Friday, February 5, 2010

Ditko's "Spider-Man," part 1, a.k.a. "Hey look, how cool is this?"--NOW UPDATED! WITH COLOR!

(Amazing Spider-Man #3, p. 4. I don't have much to say about it, just thought I'd open with a cool panel above the fold...)

(UPDATE: Rusty Witek has heard my plea, in the following paragraph, and sent me color scans of many of the pictures here, as originally printed. So I'll just add them, and then you can even compare the linework with the color version.)

I've been promising for a while to write on Steve Ditko's Spider-Man, and given that, as Craig Yoe and the other folks over at SuperITCH have declared, it's Ditko Week!, I'd better get started. The problem is that it's kind of daunting, so to ease myself into it I'll just do what should be a not-particularly-controversial post of really cool art from Ditko's run. This way, I'll get out of my system a bunch of images that would otherwise clutter my discussion (because I couldn't bear not reproducing them); also, as I am planning to focus more on the later part of the run, this way I'll be able to show more images from the earlier issues. So, in this post I'll focus exclusively on art from issues 3 (July 1963) to 19 (December 1964), and from Annual #1, 1964. I have scanned them all, by the way, from The Essential Spider-Man vol. 1, so they're in black and white. At least I can justify this decision by claiming this is how they left Ditko's hands and how the original art (if it still exists) still looks. I only own about a third of the Ditko issues in color, and only a couple of those are not reprints, and I didn't want to mix B&W with color--especially with color resulting from a coloring job that has nothing to do with how the original looked. But if you have scans of the original issues (not reprints!), please send me jpegs of the images I posted here and I'll be happy to add them and give you credit.

Anyway. In preparation for writing on Ditko's Spider-Man, I have been re-reading the entire run and, while I always knew I loved these stories, I have been more than ever bowled over by Sturdy Steve's artistic mastery. One place you can see it is in many of his panel compositions. Let's take his most basic panel shape, of the square, six-on-a-page kind:

(ASM #4, p. 14)

From quite early in Ditko's run you can see a typical characteristic of his compositions: the way the principal lines of force go in many directions at once, though not at all in a disordered manner, but in one revealing a very clever orchestration: maybe you don't need me pointing this out, but look at the horizontal thrust of the Sandman's arm, its angular relation to his other limbs, and its juxtaposition to Spider-Man's near-vertical, curving lines of motion and diagonal pose, as well as to the opposite diagonal of the girl's leg in the foreground (echoed by the pleats on her skirt), and the double diagonal of the foot and calf (at nearly a right angle to each other) stepping in from the right. The girl's other calf, meanwhile, reinforces the horizontal axis we began with. The many synecdochic limbs that drift off-frame place increased importance on the panel frame itself, on the panel's specific shape, and thereby on the relationship of the overall composition to its support.

In a 1945 review of William Steig's All Embarrassed (reprinted in the Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 2 and also in Jeet Heer's and Kent Worcester's excellent anthology of comics criticism, Arguing Comics), Clement Greenberg wrote that Steig's drawings "do not manage to escape the neatness and formularization of the cartoon--nor will they until Steig forces himself to leave his forms more open and to take into greater account the shape of the page." On the second count, at least, had he deigned to pick up what he probably conceived of as such juvenile reading matter, Greenberg would have approved of Ditko's composition. Which is to say--and this will become more and more evident over his entire run--Ditko begins to replace "formularization" ("of the cartoon," of comic-book conventions) with a new formalization in his art.

Look at this panel, from the same issue, in similar terms:

(ASM #4, p. 19)

Spidey's fights with the supervillain of the month may cause havoc, chaos but, on an artistic level at least, such chaos is just a more complex, though thoroughly unpredictable, kind of order:

(ASM #7, p. 15)

(ASM #14, p. 14)

(ASM #17, p. 4)

Unpredictable. What strikes me is how non-intuitive compositions such as these, or especially like the ones that follow, are. I can imagine myself knowing, being able to figure out, how to structure a panel or a page like Jack Kirby. I can see his formulas better. But how do you thoroughly energize--as Ditko does--panels that often have centers that are completely empty, or that have such large areas of rectilinear stuff--buildings, trucks, cars, factory walls and industrial machines--that, instead of echoing the hero's liveliness, rather seem completely indifferent to his pursuits? And yet, the panels seem that much more alive because of it. (When Spider-Man is pinned under by a piece of an iron structure, at the end of issue 32, it's as if all those walls and struts have come to life to avenge themselves, inorganic matter attempting to quiet down all the organic chattering that's been going on around it; and when Spidey finally triumphs over the weight of it, in issue 33--well, I'll leave that part of my reading for the next post.)

(ASM Annual #1, p. 14)


A flash of movement, two zaps of energy across the static regularity of turbines and gears. A bisected C (Spidey's motion lines, Electro's bolt) foregrounded against the straight, sharp lines of the plant's scaffoldings.

(ASM Annual #1, p. 15)

The kind of formalization I'm referring to take over not only individual panel, but also entire sequences. For the sake of convenience, let's just look at single tiers. Here, the represented lines can be fully explained diagetically (the cast spider-line misses, and comes tumbling down), but the abstract progression across the panels also symbolizes Spidey's fall, and makes us experience viscerally a sense of tumbling downward:

(ASM #7, p. 8)

In times of more control, Spidey's trajectory as he swings then catapults himself creates a graceful italic "O" and "I" across the skyline:

(ASM #10, p. 2)

His attempted tackle of Mysterio seems to have been born from the lesser-known edges of a French curve, resulting in a perfect choreography of elliptical tangents:

(ASM #13, p. 9)

An entire tier can be united by a single visual motif, such as here the parallel curved brushstrokes representing cloud puffs, taking the sequence in the direction of the all-over compositions championed in abstract art not long before:

(ASM #13, p. 15)

[Note: here Rusty sent a scan of a slightly different series of panels, but the effect is the same...)

(And notice how the seeming continuity of a large puff between panels 2 and 3 further unifies the tier; not to mention that the very recurrence, from panel to panel, of the web lines on the spider-costume, of Spider-Man himself, is thereby integrated into the overall unification--but more on this, again, in the next post.)

Finally, moving away from circular shapes, look at the strong top-left to bottom-right diagonals, and at the alternation of light and black flat areas, that unite the composition of this tier into a strange formal object, something looking almost like one of those unexplained, futuristic machines or control panels in Kirby's late-60s art:

(ASM #19, p. 14)

Moving away from simply focusing on composition (though do keep in mind, when looking at the following images, everything I have said so far)--I have not seen any other artist whose figures so fully inhabit, as well as energize, the three-dimensional space in which they act:

(ASM #12, p. 19)

Spidey's display at the circus is a display of the appropriation (that is, the making-one's-own) of space--of heights, of beams, of trajectories. I've probably used the word "life" and its derivatives too much already, but there's no way to avoid it here: space lives when Spider-Man propels himself through it (and this being basically a sequential image, though one whose scanning path is not particularly conventional, it also tells us something about how motion from panel to panel brings to life the space of the page--possibly the most important characteristic that distinguishes comics from painting, and abstract comics from abstract painting):

(ASM #16, p. 9)

More. Look at Ditko's mastery of anatomy--but not anatomy that is static, rather anatomy-as-dynamism. Spider-Man is lithe, energetic, has none of the stolidity of Kirby's characters or, for that matter, the grotesque deformations of many later superheroes; his physical canon is, if anything, as classical as can be, probably closest to that of Praxiteles's depictions of youthful gods. But here classical anatomy is in constant motion, alive:

(ASM #14, p. 11)

(ASM #18, p. 11)

And all of this is done with a stunning economy of means. Ditko's graphic vocabulary at times can seem rudimentary, especially to readers used to later rendering styles (whether in mainstream or alternative comics), but a few brushstrokes can create a more convincing, perceptually real-seeming, lunar landscape (even though, narratively, this happens to be a fake lunar landscape, a set--you can also see that in the image!) than either a Neal Adams (too "photorealistic," yet an on-deadline, brush and ink, meager sort of photorealism) or a Chris Ware (too schematic) could produce:

(ASM #13, p. 19)

That's all I have to say for now, no grand conclusion. If you're still with me at this point, please keep all this in mind, I'm hoping to build on it for the next post.

[Thanks again to Rusty! BTW, if anyone has access to the missing color images and could send them to me, I would greatly appreciate it.]


  1. this one is really hard to read Andrei, the illustrations get in the way! (I mean in your original black and white post.) those frames are just beautiful, dynamic in b&w - isolated, enlarged on the screen - my eyes don't want to read they want to look.

  2. I too get lost in the reverie of the art. And I think I read this post like a comic -- that is, back and forth and over and over. Your words regularly help me attend to elements of the panels.

    Looking forward to where you go with this next. I am excited about more time with Ditko -- I think he deserves more than a week!


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