Having returned from a weekend excursion at a huge, out of town comic book convention back in 2000, I discovered a letter in my mailbox from an esteemed creator who I never expected to hear back from after I blindly sent him a letter and some of my comics many months prior.
Steve Ditko, master cartoonist. I first saw his work in an issue of Daredevil that I got from a 3-pack at a supermarket as a child. From that story, here’s some classic Ditko tension & paranoia.
It wasn’t too long after that when I fell in love with Ditko’s art thanks to a mini comic reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #1. That time he inked himself, I noticed. His hand drawings were in full effect.
I loved that story. The action was so clear and the art was so rich. There was one panel in particular that blew my mind. It was a single image that had a compelling sense of space and dimension. It’s so simple, that elevator shot, and I think about to this day.
Years later a pal of mine was gifted some comics by a friend of the family. By “some comics” I mean a full run of Ditko’s Spider-Man issues (the Marvel Tales reprints). We read those things to death and it cemented my notion of Ditko’s greatness. Even the backstory of Ditko leaving the book due to a momentous creative disagreement with collaborator/editor Stan Lee (amongst other reasons) was gripping to me. “He ultimately quit. He wasn’t fired. He got to a point where he just refused.”, said Gil Kane. “From that point on, Ditko’s individualistic behavior became legendary. I mean, you couldn’t push him around. He did what he wanted to do.”
Fast forward to me, 20 years of age and trying to find my way as a cartoonist, sending out letters & comics to some of my biggest influences for some constructive feedback. Ditko was on the list, of course, but what were the chances of a response? I mailed my sealed letter to Ditko’s publisher Robin Snyder anyway, graciously requesting that she forward it to Ditko.
Months passed and I never really held my breath to begin with. I was familiar with Ditko’s no-nonsense attitude (and very familiar with his small press, political material), and I took the chance in writing a fan letter to someone who basically rejected fandom. It was a letter with serious questions about the craft and industry of comics, but it was a fan letter nonetheless. I was banking on him seeing that I could at least ink a straight line and apply Zip-A-Tone.
Respond he did. There I was, about to go to work after a long weekend, having just received a thick envelope from Steve Ditko. I remember not opening it up immediately, I wanted to savor the moment as long as I could but I quickly gave in. I opened the envelope to find four pages handwritten in pencil, addressing my questions in cursive. This was too much, I though, this could not possibly be real. It was very much real, very much from Ditko yet not quite what I expected. Ditko’s words weren’t encouraging in the traditional sense. No compliments or pats on the back were to be found and not a word about the artwork itself. It was the thinking behind the artwork that concerned him: “You seem to have chosen the least attractive, the pessimistic, believing there really are no good men (which has to include you).” It was four pages him tying my industry concerns with what I chose to draw, and the moral decisions that led me to draw my comics in the first place.
The letter threw me off. I was suddenly caught in the middle of a heated debate that took place between four pieces of paper and myself.
After cooling off – meaning, after it finally sank in that Steve Ditko had written to me – I vowed to retaliate point by point. I would behave respectfully, of course. There was no need to act like a crybaby lunatic. I was firm in my conviction as an artist and Ditko… well, Ditko was wrong. My art didn’t hold forth values that had “negative views of man… putting him down rather than raising him up”. What, just because I had a character dry heaving into a toilet then turning into a cyber-gimp amputee? “It’s not an inspiring lesson or view.” he wrote. Well, what if I didn’t think that art’s purpose was solely to inspire? Yet I wondered why he thought that in the first place. What led him to develop such a specific view of art? Was there something I wasn’t seeing? What if he was right and I was too close to my work to notice something important? He had great points, of course, but I disagreed with him on fundamental issues.
I was late to work that day.
Ditko and I carried on a correspondence for the next few months. We mutually agreed to disagree. It was never smooth sailing, but I learned quite a lot and I got a little better at articulating my ideas with each passing letter.
I kept making comics.
Finally, my girlfriend and I were in the early stages to finally move from New Orleans to New York. The plan was that I would stay with a friend up in Brooklyn while scouting for an apartment and a job.
In my continued efforts to get some help on how to break into the business, I remembered that there was someone I knew living in New York City. He was my aforementioned pal’s family friend, the one who gave him the Ditko comics, whom I knew used to be the Tarzan comic strip writer of 15 years. It was Don Kraar, and he was more than willing to help me out with a few contacts. I discovered that he did indeed write comic books for a period, mainly Conan stories, on top of being an actor and a playwright. Thanks to Don, I spoke to Walt Simonson on the phone for a bit, Ernie Colón gave me great constructive criticism and Gray Morrow wrote me an eloquent, supportive letter. This was just what I needed before going to the big city with a suitcase and a portfolio.
Crashing on my buddy’s couch on McGuinness Boulevard in Brooklyn, I studied the classifieds like a fiend. I had to find a place to live as well as a job and time couldn’t be spared. I managed to meet up with Don Kraar early upon my arrival, though. We had dinner with Alan Weiss and his wife on the Upper East Side. There were lots of Marvel stories, lots of Neal Adams stories, life in comics then and now was explained to me from the inside out. Alan had seen my stuff and knew where I was coming from style-wise. Go for a little less Gilbert and a little more Jaime, he suggested.
Through Don I also met Sal Amendola who was kind enough to let me sit in on one of his classes at SVA. He went over my portfolio after class was dismissed, and I had tons of additional questions regarding DC editorial in the 70s and 80s. Sal gave me a few of his basic cartooning study sheets as well as the most detailed tutorials on perspective I’ve ever seen.
Don Kraar did the best he could and I appreciated every bit of it, he just wasn’t in the game anymore. He was too busy working on a book to exhaust every comics avenue for a kid off the bus (Don eventually moved out to California, but remains a supportive ally). I had no excuses, though, so I walked all over the city looking for work. I had a resume for retail grunt work, and I applied to every comic store listed in the phone book. More importantly, I had new comic samples in my portfolio. I walked over to Marvel on 23rd and Park Ave. I went up there and saw two huge glass doors with webs drawn on it. The receptionist said I couldn’t see an editor without an appointment. How do I get an appointment, I asked. Through an editor, she replied. Gone were the days of running into guys like Bill Mantlo in the Bullpen hallways and getting an inventory job.
I pushed forward, thinking that three years earlier I was scrambling to mail out some crude samples to the Big Two and now I was casually walking up to those companies. Breaking through was within my grasp. It was so close! I walked up to DC on Broadway, but I couldn’t get past the desk without proper clearance. Continuity Studios were more lax; they took my portfolio overnight for someone to look through it, presumably Neal Adams. I picked it up the next day; they weren’t interested. The receptionist (Neal’s wife?) was really nice. She’d seen this scenario a million times.
I walked around, running out of options. I wasn’t freaking out, but I felt strangely emboldened. It’s the kind of bravery that desperation can sometimes breed. Here’s my train of thought at the time: “Well, I’m up here in midtown Manhattan with my portfolio. Who else can I see? Wait a minute… doesn’t Ditko live around here? Let me see… ah, there’s his building. I should confirm that. Hm, that desk clerk seemed amused that I asked about a Mr. Ditko living here. Let me just go up the elevator to his door to make sure it is him and not some other S. Ditko. There it is. I’ll just leave a note on the back of one of my sample pages telling him I’m finally here in NY and would love to meet him soon. Shoot, I have no scotch tape. I’ll just slide it under his door. Actually, hey, why don’t I just knock?”
Steve Ditko opened the door and I introduced myself as the kid from New Orleans. His suspicious face lit up with recognition. After catching up a bit, I suggested we continue our discussion over coffee or something. He declined but threw in a “maybe someday” in there. He said those sort of bull sessions don’t lead to anything productive, they’re just exercises best kept in written form so as to thoroughly think out the idea therein. He said that in the same way that I’m doing it, he first came to the big city with a briefcase and a portfolio. I told him my basic plan and promised to send him my new comic once it was complete. I shook his hand and thanked him for his time and letters. I left the building in a daze.
What the hell was I thinking?
I know that was borderline creepy on my part. I know it now and I knew it then and I instantly regretted it. I’m playing the age card here because I was young and clueless and desperate to reach out to my hero whom I corresponded with. However, I’ve since discovered that dropping in on Steve Ditko unannounced is a pretty common practice. That does’t make me feel any better. I felt gross for having invaded someone’s privacy – there is zero excuse – but the fact that people do this as a sort of known event is even worse. I haven’t pulled that on Ditko since and I never will, but I suppose we’re all free to disrupt the man just to satiate our curiosity, or “just cuz”, as if he were a landmark attraction and not a person. Your heart can be in the right place, but with the vast information we have now, people can’t pretend they don’t know what Ditko’s feelings and thoughts are, or what his answer will be to whatever interview request is thrown his way. It’s not only rude, but it shows an utter lack of understanding of his wishes and ideas.
Ditko told me that meeting me wasn’t a bother at all (in response to an apologetic letter I sent him later that week). Still, I’ve kept it strictly on paper since, not quite following up on that maybe someday coffee.
Ditko drawing by Marcos Martin.
It was August 2000 and I found us a small apartment in Williamsburg, where the hallways of our building smelled like soup, a rat the size of a kitten got trapped in the bathroom wall and died, and I grew to appreciate modern Tex Mex music thanks to our loud neighbors. I was hired by St. Mark’s Comics where I learned many valuable things about comics retail, back issues, and drunk tourists buying Batman statues at 1 a.m. (we were open that late). I came across many gems working in that place, some having very little to do with Steve Ditko, and some that felt as if they were stapled by the man himself.
I still kept making comics.
And more comics.
I used to doodle a Mr.A inspired character and I called him Zegas. I made a one-pager (shown above) and I eventually wrote and drew an 8 page Zegas story but I shelved the entire concept shortly thereafter, feeling that everything needed a lot more work. The cast of Zegas ultimately returned under slightly different circumstances, but that Ditko undertone remains.
Steve Ditko and I kept our correspondence up throughout the years. He indulged my every question and responded with patience and kindness and not once did I take that for granted. I continue to write him, actually, but I’ve eased off on sending him my own comics. There’s no need, really… I’m not seeking validation and he’s not looking for new things to dislike. We both win. With shop talk, politics, art, and his recent comics, there’s plenty left tot talk about.
Image borrowed from Joe McCulloch’s incredible essay The Avenging Page (In Excelsis Ditko).
Today is Steve Ditko’s 85th birthday.
I’ve posted a good bunch of my favorite works of his before, specifically on this occasion, but I’ve never found the right opportunity go over my involvement with him as a default anti-mentor. His work, his stance, and the time he’s spent walking me through his philosophies while attending to mine, I am deeply indebted to all of those things. They will forever mean the world to me. Better training for a young cartoonist I cannot think of.