Steve Ditko R.I.P.


And then there was one.

Without wishing to slight the contributions of those others who were there in thee beginning, it’s inarguable that the success of Marvel Comics, and everything that has followed on from the extraordinary period of creativity, rests on the work of three men. You may dispute the order of importance on another day when such things can once again be debated, but these men were Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. ‘King’ Kirby died long ago, in 1994, and now Steve Ditko has been found dead, in his apartment, aged 90. Only Stan Lee remains of that essential trio.

Ditko, who was famously private, indeed reclusive, was far less productive than Kirby, but was every bit his equal. It was Ditko who, when Lee was dissatisfied with Kirby’s first designs, took over the project, bringing to it his unique perspective, his odd, almost angular art and the sense of brooding and misery that Kirby, the boundlessly positive and elemental force could not provide. Stan Lee supplied the words, but it was Ditko who showed us Peter Parker, and turned him into the Amazing Spider-Man.

If that was not enough, and for the average creative person it would be a crowning glory, Ditko also created Marvel’s master of magic, Dr Strange, and the whole otherwordly realm of the fantastic that the Doctor occupied.

For all that the decades and countless contributors have added to the story, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange remain what Steve Ditko created them to be.

Many looked at Doctor Strange in the Sixties and concluded that Steve Ditko was one cool cat, and obviously familiar with the effects of such things as Lysergic Acid. But Ditko was the epitome of a conservative gentleman, short-haired, short-sleeved, personally abstemious. Some imaginations don’t need chemical stimulation and Ditko’s was as weird as they came, naturally.

In that, however, lay the seeds of the breach with Marvel. Ditko was a man of firm thought and principles, deeply committed to Objectivism, the philosophy spawned by Ayn Rand. The relationship with Stan Lee rapidly became untenable. Ditko started to plot and draw Spider-Man on his own. When he was due to deliver the completed pages to Marvel, Lee would take care not to be seen. It would be the first he knew of this month’s issue, and now he would add the words.

Then, one day, Ditko left Marvel. Delivered his latest Spider-Man, announced he wouldn’t be doing any more, left. He would return, much later, do other series for Marvel, create the cult favourite, Squirrel Girl, but never again enjoy the prominence and influence he had in those half-dozen years. There were stints at other companies, other creations. For Charlton comics (who may have paid the lowest rates but who didn’t interfere with his work to any appreciable extent) he created Captain Atom, the new Blue Beetle and another cult favourite, The Question, all of whom now belong to DC, for whom he created The Creeper and Hawk and Dove.

All of these would distinguish the record of a lesser man, though they were none of them Spidey or Doc Strange.

Much of Ditko’s work, and he remained prolific throughout his life, ended up self-published. He remained a master cartoonist, but devoted his time to things that expressed his opinions and his Objectivism, a philosophy that remains attractive only to a minority. It limited him, but it was Ditko is his most pure and refine, and at the end of the day it was the artist being true to himself at all costs.

Steve Ditko stayed away from fame and public exposure. He would not allow himself to be interviewed or even photographed. He was ‘featured’ in a Jonathan Ross documentary on comics for the BBC, but that meant that he agreed to meet Ross, alone, without cameras or recording equipment, and that Ross agree not to repeat anything Ditko said! True to his word, Ross disappeared into a Manhattan building, reappeared visibly thrilled, and gave nothing away.

And now there is only one, only the writer/editor/figure of some controversy, Stan Lee. But Marvel, and everything else, all across the field of comics, is a legacy with three pillars, and Steve Ditko will live in memory forever for being one of those pillars.

Uncollected Thoughts: Avengers – Infinity War


Well, at last!

It’s been a long week of industriously avoiding spoilers and demanding that workmates don’t discuss it within twenty feet of me, but at last I can get to see Avengers – Infinity War. Admittedly, the first available performance was four hours after I booked, leaving time to fill in between, but I made use of it under a seriously sunny sun (ironic, actually, considering what else I might have to do next week).

Of course, setting a time to be back for only invoked my well-known paranoia, so getting there with only twelve minutes to spare was seriously cutting it fine in my universe. Though as I was on Screen 10, the furthest screen upstairs, about halfway back to my pokey little flat, it felt, the margin was down into single figures by the time I took my seat.

It’s also my first visit to The Light, which has replaced Showcase in Stockport. The seats are wide and luxurious, more like armchairs and if you don’t sit up, they start to slide forward, putting you, should you wish, in the semi-legendary recumbent posture.

Not until the trailer started coming at me in 3D did I realise I’d been lucky to book for a 3D performance. Though I may have to look at upgrading my 3D glasses for a pair less dirty and snaggled before The Incredibles 2.

I think that it was about Guardians of the Galaxy 2 that I said that you know what to expect from a Marvel movie, and that’s what Infinity War delivers, in spades. I could say that in terms of superhero characters, we get everything bar the kitchen sink – from memory, I think the only living ones missing are Ant-Man and Hawkeye, and they both get mentioned – but whilst that’s true, the expression does not suit the film.

Because this is bigger. And more serious. And more real. Bigger, badder, heavier, more powerful and yet in a true balance for every moment. The jokes, the quips, are less frequent but more in keeping: quick, incisive, apt, perfectly suited to the moment.

In short, this is the closest I’ve ever come to a superhero film that is exactly like the experience of getting immersed in a bloody good superhero comic. Everything is real. Everything is exact and believable, however fantastic it is. And the stakes could not be higher. This is for the Universe. And the bad guy wins.

I’ll return to that. Speaking to a workmate before going off to book, I mentioned successfully avoiding spoilers to the extent that all I knew was that there was at least one major death. He denied it, straightfacedly. He didn’t remember any deaths. I was right not to believe him: there were two in the opening scene, Heimdall and Loki.

And another one two-thirds of the way through. And a fourth in the closing phase.

That’s not counting all the still, silent, painless and passionless deaths that follow Thanos’s victory, endless in number, because although this film is over two hours long and I would have gladly welcomed another hour of it and even more characters, it’s really only half a film. Like The Fellowship of the Ring was only a third of a film. There’s another one to come, and who knows what resurrections we’ll see before it’s all done.

There’s a long wait for a single post-credits scene that’s a teaser not for Avengers 4 but for next year’s Captain Marvel movie, though that’s apparently set in the 1990s.

As for tonight, I’d happily agree with this as the best Marvel film so far, which means a great deal has to be done to top it. If we’re still here in a year’s time, I’ll tell you if I think it does.

Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Strange


The Drugs better work cos the Voice doesn’t.

From the moment the first reports leaking from filming got anywhere that I could read them, there’s beenĀ  a good vibe about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering, the introduction of Magic in Phase 3, Benedict Cumberbatch’s first – but definitely not last – outing as Doctor Stephen Strange.

And the good vibes kept mounting, up to the reviews of recent days, which have been universally favourable, except, that is, for the one coming from a comics-oriented site, which did not like it, and which slated Cumberbatch as the worst possible choice for the good Doctor.

Which did concern me a little, given that it was the only one from the comic book insider’s perception and you know that, preference for DC or not, that’s my standpoint. Was it only going to go down well with the audience that didn’t know what it was talking about? I am old enough to have encountered Doctor Strange when all was fresh and new, and very very Steve Ditko.

Rest assured however that, after this afternoon’s visit to Grand Central, Stockport, you will indeed enjoy this latest expansion of the MCU, that Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed very fitting as Stephen Strange, arrogant neurosurgeon and potential Sorceror Supreme, and if you are old enough, you too will find yourself playing air guitar in your seat as the introduction to Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ booms onto the soundtrack.

Yes, psychedelic is the way.

Whilst it isn’t free from some tampering with the original story, Doctor Strange is a pretty comprehensive and pretty faithful effort. We have the classic story, updated into the Twenty-First Century, of Stephen Strange, gifted surgeon and all-round selfish arsehole, losing the ability to operate after damaging his hands in a car crash, unable to repair the damage by western, scientific medicine and heading east for a miracle cure that he doesn’t believe in but which has been proven effective.

We have Katmandu, and The Ancient One – controversially not the aged Tibetan of the series but instead Tilda Swinton with a shaved head, who gets referred to once, fleetingly, as a Celt and that’s it – and Wong, the Eye of Agamotto, Dormammu and Mordo. In one form or another, we get practically everything bar the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak, and not the least mention (that I could hear) of Hoggoth, let alone its Hoary Hordes.

You would expect Mordo to be the bad guy, but not so. Instead, the film has called up the obscure sorceror and minion of Baron Mordo, Kaecilius, playing a very Mordo-esque role as chief antagonist under the aegis of Dormammu, whilst the film’s Mordo, a Master not a Baron, is a trusted aide to The Ancient One. On the other hand, he did turn his back in disgust with everybody at the end, for breaking the Laws of Nature to ensure Earth wasn’t subsumed into the Dark Dimension under Dormammu’s rule for ever. Apparently, it’s not enough to save the world, you’ve got to do it in a regulation manner, so expect Mordo to be up for it as a Baddie in Doctor Strange 2.

(Which is planned,Cumberbatch having signed up for at least one more, but has no schedule, which is good because, despite being keen on seeing another film like this, I am even more keen on seeing Sherlock series 4).

These departures from the original were part of the process of de-racial-stereotyping the Doctor Strange set-up, and they were carefully and well-handled throughout. To be honest, what gave me more problems was Cumberbatch’s accent as Doctor Strange. I am no expert on English actors doing American accents but, no matter how accurate he may have been, it will take longer than this film lasted before I look at Benedict Cumberbatch and not expect to hear Sherlock Holmes.

I have to say that, for once, the CGI was one of the best things about this movie. I don’t usually go in for giving the SFX that much credit, and I subscribe to the opinion that any film that lets its CGI play a bigger part than its actors is doing the wrong job, but the opening scene, where The as-yet-unidentified Ancient One pursues Kercilius and his henches to London and starts rolling up the buildings, turning gravity on its side and interlocking old-fashioned and ornate frontages into themselves had my eyes popping out, but when it came to New York, later in the film, London got off easily.

I’m sorry not to be so energetic and articulate as I usually am at such things, not being at my best just now, but trust me on this one, Doctor Strange is well worth your time. Choose the 3D option, seriously, and if the cinema don’t do 3D screens, go to one that does.

And play yourself some Pink Floyd in advance. The early stuff, the Syd Barratt stuff. Get yourself in the mood. Groovy baby.