Humor in the Works of Steve Ditko

Written: 11 April, 1999

Maybe I'm misguided, but I see a lot of humor in Ditko's comics, including his Objectivist work.

Take "The Avenging World," for example. From the description (a comic entirely about philosophy, without a narrative), this comic SOUNDS like pretty dull reading. But when one opens it up, one finds a caricature of the Earth with a bandage on his head and hobbling along with a crutch. Following that, we are shown caricatures of various types of individuals. But in my opinion, the writing is even funnier than the exaggerated art used to depict them. We see the sobbing humanitarian kick out a naked unworthy from the line receiving his "fair share" of sustinance: one droplet.

When I once heard Rush Limbaugh mocking a liberal who had vowed to live as the homeless did, to draw attention to their plight, sleeping on park benches (and, Limbaugh added, probably kicking out a real homeless person off the bench in the process). Listening to that Limbaugh description, a few years ago, I immediately saw it as an amusing Ditko panel, like the Humanitarian in "Avenging World." (And no, I'm not a Limbaugh fan, by the way.)

"The Neutralist Settles a Dispute" uses exaggeration and humor to get its point across. Ditko even has the criminal, after getting only half of the honest worker's wages, fling down his hat in frustration and then promising he'll go along "to prove I'm willing to sacrifice for the common good," and walks away grumbling about how next time he'll "hold out for 3/4's of the money"! This is an absurd and amusing depiction of the world, but we can also see the element of truth in it, too.

MURDER #3 (Oct. 1986) contains 2 of my favorite Ditko stories. The 2-pger, "Social Justice" is obviously making fun of the idea that TV can influence bad behavior. The second page shows how this cop-out deflects responsibility for one's own actions to the TV. Thus, the man guilty of bad behavior becomes an "innocent victim." Ditko goes further by having the assaulted woman say "sob! You poor soul! Please forgive me interfering -- or better yet, why not sue me for resisting you!" And then the final irony of the TV news planning to "expose technology and big business as corrupters." This tale has a serious point but is done in a very entertaining style, almost like a cartoon. When the cop says "So that's how it is!," learning that the TV is the real villain, I expect it to sound like a smart-alecky line in an old Warner Bros. cartoon. We also see a few of those huge exaggerated "Ditko teardrops" like on the "Humanitarian" -- tears so big that they leave puddles on the ground!

So, what's so funny about "My Brother...My Enemy," the other story in MURDER #3? Well, there is always something amusing and ironic when Ditko juxtaposes opposites, as when he juxtaposes events in the lives of a law-abiding man and his criminal brother. The scenes when they are teenagers stick out in my mind.

Gang-member: "Ah! We're just gonna take old Ted's TV! It's just a gag!"

Bad brother: "Well, if it's a gag!"

Good brother: "That's no gag!"

Gang-member: "Well, are you guys with the he-men or are you joining the girls' sewing group!"

That last line is the kind of thing Flash Thompson might have said in an old Spidey comic. The peer pressure here also resembles Peter Parker's life. The weak-willed bad brother, has his hand to his face like Jack Benny, saying "well, if it's a gag..." while the good brother is raising his hand in an "I'm outta here" brush-off to the gang, the way Peter Parker indicated he was not one of the crowd. Anyway, the humor comes from the irrationality and weak-willed go-along-with-the-crowd attitude of the bad brother ("Butt out, Ray! They're my friends! Why don't you go read a book?!"). Of course, the conclusion is anything but humorous, but even in this powerful, realistic drama, Ditko finds a way to inject some humor.

The "Midnight Special" one-pager from 1967, with the oncoming train turning out to be an owl, was reprinted as the back cover of Revolver #6 (April 1986). It was mentioned recently regarding examples of Ditko humor, as was "Get Mr. Quiver!" from Ditko's World #2 (June 1986). Mr. Quiver is a fat bald character who has little black dots for eyes and usually has his tongue sticking out of his mouth. He walks around eating a bowl of Jello with a spoon, and has a sidekick called Puffy who serves his Jello. A host of super-villain type characters (The Iron Gripper, Bullseye Best, The Basher, etc.) tries to lay Quiver low, but everything bounces off his curvy figure, even bullets. This story reminds me of a sillier, goofier version of a Killjoy-type story.

Killjoy also had some one-time-only super-villain types to tangle with, like Jungle Jake (who uses animals in his bank robberies), who may be seen as perhaps a take-off on Kraven the Hunter. Killjoy gets his own J. Jonah Jameson in the form of the weepy "Humanitarian"-type Mr. Hart, leader of the Foundation to Protect the Guilty From Justice. (In the 2nd Killjoy story, Mr. Hart met a hobo-like Mr Sole in a wonderfully weepy page full of absurd statements.) Sheesh, I don't have to explain why I think Killjoy is a funny strip, do I? The hero wears a smiling masquerade face for a mask, after all.

Speaking of masquerade, there's Masquerade, with its silly humorous gimmicks. There's the silliness in the Screamer. "The Spoliers" and "Tsk! Tsk!" pages almost function as gag pages -- except with Ditko handling the job and injecting his philosophy, unlike Henry Boltinoff. How about the new "Avenging World" sequence in the current 160-Page Package where the smirking dealer tells the customer to hand over his money whether he wants to buy the thing or not. If Ditko didn't have a healthy sense of humor, I doubt he could tell these amusing tales. Characters like I. Smi (in Mr. A.) and Ort Krim (in Static) are characters that Ditko uses to show people he doesn't agree with, but the prospect of comedy coming from their "irrational" acts or words is a result of their presence, too.

How about those 5-page Lee-Ditko fantasy stories from the late 1950s and early 1960s? An absent-minded professor can't seem to recall what he is forgetting, only to realize that he is an alien! An unknown object is hurtling toward the surface, causing everyone to flee for space -- only it turns out to be a baseball hitting a mitt.

In Ditkomania a few years ago, there was a fascinating example of an Amazing Adult Fantasy short story where a character shows up at the office of Lee-Ditko to sell an idea they can use for their magazine. Ditko ends up giving the guy a kick out the door, if I recall right. (Maybe that's what "The Spoilers" was: profiles of people Ditko thinks deserve a kick in the rear.) The cartoony style was a revelation to me, since I didn't know Ditko used that style during that pre-Spidey period.

If I had more comics in front of me, I'd dig out more examples, but at least that's a start. I think Ditko's stuff can be funny. It's not always funny -- sometimes the story isn't about something funny -- but Ditko usually will throw something amusing in there. Usually it's the villains or the ignorant populace who are the most ridiculous, both in appearance and by their words. A lot of Ditko's heroes and villains are intrinsically goofy-looking -- it's a must for it to be truly Ditkoesque for them to look odd, or have a weird name. Whether one finds "goofy" things to be "funny," too, is up to the individual reader.

I think Ditko has as much or more humor in his work as any other creator known for their hero work. How much humor is in Gil Kane's body of work? Jack Kirby did some humor strips, but I don't think his later ones worked as well as Ditko's later ones like "Get Mr. Quiver!" or "Social Justice." I don't see how Ditko's work, especially his Objectivist work, is lacking in humor.