Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ditko: Static?

In his recent book on Steve Ditko, Blake Bell uses the above page as evidence of his claim that Ditko's late '90s work is characterized by a "positioning of characters [within a scene that] was static, with characters standing straight up in the same position from panel to panel" (167). But I think Bell's criticism is off; he looks at the figures, but does not take into account the many ways in which Ditko's figure placement and posture relate to the narrative.

In panels 2-5, the character Reck is at his parole hearing. The stiff, upright position of the figure in panel 2, flanked on the left by the parole board and the right by a prison guard, suggests Reck's outwardly submissive posture (with semi-clenched fists to suggest his internal tension) while standing in front of those who would determine his fate. Bell says that "characters are standing straight up in the same position," yet the 'camera' position and size of the figure change (as does how much of him is visible) from 2 to 3 to 4. And we would expect a prisoner at a crucial hearing to stand unusually still. What's of primary interest to Ditko seems to be the way the character's body and face reveal different things throughout the sequence. And he creates visual interest (the thing that Bell claims his later work lacks) in a number of ways, such as by waiting a panel to reveal the character's face and by moving closer to the subject in each consecutive panel.

The pairs of panels -- 2-3 and 5-6 -- are set up to mirror each other.

In the first pair, Reck is on the inside (in prison), in the second pair, the outside. In panel 2 and 5 Reck stands in the same position, as Bell notes, but the reason for this seems clear. The demeanor he takes in the hearing is initially the same as that he takes upon his release -- he has to face people on the outside for the first time in 20 years. Both panels suggest a kind of temporary paralysis that he feels in the presence of others. Here, as in 2, he is flanked by three people on his left (both panels feature 2 background men and 1 woman). In panel 6 Reck puts his hand on the train's window, and comments on the paradoxical symbolism of his situation: he is 'trapped' inside the train, but free from the bars of the prison. His dialogue in this panel ("But it's # better than behind bars") and the box of the window also refer us back to the bars of the prison gate in panel 1:



Note how the lines on the glass echo the direction of some of the bars.

And the images of a still Reck in panels 2-6 find their release in the last, and largest, panel of the page; now Reck is free and in motion:
[And note the variety of postures of the characters in this panel: the different angles of their heads, the hand gestures; some people are standing, others are in motion . . .]

I think that Ditko sets this sequence up very carefully, and it's indicative of the fact that his storytelling and design/layout skills are clearly visible in the later work.

22 comments:

DerikB said...

That's a nice close reading, Ken. You should do more of these.

Gary V. said...

It's a good reading, but it doesn't convince me that Blake is wrong. Ditko had been treating visual narration with this kind of subtlety since the '60s at least--but here his figures are significantly stiffer and more static than in his earlier work. So, yes, overall there is a decline.

Martin Wisse said...

Ditko is doing a much more "realstic" --for want of a better word-- sort of story here then he did in his sixties work for Marvel or Charlton. I'm not sure you could compare this story with e.g. a Spider-Man story and claim he's gotten stiffer, since the demands placed on the story are so different.

Gary V. said...

There are plenty of realistic (non-superhero, like all the office comedy/melodrama at the Daily Bugle) scenes in "Spider-Man" that you can compare this to. And yes, the figures are stiffer here, they look more like lay figures or mannikins. In any case, Blake is using it only as an example, and comparing overall the way Ditko rendered figures at the height of his career and toward the end of it--and, again, based on all available visual evidence, he is right in his critical assessment. Which is not to say there are not good things about late Ditko--I'm a huge fan!--but, c'mon...

Anonymous said...

"In any case, Blake is using it only as an example, and comparing overall the way Ditko rendered figures at the height of his career "

The point is that it' s not a good example. If Bell is right he picked a bad page as evidence.

"again, based on all available visual evidence, he is right in his critical assessment. "

Is this science, or a discusion of people's opions on a comic . . . ?

And Bell is pretty hostile toward Ditko in the book - I mean, the dude was something like 70 years old when he drew that - so if you think he wasnt as good as he was at 35, cut the man some slack, C'mon.

Anonymous said...

I have to completely agree that Bell comes across as hostile in his book on Ditko. Most reviewers let him off the hook on this. I mean, he spends far too much time in the text, criticizing Ditko for missing out on opportunities that would make him a rich man. What business is this of Bell's? If an artist has a set of principles he wants to adhere to, then it's his right, especially as a free creative mind, to do so. I think Bell mistakes money for freedom. Additionally, Kirby took the opposite path of Ditko, and did take the opportunities that came along, and he was STILL screwed over by the industry in terms of restitution. Besides, we're talking about comic book artists here, not publishers. Since when, pre-90's, did comic book artists ever rake in the dough ? it's off the mark to charge that because Ditko didn't play the game, he killed his career. If an artist doesn't want a "career" then there isn't a career to kill.

Jesse Hamm said...

Had Ditko wanted to emphasize Reck's stiffness, he'd have done better to give the surrounding characters more relaxed postures. But he doesn't: everyone pictured in every panel is stiff, shoulders and hips parallel to the floor. There's no narrative reason for this; it must be due to some shortcoming of Ditko's.

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I've always liked his work and would like to see this reprinted. The few samples at the end look good.

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I think that it is really cool,I have been reading about it and I think that ti can be a great difference,n the first pair, Reck is on the inside (in prison) is cool!!22dd

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Kirby took the opposite path of Ditko, and did take the opportunities that came along, and he was STILL screwed over by the industry in terms of restitution. Besides, we're talking about comic book artists here, not publishers.

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