Thursday, June 07, 2007

Dave Sim's blogandmail #269 (June 7th, 2007)


Fifteen Impossible Things to Believe Before Breakfast That Make You a Good Feminist

1. A mother who works a full-time job and delegates to strangers the raising of her children eight hours a day, five days a week does just as good a job as a mother who hand-rears her children full time.

2. It makes great sense for the government to pay 10 to 15,000 dollars a year to fund a daycare space for a child so its mother - who pays perhaps 2,000 dollars in taxes - can be a contributing member of society.

3. A woman's doctor has more of a valid claim to participate in the decision to abort a fetus than does the father of that fetus.

4. So long as a woman makes a decision after consulting with her doctor, she is incapable of making an unethical choice.

5. A car with two steering wheels, two gas pedals and two brakes drives more efficiently than a car with one steering wheel, one gas pedal and one brake which is why marriage should always be an equal partnership.

6. It is absolutely necessary for women to be allowed to join or participate fully in any gathering place for men, just as it is absolutely necessary that there be women only environments from which men are excluded.

7. Because it involves taking jobs away from men and giving them to women, affirmative action makes for a fairer and more just society.

8. It is important to have lower physical standards for women firepersons and women policepersons so that, one day, half of all firepersons and policepersons will be women, thus more effectively protecting the safety of the public.

9. Affirmative action at colleges and universities needs to be maintained now that more women than men are being enrolled, in order to keep from giving men an unfair advantage academically.

10. Having ensured that there is no environment for men where women don't belong (see no.6) it is important to have zero tolerance of any expression or action which any woman might regard as sexist to ensure greater freedom for everyone.

11. Only in a society which maintains a level of 95% of alimony and child support being paid by men to women can men and women be considered as equals.

12. An airline stewardess who earned $20,000 a year at the time that she married a baseball player earning $6 million a year is entitled, in the event of a divorce, to $3 million for each year of the marriage and probably more.

13. A man's opinions on how to rear and/or raise a child are invalid because he is not the child's mother. However, his financial obligation is greater because no woman gets pregnant by herself.

14. Disagreeing with any of these statements makes you anti-woman and/or a misogynist.

15. Legislature Seats must be allocated to women and women must be allowed to bypass the democratic winnowing process in order to guarantee female representation and, thereby, make democracy fairer.



"There It Is Again" STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES #35 (Dec. 57)

The really nice thing about Steve Ditko and the reason that I'm looking forward to Blake's omnibus volume is that just when you think you have him pegged (open line style/fuller spotted black style) he'll suddenly throw you a curve ball like "There It Is Again". Just turning to it as the next story in the pile brings me up short.

What the HEY?!

First of all it looks SO different from the works I've just been looking at so I flip through to see if it's just the splash page. No, the whole story, all five pages are like that. What to call the style? Ditko Iconic – that might fit the bill nicely. It is unmistakeably Ditko but it's as if some Aristotle of The Ditko Style has found a way to strip it down to its bare essence so that it's just made up of distinctively Ditko touches but with virtually no enhancement. That's the challenge – how few things can you have in each panel and still have it be unmistakeably Ditko? After reading the story, it becomes obvious that the style has been tailored to the story. Ditko himself has read the script and gone,

"What the hey?"

Joe Gill writing? That would be my guess. Basically what the writer has done is to take Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN as an archetype and strip it down to five comic-book pages, 30 panels. Just picture trying to do that.

So what Ditko has done is to say, "Okay, successful or unsuccessful, that's what the script is – FRANKENSTEIN in 30 panels. Now, how do I DRAW that?" That is, how do you take the weird effect that stripping FRANKENSTEIN down to 30 panels is going to create and play to it and enhance it? Obviously, you strip your own style down, flatten everything out. Go Iconic or go home. The creature is seen once from behind (panel one) eight times head on, twice in profile and twice in three-quarter rear view. His creator, by dramatic contrast, twists and turns in every panel where he is depicted with the creature, all exaggerated Ditko hands and gestures. And that's pretty much it. And if you had to strip Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN to a core iconic image (and where else but comics would the occasion come up?) that would do it. Why over-think something that's pulling you in the opposite direction thematically? FRANKENSTEIN in 30 panels, here we go. The result is gorgeous.

If Michael Chabon gets around to writing a fictitious history of the comic-book field in the 1950s as a companion piece to KAVALIER AND CLAY, that would be a good way of expressing the entire decade: FRANKENSTEIN in 30 panels.

"Panic!!" STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES #35 (Dec. 57)

This one interested me because of the splash page where panel one is rendered -- almost exaggeratedly -- in Ditko's open line style. He's darkened up the hair on three people in the crowd but the rest of them are pretty much done in basic outline. And then he goes on to spot blacks through the rest of the story.

What the hey?

I mean it would be a bit of a time saver rather than having to spot blacks through (let me count them here) fourteen people but Ditko's a master of knowing exactly how little solid black you can get away with and still look as if you're doing primo Milt Caniff or Joe Kubert. You will find very few examples of overt time-saving devices in his work at any point in his career.

So, the only thing I can come up with is he might be turning the tables on the colourists who have been ruining his best stuff by presenting them with an unsolvable problem.

"Here, colorist: the crowd scene is rendered in single line weight and I've spotted blacks not only through the rest of the page, but the rest of the story. Now, HOW are you going to colour that first panel and how are you going to colour the rest of the page?"

It's a theory. If that is what he was doing, I'd be willing to bet that he wasn't very happy with the results he got back. There is just no way that an artist could sabotage a colorist to the same extent a colorist could sabotage an artist.

I'm really glad that I never had to deal with the peculiar vagaries of Sparta colouring on my comic book pages.

"The Man With the Atomic Brain" JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #52 (May 59)

This one was really good. You can tell by looking at the artwork whether Ditko was fully engaged with the material and he is definitely fully engaged with it here.

It's definitely "in tune" with his own sensibilities, having the same set-up as a super-hero origin story but with the unique difference that the super-hero, while ostensibly being admired is actually secretly despised and feared ("You must come with us! It's for everyone's safety!"). Needless to say, a devoted reader of Ayn Rand like Ditko is going to take to this treatment of the super-hero like a duck to water. This is really the earliest example that I've seen of what I would call the High Density Ditko style that he used on Spider-man – nine-panel grid, three tiers of three panels each with each panel pretty much filled – not a lot of use of white space.

His attention drops dramatically with the mystical/Utopian ending but right up to the big revelation scene he's firing on all cylinders. I particularly liked panel 2 on page 4 "The Dead Ancient City of Kora". Nobody does "one-panel weird" like Steve Ditko does "one-panel weird".

The other thing that I (ahem) marvel at is the dramatic transitions from panel to panel. "I'll transport myself to where they'll never find me…the Moon!" And sure enough there's the earth in the background and there's Ted in the foreground hovering over the Moon with a couple of curved motion lines to indicate he has gone from the one to the other. In one panel.

As Arnold Stang might've put it: A fella could get a nasty whiplash he doesn't watch out.

"Beware!!! Of the Little Toy Men!!" JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #58 (May '60)

I tell you, folks, Ditko is just full of surprises. In this case, the sudden use of hatching and cross-hatching which hasn't cropped up before – here starting with the pin-stripe suit on the character on the splash page, a tradition which comes far more from the Alex Raymond end of things rather than the Milt Caniff end of things Ditko usually inhabits. I'd have to call this style Hatched Iconic because of the laborious line-work. He's still stripping down his rendering to an iconic level of composition but then he seems to be coming back the other way and adding hatching to give the image greater weight and density.

This batch of pre-Spider-man Marvel stories raise some interesting questions – was the reduction to an Iconic splash page an editorial decision on the part of Marvel or an individual decision on the part of Ditko? It's a good one in terms of "branding" – you couldn't mistake the splash pages on Marvel mystery stories prior to 1961 for anyone else's splash pages. The story titles on a bunch of them are all in the same typeface as well. Dry transfer lettering? An Artie Simek template font that anyone with a ruler and some tracing paper could duplicate? Marvel, thy name is economy!

Past the splash page the story pages are definitely High Density Ditko, the nine-panel grid and no skimping on the foregrounds, backgrounds and full figure shots. High Density Plus with the addition of the hatching and cross-hatching. One of the saddest of all possible situations, the story has a great set-up, visual, imaginative as all get-out -- it's almost as if Ditko felt compelled to acknowledge that and went the extra mile on every page and every panel with lots of extra detail and cross-hatching and bringing his best game to the table -- and then the whole story just falls flat as a pancake in the last three panels. I think Ditko and the other guys had to be philosophical about that at the time. Give them four and a half out of five pages that they were psyched to draw and they would just ignore the lame ending.

"The Icy Fingers of Fear"

"Why Won't They Believe Me?"

"Witch Hunt"

"The Last Man on Earth"

"Journey's End"


This batch of five stories, all from the same issue (sporting one of the greatest pre-super-hero Ditko covers in Marvel's history – even the colouring is great!) interested me because they're all in the same category as "There It Is Again!" All are scripted by Stan Lee and it's as if he cracked the Ditko code and figured out the exact overall story tone that was required to get a Ditko Iconic job. I suspect there's a story behind all of these ending up in the same issue. Looking on the bright side, I can envision Stan Lee, as I say, cracking the Ditko code and writing four High Iconic Ditko stories to appear in the same issue. Looking through a more jaundiced lens, Stan Lee had no idea what was going on and over a period of time just ended up with four High Iconic jobs and decided What the hey! And put them all in the same issue. The job numbers that appear on the splash pages aren't completely sequential (V-391, V-392, V-393, V-395, V-396) but pretty close. It might be something as simple as a deadline crunch and Ditko picked out the five scripts that he thought he could draw the fastest.

If we assume (as I do) that solo Steve Ditko is the REAL Steve Ditko, I suspect these stories gave him his first taste of iconic story-telling and told him this was where his creative heart was and where he needed to go when he opted for a smaller audience and complete creative freedom.

"Why Won't They Believe Me?" actually delivers the goods. Good build-up, good red herring on the second to last page and good actual twist ending. "The Last Man on Earth", nah, "Witch Hunt", nah, "Journey's End" yeah.

I've just spent the last half hour flipping through all of them, admiring the artwork, the composition, the story-telling, the pin-stripe suits. If you're a major league Ditko fan, you couldn't go wrong bidding on a reading copy of AMAZING ADULT FANTASY #7 on eBay.

"Inside the Flying Saucer" STRANGE TALES #92 (Jan 62)

Another High Iconic Ditko story. I love this one for the brush strokes that delineate the skin of the aliens. Evidently all it takes is a number four sable brush, some India ink and nerve and self-confidence like tempered steel.

"The Ultimate Weapon" AMAZING ADULT FANTASY #13 (June 62)

"There is a chance the Cold War will STILL be raging even by 1970" the story begins. Ditko doing his best caricature of Nikita Khrushchev: a caricature which is really the whole point of the story and which dominates most of the five pages. The shot of him on page one panel 3 certainly recalls the day when the most pressing concern for all humanity was that this hysterical lunatic had his finger on the nuclear button.

Could the United States bluff him or call his bluff? Interesting that this story came out the same year that the Kennedy Administration did just that a few months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"The Most Dangerous Weapon" TALES TO ASTONISH #46 (Aug 63)

Same basic theme but with more of a High Iconic treatment: the premise of the story is that there is a museum which houses the only weapon remaining on the face of the earth in the year 2,050 (the comma is an interesting touch).

The more unlikely the story – and what could be more unlikely than there existing only one remaining weapon on the face of the earth? -- the more Iconic the Ditko treatment so, again, everything gets stripped down to the bare essentials after pages 2 and 3 have set up the premise that the only weapon remaining on the face of the earth is about to be stolen. Pages 4 and 5 are virtually just "talking heads" and Ditko has the good sense to realize that it needs to be played that way. It's a straightforward science fiction story with an unlikely premise that changes into a parable about the nature of power and how weapons factor into that. When Stan Lee switches from the one to the other, Ditko switches as well. There isn't much of a message, but watching Ditko switch from straightforward narrative to Iconic narrative is worth the price of admission. He gets a lot done with just some edging of shadows once he's dispensed with all pretence of doing backgrounds.

Blake also included a couple of GHOST MANOR covers (a Charlton title) one of which appears to be Wally Wood (or one of the Legion of Substitute Woods, Dan Adkins or Ralph Reese or somebody) inking Steve Ditko. Whoever it is does a pretty good job considering that you can't really "jazz up" Steve Ditko without losing the value of it being a Steve Ditko piece. "What can I do and what can't I do in order for this to still look as if it was done by Steve Ditko when I'm finished?"

The answers are: a) not very much and b) just about everything you can think of, respectively. The cover to issue 19 is particularly difficult since the arms of the man and woman holding the chalice are distorted dramatically, so you still have only four brush strokes (or thick speedball nib strokes) to get the man's jacket right on an arm that's roughly twice as long as it's supposed to be. Yikes! It's either Ditko inking himself or someone who guessed right on the folds and, as a result, didn't have to worry about having to guess as accurately elsewhere.

Then there's a page from STRANGE TALES #74, pg. 4 (Apr 60) which looks like John Severin inking Ditko which (no surprise) turns out to be more John Severin than Steve Ditko. Severin is scrupulous in getting the details right – he cut his teeth on Kurtzman's war stories where getting the details wrong was a good way to cut your own throat with Kurtzman -- so he must have blanched visibly when he saw the Steve Ditko-pencilled .45 automatic in the bottom panel. "What in the HECK is THAT supposed to be?" I can hear him saying to himself. Our best evidence suggests that Steve Ditko saw a .45 automatic once -- many, many years ago – memorized the parts he liked, reduced them to a handful of iconic Steve Ditko shapes and mannerisms and never looked at the real thing again. Didn't really need to. An actual .45 would look as out-of-place in a Mr. A story as an actual skyscraper would in Spider-man. There are some things that Ditko makes look better than authentic and the .45 automatic is one of them (skyscrapers, too!)

And that brings us to THE AVENGING WORLD (1969). It's not hard to see why Steve Ditko ended up disappointing his legions of fans who assumed that he was basically in the same category as most of his contemporaries: living out the spirit of adventure he had been infected with early on in movie serials, Zorro, Tarzan, etc. Nothing wrong with doing Nikita Khrushchev as long as you make sure you have a space ship in there somewhere. I don't know if this is why Blake sent me this one, but I commented elsewhere that – not having seen the material for close to thirty years – I was struck by Ditko's insight and prescience in documenting "The Neutralist" ("No! I won't stand up for or be against either side! According to my scales, I don't see any difference between two extremes! It's not up to me to judge which side is right or wrong! You can fight among yourselves – I'm neutral! It doesn't affect me no matter which side has its way!").

To say the least, this is no way to win friends and influence people in the ultra-liberal comic-book field where the "Neutralist" is known as the "Wise Moderate". Jules Feiffer did a less critical, more affectionate treatment of the same thing, calling it "The Radical Middle" – tweaking the lion's whiskers rather than, like Ditko, pulling them all out in one big clump.

And, as can be seen on pages 2 and 3, he still does a great pin-striped suit.

All of this (except maybe the pin-striped suit) ties in with Ditko's new essay -- "An Issue, Question" -- in Robin Snyder's monthly newsletter, THE COMICS, which I'm going to be discussing somewhere up ahead on the Blog & Mail. For now, unless you're Steve Ditko's mother or something, that's gotta be enough Steve Ditko for anyone.










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.