The team of "Midnight Sun" creator Ben Towle and Thought Balloonist blogger Craig Fischer, who entertained 2008 HeroesCon attendees with their "appreciations/panels" on Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein, tackled Steve Ditko this year. Not only did they tackle Ditko, they wrestled the subject to the ground over the course of two and a half hours.
The panel opened with the first sanctioned U.S. screening of Jonathan Ross's BBC documentary "In Search of Steve Ditko" (2007), featuring interviews with a variety of people from Alan Moore to legendary Marvel employee Flo Steinberg. The hourlong documentary is a perfect place to start an examination of Ditko, as Ross is a BBC personality who is also a diehard Ditko fan. In his hands, a quest for Ditko takes on Holy Grail-scale proportions. In some ways, Ross's documentary reads like a love letter to Ditko that firmly attempts to place the artist on a pedestal.
Aptly enough, the rest of the HeroesCon panel served as an opportunity to take Ditko down from the pedestal and respectfully dissect his work. Upon the conclusion of the documentary, Fischer had former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas join him onstage to discuss working with Ditko. Thomas went to work for Stan Lee in July of 1965. In setting the stage for a question, Fischer said, "You were a witness to some of the creative estrangement--there was less and less communication..."
Thomas immediately replied, "There wasn't less [communication]--there was none... Sol Brodsky, the production manager told me 'Look there is one thing you have to know, Stan and Steve don't speak to each other.'"
Years later, Thomas worked with Ditko again, but not all of Ditko. "I was disappointed in the work, because as much as I admire Ditko, he seemed fiercely determined by that time not to give everything of himself. He and Jack [Kirby] both, because of their resentments against Stan. If I didn't specify exactly what the fight was going to be, I was going to get a simple punch with no thought in it. He was just determined not to give me one iota more ...so I just kind of gave up."
To clarify, Thomas was not bashing Ditko in describing this, but lamenting the missed opportunity to work with a Ditko motivated enough to be give his all to a project.
Soon enough, Fischer got Dick Giordano to join Thomas on the panel. Giordano was an editor at Charlton when Ditko left Marvel. They got along quite well, and enjoyed playing table tennis together in the company cafeteria. "Steve didn't have all the shots I have," Giordano said. "But he returned everything. He beat the pants off of me."
As for Ditko's work at Charlton, Giordano said that in addition to art duties on Charlton stories Ditko, "Did a lot of the writing, but would not take credit for it. I would not ask him to do it [the writing], he just enjoyed doing it."
While at Charlton, Giordano recalled, Ditko had a story where the Question allowed two thugs to die. The Question did not cause them to die, Giordano noted, but "He didn't save them, which would have been the thing a real hero was supposed to do. I suspect that was the beginning of Steve wandering off into Ayn Rand philosophy."
Both industry veterans were candid in their recollections of working with Ditko, the good and the bad. And speaking of good, Giordano was quick to credit Ditko for getting him a job at DC as an editor.
The panel shifted to scholarly analysis after the Thomas/Giordano portion. First up of the three scholarly panels was Chris Schweizer, creator of "Crogan's Vengeance" and professor of sequential art (comics) at SCAD-Atlanta. Schweizer discussed his love of Ditko's ability to convey action, using a sequence from "Amazing Spider-Man" #10 for example. "Ditko gives us a character [Spider-Man] who is not only capable of great physical prowess, but capable of mental prowess, as well," said Schweizer. "By having him so regularly use his environment to his advantage, we get a sense of the scrappy, the underdog, the swashbuckler. The jokes and wisecracks supplied by Stan Lee's dialogue are only part of what gives this character his devil-may-care, robin-hood or Alladin-like quality; it is his using everything available to his advantage, giving the sense of 'street smarts' and fast thinking. His style of fighting is not just swinging around and slugging it out - it's outsmarting his opponents while still operating entirely on the physical plane."
Next up was Towle, who chose to examine how Ditko "often used non-literal types of drawing to communicate," according to Towle. To emphasize his point, Towle chose a page from the middle period of Ditko's career that, he said, "Employs its non-literal drawing fairly subtly, but does so in a way that's very much in line with the Objectivist philosophy of art, of which Ditko was very much an adherent to." For the sake of his analysis, Towle focused upon the final page from Ditko's first "Mr. A" story that appeared in "Witzend" #3, in 1967. But along the way to dissecting the "Mr. A" story, Towle also noted, "Some of Ditko's non-literal drawing has become so engrained in the characters he's drawn that we really don't think about it much or find it odd." There the presenter offered the half Peter face, half Spider-Man Spider-Sense panel as an example.
In the final Ditko portion, Fischer presented a piece called "Nervous Hands: Ditko, Anxiety, and Repression." Fischer picked a great many scenes from different stories focusing upon Ditko's use of hands. In talking with Fischer about the panel afterward, he confided that he hoped his analysis of Ditko would convey "that the Objectivist stuff is so uptight, and heroes like Mr. A are so rigid and emotionless, that it points to some profound pain and trauma in Ditko's own background that he's trying to repress." Fischer also mentioned that he would be running the presentation at his own blog later this week.
Once the panels were finished, Towle and Fischer had one more treat for attendees. Through the kindness of his wife who cooked it for him, Towle offered everyone a slide of Mr. A cake (on half black/one half white).