Sunday, February 24, 2013

Doctors, Dimensions and Doorways, Part 2

There's a running joke in comics fandom that Rohrshach from Alan Moore's Watchmen is not based on Steve Ditko's Charlton character The Question but on Ditko himself.
Rohrshach was less like Ditko's Question (reinvented as a proto-Synchro conspiracy theorist in the Justice League cartoons, voiced by Deep Space Nine star Jeffrey Combs) than Ditko's Mr. A, a character Ditko created for Wally Wood's ground-breaking creator-owned anthology Witzend.

Though the early stories showed Ditko at his artistic peak, Mr. A was less a "character" for "entertainment" than a vehicle for Ditko's version of primal scream therapy, the wounded cries of a bullied schoolboy. Like many bullied kids, Ditko took on the persona of the bully in his work, latching onto Objectivism, now so popular among the New Confederates.
The Question in his Charlton incarnation

A classic case of the dragon hunter becoming the dragon, but perhaps inevitable in the context of Ditko's career. Ditko was part of the first generation of early comic book fans who entered the business. His early work was derivative of comics legend Joe Kubert to the point of homage, but was small and meek where Kubert's was sweeping and macho.

Kubert was a man's man, a take-charge alpha male with a grip of iron who essentially died at his drawing table. After a career as a top artist at DC, he became group editor for DC's top selling war books. An Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatic from very early on, Kubert engineered DC's acquisition of the Tarzan license, then a hot seller for Gold Key Comics.

Raising a large family in Northern New Jersey, Kubert bought an old mansion in town and used it to open a school for cartoonists in 1976 that is still going strong (he later bought the local high school building for his school). His sons Adam and Andy are two of the top pencillers in comics today.

Kubert's stories were classic adventure- tough guys doing tough things on battlefields or in the wilderness. By contrast, Ditko's stories were often of lonely losers, drifting helplessly to small, ugly deaths on dark, empty streets. Ditko's world was constantly in contraction, threatening to disappear completely.

"The Terror of Tim Boo Baa" (Amazing Adult Fantasy #9) is in many ways the definitive Steve Ditko pre-Marvel story, encapsulating the deep and disturbing currents at work in Ditko's unconscious mind. It tells the litany of a monstrous tyrant, the most fearsome historical personage on an alien world. Using Ditko's trademark nine-panel grid (borrowed by Alan Moore for Watchmen, incidentally), it goes on telling you just how awful Tim Boo Baa is...

...until he is suddenly washed away and revealed to be some strange figure ruling over a plastic model of a planet. There are plenty more stories like this in Marvel's mystery and horror books- nightmare visions of a constantly contracting environment. For Ditko, alternate realities were not places to escape to, they were Hells even worse than the nightmare world all of his characters were already stuck in.

Constant and irreversible contraction would become a reality to Ditko, a reality he chose despite winning a jackpot that nearly every single working cartoonist can only dream of.

After struggling for years, working for bottom-drawer outfits like Charlton, Ditko hit the big time with Stan Lee and co-created Marvel's most iconic hero, the Amazing Spider-Man. He co-created and co-wrote Doctor Strange (which he soon turned into a kind of paranoid schizophrenic manifesto), designed Iron Man's iconic red and gold armor and pencilled the Hulk after Kirby handed it off.

But this was all too much for Ditko. For reasons never fully understood Ditko quit Marvel in 1966 (at the height of the new golden age of superheroes) and returned to Charlton, which was tailgating on the superhero wave under the guidance of the visionary editor, Dick Giordano. When Carmine Infantino rose to the top seat at DC he recruited Giordano, along with Charlton's top talent such as writers Denny O'Neil and Steve Skeates and artists such as future Batman superstar Jim Aparo (Giordano eventually became editor-in-chief at DC and engineered its astonishing 80s rebirth).
Trying to revisit old nightmares, from DC's sci-fi anthology Time Warp

Ditko joined the exodus, creating a Spider-Man/Joker synthesis called The Creeper and the ideological debating society superheroes, Hawk and Dove. Neither were the success DC was hoping for and Ditko returned to churning out instantly forgettable horror stories for Charlton.

Ditko returned to freelancing for DC when Charlton closed up shop, working on expansion titles such as Man-Bat and Stalker. He also worked for Atlas/Seaboard, former Marvel owner Martin Goodman's short-lived attempt to relight the old fire.

Before returning once again to Marvel, Ditko created a highly-touted sci-fi superhero called Shade the Changing Man for DC.  It was here that Ditko's delirium tremens vision was dusted off- perhaps reluctantly on his part- and given one last quixotic shot to appeal to an audience who comics publishers simply couldn't get a handle on. I'll let comics blogger David Thompson take over here since I couldn't say it all any better myself:
 A strange, erratic tale of inter-dimensional espionage and (literally) mind-warping underwear, Shade defies adequate summary or satisfactory explanation. It does, however, include some feverishly inventive visual ideas, thanks chiefly to the possibilities of Shade’s M-Vest, a piece of alien technology that induced fearsome hallucinations in those around him.

The series is also famed for the Freudian nightmare of its central relationship - Shade is pursued by his homicidal former girlfriend - and for a number of inexplicable jumps in narrative. Published at a time when DC seemed intent on conquering the market by sheer volume of titles (the so-called ‘DC explosion’), Shade may have slipped beneath the publisher’s editorial radar in the confusion.

The company abruptly pulled the plug on Shade after only eight issues, possibly when someone in DC’s management actually read an issue or two and came to the conclusion that Ditko had himself lost his mind.
There's an old saying; just because you're paranoid, that doesn't mean they're not out to get you. I have my own variation: just because you're insane that doesn't mean that things aren't slipping in unnoticed through dimensional gateways...



  1. that panel where hugo turns 2 dimensional is similar to what some people have experienced after consuming salvia; or so i'm told.

  2. that panel where Hugo is all 2 dimensional is reminiscent of what some people have experienced after consuming salvia divinorum. scared the shit out of them apparently. i like the 'meta' ness of a 2d medium, depicting a 3d being transposed to a 2d realm. we seem wired to enjoy such optical tomfoolery.