Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, Steve Ditko!

Steve Ditko is 84 years old today.

The first Ditko artwork I remember seeing came to me inside Dr. Strange Master of the Mystic Arts, one of those Marvel trade paperbacks featuring Marvel's "Sorcerer Supreme" in a selection of memorable tales from the 60s and early 70s.  This was sometime in 1979, or maybe 1980.  I greatly preferred the Barry Windsor Smith's story to any of the Ditko-drawn ones, but something about Ditko's rendering of Spider-Man felt right to me. I also enjoyed the way Ditko drew all the magic radiation coming out of Dr. Strange's hands whenever he cast a spell.  No one bought the book and it ended up on the clearance table.

As soon as I saved enough money (from picking up pine cones in the yard and digging in the sofa cushions), I snagged Dr. Strange for myself-- along with its companion volume Captain America Sentinel of Liberty-- and read it over and over again, usually while eating cornbread. So even now I associate Steve Ditko's artwork with the delicious taste of my father's country cornbread, baked in the oven and covered with butter.

Sometime that same year or the next, I bought Micronauts Annual #2 at a small grocery store across the highway from the beach down in Florida one year and felt appalled by the interior artwork, which was by Steve Ditko again!  I'd been hoping for more of the Pat Broderick/Armando Gil team or a return engagement from Michael Golden.

Ditko's work was not a love at first sight kind of thing for me.  Clearly, at age 12 I had a lot to learn about art.  As I grew older and supposedly more sophisticated in taste, I came to appreciate Ditko.  His run on the early issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, his punchy graytone work for Warren's horror titles-- Ditko's take on human form is as idiosyncratic as Jack Kirby's, but more down-to-earth, no matter how strange the setting.

Peter Parker is a skinny little worm, Flash Thompson beams with misplaced confidence and egotism, the Vulture is a gnarled old man.  The back alley thugs Spidey fights look muscular and slow-witted.  There's a nitty-gritty feel that adds weight and believability to their soap opera antics.  Ditko's Dr. Strange is slender but with a hauteur befitting his magical prowess.  He journeys through Escher-esque worlds and dimensions where he might find the lovely Clea reclining on a floating island made up of some kind of magical or quantum particles, or engage in a mystical duel with the Dread Dormammu!  And then it's home to Greenwich Village and a cup of hot cocoa whipped up by his old pal Wong.

Ditko made the Marvel Universe feel more like our own.  And he did it his way, and continues to do so.  It's difficult to understand someone like Steve Ditko.  He's like comics' answer to J.D. Salinger, although their worldviews are probably as different as the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak are from the Eye of Agamotto.

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