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Steve. Lighten up. – Steve Ditko’s The Avenging World

October 19, 2011

I’ve made no secret of my love for the artwork of Steve Ditko. It’s a comic book comfort food, the peanut butter and jelly of newsprint. Just thinking about it makes me smile. The faces. The curved fingers. The fluid movement. S’all good.

Then there’s that other stuff.

Have you ever dated someone for a while, long enough to know that they’re hot as hell, good conversation and a good lay — all the important things — and then one night, as you’re thinking “Man, this chick/dude is awesome,” they launch into a political diatribe, quoting with gusto either the acidic ramblings of the Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann sets? And you want to scream at the top of your lungs “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” because you know you can’t live with that crap? It’s too much. It’s not that it’s against what you believe in. It’s that they’re so crazy about it. Squirrelly. Rigid.

That’s in your Ditko sandwich, mixed in there with the peanut butter and jelly.

The Avenging World, the independently published 1973 semi-sequel to the equally lunatic Mr. A., takes things to the next level. That earlier work, while also laying out Ditko’s individualized understanding of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, at least had the glue of its eponymous hero holding it together. You could almost pretend that you were reading a real live gen-u-ine story, though you had to squint your eyes real tight and disengage most of the cognitive centers of your brain to make that leap. This one is a whole other ball of wax.

Just a warning: If you want a detailed analysis of Slingin’ Steve’s worldview, look someplace else. I don’t have the energy, being a weak non-Objective man, to offer that. Maybe you should read Atlas Shrugged. Go ahead. I double dog dare you. More importantly, I don’t begrudge anyone opinions that don’t harm anyone else, and Ditko’s thinking doesn’t cross that line. I’m not assailing his beliefs. It’s the presentation that I take issue with.

On to that presentation, with some observations along the way.

Here’s the publisher’s mission statement on the inside of the front cover, backed by the trademark black and white of Ditko’s worldview:

The book opens with that reliable old newspaper-headline-collage chestnut, spread over a full page. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and said world is none too happy about it. Hence his bandages, crutch, and fired up frown. If nothing else, at least Ditko got some practice here in drawing facial features on anthropomorphized celestial bodies, a skillset that would come in handy many moons (ha) later when he sketched a mean, moustached Ego the Living Planet:

Yeah, Steve, the world was in a mess in ’73. The world is in a mess now. The world’s always in a mess. That times are currently worse than ever, enough to suck everything into a black hole of decrepitude, is the jumping off point for every “End is Nigh” street prophet (Alan Moore’s Rorschach may have been hatched in this very comic). It’s always a good thing to want to make the world a better place. No one would argue otherwise. But an Armageddon-fueled pissed-off diatribe isn’t normally the best way to go about it.

Nevertheless, a pissed off diatribe is what we get.

Ditko launches from one source of frustration to the next, setting up his straw men and then burning them down with his Charlie Sheeny Torpedoes of Truth. The first pages are filled with caricatures of those he deems responsible for the dire straits of the world. The Mystic. The Pragmatic Businessman. The Neutralist. Should we be shocked that one of the first to get lanced is that constant spittoon of abuse, the academic in his ivory tower?:

Now I’m going to offer some belated advice to anyone thinking of penning their own manifesto. Here it is.

Use capitalization sparingly.

Nothing says “This dude’s nuts” like randomly capitalized words or strings of words. I do it here myself, not much, and generally for the sake of my wan simulacrum of humor. When you’re using it in straight advocacy, in turns mere text into a guy shouting at an elementary school board meeting. Something off-putting and uncomfortable. It can undermine every point that you’re trying to make.

I have a quick illustrative story. A good long while ago I interned in a Congressman’s Capitol Hill office. Anyone who’s filled similar shoes knows that one of the chief tasks of those lowliest of lowly wretches is sifting through bags of constituent mail. You have to weed through the usual complaints about roads and services, getting one of those flags that flies over the Capitol for two seconds, mass-mailed postcards provided to voters by interest groups, and the like. But now and again you come across that most precious of gems, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — a letter from a crazy person with a shed full of axes to grind. While I worked there, every week I’d anxiously await the arrival of a regular letter from some nuts old broad whose name I can’t remember. Let’s call her Mabel. That sounds like a good name for a cranky old bag. Anyway, Mabel would send these single-spaced, small-fonted, devoid of paragraphs multipage rants, which would leap from subject to subject with neither rhyme nor reason, and she’d pepper her points by frequently exclaiming “Shameful! Just shameful!” And she’d throw in some RANDOM CAPITALIZATION as well. All this was back around the time Clinton was impeached, so as you can imagine she was in the highest of high dudgeons. She LET the CAPS LOCK run WILD.

A lot of my memories of my Congressional days are fading, but not those letters. You’re told to take every constituent missive seriously (votes!), but you could not look at these and keep a straight face. I wish I’d made some copies.

Capitals. Titanic-sized blocks of text. Comes across as loony. Ditko’s Avenging World reminds me a lot of Mabel. A lot.

The depressing thing, or maybe it’s the happy thing, is that there are respites where Ditko’s striking artwork is given room to breathe. He shuts up on occasion, stops pounding on the lectern and lets images do the talking. Take this splash page, which looks to be inspired a bit by the aesthetics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis:

One gets the impression that, if Ditko just let his pencil and brush do the talking, a lot fewer eyes would glass over and he might actually get more people to listen. Speak louder by saying nothing at all, if you catch my meaning (sounds like something Sun-Tzu would say).

Ditko ends the book with that standby of so many busybody complaints. Brace yourselves, because I’m going to employ some capitalization. Here we go. WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?:

Reading The Avenging World recalls arguments I used to have with a very, very devout Christian friend of mine. We’re talking Creationism, people living to be hundreds of years old, Adam and Even were real people and not metaphors, the whole nine yards. The good-natured debate would break down when I’d ask, “If I don’t believe, I’m going to suffer eternal torment?” She’d answer yes. I’d respond with a genial “Well screw you!” or something more profane. No hard feelings, but geez…

Here Ditko pushes forth his my-way-or-the-highway philosophy, a no middle-ground way of thinking about good and evil and freedom and individualism that by its very nature brooks neither compromise nor nuance and mocks all willful non-adherents as rubes, charlatans, dupes and malefactors. It’s insulting. Worse, it’s insulting in a wild-eyed, raving sort of way, an uncomfortable nuttiness that overwhelms almost all attempts to find the beauty in the artwork (beauty which is assuredly there, when you can wipe away the froth and spittle).

I still love Steve. I do, and not in a condescending “You’re so cute when you’re crazy! Let me pinch your coocoo little cheeks!” way. I can always respect that art, but I can still throw out a genial “Screw you!” to him and his comic.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2011 10:20 am

    Makes you realize and appreciate all the more the work that Stan Lee put into making Ditko’s stuff not only readable, but also enjoyable.

    • October 23, 2011 11:31 pm

      Amen. Stan gets a lot of heat for being a glory hound, but I appreciate his hokey barking more and more with every passing year.

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