Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Ditko in the eighties, or: "The Tipping Point of Mister Benjamin J. Grimm"

FF Annual #16 If you're into comics blogs and you're not reading Kevin Church over at BeaucoupKevin.com, hoo boy, mister or miss, are you missin' out. Kevin is one of the funniest and most prolific of the comics bloggers (not a single day goes by without him givin' up a big dose of Beaucoup goodness, which makes little stuffed slacker me red in the face with embarrassment). He's even just redesigned his site to make it cleaner, brighter, and filled with even more comicy goodness that ever before. I heartily recommend you check it out and bookmark it. Do it! Do it now!

All this buttering up I've done of Mister Church makes me hope he won't mind if I comment on one of his recent posts: pointing out that the Steve Ditko doing occasional inventory work for Marvel in the 1980s is a pale shadow of the Ditko doing regular work in the 1960s. This page is from, as Kevin has posted, Fantastic Four Annual #16 (1981), a Dragon Man story written by Ed Hannigan and penciled and inked by Ditko:

Sure it's Ditko, but he's done better.

I loves me some Ditko. But I remember reading this when it first came out (just before the Byrne years) and thinking "Hoo boy, I know I'm supposed to like Steve Ditko, but this isn't convincing me one bit."

Later, of course, I went backwards in my Marvel Comics collecting and discovered the early Spider-Man and Dr. Strange books Ditko had done (thanks to the Liverpool Public Library and a small handful of trade paperback collections edited by Stan Lee, back in those days when there were only about four or five Marvel trade paperbacks total). What was the Doc Strange story where he and Mordo are fighting with psychic clincher-claws? That's when I sat up and said "Oh yeah! Steve Ditko. Now I understand why everybody loves Ditko."

It's kind of sad that for me and thousands of new comics fans of the time (brought on board by books like X-Men and Daredevil), this was their first introduction to Ditko. Between this, Machine Man, Micronauts Annuals and a handful of other inventory work, Ditko's 1980s artwork looked stilted and cartoony. (You could make the same controversial claim about Kirby's work for Pacific Comics in the same time period). Now this stuff has a kind of charm, but I don't think anyone would ever say that Steve was producing his top work in the 1980s...by any definition.

You got your Byrne on my Ditko!I don't know the circumstances behind him returning to work at Marvel (it was around the time Stan Lee moved to Hollywood and was less in charge of the comics part of Marvel, wasn't it?), so you could argue that the powers-that-were at Marvel (would that have been Jim Shooter at the time?) were interested in not only giving a grand master some work but also exposing his art to a new generation. But Ditko was never well served by Marvel in the 1980s, and sometimes downright sabotaged: he did Avengers Annual #13 in 1984 which was inked by John Byrne, and Byrne's oh-so-heavy hand completely obliterates Ditko's art; except for a couple gestures and expressions it all looks like Byrne art, not Ditko, rendering both of their contributions charmless and without an ounce of style. At least in this FF page there's a couple imaginative quirky expressions and poses, especially on rubbery Reed.

Fans of today have a better sense of history, and for that we have to thank the trade paperback. Before the Marvel Masterworks and Essentials came out, you probably couldn't afford the first few dozen issues of Spider-Man or Doc Strange, and if the only Ditko artwork you knew was from the 1980s, then golly, why would you see the need to be a Ditko fan?

My point...and I do have one...is that you can make the argument these days that Marvel has lost interest in its legacy, in the fun and charm and wit and energy that made them the House of Ideas in the 1960s. But I say it's actually the best of both worlds: If you like the decompressed storytelling of modern comics or the lengthy, involved crossovers of Civil War, The Other or House of M, then by-gosh-golly, Marvel's got those for ya. But if you want to love and savor the Marvel of yesteryear, whether you grew up with it or are just discovering it, then this is a new Golden Age: more reprints in more formats than ever before are now available. Whodathunk we could ever read the first hundred issues of Spider-Man for seventy-five clams? That we could get the whole Godzilla, King of the Monsters saga between two covers? That we'd see a collection of Killraven, for Mars's sake? Yeah, we would love and respect Ditko and Romita and Kirby and Tuska and Colon and Heck and all the others even without these reprints, but it's not just old fanboys (and fanbulls) who can do so: now everybody can enjoy and appreciate 'em. I loves me some sixties and seventies Marvels, and now I can afford to buy them in the oughts. (The only other thing I could wish for with these reprints is that some royalties from these books were going to Ditko and Kirby's family and all the others.)

Who says the Mighty Marvel Age of Comics is over, true believer?

But yeah, that waitress's hand is huge.

Finally (because this is Comics Oughta Be Fun, Home of “Ben Grimm Totally Rocks”, after all): let's examine what that bill for the FF’s Sunday brunch musta been. Old Blue Eyes is paying the check to Old Big Hands with one single greenback. New York City brunches for four (plus one child), especially in Midtown (within view of the Baxter Building) ain't cheap, even twenty-five years ago. That can't be a fifty, and it can't be a five hundred dollar bill. It's gotta be a hundred. Benjy's handing over a...a ha ha!...he's handing over...a Benjamin!

It's all about the Benjamins.

So what does that tell us?

If the tip is ten percent, then with tax, the total check has got to be around $91. That's still cheap; less than $20 a person. The NYC sales tax in early 1981 was 8% (it went up to 8.25% on 9/1/81), so the average cost of each meal is possibly $16.50 plus a buck thirty-two tax: $17.82 per person for a total of $89.10. Or, if you wish, split it four ways: even tho' it's pretty much a foreign concept to Manhattan, let's assume "kids eat free" at this New York cafe, and Franklin is getting a free meal. That makes the cost per person a much more believable 21 bucks plus $1.68 tax per person for a total of $90.72. (If it's an "all you can eat" buffet, then the FF are definitely getting their money's worth: Sue and Reed may eat sensibly, but you can bet Johnny and Ben are going back for seconds.)

Either way, tsk tsk, Mister Grimm...as the sharp-eyed waitress instantly calculates (and what wise-acre working-class man or woman of the Ditko or Kirby age couldn't?), that's a pretty measly tip of ten percent or a shade less. (And it shows what kind of lower East Side greasy spoons he's been eating in if "the blasted tax is what the total should be": the tax is $6.72, Thing. Maybe you can get a chili dog and a hot black coffee in a diner on Yancy Street for less than seven bucks, but this is uptown.)

So why is Ben such a cheapskate? I choose to hypothesize expediency over stinginess. It's an emergency! The FF are under attack! And Bashul Ben doesn't want to be the last one of the quartet on the scene; there's no time to wait for change, as fast on the draw as Laverne or Flo or Honey the Waitress is. He's got a orange paw fulla bills; while he really should give her a hundred ten or a hundred twenty, maybe all those bills looking identical in Ben's hand isn't laziness on Ditko's part: maybe they actually are all identical. Maybe all he has is a fistful of Benjamins?

Because he's my hero, of course I like to think that Ben came back to the cafe after clobberin' time was over and sheepishly handed the spunky waitress another hundred. Either that, or a week later, I can well picture him taking Alicia out for a romantic dinner, signaling for the waitress to take their order, when guess who steps up to the table, grimaces and declares in her Yancy Street accent loud enough for the rest of the restaurant to hear: "Well, look who it is...Mistah Ten Percent-Tipper!"

Whadda revoltin' development!

Never mind his tipping skills for the moment, though. It's the intention that counts. That's yet another reason why Ben Grimm rocks your world, by the way: he might grouse about it, but he'll always pick up the check.

'Nuff said, true believer!


Jeremy Rizza said...

Awesome stuff as always, Bully!

I have the two(!) Micronauts annuals Ditko drew but now you've piqued my interest in these others. What can I say; I'm a glutton for punishment. I'm just surprised they let John Byrne ink anybody. Even John Byrne pencils don't look good with John Byrne inks.

Anonymous said...


Great "math is fun" entry!

Hey. Just to let you know, Byrne and Milgrom did some DR STRANGE CLASSICS covers (4 in all - collect the series!) back in the 80's and they managed to pull off a pretty convincing DITKO riff.

I think each pencilled 2 covers and each inked 2 covers.
(Byrne inks over Milgrom Pencils, and vice versa)

Hell...the stuff's probably lightboxed, and all, but hey. What'ya want?