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:
My response to Bob’s post, though, is very specific to his comments — go read his post, and then read the following:
Great 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?
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!