Thursday, January 21, 2010

More on Ditko and abstraction

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...

...(snicker snicker)?

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?


  1. Great post Andrei. I really agree with the "logocentric" idea and how it can and should be challenged in comics - and how troubling that is for some people.

    I see Ditko's abstractions as kind of lame - cool looking but more like the melting watches in Dali's work - just Modernist window dressing. Like Fleener's use of "cubism." (sarcastic quotes intended)

  2. Greenberg sheesh, isn't he a vampire?

    Anyways I have a hard time with logocentric because it's not just the words that bothers me in modern comics, I like the sequential dynamism idea, because it implies the goal of the artist is to structure the images across the grid/pages. My old pal Stephen DeStefano was going on about just drawing the story in panels like old comic strips, in all long shot , implying that's comics. Most animators do comics like this, just drawing each panel like it's a scene, (see Flight), and I think Maus is pretty much handled that way too. It strikes me as a chicken shit way to do comics . And as much as I like the concept of abstract comics sometimes it feels like chicken shit to not have the tension between formal page structure and narrative going on. Which is why I like Kirby so much.

    Mark Badger

  3. Yeah- good one. I dig it in comics when the imagery digresses from the plot and offers different, conflicting, or (in Ditko's case) purely aesthetic information. I can't get into form following function because I don't want to assume that function exists outside of form and that we cartoonists are only facilitators of story. But I also like the narrative component of comics, and I'm conflicted about "pure" comics because I'd rather read Lynda Barry than Ditko's ROM.

  4. But I'm totally down with Mr. A or Kirby's seventies Captain America, for instance... Didn't see Marks' comment before I left mine - the proscenium arch school of cartooning is problematic in that it ignores the Steranko-ic possibilities of page as abstract design as well as window. I think Maus has some pages where Spiegelman breaks the forth wall, but it is mainly concerned with fluidity.

  5. Oh boy, can of worms time

    I don't see any relevance of you personal opinion of the Ditko story and here is why:
    1) Your personal value judgement cannot be a reasonable source for any kind of debate on the inherent qualities or intentions of anything. Your opinion of somethings quality has no bearing on its intended effect or actual function
    2) Even if the plot is crap the STORYTELLING could be top notch. By this I mean the quality of Ditko's pacing, character portrayal, and way of revealing information is not dependent on the story itself being very good. And in this avenue one can be "respectfully appropriate to the story" regardless of the quality of the plot in said story.

    You make this specific distinction in paragraph 2 where you state that the only way great art can from a mediocre story is if it transcends it. Doesn't that depend on what characteristic you are judging the art. If we are talking purely about visual experience than the story shit or gold has no impact on whether the art is great or not. If you are talking about storytelling I reference you to you my point "2" in the paragraph above. There is no need to "transcend" the story and furthermore when a story is told in pictures how could the art possibly transcend the story, it would be transcending itself!

    As far as the particular criticisms; you are only looking at leading lines as to the reading of this comic. The reading and experience of the flow of any comic is more complex than that. Also, Ditko could easily have thought that an interruption in flow was appropriate between panel 2 and 3 and a unification of panels 2 and 4 could strengthen the story. But I won't waste time guessing what he thought about it because that is entirely moot. My point is that what you call not in service of the script could just as easily be thought in service of the script. And I think it is worth considering that since there is a script and the final product is a reasonably understandable than it seems the only conclusion that can be formed is that the art does indeed serve story, because if it did not how would the story be understandable?

    Then in your own statements about issue #59 you seem to contradict yourself and make one of my points. You admit you don't care about the story then go on to compliment Ditko's rhythm. Rhythm is a narrative element. It does not transcend the story as you might say but does serve the story in that it creates the pacing at which the story is read. So, for this part you support my point that storytelling can be good regardless of a mediocre to bad plot.

    and just for thematically unrelated shits and giggles here's an interesting article on the contradicting* and what I call self-serving philosophy that Mr. Ditko subscribed to.

    *contradicting in the sense (which is laid out in the article) that Dr. Strange seems to be a cautionary tale of the dangers of greedy self aggrandizement. And yet Ditko subscribes to Objectivism which encourages self-aggrandizement.

  6. Aaron--

    well, I came here to answer the other guys, but given that you posted this long comment, I guess I should answer you first. I'm not sure why the slightly aggressive tone in your comment (I thought we were all friends her), but, sure, I can play along.

    Your point 1. Huh? You say that and you go on to give your own personal value judgment? Kind of a contradiction there. Anyway, it's called criticism. I didn't just make pronouncements of likes or dislikes, I tried to support my points.

    2. Yes, the storytelling can be extraordinary, but if it's in the service of a bad plot, either it a) just makes more evident how bad that plot is, or b) it makes you focus on how good the storytelling is (at the expense of paying attention to the plot)--and thereby it transcends that plot.

    Yes, the "story is understandable." It would have been understandable without a lot of the formal arrangements Ditko introduces. I agree he knows how to tell a story. He is a great craftsman, I said so myself. However, my point is that he goes well beyond that: there is such a tremendous excess in the art, well beyond anything the story really needs.

    You write: "when a story is told in pictures how could the art possibly transcend the story, it would be transcending itself!" I meant that the overall product (the piece of comic art), transcends the storyline, the plot. Honestly, it's pretty clear what I was saying, it seems like you're intentionally trying to fault-find.

    Rhythm: it's not just a narrative element. I thought making and looking at abstract comics would make that pretty clear. "Visual rhythm" is different from "pacing." What is fascinating, to me, is the (nearly abstract) visual rhythms, not the way story pacing is created. There's a difference there.

    OK? Can we all be friends now?

  7. Warren--obviously, I like Ditko's abstraction a lot more than you do. In its defense, let me say I was not referring to the simple abstraction, or surrealist forms, within one panel. Rather, I was referring to the overall abstract designs and visual rhythms that result. Ditko can obtain this even with fully representational objects throughout, like in the Spider-Man page I reproduce in the anthology. If it weren't for that greater, layout/visual-hythm work, yeah, something like what you see in each panel here might not transcend the level of "Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism" (as reproduced in Spiegelman's recent Toon Treasury), which is cute but kind of lame. Also, I don't think Ditko was trying to apply "Modernist window-dressing" like others do--he was not trying to somehow justify or validate his comic by appeal to a supposedly "higher" form of art. I don't think his work is at all as calculated as that, and the kinds of abstraction he reaches result, perhaps, more from a kind of personal obsession than any desire to be "modern."

    Mark--yes, the tension between page structure and narrative can be a powerful effect; so is the tension between flatness and representation in painting--in Manet, for example. That however doesn't mean that, when they abandoned representation fully, abstract painters like Mondrian or Pollock where thereby chickenshit (even sometimes). It's a new form of art, or at least a new genre: abstract painting, or abstract comics. Some days there is nothing more rewarding than looking at a Manet; others, a Pollock (say, "Autumn Rhythm") can feel like the greatest pictorial achievement ever. I adore Kirby, you know that. But sometimes I look at Benoit Joly's "Parcours" or an abstract comic by Gary Panter, and feel like no other comic ever has reached that level. They do different things. No "chickenshit" about it.

    Jason--"Steranko-ic possibilities of page as abstract design"? I'd say Kirby or Ditko had done the same thing earlier, and 100 times better, than Steranko (who often is all flash and no substance. In my humble opinion.)

    Now try to imagine Lynda Barry's ROM...

  8. Andrei-

    I'm sorry you found an aggressive tone in my words, one was not, nor is implied nor is/was felt. I feel no negativity toward you. I was trying to supply criticism of your criticism much like you provided criticism of Jason Miles criticism.

    Apparently some of what I said took away from my overall communicative objective. For this, only I am at fault. I did have two general disagreements with your post. And I accept that these disagreements could be based on a misinterpretation or misunderstanding on my behalf.

    But my bottom line is that I felt like you were trying to say the art within this narrative based comic was not made to serve the story or plot. This seems false to me. The story was conceived first and Ditko made visual artwork that tells that story. Yes, a work can be made the other way around, but in this instance it wasn't.

    Also, a big part of your argument hinged on the story being something we are not interested in. You mention the story is crap right away and when you make the opera metaphor you assume we only are interested in that story because we love the music. If by "we" you only meant the we in the context of its relevance to abstract comics then I concede you may have a point. But if you are making these statements about the general audiences of these mediums then you are wrong. Most comic fans, now more than ever, read for the story. The art tells us that story and the strength of a narrative artist is judged by his ability to portray the story and communicate to us the characters involved and the events that take place. Just like you said, and well I might add (see we're buds), this is why we love them, because they make it come to life.

    Now I do think your metaphor of music is a perfect framework for the discussion of abstract comics. I should have said that before, I apologize for giving you the credit where it was due. In Opera the music and actions tell us a story. In jazz there is only a story if you tell yourself to look for one. In my opinion, this metaphor perfectly lays out the difference between narrative comics and abstract comics.

  9. "I apologize for giving you the credit where it was due" was supposed to say "I apologize for NOT giving you the credit where it was due"

  10. Hey Andrei - good point about Ditko's intentions. You're right on there. I'm not sure I fully get your distinction between his use of Land of Abstraction and the other example but I'll go look around.

    Jason - Hell yeah on the Steranko point. Comics can be (but don't have to be) more than just windows. Traditional perspectival paintings go IN, cubist paintings come OUT.

  11. Perfect analogy, Warren! Post fucking Tristram Shandy or Braque or whatever it's mimesis and diagesis both! Comics can have an overall shape like Ulysses or something as well as transmit plot; they're perfect for disjunction. And, yeah, totally, Andrei, Herriman, too, or Outcault even, before Steranko, but the Jimster is always all over comicscomics so I just plucked him out as the example.

    And I would totally read Lynda Barry's ROM.

  12. I've really enjoyed this post and the exchange that has followed. It is rich, to say the least. And I've been wanting to weigh in, but I've been a bit busy this week and also a bit uncertain how to begin.

    Two things strike me from the examples offered for analysis and some of the terminology used to make sense of them. I'll present them here separately, but I think they are related -- or at least they touch on one another (like a "wraith-taint"?).

    1) Derrida and logocentrism. My understanding of Derrida's critique of logocentrism is that it is less specifically about words, per se (i.e. the word) and more about the practice of representation. The logocentric fallacy is the idea (or rather, ideological commitment) that the word or representation contains fully ("rationally") the thing it represents. So, logocentrism can't be located only in the script versus, say, the art. Obviously, much of the art in comics participates in a similar representational practice. But it is also possible to have a script/text that resists logocentrism --hence, the project of deconstruction which (much like your critical response) is carried out in words.

    I point this out because I think it plays back into the tension around categories and definitions of aesthetic practice, including the definitional boundaries of what are/are not abstract comics. "Abstract Comics" can never contain all that it purports to represent. And while there are folks "rescuing" Clement Greenberg for good cause, it is also true that Greenberg in part tried to define (i.e. contain) the essence of particular arts. Hence, his definitional focus on the surface of painting and the relationship of center to edge, etc. But, from a Derridian perspective, Greenberg is still telling a story about art, offering a representation that tries to contain it and identify its key elements. And in so doing, is himself participating in a rather obvious form of logocentrism.

    If noting such is still "so 1982" of me, well...1967 called; they want their formalism back. Now, I mean that as a bit of a poke -- not necessarily hostility, but let's say snark in response to snark. ;-)

  13. 2) The Abstract as the Unrepresentable -- I am not the most familiar with ROM, although I like these pages (and again, the analysis). Ditko's work with Dr. Strange is a bit more familiar. I am struck, however, in both by the use to which abstraction is put in the representational dynamics of the comics. These are alien realms and magical dimensions, curious entities and disorienting perspectives. More things in heaven and earth, in other (um) "words" than are dreamt of in our logocentric rationality.

    Rather than dismiss that element or bracket it off in favor of tracking some proto-abstract comic here to "elevate" Ditko's genius, we might see that confluence of narrative and vision as productive and non-hierarchical. That is, in a visual medium, Ditko is using (arguably) non-representational images to represent that which is alien, strange, and beyond our conceptions. Yes, I am aware of the paradox of representing the inconceivable. And that is what is so fascinating to me. A stylized and recognizable form (that we recognize here so easily as somehow so obviously like abstract comics) comes to represent that which exceeds our reason (again, logos). In mainstream comics, we see this style most often used to represent internal mental states, magical dimensions, emotions, alien worlds and entities, etc. In other words, there is an important link between the plot devices and when this sort of representation is likely to be used. And in so doing, paradoxically links supposedly non-representational abstract forms back to representation, at least in this medium.

    For heuristic purposes, I find the disentangling of story and image (or story and music) a productive thought-experiment that yields useful insights. But ultimately, whether we are talking opera or comics, the combined arts in these hybrid forms are curdled. Yes, in the music examples above, we can certainly pull out the music and leave the libretto behind. But I think when we do that, we are creating "new" works -- new "arrangements." If I blow up a particular panel or page from a Ditko comic that I like and downplay the crappy story it is illustrating, aren't I similarly doing my own bricolage work? Might we look at the above images less as isolated moments for your analysis, and more your own sort of readymade?

    I'll end with another paradox: I am so against binary thinking. ;-) But then, this is a point in Derrida. We can't really escape binaries or logocentrism in our word and image languages. But we can acknowledge them as always already present and work within them to find the both/and modes of hybridity. Which suggests less "Narrative, yes or no?" and more "Narrative, more or less?" (for example).

    Thank-you for this engaging blog and the links and comments shared here. The true proof of Ditko's genius is that so many smart people can be inspired to such sophisticated discussion and debate about his work.

  14. Warren--but Ditko here isn't trying to do "Land of Abstraction." ROM has been reduced to microscopic size and is inside an ant--that's all cells and viruses and stuff.

    Aaron--thanks. I guess what I'm saying is that different readers read the same comic for different purposes. If we were to take Ditko's comic simply at face value (it's a comic based on a licensed toy character, meant to be read by the kids who also owned that toy), there would really not be very much to it. He's done a good cratsmanlike job of telling the story, and it conveys the story to its intended audience, 10 or 12-year old boys. However, there is an incredible excess of form in his work, and I'm claiming that is what makes it enjoyable by people who don't particularly care about the story itself. I'm not reading it as purely an abstract story. Rather, I see it like opera or art song, or even a lot of dance music--where the representational content is not primary but secondary; it helps give shape to the overall work, but (from this perspective) the main effect is formal, visceral. However--the narrative strand does help people navigate through the pages of art. I would claim this has been an effect in comics for a long time. For example, Gasoline Alley ca. 1930 had a clear division between dailies and Sundays: the dailies were primarily a kind of soap opera (narrative content dominated), while the Sundays were, on the face of it, often created for the sake of the art (not abstract usually, but sometimes yes), where Walt's and Skeezix's promenades through nature, for example, were used to pass through a variety of pictorial effects (on which they would comment).

    Most comics lend themselves to only one such reading--for plot alone, and this is the case both in kids' comics, mainstream superhero work, and much alternative production. However, Ditko's work (while still communicating fine for the kiddies) transcends that level. This, again, is not an uncommon phenomenon, with a lot of popular art. Think, for example, of Douglas Sirk's melodramas, which were seen, when they first came out in the '50s, as nothing but three-hankie weepies, but which later came to be seen by the critics as examples of perfect cinematic formalization. They can still be enjoyed as weepies: but that does not deny what the critics see in them, over and above the story they tell. Think of early jazz, enjoyed in the beginning as just raucous dance music, which is then seen as "America's classical music" and every note, every inflection of Louis Armstrong's trumpet is studied by musicologists. And yet you can still enjoy it at both levels.

    I'm also saying this because I know many people (not comics fans) who would automatically be turned off by Ditko's or Kirby's work, just because it features flying men in tights and seems juvenile. However, when I have shown them the formal perfection in much of this work, the visual rhythms, the unified abstract layouts, they begin to realize the importance of these artists.

    Does that make it a bit clearer where I'm coming from? Actually, I'm glad that this discussion is helping me clarify and express my thoughts on this subject more precisely. It's a complex topic.

    To go back to Warren, and Jason--I've actually been thinking recently of Kirby's work of the late '60s, especially, as exploiting the tension between 3-D, the panel as window, and 2-D... Maybe I'll do a post about it--even though it's not strictly abstract comics.

  15. Jonny (Bungy)--

    your two comments appeared while I was writing my last one. Oy, with all this I'll never get any real work done! I'll try to answer tonight.

  16. All right, maybe I can begin answering now. Jonny, I must admit that (for a general, and not an academic audience) I was trying to simplify things a bit. Yes, you're right about much of what you're saying about "logocentrism." However, I tried to be careful not to say it's just about words--rather, about meaning, a unified, verbalizable meaning. But I was taking the term away from Derrida, and adapting it for a specific critical purpose here. You are absolutely right about the possibility of verbal/visual texts fully resisting logocentrism (perhaps with all its connotations from Derrida now): most clear example of this is Martin Vaughn-James's work, and especially "The Cage." As a matter of fact, I gave a talk on it a while ago, showing that it was very much created under the influence of the Tel Quel group, and therefore specifically of literature designed itself to resist "logocentrism" (since Tel Quel basically had adopted Derrida, at least during the late '60s, as their chief theorist).

    Clement Greenberg, etc.--yes, that's what I was trying to address, and ward off, in my second (**) footnote above. Responding to this would involve a close textual reading of Greenberg, etc., as well as of the effects his work had on the reception and creation of abstract art. I don't think this is the place for that. As I wrote above, yes, you can make that "charge" in a limited critical context, but a wider deconstructive reading of the entire discourse may yield a lot that transcends logocentrism. (By the way of 1967, did you know that Derrida often pointed out how much he agreed with Michael Fried? I myself have written an article about the relationship between formalism and deconstruction... the story, again, is quite complex there, too complex to hash out on a blog comment thread.)

  17. Bungy's point 2: actually, I wrote much the same thing in the intro to AC: "Steve Ditko created for Dr. Strange's travels through countless mystical dimensions a visual vocabulary for depicting the unimaginable" etc. This is clearly connected (as I teach in my comics class) to the notion of the sublime as the unrepresentable. And the same aesthetic of the sublime led Barnett Newman to develop his own form of pure abstraction... Another tangent we could go on, for miles. But my point, again, was not just about the abstract shapes in Ditko: it was about the formalization in his drawings, which--well, to repeat what I wrote in reply to Warren: "I was referring to the overall abstract designs and visual rhythms that result. Ditko can obtain this even with fully representational objects throughout, like in the Spider-Man page I reproduce in the anthology."

    I am not trying to fully disentangle subject matter and form. I agree that "Don Giovanni" the wind ensemble arrangement is different from "Don Giovanni" the opera. I was just claiming that in different works--and from different perspectives--sometimes the representational element, sometimes the formal element, dominates. In many of the best ones, these are completely entangled, and cannot be separated: see for example Flaubert (as opposed to, say, Zola), or Mallarme (whom I've tried to translate to maintain that tension), or Manet. This is probably also true of Ditko's Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, as I argued in the OP. However, I'm not sure it's true of ROM--and yet, we can still see the formal mastery in ROM, and enjoy it from that perspective.

    Again, I'm not drawing a simple either/or, I actually agree with the sliding scale, and that's how I think too (maybe, again, I was oversimplifying for purposes of argument). ROM would be a completely different object if it didn't have the representational element to draw us through the story, across the pages, as would those Gasoline Alley sundays. I don't think this is a matter of my own bricolage (I am showing examples here because I can't reproduce the entire work, but I'm not trying to play Lichtenstein and only focus on those fragments), but it is a different critical interpretation of the work, which can give rise to a different kind of appreciation of it.

    (By the way, in Derrida, despite the supposed opposition to binaries, much of his own argumentation is structured around binaries--chief of which is logocentrism/anti-logocentrism. Yes, you can see him transcend that, but to see that happen I think you need to study very closely the twists and qualifications in his text; a simple summary will end up falling back on the binaries. I'm not sure that, when we try to simplify things, we can ever avoid that fall: maybe that's where I could have been clearer, and that's what provoked some of your objections. But yes, sliding scale, more or less--I agree, of course.)

  18. Another couple of thoughts--claiming that a certain interpretation of a work is "bricolage" (and therefore, a kind of unwarranted supplement, not belonging organically to the work)--that seems to me to imply a single, unified meaning to the work of art--which is kind of logocentric (not to mention binary), no? :)

    Also, I'm not sure that most expository texts (even Derrida's) that espouse an anti-logocentric perspective are anti-logocentric themselves. Mine certainly aren't, and Derrida's (despite claims to the contrary) are very rarely, if ever. But yes, of course, text-based works can very clearly resist logocoentrism, the centrality of a unified, metaphysical meaning--for example Mallarme's poetry, or Joyce's Finnegans Wake, or Philippe Sollers' Nombres. Deconstruction IS modernism.

    (Don't jump on me for that! It's a rhetorical flourish. But, with more subtle argumentation, it can be strongly supported.)

  19. What an interesting set of comments, and an interesting post to start it all off. Thanks Andrei – this is excellent. I have some critiques, which agree with some of what has been said already, and some which may be new.

    Firstly, I think that to start an article by saying the story is crap is a bit weak, if only because it seems that to make your point about abstraction and visuality in comics you need to attack narrative in some way. I realise this is probably not the intention, as such, but it comes off defensive from the outset. And for those who love narrative it instantly places them on the defensive.

    Now, the term logos also means rationality, reason and can be extended to composition, order, arrangement (and so on). Yes, there is one side of it which is about words, but there is a side of it which can refer to pure “order” or “pattern.” Which can also be applied to the rhythm of visual images. A painting has a logos – which refers to where the eyes are drawn, as it were. There is an order or rationality to the composition. So, again, I feel the negativity of “anti-logocentric” is not necessary.

    My overall feeling is why do we have to oppose the story and the visuals in this way. Surely the art can be both. This whole discourse affirms an “either/or” outcome, which is artificial to my way of thinking. It is always “both/and” (ie. the logic of philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, the yin-yang, quantum physics, and so on). That is, someone can read the comic paying attention to the words and take the visual cues from that just as one can ignore the words and just look at the images for a different (more abstract) experience. I feel we should shift the discussion from an ontological mode (the art must be either for the story or the visuality, ie. What is the comic being absolutely) to a phenomenological mode (the art is becoming for each viewer both the story and the visuality, simultaneously: it is us who collapse it into either one state or the other). So I am not saying that the conversation is uninteresting – I find both points of view are fruitful for developing fascinating ideas. But I am saying that it doesn't need to be framed in an either/or logic.

    Once we say it is both/and, not only do we gain the two views (the art serves the story/words, the art is independent and its own thing) but we can also look more closely at how the two views may interact. For instance, how does it alter the narrative when we consider the abstract reading of the art as we read the story (ie, we deconnect them, and juxtapose them in reading? There are a multiplicity of new questions which arise.

    In Gilles Deleuze's philosophy he introduces the concept of the “rhizome” to explain this mode of critical thinking. When faced with two things which appear in opposition to one another (such as the abstract visuality of Ditko, and the narrative/word content of the same work) we can solve the paradox in one of two ways. 1) Collapse it into one by saying the art serves the narrative, or that the art is independent of the narrative (note the word “serves” and its connection to Hegelian dialectic of “slave” and “master”). For so long it has been assumed that the art was the servant of the narrative (in critical theory of comics). That is, it focused on narrative logic. So, what Andrei is doing is really important, in the sense that it frees the slave, it liberates something. I am in support of liberation.

    2) Now, once liberated we can move to a rhizomatic model, in which the narrative (as its own thing, not in service to the art or otherwise) and the liberated art (not in service to the narrative) are two layers which freely interact in a multiplicity of interesting ways.

    Just some thoughts.

    All the best,
    Dick Whyte

  20. Hi Dick--

    thanks for the comments. I think I've already responded to much of what you say here. Look at my responses to Bungy and Aaron--I addressed there the notion of the either/or opposition versus sliding scale, both/and. So I disagree when you write "This whole discourse affirms an 'either/or' outcome," etc. Also: the verb I tend to use most often is "transcend." I talk about an "excess" of the art. Transcendence and excess are different from simple opposition. Again, I write in the OP that Ditko and Kirby "only achieve their heights of artistry when they reverse that hierarchy, when the script becomes subservient to the art, rather than the reverse." A reversal of a hierarchy is different from the simple separation between art and logos that you characterize as "ontological." A reversal of a hierarchy still deals with "both/and"--just, as Bungy pointed out, with more of one and less of the other... And again, I don't think I am performing only move 1 that you describe ("Collapse it into one...")--I think you're over-simplifying my argument just a tad... This is what I was saying about Derrida above: critiques of binary thinking almost always seem themselves to fall into that binary thinking by reducing the view they oppose to a binary, and then by engaging in binary logic in the very act of opposition.

    What may have led you to think this is that this is a critical text, i.e. addressed to a specific work of art; as I already mentioned, in the OP as well as in the comments, in something like Ditko's "Spider-Man" the separation of art and logos is not so easily done and not so necessary. I think you'd see my point better if you had actually read the new "Strange Suspense" book, which is probably what I was most immediately reacting to. Sorry, no defensiveness there, the stories are really awful, and no amount of artistry in the treatment will help those plotlines. As such, those stories can only be enjoyed *despite* the weakness in their plotting, and much the same is true of ROM.

  21. Part II:

    On the other hand, I want to resist a pure organicist reading, which would claim that the ideal of the work of art is the seamless integration of art and subject matter, and that that's what distinguishes "Spider-Man," for example. In a way, that is true. The various abstract patterns I have pointed out can be interpreted "back into" the text: for example, two brilliant pages with a Spidey/Green Goblin battle (one of which I reproduced in the intro) are structured in terms of formal echoes and oppositions: top left versus bottom right, up vs. down, etc. Now, clearly, that can be made metaphorical of the hero/villain dichotomy.

    Well, fine. But I want to preserve the possibility of perceiving the formal arrangement of those pages without always having to render it metaphorical of something. To always have to see it as metaphorical is to argue, ultimately, in favor of a logic of illustration, which has dominated the discourse about comic-book art forever. And this logic (the subject matter is dominant, the comic succeeds best when the art conveys, in the most powerful or subtlest ways possible, the intended meanings and themes of the subject matter) is purely logocentric. I guess I'm taking my cue here from much deconstructive literary criticism, which often focused on small details of the text that worked against, or otherwise, than the main grain of the text...

    So, yes, ultimately it's about neither simply an either/or, nor--I would argue--about a pure organicist view; different texts have different modes of interaction between the elements of the text (of which, in comics, "plot" or "subject matter" or "theme," on one hand, and "art" on the other are just two), and different viewers respond differently to those modes of interaction. They, as you say, "interact in a multiplicity of interesting ways." (I'm not sure we need "rhizomatic logic" to explain this.) But, having said that as a matter of principle, all the work is left to be done. I was trying to show how one can approach one such text.

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  23. Excellent post, excellent discussion. It is a can of worms --- but an interesting one; perhaps THE most interesting one, as abstraction (whether in comics or elsewhere) as an end in itself has long been played out --- but considering it it can spur new thoughts.

    I think comics artists sometimes forget that 'sequencing' is not identical with 'storytelling'. And these two structuring systems can both have content, not be only patterning o the one hand, nor narrative on the other ---(think songs instead of short-stories, e.g.).

    I'm more interested in evocative sequences in a dialogue (almost dialectic) with the whole page --- thus my "iconosequentiality" idea, which emphasizes this over an above narrative sequencing.

    I have always felt that Kirby, Ditko and Colan often far outstripped their scriptwriters in creativity and indeed "art" in the larger sense. Much like many of the painters of the past who were bridled with boring "themes" or motifs: local saint-legends or ugly nobles to portray, etc. ( I had to repost that because I had far too many typos!)

  24. The conversation gets better and better, and I hope this is in some important ways your “real work,” Andrei – or at least, I certainly think that it should be. I absolutely agree that I don’t want to get too deep into the nuances and convolutions of Derrida’s thinking. I do find it interesting that Derrida claimed he never really meant for deconstruction to be a critical method. Rather, folks like Paul de Man saw the potential in his work, picked up the idea, and ran with it. Sound familiar?

    Related to that point, I really liked your elaborations and challenges to my and others observations. And I think they are useful and fair…well, up until: “claiming that a certain interpretation of a work is "bricolage" (and therefore, a kind of unwarranted supplement, not belonging organically to the work).” Um, no. Rather, I think implying that an interpretation IS warranted is more likely “to imply a single, unified meaning to the work of art.” (Please note the “more” there.) My deployment of the bricoleur is less about your relationship to some sedimented and certain (and thereby objectively defensible) meaning in the “original,” and more about the ways you take up and use certain comics fragments for your (good, in my opinion)work. And these pages are certainly productive duct tape for the gizmo you are building. But my focus in all of these images is precisely on your USE of Ditko.

    I made my final point about being “against binary thinking” as a paradox (!) to make a point about the difficulties of avoiding the logocentric. “Anti-logocentric” is not really the absence of logocentrism. It is more like critical race theory’s term “anti-racist” – in cultures of systemic racism, it is impossible to not be racist. Rather, the best we can achieve is an anti-racist commitment that reflexively marks and critiques the racism that pervades the systems in and around us. So too, I think in a comments section on a blog (or in Derrida’s pages!), we are never going to escape logocentrism – thereby making “tu quoque” arguments (i.e. you do it too!) a bit, well, silly.

    I think Dick Whyte is absolutely on target to summon the logic of both/and and to reference Deleuze and Guattari’s critical metaphor of the rhizome. I don’t dispute the frustration of many comics (and other) artists in the established (systemic?) subservience of art to narrative/script. Liberating the art from such subservience is important and valued work, but the outcome doesn’t (or shouldn’t?) end with either an inversion of the hierarchy or the two going their separate ways. The idea is that we might turn on this critique to consider the two relationally. One place we might go with this is to recognize in the OP (and elsewhere) that there are places where Andrei does exactly this (i.e. re-imagine the relationship), although admittedly I have highlighted those places where Andrei (seems to) disentangle curdled story and art .

    In the end, I hope these comments are useful to you, Andrei. My goal in commenting here is not to change your mind, but to give you some sense of how someone like me is processing your arguments and claims. Whether you take them up or strengthen your stance against them or ignore them or (more likely) some untraceable combination between is entirely up to you. But I thank you for creating a venue where this sort of conversation can take place.

  25. Jonny--I guess I misunderstood you. It seemed to me that you were using the notion of bricolage as a criticism of my reading, i.e. that it was subjective and not warranted by the work. In the context of saying that taking the text and art apart was an "interesting thought experiment," "but" that the work was ultimately "curdled," that is how it read. Yes, it did seem to me that you were proposing a more unitary, organicist view of interpretation. I'm glad to see that's not how you meant it.

  26. 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.

    Transcend? No, I'd say that the art in a great comic never "transcends" its subject matter but rather transforms and invigorates it. Like it or not, Ditko's contribution to the above example is working dialogically with Mantlo's, and the art is self-effacing to the extent that it is subsumed to a narrative purpose (Mantlo's). The fact that Mantlo on his own (or with most other artists) is nowhere near as interesting as Ditko on his own (or with other scripters) doesn't change the fact that the art is inextricably bound up in Mantlo's narrative contribution. Them's just the breaks.

    I have an issue of Thrilling Adventure Stories (an old Atlas Seaboard imitation of a Warren/Marvel-style 70s B&W mag) that features a cop story drawn by Alex Toth. The story is terrible, both offensively reactionary and narratively lame. And Toth's great craftsmanship does not succeed in transforming or invigorating the work, at least not enough to make it a good comic. The art and story do not work in close concert in such a way as to create an enlivening tension. By contrast, even Kirby's barmiest 70s comics are fun to read, read being the operative word. I don't think "transcendence" is a useful way to describe this phenomenon, since the qualities in Kirby that I admire are the result of his entire commitment to the narrative, however bizarre the narrative or however wretched it would have been in someone else's hands.

  27. Charles--I've made my case above, so we'll just have to disagree on this one. I'll keep writing on the subject, maybe my point of view will become clearer. Let me just say that, for me, to say that "the art in a... comic never 'transcends; its subject matter," and to further conclude that "them's just the breaks," is a pretty pessimistic perspective. I do realize you didn't just say "the art in a... comic," but you said "the art in a great comic," but I think that's just begging the question, and we're back where we started.

  28. It's only a pessimistic perspective if you think that comics with silly scripts cannot be good. :)

    My point was, and forgive my lack of clarity, that a crazy-ass story might not be transcended but in fact might be rendered COOL by terrific narrative drawing. To enjoy a comic from that POV is not to ignore story but instead to enjoy story via its delivery in art.

    I happen to enjoy a lot of comics with bizarre plots and bizarrely inflected scripts. OTOH, I happen not to enjoy a lot of, e.g., Toth comics in which the pedestrian scripts are exceptionally well delivered but not enlivened by the full-out commitment of artistic sensibility. And, in most cases, I have to find something enticing or charming about the concepts, no matter how whacked-out, in order to revisit comics with pleasure.

    I did not mean to invalidate the pleasures of form and aesthetics that you found in the Ditko example. Only to argue that, for me at least, it it hard to ignore the narrative content, which gives the artwork its animating tension. Ditko doesn't transcend ROM, he makes it fun to read.

  29. PS. Isn't it precisely a cartoonist's capacity to be "respectful" of a dumb script that makes comics so lively, untrammeled, and wonderful?

  30. I don't think there is "precisely" one single thing that makes comics so lively, untrammeled, and wonderful. There are many ways that can happen.

    Not to mention that most comics with a dumb script are actually deadly, umm... trammeled, and, what exactly is the opposite of "wonderful"?


  31. Andrei- I totally dig what you are saying and love the kind of analysis you are doing on Ditko, but I think you could start incorporating more post-modernist (or post-structuralist) to HELP your reading. At the moment the kind of theory you have constructed is bound to enter into this kind of combative rhetoric. With a little Deleuze, suddenly it is freed up. There is every need for the rhizome here.

    Your use of the word logocentric is just confusing and I would drop it. This is a point you never address. Images have a logic. Words have a logic. You can't go back to the Greek to limit the word meaning (in my view) but only to expand and widen it. And you can't go back to the Greek and take only the meaning you want (words) while leaving out the other meanings (reason, order, pattern). There is just as much logos to Malevich as there is to da Vinci - and it has nothing to do with words.

    And Greenberg does nothing but hurt your project. His work IS suspect for many good reasons - mainly because it is based on absolute qualitative distinctions (avant-garde vs. kitsch for instance) which are untenable in this world. Secondly his entire argument is about an ontology of PAINTING - NOT of COMICS. Greenberg would classify comics as COMICS - and their essence would be different to that of painting. Comics have a sequence - this changes the essence. Comics, like this one, are mass produced (and this means it is kitsch, not 'fine arts'). So yeah, I think your use of Greenberg is really harmful to your overall argument. It seems like a weak way to back up your points.

    Greenberg openly attacked conceptual art, performance art (and so on). I am not saying his work doesn't have value in terms of opening up discourse around pure form, but it is heavily flawed and your remarks around this only weaken the brilliance of your analysis. This is why I am recommending people like Deleuze, who could take it further and HELP it, rather than harm it.

    And by harm - I mean that Greenberg carries a cultural critique with him. To use him and only address this flippantly is not on in critical theory. I mean, he comes from a time when white, anglo-american, men ruled the art world and he rejected all forms of art which widened this scope, which sought to open art to minority artists. Honestly, to evoke Greenberg here is a mistake (unless you are going to deal with his work more complexly). As Bungy points out, Greenberg is a grand-narrative maker - he makes up stories about art. He isn't even correct about the paintings he liked.

    How is Pollock about flatness?? His paintings are sculptural, the paint is thick and viscous. His paintings aren't about flatness, they are about thickness and layers (again - a move from one flatness, to layers, to rhizomes). Similarly, to say Rothko's work is about flatness is ridiculous - his work is about the tension between flatness and infinite depth. Greenberg was wrong. So wrong. Also a canvas is bumpy, not flat. Flatness is not the essence of painting. Nor of art in any sense of the word (according to me). So yeah, in terms of your argument, Greenberg is a duck. What you are arguing for here is an interdisciplinary reading of Ditko (that is, his art has multiple functions in one work) and this is antithetical to Greenberg's project (which is entirely about disciplinarity and ontology).

  32. Okay - so my comment was longer but it won't let me copy and paste anything into the comment box so now I don't know how to post the rest of it... HELP...

  33. Could I email them to you Andrei?? I really want to post them...

  34. *sigh*


    I don't know how to post an answer that doesn't sound defensive. (I've already deleted three answers.) It seems all I do is either argue that, yes, I know that perfectly well, give my credentials to support that, or I point out the inconsistencies and misunderstandings in your own argument. This was never intended to be an academic article. I write those too, and they're a completely different kettle of fish. If you and Jonny are going to keep this up, I am going to have to start a new blog, a more academically-oriented one, to post things like this on, as I really don't want this kind of niggling academic dissection on the AC blog (I'm not saying it's just you--I'm tempted to reply in kind, and this sets off an entire dialogue that is very unwelcoming to non-academics, not to mention uninteresting).

  35. But feel free to email me. Since your comments are primarily a critique of my methodology, etc., it's probably best to just take that off-line, since I would be the only one who actually cares about this (well, and Jonny--we can cc him).

  36. Cool - perhaps I will email them to you then. I am just interested in this kind of conversation.

    I re-read what I wrote and I am sorry it sounds combative - critical theory on the run is hard to get right. I didn't mean to put you on the defensive or be myself defensive, and I have the utmost respect for your project and the Abstract Comics blog in general.

    Hope to talk soon-

  37. Please do email me (my address is in my profile). And if people clamor that we continue the discussion here, we can... though I doubt they will.

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  40. Well done Andrei. You're a better commenter than I am.

  41. I'm sorry that Warren has removed his posts, as I think they were perfectly in line with discussion up to this point. One thing he said was also something I was going to say in reply to Dick, and I might as well say it now: Greenberg was talking about optical flatness, not physical, or literal, flatness, and that makes a huge difference. As a matter of fact, the opposition to "literalness" was an important part of Greenberg follower Michael Fried's theory in the 1960s and early '70s, and especially of his critique of minimalism.

    Other than that, Warren, I wish you would re-post your impassioned defense of Greenberg.

  42. Ok Andrei, I'll repost. I deleted what I wrote becauswe I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep checking in on the conversation and because I'm expecting to get clobbered...


    I know I'm wading into waters far too deep for me and I fully expect to get bonked on the head by you Theory-Brainiacs who are much much better at this than I am but...

    It's a little tangental but I feel I have to reply a bit to the caricature of Greenberg that DW has drawn.

    I don't think GB would have thought all comics were kitsch - only the ones that pandered to the masses. Do you think he would have liked Ware? I do.

    "...he rejected all forms of art which widened this scope, which sought to open art to minority artists." This is ridiculous. GB rejected work that didn't stand on its own as art - and I'm sorry but a great deal of conceptual and performance work is ugly, dumb and worthless (just like a lot of painting and sculpture and comics). Any "minority" artist making good painting (or anything else) would have been fine with him. Maybe you don't agree with his ideas about art but to imply they are grounded in racism and sexism is offensive.

    As for flatness,of course GB was aware of the surfaces of painting - he was contrasting the flatness of painting versus illusionistic depth. Cmon! Even I get that and I'm pretty uneducated on all this!

    I'm sorry to get all hot and bothered but it steams me when people misrepresent GBs actual positions on things. I don't think he's perfect and we're all free to disagree with him but please disagree on what he actually believed, not some straw man you've made.

    And be gentle as you crush me!

  43. Actually, Greenberg wrote appreciatively on William Steig and Saul Steinberg, showing clear awareness of the specific issues of cartooning.

  44. I've been feeling that maybe I was too flip in answering Charles, and so I'd like to try again. Charles wrote:

    "I'd say that the art in a great comic never "transcends" its subject matter but rather transforms and invigorates it. Like it or not, Ditko's contribution to the above example is working dialogically with Mantlo's, and the art is self-effacing to the extent that it is subsumed to a narrative purpose (Mantlo's). ... the art is inextricably bound up in Mantlo's narrative contribution. Them's just the breaks."

    And then he wrote:

    "Isn't it precisely a cartoonist's capacity to be "respectful" of a dumb script that makes comics so lively, untrammeled, and wonderful?"

    Again, I find the notion of the art being "self-effacing" a bit sad, but also a bit of a generalization (who says it has to be?) and also contrary to the visual evidence (the art in the examples I gave is anything BUT self-effacing).

    I admit that I may have been too quick to lump Kirby in there: I do think there is a tremendous amount of excess in Kirby's work, but it probably does come from a different source than Ditko's, and does have to do with, as Charles said, "his entire commitment to the narrative."

    However, it's pretty much a matter of record that, at the time he was drawing ROM, Ditko was neither particularly committed to the narrative he was drawing, nor particularly respectful of it. It's all outlined on pp. 150-152 of Blake Bell's "Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko." According to Bell, at this point Ditko, true to his objectivist philosophy, was making the "John Galt split"--Galt being, of course, the hero of "Atlas Shrugged." As Bell writes: "The divide grew wider between the lackluster efforts of his work-for-hire material and the commitment and attention to detail that he would lavish on his Objectivist work... He was mirroring John Galt's ethos, working at the lowest possible level to make ends meet, in order to subsidize the creation of his serious personal work." (150) The next two pages support this with testimonies and critical evaluations of other artists and collaborators.

    Now, obviously, I don't think the ROM work is of such low quality, but this is proof that assuming as a given "commitment" to "the narrative" is fallacious. We are talking about a work-for-hire situation, and it is an unwarranted generalization that everyone in a work-for-hire situation is working toward the same goal, and desiring of the same quality (witness Vince Colletta at his lowest points, or, famously, the Native American extras in "Dances with Wolves.") It is this split that, to me, explains the disjunction between art and writing in ROM: Ditko feeling no personal commitment to Mantlo's narrative, felt free to compete with it, transcend it, or indulge his own formal interests. It is very different from his work on "Spider-Man," to which he was fully committted--and I think our analysis, at the very least, needs to account for that difference, and not assume that "ROM" is "Spider-Man." As opposed to the organic unity of the earlier comic, Ditko's ROM is more schizophrenic, more disjunctive, which in some ways makes it just as interesting.

  45. Ah, thanks for the follow-up, Andrei.

    It was never my intention (whatever my clumsy wording may have implied) to argue that "ROM" was a project to which Ditko gave his entire dedication and energy, or to argue that Ditko enthusiastically did "ROM" for the sake of Mantlo, or Marvel, or Team Comics. I would never simply assume that of a work-for-hire comic book project; the actual circumstances are almost always more complicated. My comments about "commitment" to narrative were not intended to be a reading of Ditko's situation.

    Rather, my comments were meant to recuperate the idea of comic book art as primarily narrative, and to suggest that narrative or argument have always been to the forefront for Ditko, no matter how jejune or tired the script. He may have lavished more loving attention on his privately motivated Objectivist work (I'm not convinced that makes it better), but he did well by Mantlo and by "ROM," and he did so, I would argue, in ways that enliven rather than simply slough off Mantlo's plot.

    I guess my point is that Ditko's treatment actually makes me want to read "ROM." Disputing your larger point, that it's actually the abstract elements that, in hindsight, make this work interesting, was never my intent, and indeed I'm in agreement with you and I dig your analysis. But I'm not able to view the art in isolation from the narrative conception that, at the least, acted as the provocation, occasion, warrant, or irritating grain of sand that prompted Ditko's drawing. My problem is that I almost always read comics for narrative, ideation, or process analysis, so I took exception to your idea that Ditko somehow "transcends" the very story that he brings to life via his drawings.

    I look forward to finishing my reading on your fascinating Miller-related piece.

  46. Thanks for your reply, Charles, and I'm glad you're back! I hope that, when you read the Miller piece, you don't think I'm caricaturing your position when I say "and I know Charles H. will rebel against this..."

    I see your point, but I wonder if our different emphases don't come from different temperaments. For example, I really wasn't able to enjoy Kirby's "Fantastic Four" until I tried to read it quickly, skipping most of Stan Lee's captions and just skimming the word balloons, to really get the visual flow of the story. Only then did I realize what a masterpiece it is. Having seen that, I was able to go back and enjoy it in a more leisurely manner (because you always want to go back and get more from the things you love)--but even then, I still primarily value the visual, and often tend to enjoy the stories, the text, rather the way you enjoy hanging with a daffy uncle, whom you'd be embarrassed however to introduce to your new, sophisticated girlfriend. (Interpret that allegory as you wish.)

    Ultimately, Dick Whyte is right, of course, when he says: "someone can read the comic paying attention to the words and take the visual cues from that just as one can ignore the words and just look at the images for a different (more abstract) experience." (I honestly didn't think I was in any way opposing such a commonsense view.) It's just that sometimes one of the experiences is at a much higher aesthetic level than the other (this can also be seen in many well-written comics with crap art), and that what I've called the logic of illustration (on which more anon) tends to focus on the former option, so I was, and am, emphasizing the latter.

  47. I think we all need to remember that an intellectual argument is not a fight. To tell someone you disagree is not an insult but rather the highest form of respect you can give a thinking person. When someone disagrees with you that means they are taking you seriously as a thinking person. We only act like we agree with people when we think they are too dumb to talk to or we are too lazy/busy to think about it.

    I might have misread the situation but I read alot of stuff on here about whether or not someone is combative or defensive or whatever. I guess I just think we shouldn't take this so personally and I know I want to know what people think, especially if they disagree with me.

    I'm not big on the academic speak, but i've found this blog to be more stimulating than my entire career in art school. And, I really learn alot from you guys so I say keep talking, say whatever you want and we'll all be better off, at least I will be.

  48. This really wants to be submitted to the Ditkomania Fanzine, would be a great article to see in print. It does exactly what Ditko always wanted, it discusses the merits of Ditkos work, not Ditko the person.


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