Has NeilalieN Scanned This?

Has NeilalieN Scanned This?

    So I had an opportunity to watch Jonathan Ross’ In Search of Steve Ditko (a BBC doc) last night. I’m not sure if there’s much in it to thrill the initiate (other than “comics writer and magician” Alan Moore’s spoken rendition of his band’s song “Mister A”–written to be sung to the tune of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”), but it did get me thinking about a number of things–all kind of related. Like what? Well–authorship, integrity, imagination, alterity and the politics of refusal. Pretty heady issues for a self-professed fanboy and (my impression) yobbo to have broached, and, to his credit, Ross doesn’t seem to realize that he is doing these things… But those Ditko pages get the brain rolling–and the host did speak to a lot of the right people.

    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!



  1. I was thinking about the Ditko/Lee dichotomy re: Spider-Man recently (albeit not in such depth), and it occurred to me that the things I really like best about the character (the plot of the origin, and the costume) are Ditko’s contribution.

    Fascinating, your observation that “With great power comes great responsibility” is actually directly oppositional to Ditko’s philosophy. I’m amazed that no one’s ever pointed this out before!

    Sudden notion: Do you think the stark black-and-white costume designed for Spider-Man by Zeck and Leonardi circa 1984 was an oblique homage to the “black/white” philosophy of Spider-Man’s co-creator? Or just a coincidence?

    Oddly, one of my first Spider-Man comics was an issue of Spectacular Spider-Man by Al Milgrom, which featured the first encounter between the Black Cat and the black-and-white-costumed Spider-Man. It was one of those primal comic-book experiences, where there just seemed to be something so intense about these two starkly black-and-white clad characters obviously involved in a very “adult” (by my eight-year-old standards) romantic relationship. (Open-mouthed kissing!) Still the most interesting version of Spider-Man to me, in a weird way.

    That sh*t is bananas,

    Jason Powell

  2. I love the Milgrom Spectacular Spider-Man issues… I also love the DeFalco/Frenz Amazings which came out during the same period… In fact, I love pretty much all of the Spider-comics that came out in the eighties, until the dawn of the Michellinie/MacFarlane era, which just didn’t work for me…

    I never had any strong feelings about the black costume–although I did like the “alien costume” saga a lot–but your interpretation of the change makes a lot of sense (someone oughtta ask the Marvel bigwigs from that era whether they intended any such thing)… I especially like the reading because the whole episode wound up proving, quite conclusively, through the forced return to the classic (and, paradoxically, Ditko-created!) outfit that Spider-Man ain’t a “stark moral oppositions” kinda guy (and hence not really a Ditko character)…


  3. You know the whole “closure” thing that Scott McCloud talks about, wherein our brain fills in the “gutter” between two comic panels? I think there’s a macro-example of that same effect, when one reads two issues of a comic-book series, published years apart.

    As noted, the Spec Spider-Man issue when the black-costumed Spidey first encounters the Black Cat really left a strong impression in my brain. Later, after years of not reading any Spider-Man comics, I went into a store and saw the cover of Amazing #316, a Michelene-McFarlane issue with Venom on the cover. My brain was immediately super-charged with questions about how the black suit came to adorn a villain. I had to buy the issue, and when I did, I was startled by a scene in which Venom brutally beats the Black Cat.

    My mind was just abuzz thinking about how that issue related to the Milgrom issue, and thinking about what-all had happened in between …

    All of which is my roundabout way of saying that I have a definite soft-spot in my heart for Micheline-McFarlane Spider-Man …

    Bubble pop electric you’ve got to get it,

    Jason Powell

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