Random Thoughts: Steve Ditko, Elia Kazan, Walter Winchell, etc.

Written: 3 April, 1999

Some thoughts after reading the past few days' flurry of posts (which I finally finished reading just now).

* There was the matter of "The Future of the Comic Book." Would the pamphlet format survive, or die out to be replaced by softcover or hardcover books? I usually prefer the pamphlet (comicbook) format because of all the little extras ya get. Some of Robin Snyder's & Ditko's own comics are excellent examples. The Fly #5-8 is a particular favorite of mine. We get a lead story by Ditko & Snyder, a backup serial starring another character (The Jaguar) by different creators (Chas. Ward & Vicatan), the occasional text page of information (indexing old comics), letters page, and finally a Henry Boltinoff gag page (which was a common feature of DC comics in the 1950s-60s). Not to mention the ads. Remember that review of Charlton Action Featuring Static which Robin reprinted in one of the Renegade comics (I forget which series)? The funky Charlton ads were part of the visual assault on the reviewer, contributing to the weird reading experience. Some people may think this cheapens the material in the comic. Who knows, maybe it does. I know that I was impressed when I first saw the format for Watchmen (no ads, and inside covers designed to resemble a novel's). "The Avenging World" would be rendered ridiculous if it was interrupted for psychic-caller and "rub the Buddha for money" ads. But I like regular comics that have the variety of old-time comics. I dislike that so many current comics have a strict 22-page format that ends with a "Continued Next Issue" tag, and usually no backup stories, no fun fact pages, no gag pages, etc.

* Lee & Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man comics were listed on The Comics Journal's list of the Top 100 Comics of the Century. Spidey was #35 on the Top 100 list. And, to relate this to the above, the Journal notes that readers can read these stories in the B&W Essentials reprints but that "these editions obscure the carnival aspect of the original 12-cent comics." So, that goes back to the debate about which is better: the book or the comic. Personally I think there should be both -- the pamphlet to build a relationship with the audience (letter pgs, costs less for the curious reader to try, etc.) and the book for the stuff that stands the test of time or which works well in a book format. Perhaps another debate-starter would be, "Would you prefer to read multi-story Ditko books, like the 160-Page Package, or one novel-length Ditko story contained in the same amount of pages?"

* How about a Ditko Top 100? Or perhaps it would be easier to make it a Top 10, or top 5. I would probably put "The Avenging World" (1973) as my #1 Ditko comic because it is so different than any other comic I'd ever read before, and in my opinion expanded the range of comics. After reading "The Avenging World," I could imagine comicbooks tackling any subject under the sun.

* Regarding the matter of whether Ditko was married or not, I think the intent in saying "it's none of our business" was well-intentioned. Wasn't there a huge flare-up some time back on this list when a poster wanted to know Ditko's phone number? Ditko does not let much be known (I have yet to read a documented quote from him, for example, explaining his position on why he left Marvel in 1966 or whether he worked with Eric Stanton), but one thing he has let it be known is that he prefers to let his work speak for itself. When other pros were profiled in DC comics circa 1980, Ditko's entry consisted of an illustration of his DC heroes instead. The earliest indication I have come across of this Ditko aversion to his own biography is in the text page of Showcase #73 (March/April, 1968) which introduced The Creeper. The article is titled "Meet the Men Behind the Creeper." The article spends most of its space on writer Don Segall, however. The article does say about Ditko: "Pressed for personal information to fill out his profile here, tall, blondish, bespectacled Steve was reluctant to reveal anything about himself, just as he had resisted urging from editors of other magazines. 'I never talk about myself,' he said. 'My work is me. I do my best, and if I like it, I hope somebody else likes it, too.' "

Thus, Ditko-the-man is a mystery, and Ditko fans (myself included) would love to learn more about him. In fact, I'm fascinated by and envious of every anecdote I read about someone having met Ditko. I wondered whether he was married, too, and whether he had kids (for the same reason -- a wish to see a Ditko Jr. drawing comics). At the same time, I think we should always respect Ditko's desire for privacy. Newer posters to the list may not know about Ditko's desire to have his work speak for itself, may wonder why they haven't seen his photo or read an interview with him, and want to see the mystery that is Ditko revealed. While I'd like to see the same, I'd only want to see the mysteries revealed if Ditko didn't mind them being revealed. We've heard, for example, that Ditko pulled out of cooperating with The Art of Steve Ditko book because he learned that Cat Yronwode had interviewed a relative of his. This would suggest that Ditko does not appreciate people researching his private life. We should bear that in mind when we discuss Ditko-the-person. We are, after all, fans of his work (not fans of him as a person, unless we may have met him), so Ditko is basically right: to us, Steve Ditko IS Showcase #73, etc. And as fans I think we should tread carefully when talking about the man behind the comic. If there was a FAQ page for this list (is there one?) I'd wish that something like that was in the page, explaining to people that Ditko does not want to give interviews, and wants his work to speak for him. So that asking listers for Ditko's phone number, even if it is public information, is not a good idea. *Whew!* OK, after all that I'm ready to get knocked down to size by dissenting listers.

* Regarding whether Ditko's art is asexual or not -- I don't think it's asexual. As I wrote in my ghost comics article for Ditkomania some issues ago, I think Ditko's ability to draw an attractive female form is underrated. (Of course, maybe not as great as his rendering of the male figure. Whether it's asexual or not, I wouldn't want to say.) As I said in my article, Ditko's women in those 1970s ghost comics often wore mini-skirts (the fashion of the times) which enhanced their attractiveness. Ditko does seem to turn the camera away sometimes, like O. Henry guiding the reader to examine the furniture while the characters kiss in "Gift of the Magi." The daughter of a wealthy materialist is raped in a 1989 Recovery Agent story in The Ditko Package (so that she finally realizes the value of materialism), but Ditko does not show graphic details. We see the beginning of the assault and then the aftermath, but I don't think the idea that she was raped is ever explicitly stated in the story. I assume she was raped or, if not, at least molested, given what Ditko does tell/show us. But no nudity. Ditko began his career as the Comics Code was being created, so perhaps that explains his tastefulness. I haven't seen his pre-Code stuff other than "Stretching Things," though....

* On the Kazan thing, I thought the Objectivist position (at the webpage Rodney provided) to be a little flawed to me. For example, one of the articles justified the committee asking the actors' party affiliation, saying: "By joining the [Communist] Party (an undisputed fact), the filmmakers were not merely making an ideological statement but were agreeing to take orders to commit actions criminal and treasonable actions, since the Party, and the Soviet government it served, was openly dedicated to the overthrow of the U.S. government." Is this true? How many of those who joined really wanted to overthrow the U.S. government when they joined the Communist Party? More likely they were hoping for America to be more equitable and fair, or perhaps in light of the 1930s Depression, felt that Communism was more stable than Capitalism. Did they really vow to commit unlawful acts, or did they hope to achieve their ends by working within the system like any other Party? If they had committed unlawful acts, were they charged with doing so -- or instead charged simply for not revealing their party affiliation or those of others? I don't know much about it, so I'm honestly asking. But from what I do know, despite the context of the times, I don't think the Congress had any business hauling them before their UnAmerican committee. Another quote from the article: "(T)here is an obscene irony in the Communist writers complaining that their right to freedom of speech was violated, since that right was precisely what the Communist Party was out to destroy." But is there any evidence that Hollywood Communists wanted to destroy free speech like Stalin? I doubt it. "Mr. Kazan showed great moral courage in testifying about the influence, in the American film and theatre industry, of those who wished to replace freedom with totalitarianism." Or did they wish to legitimately (thru the ballot-box, which is fair & square) replace capitalism with something they believed to be more equitable and sane? I doubt they intended to set up a dictatorship. In the 1930s, some people saw the Soviet Union as an ideal society. During the early years of the Depression, one could find travel ads to the Soviet Union in U.S. magazines. Perhaps the Hollywood Communists were well-intentioned, wishing to bring some of that presumed prosperity and equality to the U.S.

Another thing I found intriguing on the webpage was the idea that Objectivists were holding a demonstration in favor of Kazan. I wonder how Ditko reacts to this, because whenever we see a demonstration or protest in a Ditko comic, it is usually put on by the people Ditko doesn't agree with. I think it's safe to say that it's a given: protest marchers in Ditko comics are the bad guys or portrayed unflatteringly. Does anyone recall ever seeing a positive portrayal of protest marchers in a Ditko comic? Now here we have a pro-Kazan protest by Objectivists. Come to think of it, I also now recall when Objectivists protested & marched during the National Volunteer Week thing a year or two ago. I wonder if they look anything like the grungy wild men that Ditko draws demonstrators looking like...! :P

I seem to recall that Robert Kennedy was involved in HUAC, as Joe McCarthy's assistant or something. I could have sworn I'd heard his voice badgering a witness to step away from the chair and calling for the guards after seeing the witness was going to give a longer answer than "yes" or "no." So, even the actions at that time of a future liberal icon like RFK can be hard to defend.

Regarding how Communists were viewed in the 1940s, I was surprised several years back when hearing a pre-Pearl Harbor broadcast of Walter Winchell's. He really tore into the Communists as bad as he did the Nazis, it seemed. (And Winchell was apparently the first person on American radio to call Hitler a "madman," circa 1939. I read that he got in trouble from the network for that one.) Anyway, just for historical fun, here's a transcript (written out by me from the broadcast, so some things may be spelled wrong) of a Walter Winchell broadcast which originally aired on May 18, 1941:

"- The Walter Winchell War-Monger Department. For the edification of Mr & Mrs Rip Van Winkle, from border to border and coast to coast. Los Angeles. Attention Toledo, Ohio. A few weeks ago I reported that one Kenneth Eggart of Toledo was allegedly one of the agitators of a strike against a defense plant on the West coast. And that this very same Eggart was a Communist troublemaker. Eggart demanded a copy of Winchell's remarks and threatened to sue me for my so-called malicious lie about him, etc etc. The Dies Congressional Committee sends me the following information -- that Kenneth Eggart alias Eggarts or Ekert was issued a passport to go to Russia on Nov 3, 1932, and that the files of the State Dept also reveal that the passage to Russia of this Communist-inspired strike agitator was paid for by the Communist Party.
- Washington, D.C. On Wednesday next week, the Dies Committee will start hearings on Communistic activities in Washington, D.C. Mr Dies says he will thoroughly discredit the American Peace Mobilization outfit which has been picketing the White House. Mr Dies says he will expose that group as being a Communist Party line, not a picket line. Washington. Last Sunday night, ladies and gentlemen, I reported exclusively that government agents would arrest a certain rabble-rouser who had allegedly sent threatening letters to prominent Americans. His initials for the time being are D.S. a,b,c,D. S. He really does the dirty laundry for many big-name Nazi-lovers in the United States. He and his files containing many letters from his supporters and backers has been seized. Congratulations, Mr Government Man!
- Jersey City, New Jersey. A few months ago I reported the PECULIAR activities of a Major in the United States Army Intelligence Service. His name is Major John E. Kelly of 14 Brinkerhopp Street, Jersey City. I said at the time that he was associating with some very STRANGE people for a member of Army Intelligence because I knew he was not spying on them in the interests of his America. This is to report further, ladies and gentlemen, on Major John E. Kelly, U.S.A., and a dear, dear pal of the Nazis! On May 16th, 1941, the United States Army dropped Major John E. Kelly of Jersey City."

End of Winchell quote. I've also heard a late 1940s Louella Parsons broadcast where she says that every day she gets hundreds of letters insisting that Humphrey Bogart is a Communist. There was also the Red Scare in the U.S. in the late teens/early twenties, following the Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik scare. So, even though we associate the fear of the Communists taking over with the era of Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s, the fear existed in previous decades, too.

Also in the late 1940s, many Hollywood stars appeared in at least two radio broadcasts defending movies against those saying they were Communist propaganda. Edward G. Robinson pointed out that people would criticize William S. Hart westerns in the silent days because they showed banks getting robbed, or with crooked bankers. Therefore, the movie must be anti-banks. Critics today like Michael Medved continue this line of criticism, claiming that negative cinematic portrayals of capitalists are proof of Hollywood attacking American values. Rather than simply a storytelling cliche with no more philosophical intention than a hula hoop. I completely agree with Medved on popular-film treatment of sex, violence, and religion, but when such critics try to show how some recent movies are really anti-capitalistic propaganda, they lose me.

* Regarding Ron Frantz's comment about Louis L'amour and Hopalong Cassidy: I'd noticed those L'amour paperbacks about Hoppy at bookstores and simply assumed that he wrote them because he liked the character. I had no idea they were written under the circumstances you describe, with L'amour not even wanting them in his sight. It makes one wonder if L'amour would be furious to know that those Hoppy novels are now in his "canon" (or whatever the term is) as real L'amour novels (in the same format as his other paperbacks) or whether he'd be understanding about his family doing it for the money (or whatever reason they did it). Thanks for sharing the anecdote. I also want to add that I've enjoyed your Ace Comics very much. Also liked your post (probably on another list) where you mentioned seeing Tim Holt (my favorite cowboy star) and Lum & Abner (my favorite comedy team) at a convention in the early 1970s!

* Well, that about covers it. Thanks for listening, all.