I’ve been spending a lot of this weekend looking back at old and new zines by good friends of mine. Some of them are reviewed right here on this site, while others are old classics that just a few hundred people had copies of, back in the day. They’re comics by folks with names like Rick McCollum, Lari Davidson, Earl Geier and David Heath, names that resonate deeply with those of us fortunate enough to read their work, but who are unknown outside of their small circles of friends and fan-friends.
The wonderful thing about reading fanzines is that they display the work of enthusiastic creators in a basically unfiltered form. Whatever drives the passions and inner thoughts of the creators are right there on the digest-sized pages. This has always been true of nearly every zine creator, from Larry Johnson (whose Tales of Fantasy has hit issue #48 and which I’ll be reviewing tomorrow), to big-time pros like the late, great Wally Wood and the inestimable Steve Ditko.
Speaking of Ditko, I’ve also been reading a number of back issues of a great old zine called Ditkomania, which, as you likely figured out, is entirely devoted to the Ditko’s comics. Ditko is about as far from obscure as any comic creator can be. But he’s also perhaps the most independent minded of all his contemporaries. He’s the cartoonist who’s the most like my zine-creating friends; in fact, in his latter years, Ditko has produced a slew of comic-sized zines that reflect his unique philosophy.
Ironically, Ditko has always been one of the creators who has been the most closed to zines. He’s famously not consented to an interview for over 45 years, preferring to allow his work to speak for him. But at the same time, Ditko often has attacked the fans who he sees as trying to second-guess him through his work.
Many of Ditko’s recent zines have featured attacks, both subtle and overt, on those who presume to think they know the man through his comics. It’s an odd paradox: it takes a real effort to find and order Ditko’s new comics – virtually no comic shops carry them, and Ditko’s publisher Robin Snyder maintains no web storefront or eBay store. It’s harder to find new comics by Steve Ditko than it is to find comics by some of the most obscure creators in the world. Yet rather than embrace the devoted fans who work so hard to buy his comics, Ditko seems to reject those fans behind obscure accusations and seemingly bizarre comments.
All of this anger and mystery has produced the most fascinating sort of feedback loop. The very things that Ditko protests against are the very things that make him so interesting. Few artists have produced work that so thoroughly independent-minded, idiosyncratic and personal while at the same time trying to deflect any attempts to actually get to know the man. Steve Ditko is fascinating precisely because he seems to pull readers close and push us away at the same time.
Steve Ditko is therefore perfect grist for a fanzine devoted to his work.
Ditkomania was published by Bill Hall from 1983 to 1999 as a fanzine project analyzing Ditko’s work, much of which was then appearing contemporaneously with the zine. Two years ago Rob Imes revived DM, and now has released a dozen issues of the zine. Even if I weren’t a frequent writer for the zine, I would be absolutely thrilled to have it appear in my mailbox every 60 days or so.
The current issue is #76, and features articles about some of Ditko’s most famous work: his classic ’60s Marvel period. The terrific Nick Caputo delivers an article on one of Ditko’s most famous Marvel moments, the scene in Amazing Spider-Man #33 in which Spider-Man lifts the giant machine that has fallen on him. This is generally considered to be one of the greatest moments in Marvel history, and Nick does a great job of explaining its brilliance. I especially enjoyed his exploration of Ditko’s great storytelling, an aspect of the man’s work that is often overlooked.
Another wonderful writer, Ceylon Anderson, delivers a look at Ditko’s work on the short-lived Hulk series and later on the Hulk’s solo series in Tales to Astonish. Ceylon does a great job at giving the reader a feeling for both why Ditko’s work on that series was so special and why the original series was so obviously doomed to failure.
I was largely unaware of Ditko’s work on the Hulk, so Ceylon’s piece was a real eye-opener for me. I found it especially interesting to think that Ditko’s work on the Hulk strip in Tales to Astonish was contemporaneous with his work on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but seems to reflect so much less of Ditko’s philosophy. That does reflect Ditko’s career, too: the man was often quite happy to simply work for a nice paycheck without the need to inject too much of himself into his work.
Maybe my favorite piece in the issue was Barry Pearl’s insightful exploration into the way that Ditko created his stories with intelligence and insight. “Kirby externalized the quest for knowledge, Ditko internalized it,” Barry states, and goes on to show how Ditko’s insights into the psychology of his characters helped to elevate them from run-of-the-mill characters into the transcendent creations that we all love. Barry does a great job of showing how Ditko’s unique approach to his characters helped to bring out their inner strengths and hidden psychological depth. This is exactly the reason I enjoy a zine like Ditkomania and why I find Ditko so fascinating.
Unfortunately, that piece is followed by a piece by Larry Blake that perpetuates the “Satan Lee” theory of Marvel comics, that Marvel would have been a better place but for Stan Lee’s obsession with publicity. Larry’s a terrific cartoonist, but it’s tiresome to read a piece that describes Stan Lee as “a self aggrandizing media junkie.” I don’t understand why it helps boost up Ditko (or Jack Kirby, for that matter) by pulling down Lee’s contribution to their projects. I understand the motivation for wanting Ditko to be lionized for his contributions to the classic Marvel projects, but I do see the need to give Stan Lee his due.
But that’s an argument for another place – post to the message boards and we’ll talk there!
Oh, and my piece discusses the terrific work that Ditko did in the first ten issues of Tales of Suspense way back in 1958 and ’59. I think it’s a good piece and I hope you enjoy it.
Ditkomania 76 is rounded out by some wonderful artwork. You can see Martin Hirchak’s wonderful cover above (I dig that Green Goblin), but there’s lots of other equally great art in the issue. Joe Zierman’s back cover of Doctor Strange looks wonderfully Ditkoesque, and the aforementioned Larry Blake delivers spot illos, and Jim McPherson delivers several great illustrations.
This is a thoroughly satisfying zine that delivers some interesting insights into the work of perhaps comics’ most intriguing creator. If you’re interested in Steve Ditko, you owe it to yourself to try Ditkomania.
Ordering information for this zine is available at the Ditkomania group site.