Saturday, December 02, 2006

Dave Sim's blogandmail #82 (December 2nd, 2006)

For the next two weeks, the Blog & Mail revisits


In honour of Steve Ditko's 80th year coming up in 2007 and in the hopes of drumming up a little business for his post-Marvel work published through Robin Snyder's RSCOMICS.

Order direct from Robin Snyder at

Or write to him at

3745 Canterbury Lane #81, Bellingham, Washington 98225-1186

Beginning the


Dr. Strangeroach!

As you may recall, I got a commission to do an 11 by 17 Doctor Strangeroach and, having been somewhat immersed in Steve Ditko lately, I jumped at the chance. Not having any Ditko Dr. Strange reference worth mentioning, I waited until I went to Toronto to stay with John and Siu, confident that John would have what I was looking for. And had it he did: Marvel Masterworks Volume 23: Dr. Strange, starting with the Doctor's first appearance in Strange Tales 110. Of course, all I really needed was visual reference for the character but, having borrowed the book I figured I might as well actually read all of the material since I sort of had a built-in excuse. It's really quite a bizarre idea, structurally. Each episode is about seven pages long and, when you know that they were produced in the Marvel method—laid out and pencilled by Steve Ditko and then scripted by Stan Lee—you begin to appreciate exactly how difficult it was to work within those confines particularly in a short story context. Essentially Ditko would draw a series of moody looking pictures with Dr. Strange studying his ancient texts, then in jeopardy—imprisoned within some mystic construct or trapped in an otherworldly dimension (the other appeal of the commission)—where all looks fundamentally hopeless and then he falls back on his amulet which can basically do anything (including change its basic shape and look from episode to episode) and it was up to Stan Lee to ladle on the dramatic narration and dialogue to try and make the whole thing appear less cheesy and contrived than it obviously was. Some of this is so "over the top" as to qualify as an extreme form of self-parody, a characteristic of Stan Lee's writing that is often overlooked—hyperbolic extremes weren't the result of an occasional lapse of authorial judgement, but rather were one of the primary forms which informed his work and arguably a primary source of his success: the more pressing the deadline, the more extreme the forms of his literary expression. The Doctor Strange instalment in issue 122 of Strange Tales leads off with

Once again, the Mighty Marvel Group proudly presents Dr. Strange, the widely acclaimed smash sensation who has made black magic the most fascinating new subject in comicdom!

Even the most unsophisticated reader had to be aware, at one level or another, that it was Stan Lee himself who was writing these rave reviews as part of his own story's content but the fact that it had never been done before rather overwhelmed that fact and allowed it to be taken at face value. You weren't just reading a cheesy back-up story in a second-string Marvel title, you were reading the latest instalment of the "widely acclaimed smash sensation" after you had already gotten your twelve cents worth out of the solo Human Torch story in the front of the book!

I never saw the Ronald Coleman version of Lost Horizon, but I get the distinct impression that much of Dr. Strange was lifted whole from there and then modified on an on-going basis. Not for the first time, I was terrifically impressed with Stan Lee's ability to maintain a high-pitched dramatic edge while also indulging shamelessly in overwrought hyperbole. Over the long term it was unsustainable but in its day, it was the closest comics had come to achieving a real-world phenomenon unrivalled since the creation of Superman. Not that the early Marvel Comics rivalled the creation of Superman—they were still selling a couple of hundred thousand copies unlike the million or so that had been achieved in the 1930s—but by contrast with the rest of the field that had been dying on the vine over the course of the 1950s, it was an extraordinary achievement. What stands out most of all for me is how much the whole thing was composed of the quirky abilities of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and others when hitched to the Stan Lee style of narration and dialogue and hyperbole. Almost all of the concepts are, at best, ill-considered, cheesy and contrived but from the adjectival emphases on out (the AMAZING Spider-man, The INCREDIBLE Hulk, the FANTASTIC Four, the MIGHTY Thor, the INVINCIBLE Iron Man—who besides Stan Lee recognized that the flat declaration of superlatives could provide such forward momentum?) they were inescapably idiosyncratic. The fact that the superlatives were extended to the creators of the books seems an obvious affectation in retrospect but, again, provided a remarkable impetus to the dramatic goings on. Jack KING Kirby, STURDY Steve Ditko, JAZZY John Romita. Marvel creators had adjectives, DC creators only had their own names very occasionally mentioned on the letters pages.

Dr. Strange is a peculiar one, part of the momentum of the time, roughly synchronous with the first issue of Spider-man. It's as likely as not that he was created to take some of the load off of Jack Kirby who was pencilling pretty much everything at the time, including the Human Torch solo stories which had started in Strange Tales 101. He drew

101 to 105, 108, 109, 114, 120, as well as the covers. Dr. Strange appeared in 110, 111 and then again in 114 (along with vocal declarations about how popular the character was that the Marvel offices had been deluged with mail demanding his return—which I assume was just hype to try and pump up a character designed primarily to give Kirby some breathing room). I had always known Dr. Strange as the "Master of the Mystic Arts" so it was a bit jarring to have his earlier connotation recalled right there on page one of the book: "Dr. Strange Master of Black Magic". It was jarring enough to make me wonder, What on earth was Steve Ditko doing drawing this thing? He of Mr. A fame ten years later with its clear demarcation between good and evil and the half white and half black calling card. Either or. No shades of gray. You choose Good or you choose Evil and you live with the consequences of your choice.

Which in turn led me into interesting alternative areas of thought. As a follower of Ayn Rand, libertarianism and empiricism, black magic would fall into peculiar fictional areas for Ditko. A ghost story is a ghost story is a ghost story. Anything that isn't real is fictitious and consequently harmless. The same sort of view would inform Stan Lee writing that Doctor Strange "has made black magic the most fascinating new subject in comicdom."

Only one of my two dictionaries—The Funk & Wagnall's Standard College Dictionary, 1980—even lists "black magic" and refers the reader directly to "witchcraft" (which draws an ironic smile). "The practices or powers of witches or wizards, especially when regarded as due to dealings with evil spirits or the devil: also called black magic." The reader is then referred to the synonymous "magic". Among the range of synonyms footnoted there is the assertion "The study of natural phenomena, called white or natural magic developed into the modern natural sciences. Distinguished from this was black magic or sorcery the attempt to use or invoke supernatural powers for personal or sinister purposes. Witchcraft was sorcery as practiced by a woman possessed by a demon." The flat assertions are interesting to me. The fact that there is acknowledgement that the natural sciences evolved out of white magic certainly suggest that magic is real (or is considered real by the dictionary's authors). They then hedge their bets with the use of the term "attempt to use or invoke" rather than defining black magic as the "use or invocation of supernatural powers". White magic is real, in other words, because it evolved into the natural sciences, while black magic remains hypothetical, unproven and consequently un-indictable. Not to belabour the point to my audience full of atheists (who really hate discussions of such things) these early adventures of Doctor Strange were being read by a twelve-year-old boy named Alan Moore who decided some thirty years later to become a necromancer and who would maintain that he has used and has invoked supernatural powers and I don't see any great clamouring in the comic-book field to disabuse him of that notion. What you think of the facts of the case would really hinge on whether you believe there is such a thing as a human soul and whether it was worth the sacrifice of Alan Moore's soul for all of us to have Promethea and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

[I think it's also worth noting that Neil Gaiman's Morpheus—Sandman—has a direct antecedent in the Doctor Strange villain, Nightmare, who reigns over the realm of dreams and even resembles Morpheus physically].

It's an unresolved issue that, as far as I can see, isn't an issue to anyone but me. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for what (I suspect) are differently nuanced reasons evidently saw the creation of a character billed as "The Master of Black Magic" to be a harmless enterprise in the traditions of, say, H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Alan Poe. Thirty years later the comic-book field produces its first self-declared necromancer, something (I would hasten to point out) that you wouldn't see, say, in the automotive industry. In the case of Stan Lee, it's easy to see how he looks at it. At various points in Doctor Strange's adventures he refers to certain of the Doctor's adversaries as "omnipotent" or "all-powerful"—there are repeated references to the Omnipotent Oshtur, and Asti the all-seeing—two attributes which are reserved only for God Himself. These reaches a peculiar culmination with character called Sattanish the Supreme. To Stan Lee, obviously, they're just words with a mystic flavour to them. In the heat of deadline pressure, by his own admission, he tended to fall back on quasi-biblical phraseology even though he seems to have no religious sensibility himself to speak of. A word is a word is a word. A ghost story is a ghost story is a ghost story. It's just comics, etc. The incidence of Steve Ditko aligns in different directions, for me. What is the net effect of seeing, as Steve Ditko seems to, a) the world divided into clearly demarcated absolutes of Good and Evil and b) seeing anything outside of the empirically real as fictitious? For me, it means that you can end up participating in something in category b) that undermines and acts in a contradictory fashion against your primary beliefs as espoused in category a). Given that Steve Ditko is an Absolutist on the subject of Good and Evil—as I am, albeit in a different context—and that both of us are deemed to be "beyond the pale" extremists by the vast majority of people in the comic-book field, I found this previously unexplored context of Dr. Strange vs. Mr. A particularly interesting. When the dichotomy occurred to me I wasn't sure how deeply I was going to bother going into the subject. In the comic-book field 99.9% of the people are clustered around Alan Moore and Steve Ditko and I exist (barely!) at the outer fringes of the field with our own marginally interested readership (.01%? .001%?) so there didn't seem to be much point in discussing what I was seeing any more than there is performing a symphony at a school for the deaf.

Coincidentally, however—synchronistically, in my view, given what was churning around in my brain and the fact that I have found the will of God to be anything but subtle when it comes time for something—while John and I were watching the Leafs game (they lost to Boston, 2-1 in overtime) he brought in a box full of fanzines that we were going through with one eye on the game. I was particularly captivated by two issues of Larry Ivie's Monsters & Heroes from the late 1960s that I had owned when I was about twelve or thirteen. Hard to keep up my conversation with John or keep my eye on the Leafs thumbing through those long-ago publications.

And then, there it was, the first full comic book of Steve Ditko's Mr. A adventures that had been published by Phase magazine and with an introduction by Joe Brancatelli back in '73 (one of two it says on the hand-written sticker on the plastic bag, identifying it as part of bp Nichol's collection of fanzines which John purchased: I wonder where the other one is?). It's a natural mistake to class the magazine as a fanzine: there was some strange sequential connection between the newsstand tabloid The Monster Times, Joe Brancatelli's short-lived experiment with a similar magazine devoted to comics called Inside Comics and the one-shot Phase magazine (most notable for having published Neal Adams' "A View from Without"). Mr. A has black and white interiors and a really beautifully drawn off-register colour cover that makes it look like an issue of the Rocket's Blast Comic Collector, the pre-eminent fanzine of the day which often had just such a slip-shod off-register colour cover. That and the cover price of fifty cents. Too expensive to be a comic book, too cheap to be a magazine.

"Can I borrow this, too?"

I'm not sure I would lend the first issue of Mr. A to anyone if I owned a copy (in fact I'm pretty sure I wouldn't) but fortunately John is of a more open-handed nature than I am, so BIOGRAPHY OF A COMMISSION is going to stray back and forth between Dr. Strange to Mr. A as we proceed over the next week or so. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your personal prejudices.

Viewers of the website have probably noticed by now that the calendar has been taken down. It turns out that two commissioned pieces a month is going to be a little optimistic over the next while. So, instead, I'm inviting interested individuals to contact me by phone (519.576.0610) to discuss any commission that they are interested in. When you phone, I can let you know what the current high offer is for the next commissioned piece after Dr. Strangeroach is and which I will be beginning probably after Christmas or early in the New Year (so I can get some uninterrupted working time on my secret project and commentaries on Mark). If you want a Gerhard background, you can let me know on the phone and then negotiate with Gerhard separately. The best rule of thumb on a Dave Sim commission is that you will get the best results if you are paying roughly $400 to $600 per figure. That is, a $1,000 commission of Cerebus and Jaka is going to look better than a $1,000 commission of Cerebus, Jaka, the Roach, Lord Julius, Astoria and Konigsberg. If you let me know what you're interested in, I can let you know what part of your picture is going to be the most time-consuming and then leave it up to you as to whether you want to stick to your original request or modify it in order to get more picture for your money.

That number again is 519.576.0610


If you wish to contact Dave Sim, you can mail a letter (he does NOT receive emails) to:

Aardvark Vanaheim, Inc
P.O. Box 1674
Station C
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada N2G 4R2

Looking for a place to purchase Cerebus phonebooks? You can do so online through Win-Mill Productions -- producers of Following Cerebus. Convenient payment with PayPal:

Win-Mill Productions

Or, you can check out Mars Import:

Mars Import

Or ask your local retailer to order them for you through Diamond Comics distributors.