readers subtle lessons. He was telling the boys and girls who were reading this book that people had moral choices to make with almost every decision. He was trying to tell his readers that there was a right way and a wrong way and that you had to think hard to take the proper path. These were messages that stuck with me from the days when I was a child. Comics were far deeper than many in those early days would admit. If Jack Kirby was every kid’s rabbi, then Steve Ditko had become the chief philosopher of comic book fandom.

Then, later in life as I came to inspect and read of Ditko’s personal philosophies—things spelled out in no uncertain terms in his self-published comics—I discovered that his political and chief philosophical beliefs were quite the opposite of my own. I found the path that he chose to celebrate to be utterly fascist. His beliefs were (and apparently are) diametrically opposed to mine. I am not as far to the left as he is to the right, but I cannot imagine a person whose political and philosophical and moral ideas to be any more repugnant.

And, yet, I still admire his work. I still enjoy his comics and I seek them out to read and see and collect. Why is that? What did I see in Ditko’s work that still attracts me?

There’s the obvious, yes. I just like looking at what he does with two dimensional images. He achieves things with pen and ink that no other comic book artist can equal. His work is different. It is singular.

And, in the end, Steve Ditko did teach me two important lessons, philosophically, that stuck with me from the times I was a kid and which echo now that I’m an adult:

He taught me that it’s important to be self-sufficient, and that one must take responsibility for one’s actions.

Those are two very good lessons, and universal ones. Those are things that transcend politics, and even the concepts of what is “good” and what is “right”.


Anonymous said...

I hear the word "fascist" used here and there to describe Ditko's beliefs and his work, and it kind of bugs me. I haven't read all of his self-published work, but I am familiar with some of the key ones ("Avenging World", "Mr.A"), and I think I get his point (as much as anyone who isn't Ditko can get his point). Selfish, paranoid, harsh, and unforgiving, maybe, but not fascist. Fascism puts the needs of the state/military/race/whatever over the needs of the individual, which would seem to be the OPPOSITE of Ditko's celebration of the individual's rights. Can you offer any specific quotes or samples that would denote fascist leanings in his work? I would be very curious to see them, as it would definitely make me re-think my ideas about the man.

HemlockMan said...

You kind of answered some of the point in your own post: "Selfish, paranoid, harsh, and unforgiving..."

If that's not a good start on fascist ideology then there isn't a good start.

Ditko, like all fascists, sees the world in stark contrasts of good/evil (as judged by Ditko). Ditko does, indeed, put the needs of the powerful over those of the powerless. All fascists bow down to the power of the rich, the elite, the established over the needs of the dispossessed, the unfortunate, the down and out. Like all plutocratic fascists, he argues that those with power/wealth must certainly have earned it and thus be deserving of it. Everything that he writes and illustrates is carefully constructed to argue this fallacy.

Ditko makes light of compassion and draws any who feel it as not only buffoons, but as being in the dark side of his good/evil paths. Classic fascist thinking.

If Ditko's ideas appeal to you, then perhaps you should just look upon fascism as a reliable model. Personally, I find his political and philosophical tracts to be poisonous and quite hideous. Pretty to look at and showing a stark and insane way of looking at the world--I still get a kick out of them and wouldn't want to inhibit or deny their publication. Unlike Ditko's fellow travelers, I have no problem with free speech. I do, however, get a kick out of making light of his extreme right wing/fascist propaganda.

Anonymous said...

Acknowledging someone's point and attempting to clearly understand it is not the same as finding their ideals appealing. My only issue with your (and many) opinions on Ditko is the constant incorrect accusations of fascism.

Let's start with the basic premise that fascism is a political ideology that puts the needs of the government ahead of the needs of the individual. This is where you get your start on fascist ideology:

If you find a significantly different definition, please post it.

Now, let's look at some of Ditko's quotes from "The Avenging World" (all crazy capitalizations, grammar and spelling errors, and nutty beliefs are straight from the book):

"The issue is whether a man has a RIGHT to act on HIS OWN judgements (right or wrong), to act with others in MUTUAL CONSENT, devoid of fraud or force, or MUST HE BE FORCED TO ACT TO PLEASE THE RIGHT OR WRONG JUDGEMENTS OF OTHERS."

"When someone through the law takes over what was or is a moral issue, FORCE IS INITIATED THROUGH LEGAL SANCTION! Someone's moral OUGHT (choice) becomes LEGALIZED, what EVERYONE MUST DO OR NOT DO!"

"A man has the right to speak only for himself or for those who accept him as their spokesman...When anyone claims to speak for the public it is because he seeks, Not any GOOD FOR ALL, but CONTROL, POWER OVER ALL MEN."

None of that sounds very fascist to me.

My perception is that Ditko, in his own way, championed the right of the individual more than anything, and saw many "liberal" systems such as welfare as being forced on the public and thereby unjust...but he also believed the same about many conservative, right-wing ideas that told the individual what to do in any way.

Finally, and I really do mean this respectfully, even though there is no way to type it without sounding like a dick...when you wrote "Like all plutocratic fascists, he argues that those with power/wealth must certainly have earned it and thus be deserving of it.", I really don't believe you have any idea what you are talking about. This is fundamentally opposed to anything I have ever read by the man, and whether or not you agree with him or find him horrible, it is a huge disservice to him to write that. I request again that you reprint/scan/quote anything that backs your statement up. I'm not too familiar with his 90's - current work, so I will glady offer an apology if you do, but I just don't see it. Thanks for your time.

HemlockMan said...

Well, I'm glad you're intellectually involved, but your arguments are just smoke and mirrors.

Ditko and his idol, Ayn Rand are definitely fascists. You can argue all you want about the "individual" but when it comes down to the nitty gritty with these guys, they worship money and power and the only rights that matter to them are the rights of the wealthy, even to the point of denying similar rights to those without money and power.

No one likes to admit that the ideology that they've adopted is wrong or evil. Something in these ideas obviously appeals to you. Why? I can't say. Most extremist philosophies are downright evil, whether they come from the right (as in Ditko's case) or the far left. Ditko is about as far to the right as one can get.

And even I will admit that there are good points within Ditko's work. When I was a kid I picked up on his themes of responsibility and standing up for (one's idea of) truth. Those are admirable things, basically. I liked them when I was a kid and I still do. And no matter how much I disagree with Mr. Ditko's highly objectionable world view, I acknowledge his near-genius talent as a comic book artist. Few equal him. None really surpass him as a comic book creator.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I've read interviews where other writers & artists discuss Ditko's change towards Objectivism at some point in the early 60s, and how it changed him. I've only seen portions of Mr. A, and I have no doubt that if Charlton had kept things going past 1966, The Question would have been the same character. I think the problem is assoc. the word fascist in the broader concept. Selfish and unforgiving is Mr. A exactly. To put it on a different playing board, if you had The Question and five other random characters interacting, I could see where Ditko's beliefs should stand out. DC's character Green Arrow has always been the "bleeding-heart liberal," and yet he doesn't act all that different from the rest of the guys. But at some point, when the word is needed, instead you'll get "now you're starting to sound like Green Arrow." Change GA for The Question, and you can't change 'liberal' to 'fascist.' That's just how I see it.

HemlockMan said...

Comparing a liberal to a fascist? That's certainly not a fair shake. Liberals are the enablers of the status quo. They sometimes sound as if they mean business, but they just end up helping to maintain the system and prevent any real change for the common good.

The Green Arrow character was briefly a set piece for one writer's lukewarm liberal beliefs. But the writer did not create Green Arrow (was GA another one of Jack Kirby's creations?), so comparing Dennis O'Neil's GA to Ditko's neo-fascist imagery is a real stretch by any measure.