Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ditko and the Beauty of Abstraction

Although Steve Ditko’s art has always been, in a large sense, representational, his work features some of the most highly abstract cartooning seen in mainstream comics. This is especially true in "The Dimensions of Greed," a story in the anthology Time Warp #3, (March 1980; DC). If we removed the human figures from these two pages (which appear side-by-side in the comic), the context for understanding the ‘objects’ and the narrative spaces you are seeing would disappear:

Ditko's version of an imaginary Martian machine owes less to contemporary science fiction and more to familiar cartoon abstractions. Take this panel for example:

There’s a giant 'paint splat' surrounded by a fuzzy 'lightning bolt':

Even though a cartoon 'paint splat' has a representational connection to an actual one, here that connection is severed, for the nature of the object is unknown - it's just a gesture, a play of form and color. In the standard cartoon idiom, a splat would represent an action; here it may be an action or just a thing: in other words, in the grammar of this scene it could be either a subject or a verb.

Some 'cobweb'-like figurations:

Many shapes suggest a flower seen through the fragmented prism of a kaleidoscope:

At first, it’s almost hard to perceive these two creatures in the panel as life-forms--if that’s what the green shape (a rabbit/fish?) on the left and the red one on the right are intended to evoke:

In this three-panel sequence, the narrative aspect itself is almost abstract, seen in the panel-to-panel transformation of the shapes that make up the door:

In this panel, a character appears to comment ironically on the issues of representation and recognition; it’s obvious to Dick and Leo that it’s a city, but we might not think so if they hadn’t told us:

Perception depends heavily on context.

Ditko’s art in "The Dimensions of Greed" employs a play of distorted shapes and heightened exaggeration; and like this story, much of his work has an unrecognized sense of humor and playfulness. While many of the stories he draws grapple with ‘heavy’ themes (crime, justice, moral and psychological dilemmas, etc.), Ditko’s art often recalls the comical traditions of cartooning. And it looks like it would be fun to draw -- There's often a real feeling of joy to his art.

In this page from "Escape" (reprinted in Space Adventures #11, 1978; Charlton), Ditko's abstraction takes a more minimalist and geometrical approach. Underneath a highly stylized city (again, so abstract that the reader might not recognize it as such without textual clues), a man runs in the first panel:
He says, "It looks like a street" but it’s just a series of circles or ovals floating in space. The next panel introduces, as the ‘ground’ of this world, a triangle and a cross, as well as two yellow triangles and other shapes created by the panel borders and the lines that define the purple cross and triangle:

The last panel above features a different kind of abstraction: Ditko literally abstracts (in the sense of removing) almost all sense of the physical context in which the figures ‘stand’ (except for the small shadow under a foot). The art in this story is sparse to begin with; but this scene takes that a step further, as each consecutive panel has less visual information.

Note how the floor of his "home" changes shape in the story's final two panels: a square surrounded other four-sided irregular shapes a series become all squares—and the oval shape of his room itself seems to become square:

What's that big black ink area in the lower corner? Is it intentional or a Charlton printing error? [It oddly extends below the plane of the panel borders into the margin.] Either way, it fits with the abstract strangeness of the images.

So often, Ditko is not interested in representing, in either a literal or conventional way, what the writer asks for; and this tendency is part of what makes his work so singular; he seems to rewrite the narrative as he draws it, making the finished story far subtler and stranger than what’s suggested by the script. Ditko is one of the few artists who can consistently take a mediocre script and make something special from it. And too often readers focus on Ditko's thematic concerns and not his formal innovations . . .


Anonymous said...

Nice work. You should collect your Ditko blogs. There's more interesting stuff on Ditko lately online - that recent book on him was ok, but had very weak analysis, unlike this post and the one at thoughballoonists.

Anonymous said...

never saw this story before, but it's a nice looking one, almost goofy. abstraction is obvious in some of ditko superhero stuff so it's good you looked at a minor story.

Charles R. said...

Love these Ditko posts, man.

A question that arises: are these abstractions really abstract, severed from representation, if they serve a narrative purpose? Namely, they represent the weird realm where the travelers go.

Ken Parille said...


You are right - they are of course representational in that the represent the things of that world. But it's interesting to me that things like the paint splat are a familiar cartoon device that seems to have nothing to do with a splat; and in the comic is it something static or in motion? There's a real opneness here -- if you take out the humans, it all looks highly abstract, even though it isn't.

Andrei Molotiu said...

Interesting. I make much of the same point in the introduction to the Abstract Comics anthology, with examples from Dr. Strange and Spider-Man. The Dr. Strange example is much like these ones (and thanks for introducing me to this story, I had no idea it existed!). For the Spider-Man example, I argue that, even when all objects are recognizable, the overall design of the page, and the composition of individual panels, can be so formalized as to tend toward abstraction--in a way, they ask to be read as much abstractly as representationally.

Ken Parille said...

Readers should certainly check out Andrei's group blog, which has info on his forthcoming collection and post by many of the book's contributors:

James Robert Smith said...

This is a perceptive article. Thanks for the insight!

Ditko remains for me one of the more talented artists to work in comics. The more I examine his work, the closer he comes in my estimation to artists like Bernie Krigstein.

Bill said...

I've always thought that Ditko was seriously underrated. Look at his Dr. Strange work, for example. Subsequent Dr. Strange artists made all kinds of attempts to out-weird Ditko, using tricks like having the panels of a page form a giant face. Yet for all of their clever razzle dazzle and calculated weirdness, none of their work came even remotely close to the insanely bizarre, otherworldliness of what went on inside Ditko's plain rectangles. It's as if Ditko had access to putting his Id or whatever was scratching away at his spinal cord in the dead of night directly onto the page. He consistently produced very disturbing, highly freakish, phantasmal, entertaining & scary stuff.

In 1972, when I came to NY to work for Kurtzman & Elder, the first thing I did was look in the Manhattan telephone directory for Steve Ditko. I didn't call him or anything; it just felt good to know he really existed.