Sunday, July 8, 2018

"celebrating" steve ditko

I don't know much about Steve Ditko, but I've always found him relatable. To feel compelled to participate in comics, yet want to keep its culture at arm's length...well, I guess you're either the kind of person who finds that incomprehensible, or someone who thinks that sounds relatively normal and sane.

There's always been an unsettling degree of fan entitlement surrounding Ditko, but I didn't understand its extent until the last few days. Since his death was announced on Friday there's been an outpouring of intensely sociopathic stories from the people men who stalked him, pestered him, or asked him for favors, presented as though they're some sort of celebration of his life and work. It's incredible to me how often Ditko is the person in these stories who's regarded as cranky or crazy or rude. A common misconception these guys seem to have is that they were offering Ditko some sort of favor. What I see anyway is that they wanted something from him, and felt aggrieved when they didn't get it. Maybe they wanted to talk to him, like the time my nemesis harassed Ditko under the auspices of a mainstream magazine. Maybe they wanted to offer their work up for Ditko's consideration. (What a treat, for him!) Maybe they wanted to offer Ditko the exciting opportunity to collaborate with a stranger, or to pay their respects by turning up at his workplace to stare at him like he was an animal in the zoo.

I was astonished to read this account from Eric Reynolds, associate publisher of Fantagraphics, about the time he and Gary Groth visited Ditko's studio:
"Soon after the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie came out in 2002, Gary Groth and I were on business in NYC one day and had a few hours to kill. Gary said, "Wanna meet Steve Ditko?" It sounded good to me. We showed up at Ditko's 5th Ave. studio and knocked on the door. Ditko answered in a dirty white t-shirt and pants that looked like they also needed a good wash. [Cool detail, Eric!] Although he knew Gary and didn't seem unhappy to see him, we were not exactly greeted hospitably [What is the correct amount of hospitality with which to greet two people--one of whom is a stranger--who turn up unannounced?]
Ditko somewhat carefully slid through the door without opening it widely, into the hallway, conspicuously not inviting us in. [Perhaps this was a hint?] I did my best to peek through the door and get a sense of his working space but couldn't see much. [This is gawking, and most people consider it rude.]
That said, Ditko was actually relatively friendly and despite not inviting us in, he proceeded to talk to us in the hallway for 90 minutes or more. [hmmmm] At some point, conversation turned to the Spider-Man film, which was raking in money at that time. Ditko seemed disinterested in the money - he was much more concerned with receiving credit for his (co-)creation, and clearly resented the victory laps that Stan Lee was taking in the media at the time. If I had one takeaway from the conversation, it's that he palpably hated Stan Lee. Much more than he liked money, despite clearly living very modestly.
I remember Gary pressing Ditko on the nuances of his philosophy about this (insisting that Ditko should be making money off the film and not be content with a simple credit in the film.) [Is there perhaps a distinction to be made between a "philosophy" to be argued and a personal choice?] Groth and Ditko went back and forth about this for awhile, and at times Ditko seemed to genuinely enjoy having someone to spar with on an intellectual level, but eventually he became a bit agitated and asked us to leave as semi-politely as he could. [...after 90 minutes of what sort of sounds like a condescending lecture to a 74-year-old man about his choices.
It was a great conversation that I wish had been recorded, despite being one that I mostly tried to stay out of the way of and just soak in. Sadly, 16 years later, it's already fading from memory. RIP, Steve Ditko! You deserved to outlive Stan Lee."
For Eric Reynolds, this encounter was a once-in-a-lifetime meeting that he imagines should have been recorded for posterity. For Ditko, by every indication, it was an annoyance that happened all the timeHere's the thing: there's a fundamental difference between having respect for someone's work and being respectful towards them as a person. I don't want to single out Reynolds in that he's one of many, many people who seems incapable of making this distinction. They aren't necessarily bad people, but fandom is a form of blindness. It inspires a form of pathological self-involvement that can be dehumanizing to the people we wish to honor most. Take Brian Michael Bendis, who seems to think that Ditko should have found his own exploitation touching. Seriously, this is crazed:

A more enjoyable genre of Ditko anecdote (for me, anyway) is the people sharing their "hate mail"--i.e., feedback they requested and received. (I would pay 50 US dollars for a coffee table book of these letters.) This one from Fred Van Lente isn't a pure example, since the hate mail was actually solicited by Dave Sim for some reason (lol), but anyway Van Lente offered it as an example of Ditko's "legendary prickliness." To wit:
"Sim had written me to say he enjoyed me and Ryan Dunlavey's Comic Book History of Comics. He had been corresponding with Ditko on an unrelated matter and somewhat puckishly said he had forwarded the Marvel origin issue on to him to see what he thought. Sim (and I) were both surprised when Ditko wrote him back write away, and Sim forwarded the reply along to me. This is it."

"The assertion that it was a "personal fantasy" was a little puzzling since the part of the story was comprised of entirely of cited quotations by him in his later writings and anti-Marvel/Lee political cartoons. I mean, if it was a "personal fantasy," *he* was the person, you know what I'm saying?"
Yeah, actually, I know exactly what Van Lente is saying. He's saying that his appropriation of Ditko's words, used for his own purposes, somehow made more sense than Ditko's understanding of his own life, presented on his own terms. I guess I disagree.

Here's Chris Ryall with another "perplexing response" from Ditko that is in fact stunning in its simplicity:

Chris, allow me to translate this gnomic text: Ditko thought your comic fucking sucked. You know, he could have been nicer about it. But when you consider how much time Ditko put into reading and responding to piles of comics he ~inspired~, it seems more than fair. I don't find it outrageous that Ditko took no satisfaction in having inadvertently spawned a stack of comics he didn't care for. I have a harder time understanding the pride with which so many people have been sharing stories like this. My own feeling is that anyone who truly respected Ditko would have left him alone or, at the very least, shown some humility when he didn't respond to their overture.

I don't mean to glorify Ditko's personality (which I find, in turns, sad and endearing), his reclusive ways, or his Randian beliefs. But I do want to float an idea I've been thinking about with regard to a different comics story: The "comics community" as it's championed in the broadest sense has never really been about the people. It celebrates the work. All too often it celebrates the work at the artist's expense. Ditko was exploited by Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, and as a reward he got to spend the rest of his life vetting thousands of tiny (often well meaning) acts of exploitation from the people who admired him. I don't wish to present this as a tragedy. Understand it was a failing.

Given the way that Ditko was treated by Marvel and, later, other industry players, it seems to me an extraordinary act of generosity that he continued to make comics at all, much less until the end of his long life. It's a shame that it was never widely regarded as enough. The salient question is: What would have been?