Though Steve Ditko was nowhere to be seen at last month's Comic-Con International in San Diego (unless that was him in the Question costume), author Blake Bell spotlighted the visionary artist in a discussion panel dedicated to his new book, "Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko."
Panelists included Kim Deitch (underground comics artist, "Shadowland"), Gary Groth (co-publisher of Fantagraphics Books), Jim Starlin ("Adam Strange," "Hawkman"), Carl Potts (former Marvel Comics editor) and Liana K (Canadian TV personality, "Ed's Night Party").
Bell presented his top ten favorite Ditko images from his book. Art included a Dr. Strange page depicting Strange in a magical universe; a classic page of Spider-Man buried under debris; an image of a criminal in an electric chair; and a page from Mr. A, among others.
While the images rolled, the panel discussed Ditko's unique artwork. Deitch said that he believed Ditko's best work was on "Amazing Adult Fantasy" before he went to Spider-Man. "It just seemed very lavish and obsessively finished," he said. "The stories were cheap knock-offs of 'The Twilight Zone' but the art is beautiful."
"Initially I didn't care for Ditko's work," admitted Groth. "Then I realized he was the flip-side of the [Jack Kirby] coin. All of [Ditko's] characters were thin, gaunt. Everybody [else] was imitating Kirby."
Jim Starlin also tipped his hat to Ditko. "Everything I learned about storytelling was [due to] him or Kirby," he said. "[Ditko] did the best layouts."
Starlin said that when he was a kid, he sought out comic book artists for advice when he was on a trip to the New York's World Fair. The only artist who would see him, he said, was Steve Ditko. "I was 15. They all ducked me except for Ditko," Starlin recalled. "He told me, 'If you're in the neighborhood.' He had a small studio in an apartment. Just a little hobbit hut." Starlin was amazed when Ditko showed him the books he used to reference how folds in clothing looked. "He had notebooks and notebooks of arms, legs and drapery. It all had slashes of black to indicate the drapery."
Deitch talked about the intricacies Ditko put into the character of Dr. Strange, saying Ditko created a visual language dedicated to Strange's magic spells, using different visual effects for specific styles of magic. The sharp-eyed reader could tell what kind of spell Dr. Strange was casting without reading any dialogue. "Most of the artists [after Ditko] copied it or ignored it and used flashes of light that didn't mean anything," he said.
When the image of a Ditko crook in an electric chair was displayed, Liana K asked the crowd if the image looked familiar. "'Sin City' anyone? This is Marv in the electric chair before there was a Marv in the electric chair."
Deitch said that to him and his brothers, Ditko's art on "Amazing Spider-Man" was a return to "good times" comics. "It was followed by the sad day when John Romita took over 'Amazing,'" Deitch said. "It was almost a diss to Ditko -- to follow him with a competent but styleless artist."
Bell talked about the difficulty of writing "Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko." We had to bullet-proof this book," Bell said. "When you have a subject who is not interested in being involved, you have to source everything." Bell said his original manuscript was much longer than what was published, but that he was happy with the editing work done and the final product is concise.
While looking at more Ditko art, Groth talked about what he liked about Ditko's look. "His social concept to the figure is very down-and-out," Groth said. "You can see sympathy. These people were anguished. He brought that into his early work. Early, in Dr. Strange, there was a genuine understanding. Later, they were anguished because [the characters] were evil."
Groth went on to say that at DC Comics, the mood was goofy and light. At Marvel, with creators like Steve Ditko, they were trying to explore more human dimensions.
Potts said that no one could match Ditko's prowess on showing emotion. "Nobody in comics had ever done anything like it," he said. "We tried to imitate it later. It was ground-breaking."
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