I wrote on Steve Ditko's connection to abstraction in the introduction to Abstract Comics, and so has Ken Parille in a great article on Blog Flume. (Go read Ken's article now, then come back here. Go, go! I'll wait.) So I was pretty excited when I saw a new post at Comics Comics, by AC contributor and blog member Jason Miles, post that at first glance (I should stop reading so rashly!) I thought continued the discussion in the same direction. However, after my first enthusiastic comment there, Jason explained that his intention had been to show how Ditko's layouts serve the narrative. Had I read his post a bit more carefully, I would have noticed this in his original text too, for example when he praises Ditko's techniques for being "respectfully appropriate to the story"--and, consequently, I wouldn't have been so quick to comment there that I agree with him. So this is a post about why I disagree.
To begin with, I don't see what's so praiseworthy about Ditko's art being "respectfully appropriate to the story." Because, you see, the story (in this case, "ROM" # 64, from Marvel, March 1985, written by Bill Mantlo) is crap. Most of the stories for the comics that Ditko worked on as an artist-for-hire are crap (this is clearly not true of the ones he got to plot and even write, such as the second half of his run on "Spider-Man" or the amazing last fifteen or so installments of his "Dr. Strange." Those are undiluted masterpieces, from whatever point of view you approach them.) I mean, have you seen the new "Strange Suspense" book, collecting Ditko's earliest stories, from ca. 1954 to '56? I hesitate to say they're poorly written, since they're barely written at all; usually, the script provides some cliche horror scenario, then can barely be bothered to resolve it in the most perfunctory way. So, would it really be praiseworthy to be "appropriately respectful" of such plots, or of the ROM one? Well, if you're praising Ditko as a craftsman, sure. And he is a great craftsman; but that would hardly be enough to justify his exalted position in the history of comics. As far as I'm concerned, Ditko, as well as Kirby (who was often in the same position as to the plots he illustrated--and, unfortunately in his case, this was also true of his own scripts), are great 20th century artists, period. Which means that they created great works of art. And a great work of art can arise from a mediocre (or, for that matter, abysmally awful) script only if it manages to transcend it somehow, not to be "appropriately respectful" of it. (This is the only way, I should add, that the work in "Strange Suspense" manages to be as enjoyable as it is.)
Secondly, despite Jason's assertion, I'm not even so sure that Ditko is all that respectful. Let's take the first example that Jason gives (I'll just post here the thumbnails; go to his post to navigate through to the full images):
Here is Jason's compositional diagram of the page:
As you can see, Ditko's unification of the layout into an overall formalized composition, through the use of lines continuing from panel to panel, is masterful. However, in the first two tiers, the main lines of composition, as outlined by Jason, lead directly from panel 2 to panel 4, contradicting the direction of reading. (Yes, there are the diagonal axes that unite panels 2 and 3, but those seem significantly weaker than the strong, sweeping curves that seem to curl around each other.) The transition from panel 3 to 4 is purely plot-based, relying solely on our ingrained understanding of the direction of reading, and there is little there that "guides the eye" through. More than that, Ditko's choice of lines to continue from panel to panel seems rather arbitrary: is there a symbolic relevance--one pertinent to the plot--to the connection between the jet trail/piece of space debris (I can't quite tell what it is) in panel 1, and the curvature of the cockpit in panel 2? I fail to see it. Rather, the layout seems to me more unified despite the script, not in service to it. The script becomes an excuse for a grand display of formal correspondences and juxtapositions across the surface of a page.
Now, deference, even servility, toward the script is a value that has been drummed into us repeatedly, not least in alternative comics. Here is Joe Matt:
And here is Ed Brubaker, from "Lowlife":
The script is dominant, the story is what matters, images are subservient. This is what I would call--to borrow a term from deconstruction--the logocentric view of comics. "Logocentric" as centered upon the logos, which means not only "speech" or "discourse," but also meaning, as in a verbalizable meaning.
Obviously, I'm a proponent of an anti-logocentric view of comics. Ditko and Kirby, in this view, only achieve their heights of artistry when they reverse that hierarchy, when the script becomes subservient to the art, rather than the reverse. Is this such a novel view of art? Not at all. As a matter of fact, the reversal has happened repeatedly in one of our most popular arts, or forms of entertainment, which most of the time is enjoyed precisely from this perspective: specifically, music. Opera, I would argue, is in exactly the same position as the superhero comics of Ditko and Kirby: grand architectonics of form are used, more often than not, to illustrate flimsy plots that we enjoy only by granting them a kind of indulgence, on account of our love of the music. Take even some of the most compellingly dramatic operas: Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is powerful, yes, but to a large extent it seems to me to use the plot to explore the demonic possibilities of the key of d minor, and its heavenly redemption into D major. Da Ponte's libretto is a masterpiece of its kind, but it is never performed without the music, while the music was, as soon as the opera premiered and for centuries afterwards, repeatedly given purely instrumental arrangements, from wind ensemble suites to Liszt's piano meditations. We listen to opera primarily to experience music arrayed dramatically, not to focus on a plot and appreciate how respectfully the music illustrates it. In the eighteenth-century, most theories of music were expressive, that is, logocentric, which is why they focused primarily on vocal music and often thought of purely instrumental music, such as sonatas, as inferior or even nonsensical. (Fontenelle's reported saying, "Sonate, que me veux-tu?"--"Sonata, what do you want from me?"--is exemplary in this regard. But more on this in a later post.) Music critic Eduard Hanslick, beginning in the 1850s, reversed this position, arguing that music's true beauty lies in its (non-expressive) purity, essentially laying out the argument for music as the first fully emancipated abstract art (and, coincidentally, for the symphony as the most exalted form in classical music). Going back several centuries, you can find the same dynamic, though temporally reversed in this case, in the works of Monteverdi, whose early opera L'Orfeo joyfully transcended its libretto, while his later operas, Poppea and Il Ritorno d'Ulisse, written after the composer had studied Classical Greek drama and fallen under the sway of classicizing critics, stuck to "respectfulness." Yes, the historical variations are plenty: the point is that music has often moved between these two poles, and more often than not has been enjoyed from the anti-logocentric perspective.
So, going back to Ditko. I am arguing that, if he were really just respectfully illustrating, orchestrating, accompanying Bill Mantlo's script, his accomplishment in work-for-hire situations such as ROM would be only a pale imitation of what it truly is. Take, not the issue that Jason used as an example, but #59, Ditko's first on the title and my personal favorite. Do I really care that ROM and his voluptuous female-robot companion (I forget her name) are battling something called...
Umm, no. But look at the glorious graphic rhythms through which they pass on the way to battle it:
And look at the contortions through which the "wraith-taint" is put as it is defeated:
The eradication of an amorphous form of life here becomes an excuse for the gradual metamorphosis, and diminution, of a dark, organic, curved-edged form when confronted by a pink sharp-edged cone. Again--I made the same argument about a Ditko Dr. Strange sequence in the introduction to the anthology--this could be El Lissitzky!
Much the same argument, I should add, can be made not through music but through modern art, and specifically through the texts of Clement Greenberg (and if you think that Greenberg was rendered superannuated by PoMo, spare me. That's so 1982!*) Somewhere in "Art and Culture" Greeenberg argues that the important element in modern painting is not whether a picture is abstract or not, but whether it foregrounds those formal aspects that are specific only to painting--namely, flatness, the relationship of the center to the edges, etc. Which is to say that, in a way, he takes the artistic value of any work of modern art--whether the work itself is representational or not--to be of the order of the abstract; that is, of the anti-logocentric (at least in the meaning of the term I am using here**) rather than of the logocentric, representational meaning. From a similar perspective, we can see Ditko's, as well as Kirby's, work as orchestrating forms across fields of panels, foregrounding comics' own equivalent to Greenberg's "flatness," specifically something I have called elsewhere "sequential dynamism": the ability to move the eye, in a well-structured manner, across the surface of the page, from form to form, so as to create virtual formal melodies (Jason Miles himself, I should add, speaks of Ditko's "frozen music"), so as to give motion and life to abstract form. This is something that abstract comics do, often at the expense of everything else--but it is also the signal achievement of the greatest of superhero artists, and, I would argue, the main reason we still care about their work.
* Ok, I'm being facetious here. But there have been significant reassessments of Greenberg's achievements in the last couple of decades, and his star is nowhere as low now as it was back then.
**Yes, I realize that an argument can and has been made that the desired "purity" of abstraction only leads to a higher, and more ineffable, logocentrism. Except in very limited critical contexts, I would tend to disagree, but that is a discussion for another time.
P.S.: one last thing. I have read reports (I think in Blake Bell's Ditko bio, but I can't find the passage right now; I've emailed Blake for help) that, in his hermit-like isolation of the last couple of decades, Ditko has been working on--in addition to his objectivist pamphlets--abstract paintings. Now, is that really so surprising?