Interview with Blake Bell

Fred Martinez/SAN DIEGO/ Conservative Monitor -- Blake Bell, whose www.ditko.comics.org is the most comprehensive if unofficial web haven for serious fans of Steve Ditko. Ditko is the original artist and co-creator of the Spiderman Comic, which is now a record breaking hit movie, is the Greta Garbo of comic books. Continued Below...

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Refusing to give interviews for 20 years, he recently refused interviews for major articles on him by the Los Angeles Times and one of Canada’s leading newspapers the National Post.

Although the site is not sanctioned by the artist, Bell through his research and writings appears to know the artist as well or better than anyone else except Ditko and he is not talking.

Q. Blake Bell, do you think that the anti-heroes of the Columbine-like killings in public schools and the September 11 terrorists are why so many are flocking to see a real hero in Spiderman?

A. Ditko was prophetic in this regard, since even [comic book] creators like Frank Miller and Alan Moore are desperately trying to reverse this trend they started back in the mid '80s of glorifying the anti-hero/clouding the line between the hero and villain.

Q. What was Ditko’s contribution to comic art and Marvel Comics? Do you think that he, not Stan Lee, should get most of the credit for Spiderman since in the issues he did, he plotted the comic while Lee only filled in the dialogue?

A. The Marvel "House Style" of narrative storytelling can be attributed to Steve Ditko and what he developed in Spider-Man. The surface aspects of Stan Lee's plots ("the girl I'm in love with can't know my secret, and I'm torn up about it") and Jack Kirby's smash 'em - bash 'em visual style have been imitated throughout history, but what resonates, and still does, is Ditko's vision of the true essence of humanity, which is a loner trapped in a world inhabited by people who don't, and who seemingly have no interest, in understanding him.

Ditko is now receiving his due credit because, as he believes, true justice will always win out. He deserved this credit 35 years ago and he is receiving it now because, however corrupt or manipulated moral and social values become in this world, the truth exists for those who want to see it - to those who want to uncover it.

Q. Why are you such a big fan of Ditko? Do you think he is more than a cartoonist as some call him?

A. I've been a fan of Ditko since I picked up the three late '70s Pocket Books collections of Amazing Spider-Man #1-20. I was only 8 years old in 1978. To a young child, Ditko's appeal in Spider-Man begins with his sense of costume design. Few artist have created more visually dazzling costumes on the hero or the villains. This is a graphic arts medium. He was the Barry Bonds of creating villains with dazzling powers and unique, colorful looks. Every villain that will be used in any Spider-Man sequels will be taken from those Ditko issues.

One has but to look at how many times his villainous creations have been rehashed and reused in the past 40 years. Spider-Man will forever appeal to anyone who never felt part of the mainstream (and only the highly superficial ever believe they do belong in such a category). The first page of his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 says a man, who values intelligence, respect and compassion, is locked out by those whose character is so weak, they have to surround themselves with false idols (Flash Thompson, in this case) to justify their existence, and receive validation.

Q. You said that the Ditko appears to base his life on libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand's character John Galt whom is the hero in one of her novels. How does Spiderman reflect Steve Ditko’s philosophy of life?

A. If you read the issue of Spider-Man's origin, he is a milksop teenager who receives no validation from his peers, even though he is far superior in intelligence and ethics. By the last issues of Spider-Man's run, Peter Parker has entered college, and is no longer concerned with the opinions of others. He is his own man.

In the famous "Spider-Man Shrugged" sequence in Issue #33, Peter rids himself of the guilt of failing his Uncle Ben, from an act of gratification whim, by making a conscious choice to physically and mentally challenge himself to the utmost. In the earliest issues, Spider-Man is filled with self-pity, unwilling to accept his circumstances, but when he lifts off the machinery threatening to prevent him getting the necessary cure to his Aunt May's illness (caused by a reaction to a blood transfusion with Peter in an earlier issue), he has made the conscious choice to rid himself of such emotional responses.

To say there is Objectivist philosophy expressed in Spider-Man would be incorrect - it is quite clear that Ditko is developing (in himself and the character of Peter Parker) a man with far more in common of Howard Roark than the simpering high school student from Issue #1.

Q. You said, “Ditko would do whatever superhero work he needed to in order to pay the bills, but focused his creative energies on the Randian work." Can you tell us about his Randian work?

A. Unfortunately, Ditko became obsessed with the philosophy and it drowned out dramatic pretense in his stories. They became tracts, instead of narratives, perfect examples of the greatest sin of storytelling - "telling" instead of "showing." Had Ditko been able to create interesting narratives for the delivery of the philosophy, he would have actually advanced it far greater than he did.

Rand was able to create compelling narratives because she focused on the characters [Galt and Roark] around her archetypes. Galt and Roark never grew or waned, but all the other characters progressed or regressed, and that journey was what held the reader's interest. Given Ditko's attachment to a medium where one focuses on a main character, a hero, Ditko only focused on the already-perfect protagonist, leaving no room for any intriguing character development. This is why his characters of the last 30 years are rarely memorable, save Static and The Mocker, where he meshes philosophy with actual plot devices quite effectively.

Q. How is Spiderman different from other comic heroes?

A. It is my belief that Ditko brought us the first superhero whose life became worst when he achieved such grand powers. Captain America was a weakling who rocketed to great physical strength and national acclaim when he was injected with the Super Serum.

Spider-Man became persecuted by the media, guilt-ridden by the death of his Uncle Ben due to the lack of using his powers responsibly, and forever forced to the sidelines, unable to incorporate himself into a social group dynamic.

As a child of divorce, I felt from the early age of five that same divorce, that separation from the mainstream that Peter Parker carried like Atlas carried the world. No matter how good I was at sports (and I was 6' 5" and quite athletic), I identified with this part of Peter Parker. Ditko took Lee's initial idea of a "teenager with problems" to a psychological level so far off the radar screen of anything produced in comics to that point, and this is why Ditko's comics live on today. Taken from his life, the events and people portrayed in his work felt very real in mine.

Q. Tell about Ditko’s style?

A. Visually, Ditko had what most people would consider a cartoony style, but his work was far more real than the "photo-realist" comic artists that would appear on the scene in the following 20 years. His was more real because the visual laws defined in his universe were so real, so consistent, that one suspends disbelief to its maximum. He set the visual rules, and you believed every one.

Ditko deliberately created his human figures as static beings to juxtapose them against an aerial ballet, played out as battles between Spider-Man and his corps of archenemies. You can break down every aspect Ditko brought to the series, and all can be identified as revolutionary in the superhero comic to that point; so revolutionary that they have been horrendously imitated in style, but never duplicated in substance.

Q. Seeing how Mr. Ditko was mistreated in the comic video program mentioned before, I could understand why he might not want to do interviews with the media. Do you think he will be willing to do an interview in the near future? If not, what is the best way to learn about his philosophy of art?

A. Ditko is doing the essays on Spider-Man in “The Comics” because he is able to do it on his own terms. Given that his mantra has always been "the work speaks for me," I have received no evidence that he would change that. In that light, the best way to learn about his philosophy of art is to look directly at the work and not have your objective judgment clouded by the Gretta Garbo mystique created around him.

Oddly enough, one could argue that if Ditko did do a spate of interviews, he would demystify himself, leaving only his work. It is ironic that his stance against interviews has had the opposite effect for which he had hoped. More people focus on unlocking the mystery of the man, than of the artwork.

Blake Bell is the creator of “Ditko Looked Up “, a web site at http://www.ditko.comics.org


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