Comic book showcase: Steve Ditko’s career and contribution to comics

So we lost one of the greats this week, legendary comic book writer and artist Steve Ditko.

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Ditko was an interesting character in his own right.  In an industry that thrives on creators being in direct contact with their fans through things like letter pages,

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and comic conventions,

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Ditko was a recluse who rarely made appearances and almost never gave interviews.

So how did Steve Ditko become such an icon in the comic book community, despite choosing to adopt a public persona that many would have considered career suicide?  Well, let’s take a brief look at his career and some of his more famous creations.

Ditko was part of the great revitalization of comic books in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This time period was known as the Silver Age of Comics and was known for its focus on science fiction aesthetic and themes,

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and for a little known writer named Stan Lee and a cigar chomping artist known as Jack Kirby creating the juggernaut known as Marvel Comics.

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This was also a time when many of the heroes that we know and love today were either created, such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four,

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or received a make over that would define them for the next fifty years such as Carmine Infantino’s re interpretation of The Flash.

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So where was Ditko in all of this?

Well, he got his start drawing for a small company called Charleton Comics after serving in the Army after World War 2, but moved to Atlas Comics in the mid 1950’s after recovering from a bout of tuberculosis.

Ditko would frequently collaborate with Stan Lee in creating short stories for Atlas publications such as Strange Tales,

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These stories were a huge success, and in 1962 Lee was given permission to create a story about a teenage superhero with spider themed powers.  Lee’s first choice for an artist on the project was…Jack Kirby.

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Kirby was an industry veteran and a very good artist, but in interviews Lee recalled that he didn’t like the way Kirby drew Spider Man.  It was good but it was just too heroic.

So Lee turned to Ditko and together they would go on to create one of the most iconic and popular superheroes ever: Spider Man.

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The hero would debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 on August 10th, 1962.  While the interior artwork was done by Ditko, the cover was drawn by Kirby.

Lee and Ditko’s creation was a massive hit and helped usher in a new era of superheroes who weren’t gods or paragons of virtue, they were creatures with fantastic powers and very human emotions and problems.  Spider Man may have had amazing powers, but he always suffered because of it.  Everything from the death of his Uncle Ben,

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to the death of Gwen Stacy,

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was his fault.

But if you ask me, one of the most iconic moments in the early Spider Man comics was a scene where he’s trapped under rubble, buried alive by the Green Goblin and he has to get himself out.

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Ditko helped make superheroes vulnerable, twisting Spider Man’s body into brutal and uncomfortable poses that made the reader feel the effort and pain he was going through.  It’s fantastic stuff.

A few years later Lee and Ditko would go on to create Dr. Strange, who debuted in Strange Tales #110 in July of 1963.

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Strange allowed Ditko to unleash some of the most surreal and fantastic artwork ever seen as the human Dr. Strange battled creatures of the mind who wielded black magic.

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It’s worth remembering this was the 1960’s, a time when counter culture and New Age religions were starting to make their way into pop culture.  It’s also worth remembering that Dr. Strange became really popular with college kids at the time.

Unfortunately, Steve’s relationship with Marvel and Stan Lee wouldn’t last.  See, Marvel Comics in the 1960’s pioneered a style of comic creation known as “The Marvel Method”.  Long story short, what would happen is that the writer would send an artist a rough idea of a story, the artist would draw the story as they interpreted it, and then the writer would write out the dialogue afterwards.

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It was a great way for a writer like Lee to produce a metric crap ton of work while maintaining his public image, but it wasn’t without problems.  Sadly, there is a lot of debate to this day over who created what at Marvel and whether or not Stan Lee deserves the level of credit and respect he is enjoying in popular culture while artists like Kirby and Ditko were relatively sidelined in the public eye.

But that’s a debate for another day.  What we do know is that Ditko was frustrated with Marvel and Lee enough to leave them and go work for his old collaborator Charlton Comics.

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While Charlton didn’t pay as much as Marvel, they did allow their creators more freedom in their work.  Ditko thrived at Charlton, helping to create some of their most iconic heroes such as Captain Atom,

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and The Question.

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The Question was probably Ditko’s most personal work.  He was a big fan of Ayn Rand and objectivism, the idea that morality must be realized through individuals seeking to act in their own self interest.  The Question was Ditko’s way to express his personal philosophy to the world, something that hadn’t really been done in a medium that was originally more concerned with simple stories for children.

The Question was uncharacteristically brutal for the time period.  There was a scene where he let a pair of criminals get swept away in a sewer than save them.

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Ditko also did some work for DC in the 1970’s creating heroes like Hawk and Dove and Shade the Changing Man along with a whole host of others.

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During the 1980’s and 90’s Ditko would become even more reclusive, working for small presses and often taking bigger work simply for the paycheck.  He would eventually retire from mainstream comics in 1998, although he did work with former Charlton editor Robin Snyder in publishing bits of solo work.

While Steve Ditko became more and more of a recluse, his work and characters continued to have a lasting effect on comics and popular culture.  While Spiderman is his most famous work,

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and Doctor Strange is currently enjoying higher status thanks to the Marvel movies,

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I think a lot of his work at Charlton and DC comics deserves special mention.

In 1983, most of the Charlton characters were bought by DC comics when Charlton was suffering financially.  They were approached by Alan Moore, who wanted to write a 12 issue series that was a dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre called Watchmen and he wanted to use Charlton characters to do it.  Two of them were Ditko creations, The Question and Captain Atom.  When DC said no, Moore used the idea of The Question to create his own character: Rorschach.

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and the idea of Captain Atom to create Dr. Manhattan.

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Most of the Charlton characters would go on to have successful careers in the DC universe on their own accords.  I can specifically remember the Justice League cartoon making fantastic use of The Question in its later seasons.

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So, how do we process the legacy of Steve Ditko?  He helped elevate the medium of comic books by introducing deeper and more meaningful themes and ideas into his work, he stood by his beliefs and preferred to let his work speak for him, and he helped to create two of the most iconic superheroes in modern history.

All in all, as far as legacies go, his position as one of the greatest comic book creators of all time is well deserved.

Thank you Mr. Ditko, you will be missed.

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Diamond Comic Distributors: a brief history.

I was going to write an article about an obscure superhero this week, but then I heard the news that DC is teaming up with Walmart to start selling comic books.

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Walmart is going to start selling 100 page anthology titles for $5 starring Batman, Superman, the Justice League, and the Teen Titans in July.

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Personally I find this pretty exciting, partially because I’m a fan of anything that gets comic books into the hands of more people and expands the public profile of the medium that I love.  While some people may question my enthusiasm for supporting a mega corporation that engages in some of the shadiest business practices ever, I can assure you that Walmart is a step up from the current state of affairs.

For those of you who know what I’m talking about, yes it’s going to be one of those articles that confirms what you probably already know and yes, there will be much anger and rage.  For those of you who don’t, let’s delve into the history and reputation of the biggest distributor of comic books: Diamond Comic Distributors.

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very brief history of comic book distribution.

In the early days of the comic book industry, comic books were distributed like newspapers to newsstands and drug stores.

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It was a good place for comics at the beginning, but the system had three big problems.  For starters, comics suffered from the reputation of being cheap and disposable entertainment that wasn’t worth a whole lot of attention, so books tended to be shipped and sold in very poor condition by people who had no idea what they were talking about.

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Second, if a book didn’t sell well, the seller could rip the cover off of the book and return it to the publisher for credit towards the next order, which was very bad news for a publishing industry that survived off of very small profit margins and was perpetually going out of business.  And finally, the stranglehold that newspaper distributors held on getting a comic book out to the people allowed for censoring bodies like the Comics Code Authority to step in and impose their will on content.

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If comics didn’t have this sticker on them, then distributors wouldn’t move the comic, ensuring that the comic would make nothing.

All of this started to change in the 1960’s with the rise of the underground comix scene.

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The comix scene was a network of alternative, underground, and controversial creators and artists who disliked the rules imposed on the comic book medium and protested by creating some of the raunchiest and explicit material I’ve ever seen.

No, I’m not showing this to you, go find out yourself if you want to learn more.

Naturally, no big newspaper distributor would sell this kind of stuff, so the creators created their own small time distribution models in places like San Francisco, where their comics were sold out of head shops and weed dispensaries.

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Things would come to a head in 1972 when comic book dealer, convention organizer, and fan Phil Seuling,

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approached publishers with an idea.   He would create a new distribution model where purchases were no longer returnable and where shops and retailers could order the specific number of books that they wanted, something that was unheard of at the time.  This idea, coupled with the fact that Seuling could offer retailers a discount if they bought a certain number of books, would lead to the decline of the newsstand model and the rise of the specialist comic book store.

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For a while this new system was a success.  Now, comics could be bought and sold faster, cheaper, and by people who knew what they were talking about and what they were doing.

And it only took two decades for all of it to go wrong.

The rise of Diamond

In 1982 a Baltimore comic book store owner by the name of Steve Geppi,

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took over the sales accounts and warehouses of defunct comics distributor New Media and another distributor named Irjax.  He named this new company Diamond, after an imprint that Marvel had created for non refundable comics.

Mr. Geppi’s new venture quickly became one of the largest comic distributors in the United States, mostly because they actually knew what they were doing and were one of the most efficient operations in an industry.  Most of their rivals either went bankrupt due to poor business management, or were bought out by Diamond in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

By the mid 1990’s the comic book distribution business was dominated by three players: Diamond,

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Capital City,

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and Hero’s World.

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In 1996 Marvel Comics, who was enjoying its position as the largest comic book publisher in the world and riding high off of a massive sales boom in the late 80’s and early 90’s, decided to buy Hero’s World and make them the sole distributor of all of Marvel’s titles.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty clear that Marvel was being a jerk during this whole ordeal so I’m not passing too much judgement on Diamond for what happened next.  Long story short, Diamond managed to outbid Capital City and become the exclusive distributor for DC Comics,

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and Dark Horse Comics,

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which made the largest comic distributor in the United States even bigger.

The Marvel/Hero’s World deal failed miserably.  Hero’s World didn’t have the infrastructure and ability to handle nationwide distribution for the world’s largest comic book publisher and folded after less than a year of business.  Out of options, Marvel went to Diamond cap in hand,

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and Diamond became the sole distributor of the entire American comic book industry.

If all of this sounds sketchy as hell, you’re right.  In 1997 the Department of Justice launched an anti trust investigation looking into Diamond.

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However, in 2000 the DOJ ceased their investigation, believing that further investigation was unwarranted since Diamond only controlled the distribution of comic books but not the distribution of all books.

Which doesn’t seem very fair at all.

The current state of affairs, or why Diamond is bad for business

Despite the fact that the Feds didn’t find anything wrong with Diamond’s business practices, it’s pretty clear that Diamond is a monopoly and certainly acts like it.

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That’s what Diamond is now.

Since there is no competition to keep Diamond honest and promote fair business practices everyone has suffered and everyone has a reason to dislike Diamond.

Retailers dislike Diamond for their poor customer service, late shipping of orders, and sloppy business practices.

You can read a store owner’s own troubles here.

Seriously, I have a friend who owns a comic book store (who shall remain anonymous) who has told me that several colleagues still have to mail checks to Diamond every month in order to pay for orders.

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Mailing checks…in an age where everything is paid for online.

But retailers aren’t the only ones who suffer, publishers and creators suffer as well.

If you’re a small time comic book creator and you want to get your book out to stores and in front of prospective buyers than you better get really good at cold calling, because Diamond won’t even consider selling your book unless you can do at least $2,500 worth of business.

Sure, this is great news for bigger publishers who don’t have to worry about too much competition and can sell their books at a lower price point by offering bulk discounts, but even Marvel and DC have problems.

There was an infamous incident in 1986 where a comic book called Miracleman showed a graphic scene of a mother giving birth.

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There was some negative backlash against the scene, and Diamond responded by encouraging retailers to drop the title all together.

If this sounds like the echos of the Comics Code Authority, you’re absolutely right.

Quite a few creators have taken notice and aren’t very happy with the current state of affairs.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a page from a Spongebob comic book that was given out during Free Comic Book Day.

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So, that’s the way things are now.  Will this deal between Walmart and DC change things for the better, or is it simply an interesting footnote in comic book history?  Will this usher in a new era of comic book popularity, or are we simply trading one monstrous corporation for another?

Only time will tell, but I for one am going to be watching the future of comic books very closely.