Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stealing Ditko's Thunder and the Sweat of his Brow

One rumor surrounding the departure of Steve Ditko from Marvel and his relinquishing of the reins of his title The Amazing Spider-Man is that there was contention over the developing plot concerning the Green Goblin.

The popular story (and unfounded rumor) maintains that Ditko wanted the secret identity of The Goblin to be revealed as a total unknown--a nobody, if you will. This same story goes that Stan Lee wanted the Goblin's secret identity to be revealed as Norman Osborne for which the continuing story had been leaving hints. This story is made semi-believable by the myth that Stan Lee was actually writing the book. But it was Ditko who was writing The Amazing Spider-Man and he had not been building up the clues pointing to Osborne for nothing.

Another reason this false story is believed by so many comics fans is that Ditko had already used that plot device in another storyline involving the Goblin. Ditko had introduced a continuing shady character called The Crime-Master and he actually did follow that storyline out to the conclusion mentioned in the myth about why he left the book. In issue #27 of The Amazing Spider-Man, the Crime Master is finally cornered and shot to death by police officers. When they unmask him he turns out to be nobody, a character no one in the series had ever seen without the mask. It was a brilliant stroke on Ditko's part, especially considering that he had left clues that the villain was someone known within the continuity of the book. Ditko was skilled at surprising the readers. This is not an easy thing to do with the formulaic mechanisms of super-hero comics.

Having used this plot device once, there is no reason Ditko would turn to it again less than two years later to wrap up the Green Goblin storyline. He had already played that one out in the Crime-Master series, and I'm sure he wasn't interested in leading his fans down that same path once again.

During the last years of Spider-Man, Ditko did excel at creating villains who were mysterious, who were unknown, and had the readers chomping at the bit to know the bad guy's true identity. He did this with his arguably greatest villain, the Green Goblin. He followed it up with the Crime-Master. And he did it a third time in what became his penultimate work, the Master Planner story arc in The Amazing Spider-Man issues #31 through #33. And in that one he played the story like a fine instrument and the secret identity of the mystery villain was revealed to be...a well known villain from past issues of the book (Doctor Octopus). It was a stroke of pure brilliance.

So while the cycle of good versus evil, of the super-hero versus super-villain, was one that Ditko was, by necessity, going to use over and over, he was not a writer to repeat himself at as fine a point in the plot as to use an exact device quick in succession. If he was going to reveal a secret identity again, it was going to be something different--not a rehashing of a storyline he'd used so recently.

After Ditko left Marvel, his creations continued to make vast sums for the company. Indeed, the stories he'd left behind as his legacy were mined again and again by creators far less gifted. Just look to the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 to see how even small details he added to stories were stolen to produce work credited to others in later years.

But let's put to rest once and for all the myth that Ditko abandoned his most powerful creation, The Amazing Spider-Man, over a quibble with his editor concerning the secret identity of the Green Goblin. Ditko had always intended that it was Norman Osborne. That may have been a surprise to his editor, and to his fans. But it was the plan all along for Steve Ditko.

It obviously took a far more egregious moral crime committed against him to make Ditko walk away from his characters. The nature of those crimes we can only surmise from the clues left behind. And those clues are far more serious than a silly comic book plot. And the villains far more evil than Norman Osborne, for they are real, and their crimes continue even today, years after Ditko walked the high moral ground and took his leave of Marvel and the thieves who robbed him.

But I know the identity of the hero in that sad story, and his name is Steve Ditko.

Who's Hiding Behind the Mask?


Kirk G said...

I am a bit puzzled by your article. I had to re-read the first paragraph three times to assure that I had read it correctly. I feared that you had switch which creator wanted which ID for the Goblin. You state that the clues for the Osborne ID are scattered throughout the run, however you do not cite a single one. I would want something to back up what you claim. MY understanding is that Ditko had been aiming at Ned Leeds as the ID of the Goblin, and that Osborne was a last minute switch, forced upon him by an Editor who was P.O.ed that Ditko had wanted full writing credit. If Ditko had reached his zenith with the Master Planner trilogy "The Final Chapter", then the following one shots with successively lesser villians either represents inventory stories, or marking time on someone's part. I have read the final few issues were leading to a reveal of the Goblin's ID, but the visual clues lead to Ned Leeds, NOT Osborne, as was retroactively declared in ASM #40. I would LOVE to read a list of clues that you claim point to Osborn all along. Please enumerate and explain more.

HemlockMan said...

Ned Leeds. Right.

Kirk G said...

So, are you agreeing that it was Ned Leeds that Ditko was aiming at, or are you mocking the idea?

HemlockMan said...

Every mystery writer has to toss some goofy possibilities into the mix. In this case, including Ned Leeds. Else why would the readers have considered anyone but the real villain?

No one will know what, exactly, Ditko would have done with the title after he ceased to write and illustrate it and walked away from Marvel Comics.

I hope you're not one of those silly folk who think publisher's blowhard nephew was writing the books (or had a hand in creating them).

Patrick Lemaire said...

The big problem with this article is that Ditko introduced Osborn in #37 and leaves the series with issue #38, yet the mystery of the Green Goblin's identity had been running since #14 and you claim Ditko had been "building up the clues". How did he do that over two issues?

Al said...

I think Ditko has stated that he intended for Norman Osborne to be the Green Goblin from the start, in an essay in an issue of Robin Snyder's The Comics.

HemlockMan said...

The Goblin was obviously a fellow of great means. You don't conjure portable jet riders and pyrotechnic contraptions out of thin air. Ditko was a writer of some skill in those days and was going to use logic within his superhero world as much as possible. It would have made sense for the Goblin to be a power-mad industrialist. We don't know how long Ditko would have drawn out the story if his relationship with the thieves at Marvel had not come to a head. Perhaps the climax to the long-running mystery would have happened much later than issue #39-40. We'll never know unless someone pries it out of Steve Ditko.

Steve Ditko created Spider-Man. He wrote Spider-Man. He penciled and inked Spider-Man. The publisher's nephew did not co-create Spider-Man, or anything else from the minds of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.

Kirk G said...

My appologies. I meant to say I had to re-read the second paragraph multiple times, but couldn't edit my comment. I am still awaiting your list of "clues" that Ditko alledgedly left from ASM #14-38 that point to Osborn. As I recall, the visual clues fall in #37 or 38, just prior to the big reveal, (and Ditko's departure) and clearly point to Ned Leeds. Please back up your claim and clear this up.

No, I am not saying that the publisher's nephew was writing the series. Only that he trumped Ditko when it came time for the reveal.

I agree with most of what you posit, but we're still awaiting the proof of what you claim.

HemlockMan said...

Dude. Ditko was (and still is) at the top of the heap in plotting comic books. But it couldn't have been anyone OTHER than Norman Osborne. And Lee was too lazy to change anything that Ditko had already put into motion. All he had to do was tell Romita that Ditko said that Osborne was GG and let Romita write the two-book story. (Lee never wrote anything--all he did was tweak the dialogue.)

I never saw any definitive clue that Ned Leeds was Green Goblin. Now, THAT would have been out of left field.

HemlockMan said...

OK: It was LONG obvious that the Green Goblin had almost limitless resources at his fingertips. There is--as I recall--at least one scene showing a partly disrobed Goblin in his hq with his gizmos.

GG could (and did) appear and vanish at will. He obviously had multiple safe houses.

Like the Master Planner, he had vast resources at his command, so there was no way he was going to end up being a working class schmoe. Nor a low-paid reporter who worked for J Jonah Jameson.

It was obvious from clues left throughout the run that the Goblin was a man of means with access to high technology equipment and the means to create complex armaments and explosives. Again, not something a nobody could do, nor a flatfoot reporter for the Daily Bugle.

Ditko then gave us a face and a name to consider: Norman Osborne. After that, Ditko gave us Spider-Man #38 which was his "fuck-you" letter to Lee & Goodman. We'll never know what kind of story arc Ditko had planned for Peter Parker and Norman Osborne. My impression is that enough of what he had planned was in Lee's hands so that he had Romita cobble together a poor facsimile of what Steve Ditko would have done. But I think he would have drawn it out a bit longer--perhaps another three or four issue arc as he did with the Master Planner.

Who knows, but Ditko, and he ain't likely to tell us.

Kirk G said...

OK, I sat up with my Marvel Masterworks volume that reprints ASM #31-40 and quickly re-read #37 & 38. I was looking for the key scene that led me to think Ditko was hinting that Ned Leads was the Green Goblin. And what I found was the next to the last page in #38 "A Guy Named Joe" in which Spidey punches out a dummy head because he looks like Ned...but he's so angry that he overlooks that the dummy HAS THE GRIN OF THE GREEN GOBLIN too!

Now, to be fair, I also re-read both issues to look at Norman Osborn, and it has been 40 years since I read those issues in detail. I had forgotten how he clubbed Spidey, how he had exploited Mendal Stromm, but the flying assailant scene stayed with me. And I will grant you that Ditko certainly does make it clear that Osborn is a powerful businessman, a member of JJJ's club, and all the things that you say. And so, to be fair, I'm backing off my skeptical viewpoint, because IF Ditko did write and plot #37 & 38... he was sowing those seeds that could paint Osborn as the villian, just as he drew the grinning dummy head.
Two more thoughts:
First, do you see symbolism in Spidey being hot-tied or tied up on the cover of #37 "Once Upon A Time...Along Came a Robot"? Symbolism for how Steve felt?

Second, do you see Spidey as punching the grinning dummy as an image of Smilin' Stan? And if JJJ was absent in #38, why was he featured so prominently in #37? When is the next time we see JJJ? In #42 when his son comes home from the air force? Just curious.

HemlockMan said...

Always be a skeptic. It's the only way to go.

GG could have been Ned Leeds. It wouldn't have made any sense, but it could certainly have been the solution in Ditko's mind, and Ditko could have made it work with plot developments to have been revealed. Who knows, but Ditko?

Kirk G said...

Don't know if this link to the scan I attempted is going to work, but here's one place where you can take a look at that page #19, reprinted in the 16th volume of Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man (#31-40)

HemlockMan said...

Yep. It worked just fine.

At this point I don't think Ditko was bothering to leave any clues as to the ID of the Goblin. All he wanted to do was place another layer of angst on his creation before taking his leave. In many ways, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #38 is the single most depressing and downbeat of all of the stories Ditko wrote for the book. And I think he was just washing his hands and moving on. He'd been lied to and made a victim and that is not something a man like Steve Ditko could ever be. His entire life is an illustration of individualism. In addition, he would NEVER stoop to playing the victim himself--which is one reason he never sued to reclaim his intellectual property.

He was then (and still is) a comic book artist--that is his trade of choice. He is superbly adapted to be a great comic book artist and he was going to walk the path that he chose to walk. Even if it meant that he had to allow thieves to sit there and enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Al said...

Ditko didn't necessarily introduce Norman Osborn, but apparently had been leaving visual clues such as showing him in scenes in the club that J. Jonah Jameson frequented from time to time. So, subtle, but not out of the question. (no pun intended.) Of course, I'm assuming this was what was done as it's been a very long time since I've read Spider-Man by Ditko.

Allen Smith

HemlockMan said...

Osborne was a distinct character. I've wondered who Ditko used to base the physical characteristics on. The red, kinky hair, etc.