RIP Steve Ditko

One of the key architects of the “Marvel Age of Comics,” Steve Ditko passed away last week at age 90.  I was going to write that he “left us,” but for most of his career he wasn’t really among us, choosing a life of privacy over celebrity, shunning conventions and interviews and earning himself (fairly or not) a reputation as a hermit and recluse, “the JD Salinger of comics.” Unlike his collaborator Stan Lee, who’s basked in the limelight longer than most people have even been alive, Ditko never seemed to feel comfortable in the public eye, preferring to let his work speak for itself.

It certainly spoke to me, and rather against the odds.  Young Me was a DC fan, whereas Ditko’s most notable works were produced for Marvel.  Further, I was a devoted fan of Neal Adams and the “realistic” approach to comic art that took hold in the Bronze Age, whereas Ditko’s style was pretty much the opposite of all that; quirky, cartoony and what you might call “oddball.”  Nonetheless, when I saw his work on “Shade: The Changing Man,” “The Creeper” and one of the million-and-one variations on “Starman,” it was oddly compelling.


Some time in the late 70s, Pocket Books released a series of paperbacks collecting vintage Marvel comics in vivid color, and for the first time, I had an opportunity to read the earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-Man.  I’d always liked Spidey’s costume and power set, but I was turned off by the never-ending sob story that was Peter Parker’s life by the 1970s.  Nevertheless, I took a chance on these little books and was blown away.


The earliest Spidey stories, I learned, were inventive, energetic and delightfully quirky.  A lot of that came from Stan Lee’s distinctive flair for witty dialog, but it was Ditko’s art that signaled this was not your average superhero book.  Where other heroes flexed massive chests and biceps and stood around with their fists on their hips, Spidey was a spindly little teenager who moved in spider-like ways that made him equal parts “cool” and “icky.”  He had a degree of super-strength, but he didn’t plant his feet on the ground and deliver haymakers; he did back-flips and somersaults and stood on the ceiling to punch down at you.  And while Lee and Ditko’s Peter Parker had problems, they often had a sense of the absurd about them, making the book seem almost like a spoof of the superhero genre.  Unlike Bruce Wayne and a host of other millionaire playboy heroes, Pete had to worry about paying the rent.  Superman had a Fortress of Solitude, but Pete was relegated to a cramped room in his Aunt’s house that afforded little privacy. Batman had a cave full of costumes for every occasion, but Pete had just one and he had to sew it himself.  When he lost it, he had to borrow a copy from a costume shop, only to find it didn’t fit and had to be held together with webbing.  When Ditko left the book, Pete’s problems persisted — and multiplied — but that sense of the absurd left, replaced with soap-opera melodrama.  Pete turned movie-star handsome, pretty girls filled the book and in short order, Spidey was as muscular and hunky as any other superhero.  Everything looked glossy and beautiful, but the soul of the feature was forever altered.


Those little Pocket Books also introduced me to the earliest adventures of what would become my favorite Marvel character, Dr. Strange.  Dealing with sorcery, demons, nightmares and journeys to dimensions unbound by earthly rules of logic or physics. these stories gave Ditko’s imagination free reign.  Doc’s expressive hand gestures and the swirling, pulsing, crackling light effects they generated created a sort of guidebook for future artists tasked with illustrating “magic.”  His trippy extra-dimensional landscapes were equally definitive; with no “ground” to stand on, characters moved about on pathways that hung in the air like unfurled scarves, meandering at times through the disembodied jaws of serpents to little “islands” that seemed to be melting away like warm ice cream, while the “skies” were filled with spheres sprouting slithering tendrils of who-knows-what.  In Ditko’s hands, landscapes seemed not only alive but predatory.


Years later, I would buy this material again as a hardbound “Marvel Masterwork,” and then again as a “Marvel Omnibus.” And odds are the next format it’s released in, I’ll buy it again.

When he left Marvel after a dispute that will forever be shrouded in mystery (because he thought it was none of our business, and didn’t care if we were on his side), Ditko went to Charlton Comics long enough to revamp Blue Beetle with a new man behind the mask and a new costume as eye-catching as its predecessor was deadly dull.  Like Spidey’s costume and Strange’s, it remains in use to this day, fully 50 years after Ditko designed it, and despite the fickle tastes of changing fandom.


Designing enduring costumes was something of a specialty for Ditko.  Somewhere along the way, he also re-imagined Jack Kirby’s clunky, “walking tank” version of Iron Man with the streamlined red-and-gold armor that has survived, with variations, through decades of comics and films.


In fact it’s fair to say that no matter what “superstar” artist works on Ditko’s creations, whether it’s Spidey or Strange or the Creeper or Blue Beetle or The Question, there always remains some intrinsic “something” that draws a straight line back to the creator.  His fingerprints are unmistakable.

On the flip side, there is also the matter of Ditko’s politics, or maybe I should say his worldview.  As a devoted admirer of Ayn Rand, Ditko’s most personal works reflected his Objectivist beliefs, most notably in the form of his self-owned character “Mr A,” who saw life in black and white with no shades of gray.  In his first story, Mr A refuses to save the life of a villain about to fall to his death, noting that “to have any sympathy for a killer is an insult to their victims.”  To put it mildly, this sort of approach proved divisive in fandom, but it’s pretty clear the mind behind this material isn’t interested in seeking approval from anyone.


Apparently, Ditko died as he’d lived: alone and in privacy; as much as two days may have passed before anyone realized he’d expired. I can’t help but feel sad about that.  But then, the only way I’d ever “known” him was through his work, stories that are still on my shelf to be pulled down from time to time and be found exactly the way I remember them. So in a way, I guess nothing’s really changed much for me.  But somehow, it was cool to know that holed up in a little apartment somewhere was a genius artist who changed pop culture with his talent, then disappeared because he felt like it; a guy who valued his own personal belief system more than applause and fame. To some folks, that would make him kind of a nut, but then guys who think like the rest of the world are never going to give us something like Spider-Man or Dr Strange.  And even if he wasn’t the type to mingle or grant interviews or show up at premieres of multi-million dollar films based on his creations, he somehow seemed paradoxically “there” all my life.  Knowing that he’s not anymore makes the world feel a little emptier.

Anyway, whatever dimension he’s moved on to, I hope he’s at peace.


Bat-Signal Over LA

The city of Los Angeles arranged a nice tribute to Adam West yesterday, flashing the bat-signal on the side of City Hall.



The cool part is they got the symbol right: there have been several iterations over the years, but this one matches the one on West’s costume (on the show, the shape of the projected signal was different, but why quibble?).

What makes it doubly awesome, though, is that LA City Hall doubled for the Daily Planet starting with the second season the old “Adventures of Superman” TV show, making for a cool, if probably unintentional, cross-reference.  Wish I could’ve seen it in person.


Murphy Anderson, RIP

Comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on Oct. 23, and while I always knew I liked his work, it hadn’t occurred to me until now just how many of the most powerful and best-remembered images of my childhood flowed from his brush.

I was a “Bronze Age” kid, introduced to comics in the early 70s when Mr Anderson was teamed with the late, great Curt Swan on the Superman family of comics. Their styles melded together so seemlessly, they became known as the blended entity “Swanderson,” producing not only memorable covers and interior art but also figural icons used on the comics of the era as well as countless pieces of Superman merchandising, including a good half of my school supplies.


Decades later, the covers Anderson produced with (and without) Swan still have the same pull they did when they first appeared on the spinner racks, calling out to me, “Buy this book!”


On the inside, “Swanderson” specialized in distinctive, expressive faces, something not even the best comic artists always truly master.  A great example occurs in the much-celebrated and often-reprinted story, “Kryptonite Nevermore.”

kryptonite snack

I’d missed out on the “Silver Age” of Comics by a few years, but the images Anderson created with Carmine Infantino in the ’60s for Batman and related characters were omnipresent well into the 70s.  So again I knew Anderson’s work long before I figured out who he was.


One of the things that made me a “DC Kid” when most of my friends were Marvel Zombies was the more “polished,” elegant “house style” of DC art, which seemed tied to the tradition of classic magazine illustration, compared to the more hi-octane, cutting-edge Marvel style.  In retrospect probably the best exemplar of “DC polish” was Anderson, who paired with Swan created Norman Rockwell-like imagery of life “not as it is but as it ought to be.” More vitally, for me, he smoothed out the rough edges of artists like Infantino and Gil Kane; each were brilliant at drawing figures that conveyed power, speed and agility, but those figures were often saddled with faces too sharp-edged and stylized (even “cartoony” at times) for my taste.  If I had a criticism of Anderson, it was that when he did both pencils and inks, his figures could be a bit on the stiff, posed side, so when he was paired with Kane and Infantino, we got the best of both worlds; dynamic, kinetic figures but with added elegance and attractive faces.


This ability to, let us say, tame the wilder tendencies of some artists led to Anderson’s most controversial gig, re-drawing faces of Superman family characters in Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics. Wooing Kirby away from Marvel was a coup for DC (although by the end, he couldn’t have needed much of a “push”), and for months his arrival was touted with house ads proclaiming “Kirby Is Coming!” But when he arrived, he seems to have been more than the company was ready for, so they covered up his signature style with something closer to what it was felt the DC readership would accept.


This infamous editorial move is often cited as one of the many injustices done to Kirby by various publishers, though no one blames Anderson, who just did what he was told.  In all honesty, for me it worked.  I likely never would have pestered my folks to buy me Kirby-era issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” without the comforting presence of Anderson’s handsome Superman.   As it was, the books were already crammed with trippy psychadelic vistas and creepy creatures like “The Four-Armed Terror” that alternately intimated and thrilled grade-school me;  Anderson’s reassuring inks were like having a trusted parent along on a walk through a Halloween “haunted house.”

Over the years, almost every major DC character was drawn by Murphy Anderson, and they always looked the better for it.


I never got to meet Mr Anderson personally (I missed my chance at a convention once, and I’m still kicking myself for it), but he had a big impact on my youth and helped spark a lifelong love of comics.  If nothing else, his consistently excellent artistic output ensures he’ll live on through his work, as long as classic old comics are reprinted.


Hitting 50: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD

fury_st135Fifty years ago this month, the world met Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.

Okay, so technically we’d already met Nick a couple years earlier as a tough-as-nails three-striper in “Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos,” but that book was set in World War II; now the character was being brought into the very-60s world of high-tech espionage to cash in on the spy craze then sweeping the entertainment world.  As writer/editor Stan Lee said in his 1975 book, Son of Origins, “We were going to out-Bond Bond and out-UNCLE UNCLE.”

Certainly in the pages of a comic book, where artist Jack Kirby’s boundless imagination could churn out gadgets and vehicles and massive secret facilities free from the constraints of a TV or movie production budget, that seemed like a goal they just might achieve, even if at first blush, Fury didn’t seem the superspy type.  Where James Bond and Napoleon Solo (and an-ever mounting number of competitors) tended to be impeccably dressed, highly cultured smoothies with expensive tastes in wine, women and cars, Fury was a working-class Joe who grew up on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen and remained, in 1965, essentially the same tough-talking, cigar-smoking roughneck he’d been on the battlefields of Europe.  With his tendency to bite the “g’s” off the ends of verbs while chomping on a stogie, he seemed closer in temperament to Lee Marvin than 007, and with Kirby drawing him, he could go for months without a proper shave.

But like most everything else from Marvel in this period, it worked.  It really was time for the comic industry to get its own superspy (why hadn’t someone thought of it before?) and Lee and Kirby delivered the goods in their patented, thrill-a-minute, out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire style.  One of them (probably Kirby) came up with the idea of giving Nick an eyepatch, which besides granting him an instantly recognizable “look” also added a sense of mystery and intrigue, like the guy in the Hathaway shirt ads (which may have inspired the move).  Immediately our interest is piqued: What happened to Nick during those “missing years” and how did he lose his eye? (He’d still had it as recently as Fantastic Four #21).


Strange Tales #135 opens with Fury reclining in what looks like a hi-tech bathtub, as technicians take a cast of his body and warn him not to speak or even move, as it could prove deadly (yet they still let him smoke his cigar!). Quickly he learns the purpose of the procedure: a virtual army of automated simulacrums called Life Model Decoys (or LMDs) are being created from a mold of Fury’s body to act as decoys for enemy assassins.


The LMDs will prove one of the most useful of all the gimmicks introduced in the series, as over the years Nick Fury will be “killed” in the pages of various comics, only to reappear later with the revelation that the victim was “only an LMD” (Dr Doom would pull the same gag repeatedly with his “Doombots.”)

Next up, Fury’s ushered into a sportscar filled with gadgets and weaponry to rival 007’s Aston Martin, but true to their promise to “out-Bond Bond,” Stan and Jack give this one a trick even Q can’t match.

fury_carThat’s right, this car can fly.  And fly it does, right up to the strip’s real show-stopper, a creation blending the superspy trifecta of gadget, vehicle and hi-tech headquarters in one massive Kirby masterpiece, the SHIELD helicarrier.


Brought before a collection of high-ranking government officials and billionaire industrialist Tony (Iron Man) Stark, Fury is presented with a proposition: sign on as director of SHIELD (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) and keep the world safe for democracy.  At first he demurs, but when his uncanny instinct for imminent danger, his ability to form and act on an instant plan of action and his natural command ability combine to save the assembly from a hidden bomb, everyone in the room, even Fury himself, knows SHIELD has found its leader.


A mere 12 pages into the saga of SHIELD, a plethora of amazing creations have already been introduced, with many more in the pipeline, but ultimately the greatest invention is SHIELD itself.  With it, Marvel takes a major step forward in its efforts to weave a web that connects its full universe. With Tony Stark on board as SHIELD’s benefactor and tech provider, we have a link to Iron Man. Through Fury’s war career we have a tie to Captain America, who will operate as a quasi-agent for SHIELD as time goes on.  Over time, Nick will show up to advise, assist, irritate or harass every superhero group and loner in the Marvelverse as SHIELD extends its reach across borders and into people’s lives with “Big Brother” tactics so far-reaching and ubiquitous they make the NSA look like pikers.  Not that it isn’t handy having an omnipresent, international police force: When (I kid you not) Godzilla stomps his way into the Marvelverse the 70s, SHIELD steps in as the logical agency to deal with rampaging, giant lizards on a monthly basis.

In time, the real-life hi-jinks of the CIA and other intelligence agencies would cause us to look at espionage with a more jaded eye, and Nick would often be portrayed in a less sympathetic light, walking a thin line between all-knowing protector and Machiavellian schemer and sometimes coming down on the wrong side of that line.  I won’t even get into what his personal saga has devolved into in recent comics: Suffice to say any character strong enough to hang around for 50 years will eventually be rewarded with a hopelessly muddled continuity that sucks all the fun out of the original concept.

fury-jimnick-slurpeeBut in May of ’65, when Strange Tales #135 hit the stands, things were looking very bright for ol’ Nick.

They’d get even brighter in a few years when artist/writer Jim Steranko arrived to remake what had been essentially a plainclothes “war book” into something more sleek and stylish and “of the moment,” infusing innovative graphic design with a frequently psychadelic sensibility, and outfitting Nick in a tight-fitting tactical suit that brought him closer, visually, to his superhero brethren, thus opening the door to merchandising possibilities (Nick would eventually end up as an action figure, but when I was a kid we had to settle for a 7-11 Slurpee cup!)

Sadly, when Steranko left the strip, he took most readers with him, and Fury’s solo book was cancelled before it even hit issue 20.  But growing up in the 70s, I almost preferred it that way; Nick seemed to work better as a guest star, breezing into some other hero’s life when he was least expected, and always bringing with him excitement and intrigue.  More than once, I bought a comic I wouldn’t ordinarily have purchased (I’m looking at you, Spidey!) because I flipped through and saw Nick Fury was in town.

And why not?  Nick was always dependably Nick; timeless and dated all at once, a link to both the Swingin’ 60s and World War II, lugging around next year’s technology.  In army fatigues or a tech suit, on a halftrack or in a jetpack, battling Nazis or Hydra, he was always the same tough-talking, straight-shooting guy he’d ever been, the one constant in an ever-changing Marvelverse.

whattheUm, yeah.  Well, anyway…

I guess sooner or later, time changes all of us.