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Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko

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Steve Ditko's comic-book art, with its misshapen figures and tight, paranoid line work, has always been cooler than his better-publicized Marvel contemporary Jack Kirby, and any opportunity to see his work in a coffee-table book is a reason to get excited. There's so much to love: Beings made out of galaxies fight demons with flaming heads. Voodoo masters taunt men of iron. On shadowy, full-moon nights, nebbishes in suits and hats peer nervously around the corners of buildings in cities, fearing counterspies or giant monsters from other dimensions.

Ditko, cocreator of Spider-Man, is a huge figure. But his unquestioning allegiance to the "philosophy" of objectivism has rendered the artist basically mute in the last 10 years. Ayn Rand was supposedly against interviews, and so Ditko refuses to give them; he has interpreted some of her writing to imply that he shouldn't sell his original Spider-Man art—artwork probably worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—for personal gain, either. He's become a recluse, a kind of comic-book Thomas Pynchon, unwilling to be photographed or to have his artwork cheapened in any of a dozen quibbling ways. Of course, this makes him a brilliant subject for a book.

Unfortunately, this is not that book. The dust jacket dubs Blake Bell the "preeminent scholar on Steve Ditko," and the writer provides a decent-enough biographical sketch, but there's little analysis of the man behind the art. There have been many essays on Ditko—some published by Fantagraphics in its excellent Comics Journal—that transcend the facts to provide insight. Andrew Hultkrans published a terrific essay in the 2005 writing-about-comics anthology Give Our Regards to the Atom- smashers! about the obsessive way that Ditko would draw his characters' hands in contorted positions. Hultkrans linked the hands to Ditko's increasing fascination with objectivism; he even found evidence that the closer the artist got to withdrawing from society, the odder the position of the fingers became. That one essay was more illuminating than all the writing in this gorgeous, flawed book.

 

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