Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri

Steve Ditko has passed away

My attitude to Steve Ditko and his work is complicated, and to publish about it now, in the hour of his death, might seem ungenerous and rude. But if there is one thing Ditko himself despised, it is sentimental half-truths; I don't think I would honour his memory by posting a wholly positive essay - which, given my view of his work, would involve considerable suppression. Instead, I will post, behind the cut, an essay I wrote in the nineties about one of his last published complete works, STRANGE AVENGING TALES. It contains pretty much everything I think about this great artist, good and bad.


Steve Ditko would make us all a lot happier if only he would grow senile. He would make a critic's life a great deal easier, if only his political work would show evidence of declining faculties and trembling hands. He is, after all, just turned seventy; and he still plows on his own individual path, rooted - some might say mired - in fifties attitudes and dress (dig those crazy hats, man!). As far as he is concerned, the sixties, let alone the nineties, might never have happened; even his scruffy left-wingers are more like fifties beatnik bohemians than modern underground figures, never in any other dress than jeans and a sloppy sweater (aw, c'mon, man! Where's the leather? Where's the studs? Where's the ethnic dress, tattoos and odd-coloured hair?)

Unfortunately he does us no such favour; doing anybody any favours is not in his nature. He is not senile, bemired or declining. You cannot call this book a feeble rehash of past rants; you cannot, as you would expect from such a narrow mind, point to the evidence of sterile repetition. There is no sterile repetition. In language, in style, in approach, Ditko's new book Strange Avenging Tales is a step forwards, full of strikingly innovative features, and the art - the reason why most of us put up with him - has in some ways grown, becoming cleaner, more controlled, more varied. It helps that Gary Groth has allowed Ditko the printing facilities to use wash, but his linework is just as impressive. Some pages are quite sparse, but never sloppy; rather there is a daring stylishness about it, a controlled economy that never fails. Every single page is masterly.

The first thing to strike you is a new smoothness, a new fluidity, in the linework. While it has not changed in any major way, it has moved away from the bald chunkiness that seemed to have become its hallmark, and which, in the worst of his recent work, amounted to clumsiness if not to sloppiness. In the fifties Ditko was known from time to time to draw very fine lines, but as time went on he seemed to lose the ability or desire for it. Now, at seventy, he seems to have more interest in a graceful, finished inking approach than ever before. There is - if this is not blasphemy - something almost Image-like, Jim Lee-like, about this new liquid, flexible brushwork.

Along with this goes a new daring in design. In the two Spoilers pieces and the dream sequence in In due time, he leaves large areas of panel white and untouched: their emptiness becomes not only a significant, but a dominant part of the whole. In the first Spoilers, his bad left-wing character tosses a paper cup on the ground, a little act is given a lot of dramatic power and meaning by the way Ditko has bunched a lot of solid objects - a car, the man himself, some rubbish, and, most tellingly, an empty rubbish bin - around a large expanse of white space. Into this clean, untouched emptiness goes the can, its materiality emphasized by Ditko's still massive brushstrokes: he means us to feel a sense of intrusion. Here, the untouched whiteness stands for order, and something more than order, being invaded and befouled. The value of small, nearly invisible acts like this is brought out without exaggeration: Ditko is not blowing trumpets, only rendering and orientating the situation so that the full significance of it will come out. Around and in front of the "spoiler" are the clean patterns of the car and, especially, the dustbin; behind, almost marking his passage, there is a lot of scattered rubbish. Ditko is however making the point that the "spoiler" is one of many. He has not tossed all the rubbish on panel - only the can. There are, he is saying, many more like him on the streets; and the bin stays empty.

In due time opens with a nightmare sequence of a man, his whole body paralized and helpless, ticking away as if turned into the hand of an invisible clock. We are not allowed to see anything except the stiff body itself, and it is only the fact that the various panels suggest circular motion that puts us in mind of a clock. The man is in the grip of what is, at first, an invisible yet unbreakable pattern behind reality. We can only partially see it, but it has bodily seized him, ticking away with mechanical relentlessness. It is only after this typically ferocious opening are we allowed a realistic picture of who he is and what he has done (murdered an antiques dealer for the sake of his property, and especially of a beautiful watch). But soon we are returned to the thief's nightmare visions of the cosmic clock; we find out that he is dying, and that the whole picture had been about his wasted time on Earth.

None of this is a revolution as compared with his previous work, but all of it shows a marked forwards progression. He has taken his very individual approach to design and drawing a step further; there is more coordination, and, as I said, a finer understanding of the value of empty spaces.

As for the writing, there are one or two weak items, such as the closing page, which is scarcely more than an illustrated slogan, though even there the art is brilliantly imaginative. It does actually state the theme of the whole book - and pretty much of his whole oeuvre - which is that there is an underlying order in reality which crushes such as break it, for instance, by claiming as theirs what is not, or otherwise by making unjustified demands of reality. An earlier Ditko title was called Avenging World, and that is the way he claims to see reality: as the power of vengeance.

The problem is that Ditko scarcely proves his point here. In order to make his own beliefs triumph, he has to, a) blackguard his opponents and, b) bring in the supernatural, showing "reality" materialized in the vindictive will of one man-like individual. In In due time, the dying thief sees his victim's head towering above him as his own body ticks away the minutes of his wasted time: a powerful statement of the horror of a wasted life, but hardly a convincing demonstration of the avenging power of reality - in order to bring the story to the conclusion he wanted, Ditko had to crush the thief under a large, fallen watch. This is more than close to superstition: in reality, falling objects crush good and bad alike. What, can Ditko tell me, had those two scoutmasters who were recently crushed by a ton of rock ever done to deserve it? For what was the world taking vengeance? It is only in tales of the supernatural that revenge is so neat and needs no human hand to enforce it; in reality, criminals do not suffer vengeance unless a human hand seizes them and takes them on the long walk to Nuremberg. There is something almost idle in this sort of confidence that all crooks get theirs in the end; no doubt they die, but so do all of us, and how is that justice? (Ditko is an atheist, or at least sees himself as one, so the question-begging seems pretty obvious.)

All Mine is equally supernatural, if not indeed superstitious. The story actually has a fine point. A thief has stolen a precious pendant and beaten, or killed, a witness: the shadow of vengeance (incarnate in one of Ditko's typical fifties characters with jacket, tie and hat!) points out to him that things are only his if he has paid for them and can keep others from taking them. And the thief goes insane, seeing everywhere hands that snake out to take the pendant from him. Not a bad way to illustrate a principle; but not about reality. In reality, thieves are not found in alleyways, babbling delusionally about what is theirs and what is not; if they were, the work of the police would be much easier. Ditko has short-circuited the story by bringing in a supernatural figure of his thief's fears, which is nothing to do with reality, but on the villain's abnormal psychology. Ditko wants to have his cake and eat it, by inserting an individual will, with a more than passing resemblance to his hero Mr.A, and yet pretending that his is not a human and purposeful need for justice but the superhuman voice of reality itself.

This will never do; it simply contradicts our whole experience. We imagine superheroes, not to be cosmic transhuman forces to enforce universal blind law on evildoers, but individuals trying their best, and sometimes failing, to put right what reality and/or human failure have left undone. As Luke Cage once tells Storm, "We are superheroes, Ororo, not God"; but Ditko has broken the division. The justice he incarnates in such figures as Mr.A is divine, not human: infallible, relentless, denying the doubt that must be at the bottom of any rational process - because nothing could be less rational than failing to accept that our mental processes are always in doubt and our knowledge of facts is naturally limited. Any judgement passed by a human being must be regarded as provisional, even if no evidence ever turns up to contradict it; human knowledge is in the nature of a hypothesis, not of a steel girder.

Hence the superstitious and supernatural aspects of Ditko's vision; and hence, too, the potency of his images of supernatural worlds and madness. He is superstitious and does not know it. He thinks that the great, blind, indifferent forces of nature can focus on one man because he has broken the moral law; itself a paranoid notion. It is only when we are in the grip of the most irrational fear that we imagine the world as Ditko imagines it, with great iron clocks there only to crush us, with hands and voices reaching out to grip us. It's very fine, but it's not reality. In Dr.Strange, in Shade, in many other books, Ditko gives an unsurpassed glimpse of the worlds behind worlds, of the hidden realities behind reality, and it is clear that they are not rational realities. In the earlier books he had incarnated these visions into the worlds of Dormammu and such evil figures, or in the zone of madness hidden around the world of Meta; but in All mine, he places the same wild designs around his figure of vengeance. Mr.A and the Madness Area of Meta
are one and the same.

Of the two humour pieces, Spoilers, the second is better, but there is an irritating and petty spitefulness about both: a moaning-minnie Leftie throws some rubbish on the pavement, so he is himself thrown among the rubbish; another moaning-minnie leaves a book display in chaos, so he is himself turned into a mangled mess. Despite Ditko's claim to speak for reality, I'm afraid this is just point-scoring and wishful thinking; in "reality", slobs never pay for being selfish; and in "reality", more to the point, it is simply not true, as liverish reactionaries are prone to believe, that the people who make demands for various causes are always the first to pollute the world. There are plenty of self-disciplined envirnmentalists who would no more think of litter-bugging than they would smoke or steal. Most litterbugs are Sun reader types, natural reactionaries, though of a type that Ditko would spew out of his mouth; and I find it interesting that he never seems to discuss, or even see the possibility of, right-wing louts.

Ditko claims to believe in objective truth, but his depiction of ideological opponents is as completely the reverse of objective truth as anything can be. The claim that people concerned with the environment are themselves the first to throw litter on the street is not only an obvious slander, but a pointless one. Even if that was true, it would do nothing to contradict the case for the environment; that would still have to be argued on its own terms, which Ditko notably fails to do. Second, as I said, it is in fact false.

Much the best is Claud & Clyde, whose villain is, unusually for Ditko, given strong and credible treatment. A jealous husband whose suspicions are perfectly justified murders his wife and her lover under the influence of a "voice" he hears. The voice is in fact that of his own split personality, Clyde, but it goes silent as soon as the murder is done and leaves the wretch alone with the results of his crime. This is exceptionally good writing: the concept is executed with a pregnant economy worthy of the very best, and it is enormously suggestive. The problem from Ditko's point of view is that it contradicts everything Ditko is about. The murderer has a reason for his deed which, however evil, is weighty and meaningful: he is not seized with the pointless greed of Ditko's thieves, but rather he is being cheated and lied to by his wife. And the analysis of his abmormal psychology, making it clear he is so nearly insane as not to be legally responsible for his acts, is clean out of Ditko's frame of reference. Plus, his wife is such an unsympathetic, unattractive bitch as to make us feel, if not approval, at least some sympathy with him.

But the best feature of the writing is to do with the book as a whole: its brevity, its economy, allowing Ditko to put no less than half a dozen varied items in a thin $2.95 booklet. That, ma'am and sir, is value for money. He has completely cut out all the long reflections on the nature of reality and justice that used to be such an aspect of his more political work, and now he lets the story alone make his point. He does not tell us that the world is an avenger; he shows us. That the point is questionable takes nothing away from the excellence of his treatment.

But this is a book for strong stomachs. Ditko's views have great intellectual dignity and intellectual strength; but they are rotten at the core. They start from the wrong premise. His worship of reason is, as I have shown, irrational, and his belief in reality is unrealistic. He regards anyone who disagrees with him as a weak-kneed, immoral compromiser, and the contempt for opposing opinions evident in every line of his work has not really mellowed with age. When he dies, he will die with a snarl on his lips. His obsession with vengeance is significant in a different way from what he thinks: he is clearly a vindictive person, and his long fascination with "bondage" comics (as well as his hypocritical refusal to give his name to them) seems to me highly significant. I'm sorry to say he is still a genius, but there is no reason to genuflect in front of his moral insight or intellectual clarity when he obviously has so little understanding of his own motives. If a man assumes the claim of universal clarity and insight, his evidence for it should not include spiteful slander of his opponents.

It is you, the fan, who must judge whether it is worth your while to put up with this sort of thing for the sake of really exceptional artwork and unusual, original writing.

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