So–and here you can imagine me doing my Polito Miller’s Crossing voice–authorship, integrity, imagination, alterity, the politics o’ refusal…
Much of the documentary focuses upon the linked problems of 1.Stan Lee’s inability to declare, unequivocally, that he and Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man and 2. Steve Ditko’s departure from Marvel. The interview with Stan, which comes right near the close, is by far the most interesting part of the show. In it, Lee attempts to express his deep admiration for the brilliant (and, Lee admits without prompting, practically solo–for the last 20 issues or so) work that Steve Ditko did on Amazing Spider-Man, from 1962 to 1966, without actually acquiescing to his erstwhile comrade’s demand that he be credited with co-creating the character. Many in the industry, and in fandom, are disgusted by this–but the fact is that Stan is right.
It’s not “right”, of course, that comics creators aren’t benefiting from the enormous profits generated by the work they did for hire. But wait–don’t we live in a capitalist society? You have a “right” to whatever you can get, by hook or by crook, from your fellow citizens. Nothing more, nothing less. You don’t like it? Join me on the barricade. The financial aspects of this squabble don’t concern me very much–and, to his credit, they don’t concern Steve Ditko either. He just wants the credit.
But does it make sense to call Spider-Man, as we know him, a Steve Ditko character (as opposed to a character who spent a few fascinating years–and take very careful note of the years in question–in Steve Ditko’s hands)? Of the two models I’ve just proposed, I would have to pick the latter.
Everyone loves Steve Ditko’s run on the title. And I’m no exception to that rule. But could he have sustained it beyond 1966? And if he had–would the character have lasted? More important–would it have been good for the character?
Frankly, I don’t see how–and if you see what I see, I don’t see how you can feel that the character was ever a Ditko creation. When called upon to discuss Ditko’s sudden departure, the interviewees trot out the usual three suspects–1. the disagreement over the Green Goblin’s identity; 2. the political divergence between Lee and Ditko and 3. the problem of Peter Parker’s graduation from high school–and, of these three, the only one that I can give much credence to is the third, because it points symbolically to the real problem–i.e. in order to remain in sync with the character, Ditko didn’t need to stop time so much as he needed to stop “The Times” (which, as you may know, were a-changin’). A superhero who believes that “with great power comes great responsibility” is not going to be able to avoid coming into conflict with the established order in the late 1960s, and I think that Ditko (who, as a strict Randian, had to believe something like the reverse of Peter Parker’s dictum–an Objectivist is responsible only to her/himself–and his/her great power actually comes from a refusal to acknowledge ANY responsibility to others) understood this. During the early ’60s, with its protagonist still in his teens, the distinctions between responsibility to self/society and the power over one’s body vs the power to effect change in the world could be safely submerged beneath a narrative of developing integrity. But that window of opportunity was closing. And the man who built the house was “Stan The Man” himself.
John Romita beats himself up a little, in his interview, for taking the character in an entirely new direction, for superficially commercial reasons. But, in fact, the Lee/Romita (and the subsequent Conway/Andru) iteration of the character actually restored the Spider-Man concept to its feet, and gave it the legs to march with the times. Had the Ditko interregnum lasted even a year longer, it would have become a cul-de-sac.
Doctor Strange, on the other hand, IS a pure Ditko character, and could easily have coasted through the drug sixties on the strength of his creator’s imagination. One of the good things that the documentary does is play up the bizarre political mismatch between Ditko and his wacky leftist fans (like Moore, Cat Yronwode, Neil Gaiman, and yours truly). The bridge, of course, is imagination–and it leads directly to the demented realms of self-struggle that all creative people understand. Generally, those trips to the astral plane (whether drug-induced or not) tend to expand the social conscience along with the consciousness, but there is no necessary reason why this must be so, and people like Steve Ditko (and my favourite filmmaker David Lynch) seem to exist in order to cut the too-easily-assumed link between altered states and a politics of alterity. Sometimes the journey to Oz merely convinces you that Kansas is the greatest place in the gosh-darned multiverse. And if those farmhands complain–feed ’em to the pigs! The hyper-centered character can either say “NO” to the powers that be or to those who would disturb the peace, and, in either case, do it with a frightening air of certainty. This is why Emerson is just as useful to the anarchistic left as he is to the libertarian right. There’s no fundamental difference between a wacko like Steve Ditko and a wacko like me–we just take our insane black/white stands on different issues.
Of course, Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart took steps, in the late sixties and early seventies, to associate Dr. Strange with the counterculture and the political left (and I’m quite glad that they did), but, unlike Spider-Man, these steps aren’t mandated by the original concept–which was as purely a product of Ditko’s mind as The Question and Mr. A (both of whom get a fair bit of screen time in the doc–but the ground covered there is pretty well trodden, if you know Ditko at all…)
good afternoon friends!