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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Some Thoughts on Some Thoughts on Blake Bell's Book, or Did Steve Ditko Once Play Baseball?

I've yet to see the book, Stranger And Stranger: The World Of Steve Ditko primarily because I don't believe it's arrived in Australia yet. At least, if it has, it's not arrived in any shop that I know of (although I might check out Borders, again, today as they get a lot of the imports). As such I'm unable to comment on it but I did find it a tad odd to see someone writing about a man who refuses to speak about himself and would, presumably, not be offering any form of comment on a major biography, either positive or negative. We may never know what Ditko thinks of this book, presuming that he even decides to read it. The reviews I have seen have, for the most part, been very positive but virtually all of them appear to comment on how good the art is. Not very surprising, Ditko was one of the true visionaries that the comic book world has seen. His life and art deserve a volume, several in fact. However such a volume could only really work with some form of involvement from Ditko himself.

I don't know Blake Bell. We have emailed each other from time to time and I did offer scans of Ditko work that I have here but never heard back from him. No big deal, the ones here he probably already had. I admire him for undertaking such a controversial work though - it couldn't have been easy. So with all of that in mind I'd like to turn the blog over to Michael DeLisa, who is the author of one of my own favourite books, The Cinderella Man, for a slightly different review of Blake's book.

Some Thoughts on Some Thoughts on Blake Bell's Book, or
Did Steve Ditko Once Play Baseball?


by Mike DeLisa

At the 1973 Comic Art Convention in New York City I wandered into a tiny conference room near the main hall. It was empty of fans, but filled with table after table of medieval weapons -- club, crossbow, sword -- all covered with the grime of the ages. I glanced around, wondering what the exhibit had to do with the comic convention outside its doors. Sitting quietly in one corner was a white-haired old man who was watching me with a wry smile.

"Those things did some deadly work in their day, don't you think?"
"I can't imagine being hit by that mace," I answered.
"Pick it up,” he said indicating.

I grasped, lifted -- and it was light as a feather! The club had been carved out of balsa and meticulously painted to simulate a real weapon.

The old guy laughed, and we were soon engaged in conversation about his work, and the tools and techniques of his art. At some point I realized we didn't know each other's names and I introduced myself.

He held out his hand: "I'm C.C. Beck!" I was thrilled to be speaking with the artist responsible for Captain Marvel! I asked about the empty room. He told me, in effect, that Phil Seuling had invited him to display his art. Seuling didn't know that Beck's latest art involved balsa-wood weapons.

Outside, in the hall, a shout went up and some kids went running by -- "Hey! There's Gil Kane!"

Later, at the same convention I wound up walking from table to table with Al Feldstein. At one point we came across one of the EC comics for which he had drawn the cover. He asked me "do you think that anyone would be interested in buying an original recreation of that cover?"

"No," I answered, "but I think people would be interested in seeing new comic stories from you. I can't imagine anyone would want a recreation, rather than something new."

At a panel later that day, Jim Steranko gave a talk, concluding: “Nobody tells a story better than Steve Ditko.”

***

I've read Blake's Bell's book on Steve Ditko. I find Bell's book wrong in so many ways I am having a hard time getting my mind around it. His word choice, his mode of expression, his facts, his methods, his conclusions, has me nearly speechless right now. I've also read several reviews on various web sites, which compels me to lay out a few thoughts.

Why is the book so poor in my opinion? Well, although there are scattered anecdotal references to Ditko's storytelling and art, Blake's comments about this fundamental issue are insipid and lacking. Use of words and phrases such as “visual integrity” and “negative space” take the place of clear thinking and reasoned analysis. What he writes indicates he does not see very well. In one instance he cites that Ditko ceased varying thickness of his line -- an observation belied by the accompanying illustration. And even if true, is a think line better than thin line, and if so why? In another, a character drops a basket and Blake talks about his hat. In yet another, he talks about Ditko’s “one-page” story and shows the first page of a multi-page story. He writes about “loose” penciling then shows a page better illustrated than most comics that have been fully inked. He states Martin Goodman sold Marvel in 1974 – it was actually 1968. Can we trust the opinion of a “journalist” who writes such things?

The "biographical" aspects of the book are also problematic. Let's consider the following which Ditko wrote (reprinted in Avenging World, pg. 110):

"There are facts, truths, and knowledge that are nobody's business, or only the business of those directly involved. ... Some facts and truths are available as "public' knowledge. Other facts belong to the individual who possesses (owns) it and paid the price, time, effort, and experience. It is his earned knowledge and intellectual and personal property."

As early as 1965, Ditko himself wrote the key/pertinent facts about himself. These facts have been reprinted many times. In one interview (Marvel Main, 1968) Ditko said:

. . . I'm a cartoonist in the comic book business not a performer or personality in show business. When I do a job, it's not my personality that I'm offering the readers, but my art work. It's not what I'm like that counts, it is what I did and how well it was done. I produce a product, a comic art story.

Steve Ditko is the brand name.

I make no mystery of what I do, and where I can properly explain why I do what I do (like in this fanzine) I'll do it. If a person knows the what and why's, he knows all about the "who" that is Important to know.

Did Blake ever ask himself why, other than curiosity, any other fact about Ditko would be relevant or appropriate? Would inclusion of the quote above undercut or support his book? Did Blake consider whether, if no facts available, his "opinion" is relevant and appropriate or properly supported? More simply stated: what is the purpose of the book?

Blake's text is full of statements such as "Charlton's main intention" or Ditko must have thought/felt etc. They are too many to list here, but certainly the most infuriating. This sort of glib stab at psychology is the worst (and easiest) kind of journalism. Blake doesn't have enough facts for a biography, so he substitutes his opinion or the opinion of others to get inside Ditko's head. I know how difficult it is to write a biography. I spent several years researching and writing "Cinderella Man." For my book, however, I was able to draw upon many interviews with Braddock and others in his circle, as well as books and articles written by or in conjunction with him. Braddock placed his life in the public eye -- or at least a part of it. Ditko however has not done so -- other than to give his best efforts over 50 years in his work. So, again: what is the purpose of the book?

We do get the statement by Dean Mullaney that the “facts uncovered by Cat Yronwode towards her unfinished book on Ditko "is relevant to his work." Really? In what way? How on earth is it relevant to learn that Ditko once gave his brother a piggy-back ride? Or that Ditko’s mother wore her hair in a bun? How are those “facts” designated as public rather than private? Who cares?

Blake's factual assertions and criticisms are devoid of standards, sloppy in thought and usually just plain wrong. Incredibly bad is his handling of Ditko's role in the creation of Spider-man, especially bad because Ditko himself has written extensively on the subject. I am going to write more on this another time. But Blake's description of this event reads as if Lee presented Ditko with a detailed synopsis without input from Ditko. Is that true? Important?

The factual errors pile up, accreting like sludge in a sewer. Blake implies that the "marvel method" was developed after the super-hero line. (see page 54 of Blake's book) But he earlier explains that Ditko and Lee worked/collaborated that way on the pre-superhero mystery, fantasy, and science fiction stories. Blake also writes of Ditko "wresting" plotting credit from Lee -- as if that is a good thing. Is it a fact? Has Blake read Ditko's views of Lee's "creative crediting?" Apparently not.

Bell has set himself up as the foremost "Ditko scholar,” including his objectivist work, but his understanding of objectivism seems shaky at best. As a self-proclaimed expert why did he overlook or omit quoting/discussing the following: "While accepting Objectivism as my philosophical base: I am not a spokesman for Objectivism and I alone am responsible for the views expressed here! S. Ditko." GUTS #5 (1969)

Does Blake understand the difference between narrative/fictional comic book stories and the non-narrative work pioneered by Ditko in such works as Avenging World? Can anyone with even the vaguest notion of any critical standards actually write "Blue Beetle #5 was the first signpost that Ditko was losing confidence in his graphics to represent his ideas, and is increasingly evident in Mysterious Suspense #1, a collection of the Question stories?" In the classic phrase of the comics "WHAT TH-??"

Even the smallest details always seem off. There are many peculiar assumptions of fact and misused words. An example: Blake describes Mr. A #1 as an "oversized issue." In what way was that magazine oversized? More likely, the first issue of Mr. A is printed in a size deemed appropriate by Ditko. Clearly, in Blake's mindset, anything that varies from the roughly 7 x 10 inches used by Marvel & DC for their comics is aberrant. Is that a fanboy mindset or the mindset of an objective journalist or a biased critic? Each misuse or mistake or misperception totals to a complete undercutting of his opinions.

How can a retrospective of Ditko's work not include an in-depth discussion of "Lazlo's Hammer"?

“Lazlo's Hammer” is reprinted in Avenging World (2002). If I recall correctly, prior to that, Ditko allowed one "fan" to photocopy and distribute copies to those interested in reading that work. Does that fact support or undercut Blake's description of Ditko's relationship with readers/fans of his work? Is it relevant?

Why is Ditko criticized implicitly and directly by Blake for not doing other kinds of work besides comics, such as recreations of Spider-man covers? Should we criticize a doctor for not working as a hedge fund manager for more money? Should CC Beck have been condemned for crafting a balsa wood hammer instead of new Captain Marvel comics?

Despite its flaws, the book was revealing to me in several ways:

• I learned that DC operated from "ivory towers" with "hallowed halls."
• I learned that the guy who wrongfully held then sold Ditko work in 1969 scammed Blake on eBay.
• I learned that two "Italian immigrants" started Charlton: John Santangelo and Ed Levy!
• I learned that Ditko draws ugly feet.
• I learned that "fandom" is an entity with a "collective consciousness."
• I leaned that the Johnstown Flood has a "connection" with the Guerneville Flood of 1986.
• I learned that a daughter of beatniks once thought a Ditko-drawn cigarette looked like a joint.
• I learned that Ditko uses "Orson Welles camera angles." (I guess including dolly shots!)
• I learned that someone told somebody else that Ditko once played baseball! (CHOKE! GOOD LORD!)

Most importantly, and revealing, I learned that if Blake had the time to draw 2000 "bad" pages of comics, he would be making comics and be "right up there" with Ditko. Again, I utter the comic classic: What th--!?

Ditko helped establish and refine an entire grammar for comic book storytelling. How and why Ditko's "comics" are superior might be interesting and valuable. This book, on the other hand, is neither. I think Bell has left what Ditko would call a "very ugly stain." And saddest of all, he seems oblivious.

With publication of this book, Blake has taken a mighty swing with Lazlo's Hammer.

(Mike DeLisa is an attorney, author and filmmaker. His second book, Cinderella Man (Milo Books 2005), was followed by his work on two award-winning films. He has appeared on CNN, ESPN, and NESN, as well as many radio programs. He read his first Ditko comic in 1963.)

© 2008 Mike DeLisa. Permission is granted to reprint or republish if left unchanged and copyright notice intact.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

i read Delisa'a hatchet job when he posted it at imwan over a week ago.instead of blowing his own trumpet,why doesnt he go and write a book about ditko?

Danny said...

Feel free to send down your own review and I'll post it up as a reply.

Anonymous said...

why not post some of the existing positive reviews as a counterpoint to this odious opinion piece?

http://innocentbystander.typepad.com/innocent_bystander/2008/07/strange-and-str.html

http://www.libraryjournal.com/blog/770000077/post/1970028597.html

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20211781,00.html

http://www.newsarama.com/comics/080713-DitkoBSE.html

http://www.itaggit.com/community/blogs/comics/archive/2008/07/07/Strange-and-Stranger_3A00_-The-World-of-Steve-Ditko.aspx

bob said...

Anonymous: "go and write [your own] book" is a child's answer to criticism.

Danny: My preliminary thoughts on the book are here. I'll have more on it later, but in the two weeks since and with some research (including a lengthy exchange with Mike DeLisa) my view of the text as "problematic" has magnified to the point where I can only just barely recommend the book for the artwork (and the artwork remains impressive).

Danny said...

Anono: I'd be happy to post anyone's review, however I need the author's permission first. As I said, if you want to come out from behind your cloak of anonminity and send down a review I'll post that as well. Your call.

Alan David Doane said...

Danny,

I am the author of the iTaggit review of Strange and Stranger, and you have my permission to post it here if you wish.

I think Blake's book raises some interesting questions about the rights of the artist versus the journalist's right to investigate the history of a public figure. I'm not convinced that Bell has committed all the sins claimed in Delisa's article, bujt as a journalist and comics critic, I am very interested to see how this dialogue develops.

ADD

bob said...

I don't read Mike's criticisms as questioning a right to investigate anything you please (although there are some major issues with some of the investigations (not by Bell) done into Ditko that turned up a lot of the info in the book).

The question seems to be, was the information presented in the book at all relevant to the goals of the book, especially considering some of the omissions (Mike rightly singles out "Lazlo's Hammer", but many other major Ditko works get no mention or merely a passing mention, acknowledging their existence but not their content).

Anonymous said...

I'm not a big fan of Blake's book, or at least of the text. (The art is great). Blake seems to know the answer to everything regarding Ditko, even though much is based only on second hand gossip and speculation. Blake doesn't write the book as a compendium of what is known about Ditko, but rather he writes it as the final word, as if he's figured it all out, and the mere publication of the book will convince the lesser-Ditko-educated reader that it is The Truth.

I also had no interest in Blake's critical review of much of Ditko's work. Reading Blake analyze the linework of Ditko's later work in a tone that suggests he could do better himself was obnoxious at best. There's just too much of his opinion in this book, opinion disguised as fact. I disagree with Blake more than I agree with him.

Roger
Richmond VA

Paul said...

I have been aware of Blake Bell for some time, and Ditko far longer. After spending the last hour listening to a Blake Bell bloginterview (you can google find this) on the web, I finally came to the rather surprising conclusion that I believe Blake Bell to not be a true fan of Steve Ditko and his beliefs/work, but more that he sees an avenue to chisel out his own career and method of payment based on Ditko's hard work using minimal facts and maximum opinion. During the interview it becomes apparent that he had brief indirect communique with Ditko, but soon after did something Ditko did not like - or Ditko saw through his guise, so Ditko pulled his plug to information and I don't think Bell liked that. At all. As a result, we get a book that most likely would have hit the shelves years earlier and with more success if he would have left his own 'opinions' out of it, instead simply using his more obvious skills at locating and publishing rare Ditko art for us all to enjoy. Thanks for your article Michael and i'm glad someone else sees through Bells dubious writings (and intentions ...)