Okay, let’s get the obligatory introduction out of the way first. If you don’t know who Steve Ditko is, shame on you. Go back and study your comics history, or at least a few Wikipedia articles, before reading on with this article. The man was a freaking genius, and remains one of the most unique, complex and intriguing figures in comics history.
It’s fair to say that Ditko has been the subject of more speculation over the years than most any other figure in comics. Part of that comes from the fact that Ditko hasn’t spoken to a fanzine since the mid 1960s, while part of it comes from his belief in the rather unique and controversial philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Ditko has insisted since the ’60s that his work speaks for itself; that anyone interested in learning more about his life simply explore it through the work he presents to us. So if you want to learn where Ditko sees his place in the world in 2008, you’ll need to visit this site to get order details for this comic, then write a real check and send it in the mail, and wait for this completely perplexing comic book to show up.
It really seems that Steve Ditko has crossed the line into incoherence. Many of his philosophical comics lately have had their cryptic moments, but it always felt like Ditko had a coherent philosophy and was interested in imparting that philosophy on his readers. It was clear that Ditko saw himself as a sort of prophet of his beliefs, using his preferred medium as a way to present his view.
But an odd thing has happened with Ditko, etc. Where previously Ditko’s work seemed coherent, this book is almost completely incoherent to me. I get that Ditko is mainly attempting to make political points in his illustrations, but I simply can’t make sense of what he’s trying to say.
Take the very first page. It’s titled “The U.N. The United Nihilists” and shows a group of eight hulking and blurrily drawn hulking brutes walking over a globe that’s marked “the comic book world.” On the brutes’ shirts are the phrases “U.N. smash kill,” “U.N. kill rot,” “U.N. Sp” (rest of the shirt is obscured), “U.N. kill heroes smash,” “U.N. oil smash,” “U.N. anti-kill,” “U.N. rot” and “U.N. oil.” Above the brutes is the text (verbatim as written), “We r sworn, dedicated 2 dealing in kompromise, korruption, antis against the objective, rational, reason, logic, good, heroic, justice and 4 the enslavement of the individual mind! All is grey! Might is right!”
I defy any reader to tell me what this scene means. Is it an indictment of the United Nations (probably not, there’s no note here about one-world philosophy or the new world order)? Is it some sort of odd attack on the comics industry (possible, but what does that have to do with “korruption”?) Or is it intended as an illustration of some aspect of Randian philosophy? The latter explanation makes more sense, as that philosophy explicitly argues against mankind having a moral grey area. But if so, it’s amazingly weak propaganda, since I could make no sense of the piece. And what in the world do the shirts mean, under any interpretation?
Or flip ahead to pages 14 and 15 where Ditko shows us the “Grey Negotiator,” a chubby and unheroic man in a superhero suit who promises us “Peace in our Time.” The Grey Negotiator is all about compromise, ensuring that “no one wins all, no one loses all… that’s fair.”
In context of Ditko’s career and philosophy, as I mentioned above, the concept of grey is hated by Ditko, and it’s clear by the unheroic and effete appearance of the Grey Negotiator that Ditko intends this character to be a villain. But the story ends abruptly, and readers are left with a feeling that they’ve encountered something thoroughly cryptic and confusing. I suppose by using the term “peace in our time,” Ditko may be satirizing Neville Chamberlin-style toadyism, but if so, where is the rest of the argument?
Ditko’s cryptic approach reaches its zenith in this comic a few pages later when Ditko presents his “Hero” character (no heroic name, just “Hero.”) Before delving into a coherent if pointless three page Hero story, Ditko first presents readers with a number of pin-up pages of his hero. That’s fair enough, but Ditko really works hard to make those pin-up pages completely incoherent. It’s actually a bit painful to look at these pages and realize that the man who once delivered 39 transcendent Spider-Man stories is now delivering incoherent pin-up pages in which a reader can’t even decipher the text that Ditko uses.
What is the text in between Hero and the evil creature on page 21? (And why does that creature, rather uncreatively, have the word “evil” on its chest?) What is the point of Hero’s confrontation with General Destruction on page 23? And what is the point of the scene on page 18, where Hero confronts a blob with words like “violence” and “compromise” written on its body?
It all adds up to a painful and rather sad experience. Ditko’s art style has gotten less and less professional as his stories have gotten less and less coherent, so we don’t even have Ditko’s classical linework to make us happy.
For many years it’s seemed that Steve Ditko was living a life of isolation, where his best companion was the books he loved and his own unique philosophy. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that that approach has made Ditko isolated from his fellow man. Here we begin to see the affects of that isolation with a bizarre and incoherent comic that makes no compromises for reader comprehension or enjoyment. I wanted so very much to find Steve Ditko to still be a great thinker and amazing comics artist. Unfortunately, in this comic, he proves himself to be neither.