By Leroy Douresseaux
August 6, 2008 - 09:59
Edited by Greg Sadowski, Gary Groth, and Kim Thompson and Designed by Adam Grano
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is billed as the first critical retrospective of the work of reclusive Spider-Man and Doctor Strange co-creator, Steve Ditko. When Strange and Stranger was first widely announced last year, via press releases, many likely hoped for and expected a special book. After all, Ditko is largely responsible for forming and shaping one of the definitive expressions of the American superhero, Spider-Man. Strange and Stranger author Blake Bell delivers that special book.
Strange and Stranger is more than a critical retrospective; in fact, it’s something of a hybrid. It’s also a personal and professional biography of Steve Ditko. On the private side, Bell offers deeply personal insights, for instance, Ditko’s intense shyness and his closeness with his immediate family. Blake chronicles Ditko’s professional story with an attention to detail that seems impossible for a book that is not much over 200 pages, and he does so with remarkable clarity. Blake tracks the highs and lows of a working comic book artist, finding the obscure assignments (rare romance comics and some humor work) buried under the better known work (DC, Marvel, and Charlton Comics).
Even with its biographical leanings, Strange and Stranger is both a work of journalism and that critical retrospective the publisher promises. Bell is like an investigative reporter, and this book is the kind of true story that a good investigation earns a reporter. Strange and Stranger is also the kind of story a good writer can accentuate and enrich by adding historical color and flavors by talking to the actual witnesses and participants to history. Since Steve Ditko is (reportedly) notoriously reclusive, Blake, on his own, casts a wide net over history (going back to the late 1880’s and moving to the present day) pulling in the players, business dealings, national events, publishing trends, wars, etc. to create an intricate web through which Ditko’s life as a working comic book artist and industry figure plays out. In Strange and Stranger, Blake writes the kind of feature journalism that usually ends up in a newspaper like The New York Times or a magazine like the New Yorker.
Of course, many readers will want dirty laundry: the nitty gritty details of Ditko’s philosophical clashes with his contemporaries and publishers (sometimes involving his dedication to Ayn Rand and objectivism) and his on-again/off-again time at Marvel Comics (1955-66). Ditko produced his most famous work at Marvel Comics, but that tenure also broke his career as much as it made it. All the juicy details, with extra helpings of Martin Goodman and Stan Lee, are here.
However, industry conflicts and Marvel Comics’ betrayal aside, Blake really takes a microscope to the technique and philosophy of an artist. For all that he is unique as a visual stylist, Ditko had a simple philosophy: he was a storyteller before he was a visual technician, and Blake Bell dissects and explains not only how Ditko did it, but why. Blake tenders not just Ditko’s influences (Jerry Robinson, Will Eisner, Mort Meskin, and Joe Kubert), but specifically what he learned from those artists. Ditko wasn’t just about borrowing a style, as Blake tells it. For Ditko, style was not as important as telling a story and that’s what Ditko learned from artists before him. Blake focuses on the storyteller, and controversy aside, that’s why this book does such honor to Steve Ditko.
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko isn’t simply a tell-all about an eccentric figure, one who was firmly entangled in some of American comic book publishing’s spiciest and most scandalous history. Blake Bell paints the portrait of a complicated artist – a man who is larger than his legend. This truly special book examines the quest for artistic perfection on a personal level, while it reveals the life of a fiercely independent man who has always lived in interesting times. Bell gives us a history of American comic books and the history of an exceptional American comic book creator – the complete package.