Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In praise of Steve Ditko

You have to understand why sometimes Wally Conger and I drift to the same subjects. Wally and I "met" back when we both were teenagers via his early ventures in the print media, the mimeographed fanzine Spidey Fan to be precise. We were each attracted in a fanatical way to the early issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, and while Stan Lee has every right to say he came up with the idea for a teenaged superhero who is bitten by a radioactive spider, Steve Ditko is the man who gave it life and made that idea worth obsessing over. Peter Parker in costume never looked so much like a spider-man as he did in those brilliant first 41 stories (counting Amazing Fantasy 15, Amazing Spider-Man 1-38 and Spider-Man Annual 1 and 2).

And so, when Wally writes about Steve Ditko, as he did here and here and here, he still has my attention.

The documentary In Search of Steve Ditko is worth hunting down, and I found it here (for now). For folks like me who have always been amazed and thrilled by Ditko's art, this is essential viewing. It's also a valuable hour for folks interested in a unique and Randian individual who has lived his life on his own terms — and, to our dismay, very very privately.

Jonathan Ross' documentary includes a discussion of the opening five pages of Spider-Man #33, which was titled "The Final Chapter" — and, reflecting on the next five issues of the comic book, it's safe to say this was indeed the climax of Ditko's story of Peter Parker.

Aunt May is critically ill, and bad guys working for a mysterious critter called The Master Planner have stolen the serum that might save her life. In the closing pages of issue 32, MP was revealed as none other than Dr. Octopus. Their ensuing fight collapses the room — Doc Ock's last words in this story are "Everything's falling on top of us! We'll be killed!!!" — and an impossibly large piece of machinery drops on Spidey (see illustration). The end of #32 leaves him alone in Ock's lair underneath the Hudson River — a leaky lair with a roof that's about to burst.

In the opening pages of #33, Peter/Spidey is alone with his thoughts. He reflects on how his failure ended Uncle Ben's life — and he resolves not to fail his beloved Aunt May now. Slowly, excruciatingly, he pushes up against the massive machine. Ditko's comic panels grow larger as Peter's resolve grows — nine panels on page 2, six on page 3 (with the bottom two bigger than the top two), four panels on page 4 (with the fourth panel taking up two-thirds of the page). Lee's bubble, as Spider-Man rises up to a squat preparing for the last push, captures the point: "Anyone can win a fight — when the odds are easy! It's when the going's tough — when there seems to be no chance — that's when — it counts."

The most well-placed ad in comic book history came next, because it added an extra moment of anticipation as a turn of the page revealed a full page shot of Spider-Man painfully shrugging the machine off his back, river water streaming from the ceiling, as he exhales, "I did it! I'm free!"

That's actually just the start of his troubles — he still must swim his way to safety, fight through Doc Ock's minions, carry the serum to his friend Dr. Connors to be modified into an antidote, and then rush the vial to the hospital to save Aunt May's life — but in those symbolic first five pages, so brilliantly told by Ditko, Peter has won the most important battle. In the Ross documentary, someone calls it perhaps the greatest comic-book moment ever. I can't think of a greater one.

Later on, a vastly changed Peter Parker confidently negotiates a better price for his photos with J. Jonah Jameson and breaks up with Betty Brant. It's a final chapter, all right. Looking in hindsight at the next five issues of Spider-Man, Ditko's last five, it's almost as if the story that began with that radioactive spider had run its course. Saving Aunt May redeemed the sin of failing Uncle Ben, and Peter Parker grew from an awkward nerd teenager into a confident young man at the close of Spider-Man 33. Issues 34-38 were darn good, as always, but they were anticlimatic.

Much has been made of the maturity of comic books as a medium, about the growth from all-in-color-for-a-dime kids stuff to graphic novels. Down there in the lair of The Master Planner, in the story arc that began with Amazing Fantasy 15 and ended with a bang in Spider-Man 31-33, Ditko and Lee took one of the most important steps in that evolution.

And a generation of readers, when life traps them under an impossible giant machine, reach back to that comic-book moment to find a way, slowly and excruciatingly, to shrug it off.

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Wally Conger said...

Re-living those precious Ditko moments while reading your wonderful post, I got gooseflesh. Spider-Man #33 is a genuine highpoint from my childhood; I've still got my old tattered copy bagged and boarded.

By the way, I really loved the way Sam Raimi kinda recreated that classic scene near the close of Spider-Man 2.

5:03 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home