My Problem with “In Search of Steve Ditko”

September 22, 2007 at 4:52 pm (Alan Moore, comics, long post Strong Bad! long post!, Neil Gaiman, Shade: The Changing Man, Steve Ditko, too many tags, writers)

First off, before I state my case against the documentary, I am by no way or means an expert on comics. It has been only in recent years that I’ve become interested in the art form and my involvement has been as a reader and not a collector.

So. In Search of Steve Ditko is a documentary that comes to us by way of Jonathan Ross and Channel 4 that explores the reclusive comic book artist and co-creator of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and many other superheroes. It also stars titans of the medium such as Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and of course, the master showman, Stan Lee. For the most part, I found the doc informative and entertaining but something was wrong, something was missing from their characterization of Mr. Ditko.

Naturally, there was a summary of the illustrator’s career in which the tale was told of how he came to leave Marvel Comics and his further “less-successful” development. The story ranged from psycho-tropic imagery mixing with his conservatism to his take on the Vietnam war with Hawk and Dove. This was wrapped up with the lackluster creation of the Creeper for DC Comics whose absurd powers Alan Moore described as the ability to”laugh at will”.

What was most compelling about this analysis was Ditko’s super-hero Mr. A, a black or white, good or evil moralist who’s didactic preaching was influenced by the writings of the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, as seen in the title of part three of Atlas Shrugged, A is A. If I recall correctly, most of the experts on the show attributed this black or white, no shades of gray world-view onto the creator of the character due to his past disagreements with Stan Lee and the anecdotal evidence of Alan Moore. One of the magician’s bands even has a song called Mr. A based on his meeting with Ditko which alone is worth watching the doc for.

Most of this characterization can be polarized by one of Ditko’s creations never mentioned in the documentary, Shade: The Changing Man. The exclusion of Shade is telling. Even the name of the character may be taken as a reference to the “shades of gray” opposed by the black and white of Mr. A. The powers of Shade’s M-Vest allowed the fugitive to appear however he liked and gave the anti-hero the ability to take advantage of the mental state of whoever saw him. Not to mention the anti-hero’s trials of clearing his own name have the didactic thrust of not trusting how things appear to be. Rather relativistic, don’t you think?

Due to this omission I believe it possible that the documentary left this particular creation out because it contradicted one of it’s implied thesis’: that Steve Ditko, legendary comic book illustrator that he is, may have been driven to reclusion and obscurity due to his espousal of the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. It may be worth my mentioning that Ms. Rand herself was a recluse in her later years.

Now, I understand this was a short television doc and was possibly constrained for time. I also realize I know next to nothing about Steve Ditko himself. But I believe leaving out Shade is an injustice to the character and Ditko. It may not have been the most successful title in it’s own time but later it went on to become one of the first titles under the imprint of Vertigo. In Peter Milligan’s incarnation Shade becomes one of the most morally obtuse characters around (let alone his “retinue”) and I believe the roots for this trait are to be found in Ditko’s original.

Steve Ditko is certainly what one could refer to as a recluse. But his supposed black or white morality? I’m not so sure. Mr.A is certainly a didactic figure but what are we to make of Shade if that is the case? Could Ditko’s personal views have changed so drastically over the course of a decade?

Such a change is certainly possible and it should have been mentioned as such in this charming, though incomplete, documentary.

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