A Ditko Act
Over the last few years, there’s been a tremendous upsurge of interest in Steve Ditko’s legacy, thanks in no small part to the various books written and/or edited by Blake Bell and Craig Yoe. This is all to the good: Ditko is, to my mind at least, one of the four or five most imaginative and path breaking visual artists ever to work in the commercial comic book field (the others, for what it’s worth, are Kirby, Kurtzman, and Toth). What tends to get forgotten, though, is the fact that Ditko, unlike the other masters, is still alive and in fact very busy.
Steve Ditko is 83 years old. In the last year he’s produced at least 150 pages of new comics (published by Robin Synder in the series A Ditko Act). By any reasonable measure, this venerable cartoonist much more prolific than many artists 60 years his junior. It’s unfortunate that late-period Ditko tends to be ignored by all but the most hard-core fans. Of course, Ditko himself is partially to blame, since these latest stories follow in the trajectory of his Mr. A work in being both forbiddingly didactic and shorn of any reader-friendly cordiality. As befits a man of his ideological purity, Ditko demands to be taken on his own terms. And increasingly, Ditko’s visual vocabulary has an abstract and hermetic quality that makes it look like an alien script, one without a Rosetta Stone to help us decipher it. Ditko’s dialogue is also unique: more and more it has a telegraphic quality whereby information is conveyed in short phrasal bursts that don’t resemble anything close to human speech.
The most interesting thing about late-period Ditko how relentlessly stylized it is, achieving a level of cartooning abstraction almost worthy of Sterrett or Rege. To be sure, Ditko has long had a covert passion for abstraction — think of the weird backgrounds in his Doctor Strange stories. But late-period Ditko takes this tendency to a radical extreme. Artists late in life, Irving Howe once suggested, have a tendency to give up all that they no longer need, to offer up art that is unshorn and pure and blunt. I’m not sure if that is generally true but Ditko would make a good case study.
I’m not the writer to do justice to late-period Ditko — it requires someone more steeped in his career and the history of mainstream comics than I am. But I will say that I hope some smart critic – Matt Seneca comes to mind, or my formidable blog-mate Jog – will look at this stuff and try to explain it. It’s too interesting to remain the terra incognito of comics. I have a hunch at in the future there will be a general rediscovery of late-period Ditko, just as there has been an upward reappraisal of late-period Kirby.
Steve Ditko's The Madman (From A Ditko Act)