Interior page by Steve Ditko from Konga #6, from Blake Bell’s great new Ditko book (see link below); was Ditko flipping the bird to comics? Who knows! Steve ain’t saying, and I wouldn’t ask if I could…

Bob Heer steered my attention to this post on his excellent blog today:

  • It’s Bob’s investigation and interpretation of a Steve Ditko story that’s been twisted a bit in the retelling over the years,
  • most recently in Blake Bell’s highly-recommended new book Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko — a book I have some reservations about, and will discuss at some length later here, this week.
  • My response to Bob’s post, though, is very specific to his comments — go read his post, and then read the following:

    ditkobook.jpgGreat post, Bob — and some further evidence to back your interpretation:

    1. Publishers habitually ‘cut up’ artwork, pre-return-of-artwork-to-artists era.In our first year at Kubert School, Joe Kubert told Rick Veitch and I (and some of our classmates; this wasn’t during class, mind you) about walking down the hallway at DC in the early ’60s and noting a man cutting up original art on a paper cutter before dumping the cut strips in a basket — and the page on the block was the last page of one of Joe’s HAWKMAN stories! The rest were already gone — Joe asked if he could have the one about to be chopped up, and the follow responded with something like, “Why not, you’re saving me the effort.”

    Joe had the original framed and displayed on the wall of the main floor of the Baker Mansion, then the school’s main classroom; it was one of those pages drawn with half-a-page left open for an ad, circa DC’s 1950s-early ’60s era. I’m sure it was one of us asking why Joe was displaying this — not a great page — rather than one of the spectacular HAWKMAN splashes that prompted Joe telling us this story. As you can imagine, we were horrified.

    2. Marvel’s return policies were indeed atrocious, even in the 1980s and up to the present, but even after the dawn of the new age of returning original art to artists was standard operating procedure in the ’80s, I’ve received plenty of art that was returned damaged and often cut.

    In my experience, the worst offender was Eclipse Comics, by far — they returned the art for my story “Scraps” (included in Veitch’s and my Eclipse collection BEDLAM) in terrible condition, including a cut and a crunched double-page spread. I had to doctor that page as best I could, including replacing zipatone that had been torn off.

    At least they returned the artwork — I stopped contributing art to fanzines by the early 1980s, after having too many such fanzine submissions kept, lost, damaged or simply drop off the face of the earth.

    3. The ‘original page as cutting board’ story never, ever made sense to me; cartoonists didn’t use expensive illustration board much prior to painted comics entering the fray (illustration board being the only ‘page’ with enough thickness to serve as a cutting board), and a hunk of cardboard would make a better cutting board in any case.

    Cutting through two-or-three ply bristol board would score the surface of the desk or table beneath, invalidating the use of any 1930s-60s original art FOR a cutting board.

    Like a number of the anecdotes in Blake Bell’s often terrific book on Ditko, I don’t buy the ‘cutting board’ story.

    OK, that’s that — let me add that I love Blake Bell’s book, and have enormous respect and affection for Blake; we exchanged emails last year while working on the two intros we did (working separately) for the Marvel Amazing Adventures/Amazing Adult Fantasy hardcover compilation. None of the following is an attack on Blake or his fine book — it’s my personal assessment of a few key points.

    The worse abuse in the book, to my mind, remains the assumption that the making of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” (it’s practically a mantra in the last quarter of the book) would justify Dikto subjecting himself to any further contact with or potential abuses from the comics industry.

    Given the catalogue of abuses Bell himself has assembled, why would any sane artist put himself through more?

    From the top comics publishers to ‘creator friendly’ publisher like Eclipse (God, the description of the abysmal treatment afforded Ditko, from his own work to the terminated biography project, is chilling — and what a character assassination on Mark Upchurch! Cat and Dean’s comments should have been countered, from some source, at the very least) to fanzines, the man was dealt a dirty hand time and time again.

    No wonder he ended up trusting only Robin Snyder (who I always got along well with); it’s no different, really, than Alan Moore’s current decision to cease any contact with the American comics industry, save for Chris Staros, except that Staros has considerable resources Robin Snyder never, ever had.Ditko’s retreat and determination to avoid further contact isn’t evidence of ‘erratic behavior’ or extremist philosophy — it’s the reaction of a sane man to decades of ill treatment. Why put up with it for another nanosecond?

    Sadly, Blake Bell’s stance in this regard reflects not only our cultural orientation to money (as if money alone could or would drive a man and artist like Steve Ditko), but also a fan clinging to the illusions of some sort of la-la-land fantasy of ‘the industry’ as a promised land.

    Blake would have better served his subject had he kept that impulse in firm check, particularly in his concluding chapters, or reached for a metaphor more in accord with Ditko’s realm (e.g., Alan Moore again comes to mind).

    Bell’s book spells it all out quite vividly — how did he miss his own point?

    To Ditko, comics wasn’t a promised land, except in his youth; once he entered the field, it was his life and career. He gave it his all — hence the book, his legacy, his legend. What has comics given to Ditko? Fame? Fortune? Infamy?

    Ditko Konga cover

    In keeping with the tenore of this week’s Charlton monster love fest, here’s another terrific Steve Ditko Konga cover; note that Robin Snyder and Ditko reprinted some of Ditko’s Konga art and stories as the black-and-white paperback collection The Lonely One, for those of you curious but not interested in paying the collector prices back issues of Konga now command.

    The ‘mystery’ of why Ditko stayed on with Charlton from the beginning of his career to the demise of Charlton is self-evident: however low-paying, Charlton respected and valued Ditko and his work. Charlton didn’t fuck with Ditko or his work. The respect was mutual, the working relationship lasted until Charlton folded. No other comics publisher, in any venue, save Robin Snyder offered similar conditions of mutual respect, courtesy, and professionalism.

    (Even Jim Warren, for whom Ditko arguably completed his most technically stunning and accomplished comics work, was renowned for habitually messing with artists: a number of former Warren freelancers (including Berni Wrightson) have told me tales over the years, the most consistent one involving Warren’s habit of always leaving one delivered job unpaid for, paying for the previous completed job when a new one was delivered. I would consider this apocryphal, had I not been told the same thing by over five former Warren freelancers, including Archie Goodwin, who once rather sheepishly said to me, “Well, yes, Steve, I’m afraid that’s true.”)

    Reading Bell’s book is reading a testimonial of abuses, past and present, from generation after generation of comics publishers, editors (again, Cat and Dean should hang their heads in shame), peers and fans. From Martin Goodman to the ‘creator friendly’ publishers of the 1980s and ’90s, Ditko was almost always ill-treated; and as he grew older, fans-turned-pros didn’t want what Ditko did create, they wanted what their fantasy of Ditko was, or what they thought he “should be.” I don’t need to overlay Ditko’s Objectivist philosophy onto these testimonials to arrive at the conclusion that comics, in the end, had less and less to offer Ditko, and fewer and fewer viable job opportunities and/or venues for self-expression once Charlton ceased publication.

    The quality of Ditko’s later work, as evidenced in Bell’s book, is comparable to that of Ditko’s peer Jack Kirby; yes, there is erosion of quality self-evident. That said, though, there is also remarkable consistency between Ditko’s pencils for himself to ink, shown early in the book, and the pencils he turned in for gigs like Chuck Norris and the Marvel jobs Blake shows pencils from; yes, they’re sketchy, but it looks to me like Ditko’s pencils were always tailored to Ditko’s inks, leaving much undone until the ink hit the page. Back to the erosion: Some of that erosion of quality was/is likely due to the aging process, some of it due (I would argue) to the low standards apparent in the industry as a whole, and low pay and low esteem associated with the jobs at hand. But it’s also sadly of a piece with similar career arc’s evident in Ditko’s peers, from Gil Kane to Jack Kirby, matched by the shoddy treatment afforded such peers (whom Ditko has outlived).

    It’s a sad spectacle, strung end to end, but anyone harboring the fantasy that any sane working cartoonist could or would sustain the highest quality of their earlier work amid the degenerating editorial standards and ill treatment testified to in Bell’s Ditko biography (and, I’m very sorry to say, unintentionally embodied at times in Bell’s book) would be hard-pressed to maintain those illusory values if they could shed them long enough to acknowledge the self-evident human toll chronicled in the book, too.

    As one who likewise stepped away from the industry, Ditko’s decisions and behavior seems utterly pragmatic and justified.

    What became increasingly irrational to me, personally, by the end of the 1990s, and seems absolutely barking mad to me now, is why any self-respecting professional would put up with half of the horseshit that is accepted as ‘business as usual’ in the comics industry, then and today. It’s astonishing the likes of Steve Ditko and Alan Moore stayed with it as long as they did, and that the Joe Kuberts, Will Eisners and (from my own generation) Frank Millers of the world maintain enough personal will, power and equilibrium to function in such an industry.

    Then again, I’m considered plenty eccentric and bizarre in the comics cesspool, having been publicly dismissed as unstable by the likes of Warren Ellis (who I found personally quite likable when we finally met face-to-face at Komiks.dk in Copenhagen in 2006) and plenty of friends and peers, so — c’est la vie.

    All of which leads me to: I hope I live long enough to read biographies of my own generation. That’ll be rich!

    Discussion (20) ¬

    1. James Robert Smith

      I never get tired of reading Ditko’s work, nor or reading about Ditko the man.

      I doubt seriously that Ditko was using the art as a cutting board. I think it far more likely that someone at Charlton used it as a cutting board. From what I understand, it was their policy to destroy all original artwork, and only rarely was it returned to the artists who created it (and that, from what I’ve heard, was often done without the publishers’ knowledge).

      Piles of money apparently never lit Ditko’s fuse. As I heard Alan Moore say in a poem, what spurred Ditko was “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work”.

      And Konga is indeed flipping the bird. But not to anyone in the comics community, but at communism.

    2. BobH

      “Ditko’s retreat and determination to avoid further contact isn’t evidence of ‘erratic behavior’ or extremist philosophy — it’s the reaction of a sane man to decades of ill treatment.”

      Just wanted to highlight that quote, which is spot-on. I told someone recently that, with my current understanding of 1960s Marvel and how Goodman and Lee behaved, the question in my mind has long changed from “Why did Ditko quit Spider-Man after #38?” to “How did Ditko last that long?” and “How did Kirby manage another four years of that BS?”

    3. James Robert Smith

      Ditko and Kirby–the guys who built Marvel. Fuck Stan Lee.

    4. Blake Bell

      PS. (although maybe not a “PS” because I didn’t see my first comment come through; I’ll assume they get approved by you first, yes?) I’ll be doing another update to my site (presumably for this weekend) and will be linking to your post above, so if you do post any more comments about the book, please do write me, so I can take those in too.

      Best to you, and thanks again for sharing your thoughts about Ditko, my book, and the industry in general.

      Now, back to work on my upcoming Bill Everett book…

      Blake Bell

    5. Russ Maheras

      Great essay. You hit the heads of quite a few nails with it.

      For four years during the 1970s, I had union warehouse “day job” while I was trying to break into comics. Three things happened that made me realize a job in the comics business was not for me. First, I came to expect the basic benefits and retirement plan a union job offered. Second, I learned that a freelancer in the comics biz, while paid relatively well compared to the average schmoe, had none of the aformentioned benefits: No medical; no dental, no reirement plan, no seniority, no paid vacation; no paid sick days; no nothing. Third, and probably the thing that really brought the whole into stark focus, is how I saw some of my idols treated by the industry they helped build.

      So I opted to join the Air Force in 1978. For six months or so after joining, I occasionally wavered with self-doubts. But then I’d get some note from a friend or acquaintance in the comics biz highlighting some new frustration or injustice, and it would remind me all over again why I’d turned my back on comics.

      In retrospect, it was the best decision I ever made in my life.

    6. Sam Kujava

      I’ve gone through my infatuation with the comic book industry, as Russ has, and I’ve had my own
      crushing learning experiences, as Steve (Bissette) and Steve (Ditko) have.

      Even while beginning a career as a comic book writer, I had an ongoing freelance career as an artist in advertising and marketing and television graphics, and it was startling to me how poorly the comic book work paid, by comparison.

      After 30+ years as an off-again on-again writer/artist, I learned my greatest lesson from Steve
      Ditko. He declined to be interviewed. Not wanting to talk about or explain his work, he simply
      offered his best efforts and let his work speak for itself.

      How much money did he make? Could have made? Why did he draw THIS like THAT? What was his
      thinking process? Ditko has always remained steadfast and LET HIS WORK SPEAK FOR ITSELF.
      His silence requires us to look at his stories again and again. And find our own meaning in them. I find that not to be a chore but a pleasure.

    7. Chuck Dixon

      Thanks for writing this.
      It’s vitally important that the truth of Ditko’s story be told and re-told.
      The lowest offense that any comic company can commit is to use a creator’s own enthusiasm against them. All of us who’ve worked in comics have been led to the wishing well time and again only to be sucker punched in the end.
      Ditko’s story is cautionary and a stark example of how this medium uses people. And it’s a story that never changes. For the most part, the comics business operates the same way today it did seventy years ago. It amuses me that newbie publishers looking to re-invent the medium use the same tactics that M.C. Gaines might have employed.

    8. srbissette

      Thanks for weighing in, Chuck — and you should know, with the decades you now have under your belt.

      Generationally, part of the problem is those who DO stand and, at times, speak out against the hideous status quo in the comics industry are almost immediately ostracized, a process I can attest to first-hand. I saw it happen with my friend Dave Sim; I then experienced it myself. My own bad rep with deadlines (toxic in monthly comics environments; no longer relevant in the graphic novel era, where books take years to complete, but still a ball-and-chain around my legs; I made my bed, I lay in it) only intensified and fed the process. It was easy to walk away when I did — my bad rep excused every abuse leveled against me, including publishers paying late (Dark Horse: NINE MONTHS after delivery) and immediately breaking contracts (DC/Vertigo, on “Jack-in-the-Green” for MIDNIGHT DAYS) with impunity. Shifting gears to a 40-60 hour work week dayjob that paid weekly was a no-brainer, folks.

      The ways and means of this process vary from individual to individual, but in Ditko’s case — since he MADE all his deadlines, unlike deadbeat Bissette — the spin began to target his apparently “unusual behavior” (e.g., letting the work speak for itself in the era of Stan Lee and Jim Sterkanko Barnumesque self-ballyhoo; “how odd that Ditko isn’t shamelessly tooting his horn, too!”) as early as the ’60s. The FIRST ‘peculiar stories’ I heard as I entered comics as a fan centered around this “peculiarity” — Ditko as Lone Man. Of course, in hindsight, it’s Stan Lee’s shameless hucksterism and Steranko’s cultivation of cult ‘rock star’ persona (incorporating beefcake Houdini pix of himself, a bio I was just told this past week by one of my CCS amigos is a bio they “envy”) that seems “unusual behavior,” but no matter — the spin had begun to explain Ditko’s departure from SPIDER-MAN. Better the spin that to confront the treatment Lee and Goodman dished out that drove Ditko away.

      Then, in the wake of MR. A and AVENGING WORLD, it became his Randian philosophy that was the steady target. That, in a nutshell, is my problem with Blake’s book: it supports, in its way, the latter interpretation of events too often. To me, it’s crystal clear in the reading: every time Ditko did what he said he’d do, the publishers still fucked with him. After years of that ill treatment, Ditko decided enough was enough, and has eked out what living he has from whatever honorable venues presented themselves (e.g., Robin Snyder) or he could find.

      A sane man, I’d say.

    9. Allen Smith

      All of the above posts have been informative, I for one don’t blame Ditko for not wanting to open up to comics fandom. All the fine pages he’s drawn (even the one with Konga popping the bird) should be enough, anything else is gravy. And, Steve, what is the job you spend 40-60 hours at?
      Just curious.

    10. srbissette

      I worked 40-60 hours for a few years at First Run Video in Brattleboro, VT; though I was a shareholder (since 1991, when First Run opened) and had worked in various capacities before 1998, I insisted at starting at the lowest level and working my way up once I was full-time. By the time I was co-manager/buyer, my work week was a more manageable 35-40 hour week. Throughout that time (1999-2005), I continued writing freelance (including the weekly “Video Views” newspaper column, now collected in BLUR Vol. 1-4) and illustrating a book a year (primarily limited-edition horror small press novels).

    11. ted whitby

      First of all, I love your body of comics work, and miss you. I followed it from the beginning, and am casually familiar with your substantial commentary on the business as well. When Tyrant disappeared I was heartbroken. I never really knew what happened, but the sadness lasted for many years. Any stories you write and draw, I will always be there to lay out my money.
      I am just now reading Mr. Bell’s book, and am a lifelong Ditko fan. I have to say, your comments seem to reflect your personal prism of the comics business.
      The business in your era and Steve’s are similar but fundamentally different in my opinion. Having never been part of the industry beyond a fan and reader (outside of a couple of logos and pencil submissions after my college newspaper comic) I admittedly speak from a less than first hand view. Nevertheless, while the fundamental nature of the relationship (artist as employee) was unchanged, it was in fact different. Sort of like the civil rights movement. The glass is half full. Or half empty…
      The main difference as I see it, was expectations. Ditko’s generation had minimal, while yours (mine) were led to believe the relationship was fundamentally different. And so the glass is half full.
      it’s your site, so you are king (unlike your standing in comics). But I want to point out the comments on Ditko and this book feel as much about you as they do Ditko and Mr. Bell’s book.
      With great respect and admiration,
      Ted Whitby
      Princeton Junction, NJ

    12. srbissette

      Thanks, Ted, and thanks for your very kind words. I’m sorry my departure from comics in 1999 affected you so — I have been very busy and productive of late, and you’ll have more opportunities to read new comics by yours truly in the coming year.

      Thanks, too, for your comments on this post — and of course, you’re right; this is definitely my point of view, colored by my own experiences. How could it be otherwise?

      My generation was in fact a pivotal one in the battle for creator rights, and we fought many trench wars that made life better for those who followed us. While some of my friends and peers benefit from that themselves today, others did and do not, in part because of the grudges held by publishers and those in power against those of my generation who fought the status quo. So it goes — there are other ways to make a living and still create.

      That said, I also believe I had a pretty clear impression of the expectations and ‘norm’ of the generation that preceded my own in comics, having learned at the brushtips of many of Ditko’s peers during my years at Kubert School — including Dick Giordano, who cut his teeth at Charlton as Ditko was gaining his second wind at that company (having already survived the 1954 purge and birth of the Code, prior to which he’d created a still astonishing run of Pre-Code art), and Joe Kubert, whose work so clearly impacted Ditko’s (compare Joe’s original TOR art with Ditko’s of that period and just after).

      I took that into account in my own reading and assessment of Blake’s book.

      However, I recently read the amazing book-length manuscript by Ditko himself that was serialized in Robin Snyder’s THE COMICS newsletter in 2001-2002 (see list below), and that, too, informed my perceptions. From his own account, it’s clear that Ditko’s personal ethics in the early 1960s were hardly the ‘low expectations’ you infer — his own expectations are clearly articulated and defined, and his decisions concerning what he would and would not do, and would and would not tolerate, in the early 1960s are lucid and rational. Ditko makes perfect sense of the process of erosion, the personalities and forces involved, and what exactly led to his departure from Marvel. You can read it yourself, in Ditko’s own words, and then see what you think.

      It is published in:
      • THE COMICS Vol. 12, No. 5 (May 2001); essentially a prologue, “A MINI-HISTORY: Some Background.”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 12, No. 7 (July 2001); “A MINI-HISTORY: 1. The Green Goblin”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 12, No. 10 (October 2001); “A MINI-HISTORY: 2. Amazing Fantasy #15”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 12, No. 11 (November 2001); “A MINI-HISTORY: 3. The Amazing Spider-Man #1”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 13, No. 1 (January 2002); “A MINI-HISTORY: 4. The Amazing Spider-Man #2”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 13, No. 4 (April 2002); “A MINI-HISTORY: 5. The Amazing Spider-Man #3”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 13, No. 5 (May 2002); “A MINI-HISTORY: 6. Spider-woman/Spider-girl”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 13, No. 8 (August 2002); “A MINI-HISTORY: 7. The Amazing Spider-Man #4”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 14, No. 2 (February 2003); “A MINI-HISTORY: 8. Others, Outsiders (OOs): Complainers and Complaints Against Betty Brant”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 14, No. 4 (April 2003); “A MINI-HISTORY: 9. The OOs and Aunt May”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 14, No. 5 (May 2003); “A MINI-HISTORY: The OOs and JJJ”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 14, No. 6 (June 2003); “A MINI-HISTORY: Further Complaints and Influences of the OOs”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 14, No. 7 (July 2003); “A MINI-HISTORY: Guest Stars: Heroes and Villains”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 14, No. 8 (August 2003); “A MINI-HISTORY: Speculation”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 14, No. 9 (September 2003); “A MINI-HISTORY: 14. The Mistrial”
      • THE COMICS Vol. 14, No. 11 (November 2003); “A MINI-HISTORY: Wind-up”

      I have talked to Robin Snyder about this body of work, and urged he and Ditko to collect it into book form — in the meanwhile, Robin has donated a full set to the Bissette Collection at HUIE Library at Henderson State University, and hopefully that will be catalogued and available to researchers there later in 2009.

      I posted more about Ditko and Blake’s book later on in MYRANT — check the later posts, and hope you find that informative and interesting, too.

    13. ted whitby

      For the record, I’m a social progressive. Obviously, this doesn’t effect history or truth.

      I completely understand and respect Mr. Ditko’s decision to pursue his love and try to make it work. Like Kirby and so many others, nothing will ever change how much I admire, love, respect and treasure both the work and the people. As much as I believe Ditko’s politics and world view are fringey fringe, his work is immortal. And so is my admiration.

      Looking forward to Bissette stories.

    14. ted whitby

      unfortunately my last post eliminated almost all of what I wrote, Please disregard the fact that it makes no sense. The meat was deleted which is extremely frustrating…

      After an hour of careful composition a Sunday night, I am not going to reconstruct. Maybe soon. Or not.

    15. srbissette

      Sorry WordPress ate your comment, Ted — I know how frustrating that is. I now write on a word page on my computer and paste it into place, based on hard experience. It’s the only way I manage to complete posts and/or comments without chancing a major loss to virtual space limbo.

      In any case, thanks for the stab, and hope you do find/make time to post what you’d intended.

    16. ted whitby


      When you say “how could it be otherwise” I guess I expect more. Judging history by canother era’s social and political mores is obviously an exercise in distortion. What’s wrong is wrong of course, but when years ago my daughter came home from school one day to declare that Thomas Jefferson was a “bad” person because he kept slaves, I struggled to answer. I hold Mr. jefferson to be one of the greatest Americans, but no answer to her was accepted, or felt acceptable.
      This is an extremely flawed example of course but it makes the point that what is “right” is both absolute and relative. And that is my point about how Ditko was treated. He strikes me as an intelligent man. Having spent most of my life making a career in “art” and knowing the history of exploitation of people in my field, I chafe at the stereotype of “art” people as naive business people. I am a progressive, but I do believe we all have the responsibility to be smart and aware. That comics were a brutal business unfair to creators could not have possibly been a revelation. If it was, I have little sympathy.

    17. ted whitby

      Sorry if my previous reply seems harsh. It’s to make a point, but only reflects one facet of my worldview.

    18. ted whitby

      yes I agree Ditko and Kubert’s 50′s work was quite similar. When I first was exposed to both back in the late 70s it was a revelation. Interesting how they diverged. Kubert is a rare example of how great comics illustrator’s work doesn’t become a parody of itself in its final stages, unlike both Ditko and Kirby (he wrote sadly).

    19. ted whitby

      I would love to read the series of essays you cite. Without ready access, I can only continue to say that if you work in an industry of low standards and pay with no rights beyond taking it or leaving it, and expect something different, you are not being realistic.
      Mr. Ditko made his decisions throughout his career, and I respect his integrity, if not his dogma. But to express indignity at his treatment strikes me as righteous, noble and naive, whatever the source.

    Pings & Trackbacks ¬

    Comment ¬

    NOTE - You can use these tags:
    <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>