Comics history and scholarship has been improved with Bell's Strange and Stranger, a book that is likely to be an important part of understanding one of the key creators at the dawn of the Silver Age.
One of the lesser known traits of Steve Ditko's work that Blake Bell emphasizes in his fascinating new biography/art book Strange and Stranger: The World Of Steve Ditko is that Ditko penciled his artwork very lightly, leaving much of the definition and detail until the inking stage (which he did himself in the early stage of his career). In much the same way, Bell has filled in the faint knowledge casual comics fans may have had of Ditko with extensive research and insightful details. Steve Ditko is known as the artist who co-created Spider-Man for Marvel Comics and drew the title for a couple years until a falling out led to him leaving Marvel. However, Bell recounts Ditko's career in illuminating ways that reveal Ditko as an enormously talented artist whose personal beliefs (and, to a degree, his inflexibility about them) sidetracked a great career and moved him away from the comics mainstream.
After gaining some notoriety drawing for Charlton Comics in the 1950s, Ditko formed a key partnership with Stan Lee, then editor-in-chief of Timely Comics (Timely would later become Marvel Comics). In the early 1960s, Lee selected Ditko to collaborate on the character that would change the face of superhero comics forever: Spider-Man. Ditko's contributions to Spider-Man are crucial and perhaps under appreciated. Ditko designed the look of the character (creating one of the greatest superhero costumes in comic history), insisted that much of the book be told from the perspective of Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker (a rarity at the time), and contributed other crucial elements of the Spider-Man universe, including the majority of the character’s most popular villains..
After the first few issues of the Amazing Spider-Man title, Lee, who was writing nearly all of Marvel's titles, let Ditko co-plot the Spider-Man stories. Ditko would be involved with the first 33 issues of Amazing Spider-Man before disputes with Goodman, Lee and Marvel prompted Ditko to leave.
The decision to leave such an iconic character can be second-guessed, but Blake contextualizes Ditko's decision because of his personal beliefs, heavily influenced by Objectivism, the doctrine espoused by Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead writer Ayn Rand. Though paid comparatively well at the time, Ditko felt he was being unfairly compensated given the profitability of the Spider-Man character and decided he would no longer contribute to Marvel's success. This decision and many like it that Ditko made during his career can be lauded for its bravery or chided for its naivety, depending on your perspective. However, Ditko would never capitulate on his beliefs.
While working on Spider-Man, Ditko would create another long-lasting iconic Marvel character, the mystic Dr. Strange. Technically a Lee co-creation, Blake's research shows that Dr. Strange was mostly Ditko's invention and that the early Dr. Strange run in Strange Tales was perhaps the most inventive art of Ditko's career. Ditko visually conjured otherworldly dimensions in ways that few artists before or after could match.
The way Blake tells the story of his career after the success of his 1960s Marvel run, Ditko comes across as some sort of conflicted and frustrated figure that could have been the focus of a great comic. Ditko was a master storyteller but never was able to successfully synthesize his personal philosophy into a popular comic book. Eventually, Ditko would turn to smaller avenues of comics publishing such as “Zines”, as well as being one of the first creators to venture into self-published comics in the 1970s. Bell demonstrates how these later Ditko creations were still visually engaging but also how Ditko detracted from the work by writing didactic Objectivist rhetoric wherein his characters would mouth his Objectivist leanings.
Seen as a whole, Ditko still has to be considered one of the greatest creators in the Silver Age of comics. Even though he is occasionally critical of Ditko's decisions, Bell does Ditko a great service in Strange and Stranger by demonstrating how Ditko was so creative and innovative in his artwork. Bell doesn't simply tell the story of Ditko's career, but at many points discusses the formal qualities of Ditko's art with a keen critical eye, elucidating why the highly detailed and dramatic art of Ditko's early career was so superior to most of the hurried and careless art that was being produced in comics at the time. Bell also provides a great discussion of what makes Ditko, long considered a master in his art, such a great storyteller, and what that term means as a comics illustrator.
Strange and Stranger is a very handsomely produced book by Fantagraphics. It is part comics history, part Ditko biography, and part coffee-table art book, with a gallery of full-page, full-color Ditko covers (although none from Marvel or DC). In many ways, Bell's Strange and Stranger provides a nice companion to Mark Evanier's recent, similar book on Jack Kirby, the other legendary artist from Marvel's original years. Still in its relative nascent period, comics history and scholarship has been improved with Bell's Strange and Stranger, a book that is likely to be an important part of understanding one of the key creators at the dawn of the Silver Age.