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Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, is dead.

Ditko lived and died in obscurity, yet evidence of his work is everywhere. Millions, perhaps billions, of images of the superheroes he helped create have proliferated in countless forms all over the world. Yet Ditko lived in the shadows, even more than most cartoonists. 

When organized comics fandom started to take off in 1964, at the very period when Ditko was most popular and influential, he attended one comic book convention and decided he didn’t like it. After that, he was notorious for shunning requests for interviews or even photographs, earning the reputation of being the J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon of comics. Yet it’s possible to reconstruct the shape of his life from his published work and occasional essays (which were ocular but full of information if you were willing to work through the thickets of his obscure prose).

He was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1927, and belonged to the first generation of kids who grew up on super-hero comic books, able to get the adventures of Superman and Wonder Woman for a dime a piece. From the start, Ditko seemed to be drawn to noirish artists who filled the page with black ink to capture the shadowy underworld. His early work bore the influence of Jerry Robinson’s Batman,  Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Joe Kubert’s Hawkman. 

Ditko moved to New York in 1950 upon learning that Robinson was teaching at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School  in the city. Robinson became a mentor, getting the intense young student a scholarship and introducing him to an editor at Timely Comics named Stan Lee. By 1953, Ditko was an active freelancer, working in a variety of genres but with a special penchant for horror comics.

He was quick artist, a hard worker and had a distinctive style but he entered the world of comics in a difficult period.  Publishers tended to be sleazy, fly-by-night operations that didn’t always pay. Crime and horror comics were widely criticized as promoting juvenile delinquency. A 1954 Senate investigation led to a purge of the industry, with many of publishers going out of business and most of the surviving firms adopting a strict code of self-censorship.

It’s a mark of Ditko’s commitment to the field that he continued working even as hundreds of artists left the industry for less forbidding pastures. The comics industry limped along until the great super-hero revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ditko, along with writer Stan Lee and writer-artist Jack Kirby, was a key player in the revival, doing a remarkable body of work that created Marvel Comics in its modern form. 

Just slightly before the super-hero revival, the trio of Lee, Kirby and Ditko had already assembled at Atlas Comics (the corporate precursor of Marvel) where they specialized in monster comics (essentially Godzilla knock-offs) and supernatural tales. These monster and supernatural comics were a pivotal building block for Marvel Comics, which essentially re-cast monsters as heroes. The Marvel heroes were all really anti-heroes, full of angst, given to fighting each other, and often monstrous in form. During the rebellious 1960s, they became emblems of alienation and social discontent.

Kirby, as creatively fertile a cartoonist as ever lived, was the essential sparkplug, coming up with the basic concepts and designs for the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, Black Panther, and scores more. Kirby dynamic, muscular art, rich in cosmic space fantasy, also became the bedrock Marvel style, which all the other artists were told to imitate, with one big exception: Steve Ditko.

“Stan wanted Kirby to be Kirby, Ditko to be Ditko...and everyone else to be Kirby,” remembers artist Don Heck, who himself had to evolve from his lush romance comics art to adopting a Kirbyesque two-fisted style. 

Ditko was the only Marvel artist given the licence to not draw like Kirby because his signature style -- moody, off-kilter, wirey, and sometimes psychedelic -- possessed an originality that couldn’t be streamlined. Ditko, in the words of historian Sean Howe, “imbued Spider-Man with melancholy soul and Doctor Strange with hallucinatory verve.” At Marvel, Lee brought jazzy verve with his dialogue, Kirby a promethean cosmic imagination, and Ditko an idiosyncratic visual elan. 

Marvel Comics had a unique production method. Artists didn’t work from a script, but rather were expected to draw out an issue (sometimes after a discussion with writer/editor Lee) to which dialogue was added after the fact. Especially after the first few issues, Ditko and Kirby were effectively the co-writers, coming up with the story and often providing detailed notes for Lee’s dialogue. 

Ditko and Kirby increasingly felt that they were being taken advantage of Lee and by Marvel Comics, since they were not just denied acknowledgement of their role as co-creators but also not given any royalties as Marvel Comics became a licensing bonanza. Ditko and Kirby were mere freelancers as they created characters and stories that would go on to make hundreds of billions of dollars for other people. 

For Ditko, who came under the influence of Ayn Rand’s objectivism in the early 1960s, his situation was an intolerable exploitation of creativity. 

Ditko quit Marvel comics in 1965. On leaving the company, he wrote a letter to Kirby urging him to quit as well. Unlike Ditko, Kirby had a family so he had to continue working for Marvel, although he also ended up exiting five years later.

After freeing himself from Marvel, Ditko developed a two-pronged career. He started to do personal creative work for fanzines (often self-published or published by friends). These were works he owned himself. Often they were didactic Randian tracts about the importance of private property and the absolute division between good and evil (as in his vigilante series Mr. A). 

But Ditko also continued to do commercial work for bigger companies, which he didn’t own. He eventually returned to Marvel as well. But for his commercial work, he never invested in that work the energy and inventiveness he applied to Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Although done with flair, these were strictly jobs, with his main energy in problem solving the layout of a page. 

He continued with his small press publishing until shortly before his death. These quirky personal comics are often enigmatic, reading like parables written in an alien tongue. But there’s a mysterious energy to this work which might win them a posthumous fame, of the sort enjoyed by William Blake or Henry Darger. 

As an artist, his lasting influence was among cartoonists working in the tradition of alternative comics and graphic novels: Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes. 

Ditko changed global popular culture by creating Spider-Man and Doctor Strange but it could be that his real work is yet to be discovered. 

September 21, 2018

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Science is helping identify soldiers lost in the Korean war.

The renewed negotiations with North Korea, as well as advances in forensic technology, mean that American soldiers who were killed in the Korean War in the early 1950s are finally being identified. On August 1st, North Korea returned what were believed to be the remains of 55 American soldiers. The military has announced that from those remains they’ve been able to confidently ascertain the relics of Army Master Sgt Charles H. McDaniel of Indiana and Army Pfc William H. Jones of North Carolina.

The task of identifying long-degraded bone and dental fragments with the names of soldiers unseen for more than half a century would be impossible without advances in technology. In a recent feature article, The Washington Post surveyed the work of the 92-member Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) team in Honolulu that is tasked with the job. One key recent development is the ability of isotope analysis to match bones with the geographical childhood homes of missing soldiers:

Bones take on the isotopic signature of the place where a person was raised. On digital maps of the United States, staff members plot the hometowns of missing service members based on the isotopic signatures shared by their early-childhood geography and their bones.

Ten years ago, this technology could differentiate the bones of a native-born soldier from those of an immigrant. Nowadays it can pinpoint a service member’s origin down to a specific area — a particular Hawaiian island, perhaps, or a corner of the Plains.

The military has files on roughly 81,000 missing soldiers going back to World War II. Astonishingly, DPAA estimates that 41 percent of these cases are solvable.

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Trump might go berserk over The New York Times’ Rod Rosenstein story.

The newspaper reported on Friday that the deputy attorney general discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from power and talked about wearing a wire during meetings with him in conversations last spring. A Justice Department spokesperson told the Times that Rosenstein was only joking about secretly recording Trump, while Rosenstein himself said that “inaccurate and factually incorrect” and that “there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”

It’s hard to imagine a news story that could more effectively arouse Trump’s ire than this one. He frequently lashes out against the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” created by his political enemies to overturn the 2016 election. The Times’ account likely will heighten Trump’s hostility and paranoia, especially after an anonymous “senior administration official” raised similar concerns in a Times op-ed earlier this month.

The story comes at a conspicuous time for the administration. Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, is facing an allegation of sexual assault that may imperil his confirmation by the Senate. Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation despite Trump’s implicit offer of a pardon if he kept quiet. Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, is also reportedly telling Mueller’s investigators what he knows about Russia-related matters. Democrats are increasingly set to retake the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate in the November midterm elections.

That raises questions about why Rosenstein’s comments are coming to light now. The Times attributes its account to contemporaneous memos written by Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director fired in January, as well as people briefed on either Rosenstein’s conversations and the memos’ contents. It’s impossible to know whether those sources meant to give Trump a justification to oust the man who oversees the Russia investigation. But they may have done just that.

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Trump forced to do an about-face on declassifying Russia investigation documents.

On Friday morning, the president tweeted out that his request to declassify documents related to the Russia probe was being handled by the office of the Inspector General, which would review them before release. This marks a shift from the announcement earlier in the week on Monday calling for the quick release of documents that including FISA warrant surveillance applications for former aide Carter Page and text messages from former FBI officials and employees such as James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. There was widespread concern that this use of declassification as a political weapon would also compromise intelligence sources.

To judge by the president’s tweets, this concern was shared by “key allies” including Britain:

In an interview with The Hill earlier this week, the president claimed that his push for declassify Carter Page’s FISA application resulted from him being “asked by so many people that I respect” including “the great Lou Dobbs, the great Sean Hannity, the wonderful great Jeanie Pirro.”

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Coal ash may have poisoned a source of drinking water for thousands of North Carolinians.

When Hurricane Florence was approaching the state, experts feared that excessive flooding could cause widespread spills of hog feces and coal ash into surrounding bodies of water. Those fears have now materialized.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that a dam holding back coal ash—the heavy metal-laden byproduct from burning coal—had breached at a North Carolina plant due to flooding. Duke Energy, which owns the dam, said that the product might be flowing into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to approximately 60,000 residents of Wilmington, North Carolina.

This is the third coal ash spill that’s been reported since Florence’s historic rainfall caused catastrophic flooding throughout the state. Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric company, has been fighting attempts to force clean-up of these ponds for years. President Donald Trump’s administration has also loosened several regulations on coal ash storage.

In addition to coal ash spills, at least 110 ponds of pig feces have either released their contents into the environment or are at “imminent risk of doing so,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Those spills are presenting health concerns, too. “You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, told Vice News. “All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia, and E-coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out.”

Coal ash often contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium, which can cause myriad health problems. North Carolinians risk coming into contact with these metals and pathogens through drinking water, but also through open wounds and mucous membranes if they wade through the ongoing floods.

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The GOP has chosen a villain more popular than Trump.

In 2018, as in every midterm since Nancy Pelosi became House Minority Leader in 2003, the Republicans plan to use the San Francisco congresswoman as their prime nemesis—a noxious public avatar of the Democratic Party that they can parade around to rally their base. Unfortunately for the GOP, Pelosi may not be as effective a bogeywoman this year: Internal Republican polls show that she’s more popular than President Donald Trump.

As Bloomberg News reports:

President Trump likes to mock Nancy Pelosi, but a private survey conducted for the Republican National Committee finds that she’s actually more popular—and beats the president when the midterm election is framed as a contest between the two.

The internal poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, asks registered voters who they support “when the November election is framed by Trump and Pelosi.” Overall, respondents prefer Pelosi-aligned candidates over Trump-aligned candidates by 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent. Among independents only, Pelosi still prevails by a 4-point margin.

The stereotype of Pelosi was set by the GOP as long ago as 2003, when The Los Angeles Times observed Republicans were “eager to attack Pelosi as a loopy San Francisco liberal and exploit her city’s reputation as the odd-sock drawer of America. Within days, her face—garish and twisted—showed up in an attack ad slamming the Democrat in a Louisiana House race. (He won anyway.) She surfaced as Miss America, complete with tiara, in a spoof on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site.”

The new polling shows that this image of Pelosi as an out-of-touch left-wing elitist only has traction among already committed Republicans. But for that reason, the GOP might still return to it, despite her relative popularity compared to Donald Trump. Republicans need to get their base out. Also, Pelosi still does worse than generic Democrats in polls (who lead over Republicans by 9 per cent, as against Pelosi’s lead of 5 per cent over Trump).

Nancy Pelosi isn’t really a convincing foil anymore, but she might be the best the GOP has.

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A bizarre doppelgänger theory testifies to the desperation of some Brett Kavanaugh supporters.

Amid negotiations on the rules for Senate hearings into the allegations of sexual assault leveled against the Supreme Court nominee by Christine Blasey Ford, some of his backers are starting to promote a truly strange scenario: Yes, Ford might have been the victim of an attempted rape when she was 15, but Kavanaugh wasn’t the guilty party. Rather, it was another teenage boy who looked like Kavanaugh, and, thanks to the haze of memory, has become conflated with the judge in her mind.

“Could there be a Kavanaugh doppelgänger?” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker asked on Tuesday, noting that the possibility of a mix up or case of mistaken identity had been raised by both Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and The Wall Street Journal.

Doppelgänger theory reached its most elaborate flight in a Twitter thread posted Thursday night by Ed Whelan, a longtime Kavanaugh ally who is also president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. As summed up by Vox, Whelan’s Twitter essay “argued that based on Christine Blasey Ford’s statements of what happened that night back in 1982, the perpetrator was likely not Kavanaugh, but a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Georgetown Prep who, in Whelan’s view, looked a lot like Kavanaugh.” The main basis of Whelan’s argument, such as it is, was maps taken from the real estate website Zillow and high school yearbook photos.

Near the end of his thread, Whelan writes, “It is regrettable that private citizens are being drawn into this.” That’s a audacious statement to make given that is exactly what he himself is doing. Whelan’s attempt to play internet Sherlock Holmes and use circumstantial evidence to smear a private citizen was, in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper, “wildly irresponsible.”

Beyond irresponsible, doppelgänger theory is also hugely implausible in any form. As The Washington Post reports:

Ford dismissed Whelan’s theory in a statement late Thursday: “I knew them both, and socialized with” them, Ford said, adding that she had once visited the other classmate in the hospital. “There is zero chance that I would confuse them.”

Yet as unlikely as it is, doppelgänger theory makes sense when you realize it satisfies a particular political need: Ford’s accusation creates a hurdle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, but Republicans are reluctant to attack her in the manner that they (and some Democrats) went after Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas nomination in 1991. Smearing a woman who makes a serious sexual assault allegation looks bad, politically, in the era of #MeToo.

According to Post, “Kavanaugh and his allies have been privately discussing a defense that would not question whether an incident involving Ford happened, but instead would raise doubts that the attacker was Kavanaugh, according to a person familiar with the discussions.” Doppelganger theory provides exactly the defense needed: Kavanaugh’s defenders don’t have to call Ford a liar, just a confused victim. They can acknowledge that she suffered sexual assault, but also that Kavanaugh himself was not responsible for it.

Update: On Friday morning, Whelan apologized for naming the Kavanaugh classmate whom he believes, without evidence, was Blasey’s actual attacker. But he did not recant his doppelgänger theory.

September 20, 2018

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Trump is going easy on Kavanaugh’s accuser, but the GOP is not.

The president is getting credit in some circles, especially among his own staff, for the supposed restraint he’s shown toward Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the early 1980s. As CNN reports, “White House aides who steeled themselves for what President Donald Trump would say when he finally addressed the sexual assault allegation against his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh were quietly stunned when Trump said the process should be followed and the accuser should be heard.”

Trump has cleared a very low bar by not insulting Dr. Blasey, but the fact is, he has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Kavanaugh and not even pro forma concern for Dr. Blasey. Further, Republicans have more than filled the void. On Thursday, Republican Congressman Ralph Norman joked in poor taste by asking, “Did y’all hear the latest late-breaking news on the Kavanaugh hearings? Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.”

“This has been a drive-by shooting when it comes to Kavanaugh,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham complained. “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who will be questioning Dr. Blasey if she testifies, has clearly already made up his mind, saying that he believes Kavanaugh and suggesting that Dr. Blasey is “mistaken.” Hatch added that “clearly somebody’s mixed up.” Senate Republicans also have worked diligently to block Ford’s request for the FBI to investigate her allegations.

As The Nation notes, there has been a broader push on the right to impugn Dr. Blasey: “The White House has dismissed her as a liar; conservative commentator Tomi Lahren implied that she was an opportunist; and a Wall Street Journal editorial not only impugns her but suggests that going to therapy can result in invented memories.” It’s yet another reminder that Trump is not an anomaly within the Republican Party; he has plenty of allies to do his dirty work for him.

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Mike Pompeo ignores his own staff and doubles down on supporting Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the secretary of state has sidelined humanitarian objections to America’s backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their proxy war in Yemen against Iranian-supported Houthi fighters. The war has been going on for three years, creating millions of refugees and arguably the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia’s conduct of the war has come under increasing criticism in the United States, particularly after an August airstrike hit a bus, killing dozens of civilians, most of whom were children. A majority of the more than 16,700 civilians killed or injured in the war have been victims of the Saudi campaign. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed for the Trump administration to cut support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in this war.

Documents how that State Department officials agree with this congressional push but have been vetoed by Pompeo. As the Journal notes, “Pompeo overruled concerns from most of the State Department specialists involved in the debate who were worried about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen. Those who objected included specialists in the region and in military affairs. He sided with his legislative affairs team after they argued that suspending support could undercut plans to sell more than 120,000 precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a classified State Department memo and people familiar with the debate.”

Aside from valuing Gulf allies as markets for weapons, the Trump administration is likely motivated by more general strategic concerns. Supporting Saudi Arabia in its regional conflict with Iran has become a pillar of Trump’s foreign policy. The administration is also eager to get Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries to increase their oil production, which might be easier to achieve if the United States continues to support its regional allies in Yemen.

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Ben Carson’s HUD is a quiet scandal.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded large salaries to staffers with little experience and few academic credentials:

The raises, documented in a Washington Post analysis of HUD political hires, resulted in annual salaries between $98,000 and $155,000 for the five appointees, all of whom had worked on Donald Trump’s or Ben Carson’s presidential campaigns. Three of them did not list bachelor’s degrees on their résumés.

As the Post notes, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has no relevant experience himself. He’s a retired neurosurgeon, with no specialized skill or expertise in housing or welfare policy. In a statement, HUD assured the Post that it does have an experienced senior team, adding, “HUD employees represent a broad array of backgrounds and experiences, as different roles have unique responsibilities and require diverse skill sets.”

But under Carson’s tenure, HUD has steadily devolved into a do-nothing department. As Alec MacGillis reported for ProPublica in August, HUD is directly responsible for the housing needs of millions of low-income America. Its mission is welfare, and that makes it a target for small-government conservatives. With Carson at the helm, HUD gradually slowed or ceased many existing initiatives, especially if those initiatives pertained to protecting the rights of LGBT people. “Virtually all the top political jobs below Carson remained vacant. Carson himself was barely to be seen—he never made the walk-through of the building customary of past new secretaries,” MacGillis wrote.

HUD has also rolled back efforts to enforce fair housing policy, and in May, Carson put forward a housing proposal that would triple rents for the poorest residents in public housing.

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The NRA could be facing a financial crisis as membership plunges.

OpenSecrets, a non-profit research organization, has conducted an audit of the  National Rifle Association and found that the powerful lobbying group might be facing a budgetary squeeze as higher outlays are coming in conflict with shrinking revenue. Ironically, the organization’s problems are an byproduct of its most successful year ever, 2016. During that presidential election year, the NRA functioned as a key dark money group, funneling more than $30 million to Donald Trump’s successful bid for the presidency. 

As OpenSecrets notes, “The NRA’s massive 2016 push was part of what ultimately became a $100 million spike in the group’s outlays between 2015 and 2016. But that spending wasn’t matched with similar growth in revenue, leaving the NRA with a deficit of more than $14.8 million.”

After Trump’s election, the NRA found itself in a budgetary trap because membership started to go down, a natural result of the fact that gun owners have less to worry about with Republicans controlling all three branches of government. Revenue from members shrank to $128 million in 2017, a plunge from around $163 million in 2016. There are signs the NRA is scaling back its spending in the 2018 midterms. They’ve only spent $2.7 million this year, a sharp reduction from the $10.7 million they spent at the same point in the last midterms in 2014.

“Their current business model cannot be sustained the way it is going,” Ohio State University accounting professor Brian Mittendorf told OpenSecrets.