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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. 

July 17, 2018

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Millions of public school kids were exposed to potentially unsafe levels of lead in drinking water.

That’s the takeaway from a 106-page report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office, which surveyed school districts across the country in 2017 and found that 41 percent of districts had not tested for lead at all in the last 12 months. Of the 43 percent of districts that did test for lead, 37 percent found “elevated levels” of the neurotoxin.

The children exposed to lead last year are apparently no longer at risk. “All school districts that found elevated lead in drinking water reported taking steps to reduce or eliminate exposure to lead, including replacing water fountains, installing filters or new fixtures, or providing bottled water,” the GAO said. But school districts serving 12 million children aren’t testing for lead at all. If 37 percent of those districts had lead contamination, that would mean 4.4 million children at risk of lead exposure.

gao.gov

As I wrote in February, lead exposure is a solvable problem. But damages can be permanent for kids who have already consumed contaminated water, depending on the level of exposure. Philip Landrigan, a renowned lead expert and the dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine, told me that lead exposure unquestionably harms developing brains. “Even the very lowest levels of exposure, we know that lead erodes a child’s IQ, shortens attention span, and disrupts their behavior,” he said. “We know when we do follow-up studies that children exposed when they were kids are more likely to be dyslexic, have behavioral problems, and get in trouble with the law. There’s no question about that.”

No federal law requires testing of drinking water for lead in schools that receive water from public water systems,” the GAO found. The agency also found that the EPA was partially responsible for the lack of testing. Landrigan said the only reason the lead contamination crisis hasn’t been solved is a lack of political will to do so. Perhaps this report will help change that.

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Is Andrew Cuomo insecure about his small donations?

The New York governor has seen no shortage of major contributions to his primary campaign against Cynthia Nixon. Campaign finance reports released on Monday night have the two-term governor leading with $31.1 million in his war chest compared to Nixon’s $660,000. Despite this lead, it has become a sore point for Cuomo that Nixon’s campaign vastly outpaces him on donations of under $250.  

In what may be an attempt to compete with Nixon’s more grassroots campaign, the New York City roommate of Cuomo’s creative director Julia Yang appears to have donated 69 times to Cuomo’s campaign in increments of $1, $3, and $5 donations in the final days leading up to campaign finance reporting deadline, according to New York Times reporter Shane GoldmacherPolitico reports that governor has also been offering raffle tickets for a Billy Joel concert in exchange for campaign donations of $5.

Even still, donations of $250 or less make up just over 1 percent of Cuomo’s total contributions, but 47 percent of Nixon’s. She received more small donations in the first 24 hours after launching her campaign than Cuomo had in years.

Campaign finance reports also indicate that Cuomo has received more than $120,000 from internet entrepreneurs Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (also known as the Winklevoss twins), and has spent $1.7 million on TV ads this campaign season. A recent Intercept investigation revealed that since 2011 Cuomo has received campaign donations from landlords who collect millions of dollars in rent from Immigration and Customs enforcement (ICE). 

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Rap music is still a wedge issue in American politics, somehow.

Earlier this month, The New York Post reported that Antonio Delgado, the Democratic nominee for New York’s 19th Congressional District, released a hip-hop album under the stage name “AD the Voice” in 2006. The album, Painfully Free, critiques capitalism, boasts about his sexual exploits, refers to dead presidents as white supremacists, and repeatedly uses the n-word—par for the course for rap music today.

But Representative John Faso, the district’s Republican nominee, saw an opening to question his opponent’s character. “Mr. Delgado’s lyrics are offensive,” he told The New York Times for an article published today. “It’s his responsibility to answer for the controversial views he expressed in his lyrics and whether he continues to hold these views today.” Delgado, in defending his music to the Times, cited Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar as inspirations. “Issues like income inequality, issues like gender equality, issues like the pollution of our environment and climate change—these are all issues that I talked about back then as an artist that I’m now talking about” as a candidate, he said.

Gerald Benjamin, a friend of Faso and director of the Benjamin Center at State University of New York at New Paltz, went as far as to ask, “Is a guy who makes a rap album the kind of guy who lives here in rural New York and reflects our lifestyle and values?” The 19th district, which includes the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley, is 83 percent white—one of the whitest congressional districts in the country, the Times notes. “People like us, people in rural New York, we are not people who respond to this part of American culture,” he said.

Benjamin also claimed that rap isn’t “real music.” In April, Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer prize for music—something not even a rock or country musician has ever accomplished.

Trump blames bad grammar for his calamitous press conference with Vladimir Putin.

Twenty-four hours ago, Trump publicly accepted Putin’s denial that Russian actors attempted to influence the 2016 election in favor of Trump. On Tuesday, after sustained criticism from just about everyone, including congressional Republicans, he attempted to walk it back, though in the most confusing way possible.

Trump claimed that he misspoke, saying that he meant to indicate that he had no reason to believe that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 election. However, in an attempt to avoid a “double negative,” he said he mistakenly made it appear that he was siding with Putin. Watch the video for the whole convoluted explanation:

Trump also stressed that he accepted the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did, in fact, meddle in the 2016 election, asserting that he has “full faith in our intelligence agencies.” But he added, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

However, it’s abundantly clear that Trump did not misspeak in Helsinki. He endorsed Putin’s story in Monday’s press conference, and the “would”/“wouldn’t” explanation does not exonerate him.

The point of these remarks was to stem the bleeding among Republicans. Even still, he wasn’t able to fully endorse the findings of American intelligence agencies. It was a muddled, half-hearted attempt to stop a damaging news cycle; the question is if it will be enough for Republicans to move on.

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Obama: “rabid nationalism” and racist ideology lead to civil war.

In delivering the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture today in Johannesburg, South Africa, former President Barack Obama warned about the rise of right-wing nationalism around the world. “Strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly,” he said. “Those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”

“Look at history. Looks at the facts,” he said. “The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial, or religious superiority as their main organizing principle—the thing that holds people together—eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war. Check the history books.”

Obama also criticized “unbridled, unregulated capitalism,” adding that we must “recognize all the ways that the international order has fallen short of its promise.” And he closed his speech with a reminder of the anti-apartheid leader’s legacy: “Madiba reminds us that people must learn to hate. And if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

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Donald Trump thanks his lone defender, Rand Paul.

After his bizarre press conference with Vladimir Putin on Monday, Trump has been abandoned—at least for now—by nearly all of his typical allies. While the harshest reviews came from Republicans who have squabbled with him in the past, like Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, Trump was also criticized by House Speaker Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Even Fox News—with the exceptions of stalwarts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity—turned on the president, while his own advisers spun the situation by claiming Trump was “delusional.”

Trump’s only notable defender on Capitol Hill has been Senator Rand Paul. Appearing on CNN yesterday, Paul dismissed the conventional wisdom that Trump had kowtowed to Putin, sold out U.S. interests, and dismissed U.S. intelligence. “Any country that can spy does, and any country that can meddle in foreign elections does,” he told Wolf Blitzer. “All countries are doing this, but we’ve elevated this to a higher degree, and we’ve made this all about the sour grapes of Hillary Clinton losing the election, and it’s all about partisan politics now. This is truly the Trump derangement syndrome that motivates all of this.”

On Tuesday morning, Trump embraced Paul, quoting his endorsement of the president’s “witch hunt” claim in a tweet.

This tells us two things. The first is that Paul is once again inching closer to the president, with whom he’s had a mercurial relationship. Paul had been labeled the new “Trump whisperer” in the fall, though the two quickly drifted apart again. Most recently, Paul had threatened to oppose the nomination of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. As with his (likely overblown) concerns about Kavanaugh, Paul is most likely using this situation to add to his libertarian credentials.

The second is that, despite near universal condemnation, Trump is not backing down. Trump has publicly praised Carlson, Hannity, and Paul, his only defenders. And, despite all of the concern tweeted out by congressional Republicans, he won’t face any consequences, aside from a sternly worded resolution that may pass the Senate.

July 16, 2018

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Is anyone not investigating Uber?

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the ride-hailing giant has been under investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since August 2017, after complaints were made about gender discrimination. According to the WSJ, The EEOC seeks information relating to pay disparity, hiring practices and other matters related to gender. 

Sadly, this comes as no surprise from a company riddled with a plethora of scandals including racial discrimination and sexual harassment, bribery, price fixing, and underpaying its drivers. Just last year, a Bloomberg report revealed the company faced five separate Justice Department investigations; former employee Susan Fowler published a meticulously detailed, and now viral, personal essay: “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” which chronicled what the New York Times says is a “brozilla culture of kegs, sexual coarseness and snaky competition”; and Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick resigned after his flippant responses to harassment.  

These scandals at the company, The Information claims, might have sent the company’s value down by as much as $10 billion. 

But, with a new Chief Executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, things were starting to look up. Uber hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Uber’s workplace practices and in a 13-page document he recommended the company’s total transformation, accountability and a new tone from the top down. While, in May, Uber launched its “Moving Forward” apology campaign that ran on billboards, emails, online posts and TV advertisements (unfortunately 71 percent of respondents to one survey hadn’t seen the company’s ads). 

Unfortunately, while the company publicly claims to have made “a lot of changes” to workplace culture and discrimination, figures show that women in leadership roles at the company have fallen from 22 percent to 21 percent this year: hardly the optics a company might want when trying to recover from gender-related scandals.

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A gun rights advocate was just arrested and charged with acting as a Russian agent.

On Monday afternoon, hours after President Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies at a Helisnki press conference, the Department of Justice announced that Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian woman had been arrested and charged with “conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation.” Her arrest comes days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers, though it is not yet clear whether the special counsel’s office played a role. 

Butina worked closely with Russian banker Alexander Torshin—the two co-founded the Russian gun rights organization Right to Bear Arms. According to the indictment released on Monday, Butina also had close ties with Russian officials and she used ties with gun groups in the United States—most notably the National Rifle Association—to advance Russian interests. Between 2015-2017, Butina developed deep ties to the NRA, who not only welcomed her, but appear to have facilitated contact with Republican officials. 

The arrest of Butina also changes the timeline of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. While the Kremlin has been deepening ties with the NRA (in an attempt to influence the GOP)  for decades, Butina’s alleged work as a Russian agent began months before Donald Trump entered the presidential race, while she contacted Republican officials, including Sheriff David Clarke, as far back as 2013. Although Russia clearly favored Trump—something Putin admitted in Monday’s press conference—it now seems they began fishing for contact with Republicans years ago. 

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Kushner’s tenants claim exposure to lead, falling rodents, and a “cloud of toxic smoke and dust.”

A $10 million lawsuit filed Monday by a group of tenants in New York alleges that under the watch of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Kushner Companies led a harassment campaign to convert rent-stabilized units into luxury condos in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

Following Kushner’s $275 million purchase of the waterfront building in 2015, tenants reported rent hikes of over $500 a month or more, periodic flooding, hot water shut-offs, broken windows, falling rodents, exposure to lead, and other illegal conditions. Last February, one tenant posted a YouTube video of a mouse infestation that had spread to a baby’s crib.

As a result, according to an Associated Press investigation, over 75 percent of the building—more than 250 rent-stabilized units—was vacated or sold over the past three years. The sales have averaged $1.2 million per apartment. “You have to be ignorant or dumb to think this wasn’t deliberate,” Barth Bazyluk, a tenant who vacated his apartment with his wife and baby daughter last December, told the AP.

It is not uncommon for New York City landlords, in seeking to convert rent-stabilized units into luxury apartments, to refuse to make repairs and otherwise expose tenants to other unlivable conditions. But Aaron Carr, the director of a tenant-rights non-profit whose investigation sparked the lawsuit, said, “We’ve looked into hundreds of rent-stabilized buildings and this is one of the worst we’ve ever seen.”

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Trump’s fear-mongering about MS-13 is working.

Some members of the gang have been found guilty of disturbing crimes. But the administration has repeatedly exaggerated MS-13’s reach and influence over the past 18 months, drawing false and racialized connections between its crimes and undocumented immigration.

A new poll shows that the administration’s misleading rhetoric is sinking in. The Huffington Post/YouGov survey found that 85 percent of Trump voters and one-third of Clinton voters think the gang is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” threat to U.S. national security. “A fair share of Trump voters say they are worried about being personally affected by MS-13,” the report found. “About half indicated they are worried a great deal or somewhat that they or a family member will fall victim to MS-13 violence.”

Trump has frequently cast the gang, which originated among Salvadorans in Los Angeles in the 1980s, as a violent threat to American communities writ large. ProPublica immigration reporter Hannah Dreier pointed out that MS-13’s activities are far more limited than the administration’s language suggests. Moreover, the gang largely targets the same people that Trump does with his immigration policies: young Hispanic immigrants, some of whom are undocumented. He has also overstated MS-13’s reach by claiming that ICE has helped liberate entire towns from the gang’s control. (The agency has not done so.)

The poll’s results suggest that fighting MS-13 could continue to be a rallying cry for Trump’s base in the upcoming midterm elections. Whether it will succeed with the electorate as a whole is unclear. Republican candidate Ed Gillespie rolled out a series of attack ads in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race that accused his Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam, of being soft on MS-13. Polls tightened after the ads went up and Gillespie’s ratings on “law-and-order issues” rose, but Northam ultimately triumphed on Election Day.