Tuesday, March 8, 2005

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#22: The Dr. Strange stories in Strange Tales

by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee

Since Dr. Strange is the first super-hero to make an appearance on this list, I'd like to take a few moments to discuss super-hero comics in general.

Very few comics fans have a moderate opinion of this genre. Supporters tend to make outrageous claims for it, throwing around words like "allegory" and "archetype" and "mythic", dropping the names of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Detractors make similarly vague points about "adolescent power fantasies" and "fascism," and many lay the blame on the childish super-hero for the more general stigma against comics. Both groups are guilty of generalizations that ignore the specific flaws and merits of the super-hero: the former generalize because of a need to rationalize nostalgic pleasure, the latter generalize because of a need to hoist their cherished art form out of the spandex gutters to the heighs of literature and art.

Further distorting most of the critical takes on super-heroes is the fact that writing about all comics tends to focus more on the writing than the drawing, and while this isn't a fatal flaw when the subject is Harold Gray or Harvey Pekar, ever since Joe Shuster drew a picture of a dude in tights lifting a car above his head, the appeal of the super-hero comic has been primarily visual.

I'll have to save my post on Alan Moore and the folly of the through-written super-hero story for a later date, but 15+ years after Watchmen I'm convinced more than ever that Stan Lee's approach to super-heroes is the best. We don't go to see a Verdi opera for the story, but to hear the music. We don't read a Kirby comic for the words, but to look at the pictures. Working with Kirby and Steve Ditko, Stan Lee proved himself the finest super-hero librettist the comics world has produced. Fans who find humanistic, novelistic depth in the stories in The Fantastic Four are as wrong-headed as critics who attack what they see as these stories' superficiality and simplemindedness.

The logos-centric approach to super-hero criticism generally obscures the traditions the genre springs from. Jules Feiffer, in his book The Great Comic Book Heroes, is one of the few people to get it right. Feiffer points to Alex Raymond's figure drawing, Roy Crane's action-packed cartooning, the visual motifs of the circus, and the crudity of pulp art as the major influences on the super-hero artists. Furthermore, Feiffer acknowledges the priority of the art over the writing as the primary appeal of the super-hero comics.

Of course, Feiffer dismissed these comics as junk, and, for the most part, that's what they were (and are). Vital and compelling junk, to be sure, but junk nonetheless. I still get a kick out of the Dick Sprang-Bill Finger Batman stories or the Mike Sekowsky-Gardner Fox Justice League, but no one should mistake them for art - pop, mass, folk, or otherwise.

A handful of super-hero comics, however, do deserve to be called art (or something very much like it), not because their creators have transcended the genre, or, even worse, deconstructed it, but because the genre's peculiar constraints and freedoms gave certain artists an expansive visual vocabulary, enriched by the lively mixture of junk traditions, to express an idiosyncratic world view which would be otherwise inexpressible. The perfect fit between genre and creator has happened only a few times, but whenever it has, the results have been felt far outside the hermetic world of super-hero fandom.

Steve Ditko and Stan Lee's Dr. Strange stories are a perfect example of what super-hero comics can be at their best. As I've already implied, Lee had an important but definitely supporting role in the collaboration: Ditko's own unique style and sensibility gave the comic its life.

Although they come relatively early in Ditko's career (which continues to this day), the Dr. Strange stories already focus on what would become his favorite theme: the tension between abstract ideals and specific actions. Dr. Strange's mission is to protect our dimension from invasion by the totalitarian chaos of the astral plane. Ditko renders the spirit relam as a fantastic jungle of overwhelming abstract shapes and designs, where any objectivity of perspective is constantly under attack. Ditko plays out the clash between destructive relativism and heroic objectivity completely through the visuals. Because of this, the Dr. Strange stories are somewhat unique among Ditko's work for featuring a hero with a face and faceless villains, rather than the other way around. Spider-Man, for example, wears a full face mask that hides his features, while the bad guys he fights, like the Vulture, the Sandman, and Doctor Octopus, are almost as distinctive as the criminals in Dick Tracy or Dick Sprang's Batman. Later Ditko heroes, like the Question and Mr. A, are completely faceless.

Of course, what makes these great super-hero comics is that Ditko never forces any of this on the reader. They can be appreciated as art in spire of themselves. They showcase the power that the visual freedom the genre allows when its limitations are also respected. Nothing is being reinvented here, and no one makes any labored attempts to set up any allegories. The big meanings that reside in the comic come effortlessly from Ditko and Lee pursuing much smaller ends.

Nowadays, most discussions about Ditko by comics fans revolve around his politics. Ditko's objectivist philosophy, dormant in his work for Marvel in the 60s, became the focus of much of his later work, starting with The Question for Charlton and continuing on into the didactic strips in his Avenging World collection. And even though I'm somewhat sympathetic to Ditko's objectivism (I don't, for example, believe that every objectivist suffers from some kind of pathological disorder), these later comics suffer because, for all his visual brilliance, the man can't write dialogue to save his life. Ditko needed Stan Lee far more than Jack Kirby did. As much as I enjoy Ditko's recent work, mainly for the ways in which Ditko has mastered the formal aspects of writing essays in comics form, the Dr. Strange stories are far better realized, far more rewarding, than almost anything he's done since.