ENS WOLF/AFP/Getty Images

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. 

June 28, 2019

Drew Angerer/Getty

Andrew Yang is the most YOLO candidate ever.

Moderately successful businessman and “random opinionated person” Andrew Yang may have been the breakout star of Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate—if only because of his proposal for a so-called “freedom dividend.” This is basically just Yang’s marketing term for a Universal Basic Income, under which every American adult receives $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year.

This would solve a lot of our problems, Yang said—including climate change.

Would this actually work? Who knows! I mean, is it really the craziest thing in the world to think that if everyone had a little more financial cushion, more people would be OK with making some of the temporary financial sacrifices that will become necessary over the next 11 years to rapidly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? If anything, it’s just as crazy as Joe Biden’s assertion that he can turn America’s entire vehicle fleet electric by the year 2030 without the help of Republicans. And hey, maybe if everyone had $12,000 more per year, they’d be willing to buy those electric cars. So, might as well try it, right? The human race only lives once, after all.

Saul Loeb / Getty Images

Sanders’s “rotating judges” idea actually makes some sense.

On Thursday morning, the Supreme Court handed down two major rulings on gerrymandering and the census, and yet, only a few hours later, with the candidates gathered in Miami for the second Democratic debate, the moderators never raised the high court, nor did they ask how, if elected, the candidates would handle its emboldened conservative majority.

They came closest to tackling the issue in an exchange about Roe v. Wade and what the candidates would do to protect abortion rights if it were overturned. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders replied by saying he opposed adding additional justices to the bench, a solution several other candidates have proposed. “I do not believe in packing the court,” Sanders said. But “I do believe that constitutionally we have the ability to rotate judges to other courts.”

Huh? It’s not clear what this plan would entail—Thursday’s format wasn’t conducive to in-depth answers—but Sanders provided some clues about what he meant at a forum in April, when he offered up a similar proposal. “What may make sense is, if not term limits, then rotating judges to the appeals court as well,” he told the audience. “Letting them get out of the Supreme Court and bringing in new blood.” The proposal is constitutionally dubious, to say the least, and might require a amendment, but it’s not without merit if it gets rid of corrosive confirmation battles and tempers ideological divides among the justices.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Damn right it’s a climate crisis.

The moderators of Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate devoted seven minutes to the subject of global warming. But nothing the candidates said during those seven minutes advanced the conversation as much as the first twelve words Senator Kamala Harris said about climate change during Thursday night’s debate.

Asked to explain what she would do about climate change, Harris first took a step back. “I don’t even call it climate change,” she said. “It’s a climate crisis.”

The idea that we should replace the term “climate change” with “climate crisis” has been bubbling up in environmentalist circles for a long time, but it started gaining mainstream attention last month, when The Guardian announced that it was changing its official style guide to recommend terms like “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” over simply “climate change.” The reasoning, according to Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, was simple accuracy. “Huge-scale and immediate action is needed to slash emissions, but they are still going up—that’s an emergency or crisis,” she said. “Extreme weather is increasing and climate patterns established for millennia are changing—hence breakdown.”

Since then, more media outlets have started changing their terminology. As Grist reported last week, that includes Spanish news agency EFE and Noticias Telemundo, the top U.S.-based Spanish-language news provider. Their reasoning was similar, Telemundo’s executive vice president of network news Luis Fernández said:
“The scientific community and linguistics experts agree that the world is facing a climate emergency.”

By pushing that conversation further into the mainstream on Thursday night, Harris did the planet, and its inhabitants, a much-needed favor.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Cable news still doesn’t know how to talk about police violence.

On June 16, a South Bend, Indiana, police officer shot and killed a man named Eric Logan. The police officer shot him. Logan died. The mayor of South Bend is running for president, and is on the debate stage tonight. Moderator Rachel Maddow asked Mayor Pete Buttigieg about the incident.

She referred to it as an “officer-involved shooting,” a bit of obfuscatory cop-speak that is endemic in TV news despite the supposed mission of “news” being to inform its audience as to what happened, instead of forcing viewers to guess.

The officer was involved because he did the shooting. From what I could determine the last time I wrote about this, police departments invented the phrase in the 1970s or 1980s, and TV news—always dependent on cops for sensationalist stories designed to scare viewers into coming back tomorrow for more—adopted it without anyone involved stopping to think about whether the term made any sense.

Mayor Buttigieg used the term too. If you can’t be clear and honest about who did what when a cop shoots someone, you shouldn’t be in journalism or politics.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Kamala Harris just took Joe Biden to school.

Biden had a clear strategy and it worked for most of this debate. He came in deciding to act like a frontrunner, using weasel words on tough questions about immigration and health care, and largely staying out of the fray. The other candidates could spar about ideology and policy, but Biden reminded people again and again that he worked with Barack Obama. He continuously reminded the moderators that he was out of time, a sign that he—unlike most of the other people on the stage—had something to lose by speaking, not something to gain. Whenever the moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands in response to a question, Biden did a strange thing with his hand—holding it out, instead of raising it, acting like he had something to say without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing to what was asked.

That changed when Kamala Harris pivoted a discussion about Pete Buttigieg’s response to a recent police shooting in South Bend to Joe Biden’s record on busing, race, and civil rights.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” she said. But “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two US senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country.... You also worked with them to oppose busing.”

Biden was definitely prepared to defend his recent comments praising two notorious segregationists he worked with in the Senate in the 1970s. But he wasn’t prepared for Harris’s all out assault on his record as one of the staunchest opponents of court-ordered school busing during the same period. That record undercuts Biden’s defense of working with segregationists—that he did it to pass civil rights legislation—and makes it clear that he was actively part of propping up the opposition to integration.

Biden couldn’t have responded in a worse way, bungling his answer by not only defending busing but making a states-rights argument. But it also drew a line between Biden on both generational and racial lines. Biden keeps turning the conversation back to his time working with Barack Obama, but he clearly can’t defend his record as a senator in the same way. Harris found his Achilles heel.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Gentlemen, you can’t fight here, this is the debate stage!

Senator Kamala Harris’s first attempt at a breakout moment in this debate was a painfully rehearsed line designed to be dropped the minute there was some cross-talk she could break into: “Hey guys, America does not want to witness a food fight. They want us to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

It won immediate, sustained applause, and a bit of predictable Twitter approval. It’s a good line, superficially, and probably good strategically: A large number of hardcore partisan Democrats desperately hate conflict.

Those Democrats are, unfortunately, undermining their party’s political well-being. This is a debate. Everyone on stage is supposed to be making a case for why they should be president, which, when facing other candidates in an election, is traditionally done by drawing distinctions between yourself and your opponents.

More broadly, the line speaks to the self-defeating tendency of Democrats to imagine that their own affinity for compromise reflects the median voter’s preference for conciliatory politics. People say they hate partisan conflict, yes—but they vote for people who draw sharp distinctions between themselves and their (negatively defined) opponents.

Like I said: It was a good line for Harris in the moment, but it was a cynical line masquerading as a plea for unity.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

The debate moderators are addicted to right-wing talking points.

Chuck Todd predictably emerged as one of the villains of the first debate, derailing a decent policy discussion with a seemingly endless barrage of right-wing talking points. He, for instance, asked the candidates not about gun control, but to speak to Republican fears about gun confiscation. He asked Julián Castro if his immigration reform plan amounted to “open borders.” The charitable reading of this strategy was that he wanted Democrats to speak to swing voters. But it’s June in the year before the election. They don’t need to persuade skeptical voters, they need to explain their policies. His line of questioning didn’t do that and it basically ruined what was otherwise a fine opening debate.

Unfortunately, the second debate has largely revolved around the kinds of GOP talking points that Todd is addicted to. The debate opened with Bernie Sanders being asked how he would pay for Medicare for All. How we would pay for policies like Medicare for All has been the focus of much of the moderators’ attention, not explaining what those policies would actually do. At the same time, they’re pumping up candidates like Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, who have been the most aggressive critics of the Democrats’ turn toward “socialism.”

This is partly a result of how the two debates were drawn. Wednesday’s was (accidentally) the kids’ table debate, and the moderators asked questions about policy. Now they want them to fight, but not about their substantive differences. They want them to fight in cable news-ready soundbites. And it’s going to get worse—Chuck Todd will be on soon.

Alex Wong/Getty

Will anyone be brave enough to try to take down Joe Biden?

Or should that be stupid enough?

The first Democratic debate was notable for the absence of two pronouns: Donald Trump, the man who the eventual nominee will take on next year, and Joe Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner. Trump was, of course, impossible not to mention, but was avoided whenever possible. Biden, however, never came up at all.

He wasn’t on the stage then, however. He will be tonight. The perception among many—myself included—is that Biden’s support is soft, and that voters only need to be reminded of his sizable baggage, his somewhat creepy persona, and his penchant for saying dumb stuff to flock to a different candidate. Given that he’s already made two sizable gaffes, on abortion and race, there is plenty for the other nine Democratic candidates to take on.

But it might not be worth it. Going after Biden might be a disaster if a candidate is polling in the low single digits. Recall Chris Christie’s entertaining dressing down of a robotic Marco Rubio in a February 2016 debate. Rubio limped on afterwards, but never regained the glow of a potential challenger for the throne. Christie, meanwhile, didn’t see a boost for his own candidacy. It was, as my former colleague Elspeth Reeve wrote at the time, something akin to a political murder-suicide.

One crucial difference: That took place in February of 2016. The Iowa caucuses had already taken place. We’re more than six months away from an election. Candidates right now have an incentive to play nice. Of course, if Biden stays in the lead, he could end up cementing his status. That is, unless someone is crazy enough to take him on.

Joe Raedle/Getty

Isn’t it time for NBC to get a less peppy debate tune?

Heading into the second Democratic debate tonight, many are hoping for more climate talk and fewer non sequiturs. Personally, I’m dreading the music, which will almost certainly be the same as last night’s. Sure, it’s a minor matter—an aesthetic detail of short duration. Still. It’d be nice, particularly this year, if NBC would ditch its usual fanfare for something a little more understated. The Olympics-meets-Indiana Jones intro soundtrack feels too flashy, too entertainment-oriented for the present moment—more suited to something people watch with popcorn and a beer, rather than a knitted brow and a bottle of Xanax.

Like the Democratic candidates gamely discussing tax brackets and health care last night while ignoring this unprecedentedly erratic presidency, blaring something that sounds like it was written up by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for an Erroll Flynn movie right before we’re about to hear about drowned immigrant children abrades the senses (and the morals) a bit. There’s something a little Hunger Games about the aesthetic: signaling spectacle and entertainment in the face of a political climate that’s actually disturbing.

While we’re on the subject, as a few folks asked on Twitter last night: Why are these debates still taking place in front of live audiences? Isn’t it time to cut the whoops and claps, letting the candidates discuss their proposals like the world-shifting policies they are? Do we really still need sound effects like a ‘90s sitcom?

June 27, 2019

Drew Angerer/Getty

The Democratic debate was a milestone for transgender rights.

When politicians discuss the rights of transgender Americans, they often place an outsized focus on whether trans women should be allowed to use the bathroom in peace. But the issues facing the trans community are far more diverse, and often far more consequential—and during the first Democratic primary debate on Wednesday night, two candidates made an effort to highlight that fact.

While answering a question about abortion rights, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro said that he would expand abortion access for everyone—that is, not just for cisgender women, but for trans men and others who are capable of getting pregnant. “A person’s right to choose is under assault,” he said, consciously using gender-neutral language. “I don’t just believe in reproductive freedom. I believe in reproductive justice. And what that means is just because a woman—or, let’s not also forget someone in the trans community, a trans female—is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose. So, I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion.”

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker also placed some focus on the transgender community—specifically on black trans Americans, a group disproportionately affected by hate crime and police brutality. “We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans and the incredibility high rates of murder now,” he said. “We don’t talk enough how many children, about 30 percent of LGBTQ kids, who do not go to school because of fear.”

The comments represented the first time Democratic candidates spoke about issues facing the trans community on a major debate stage, beyond the context of the bathroom.