No better proof of the superiority of British television to American is the broadcast last week of an episode that forms a part of the BBC's current "Comics Britannia" season, this hour dedicated wholly to Steve Ditko. Who? Well, that's why British TV is better: it demands that you know a thing or two.Jonathan Ross In Search of Steve Ditko proved to be one of the best hours of television, ever.
Ditko is the co-creator of Spider-Man. When Marvel Comics were given a new lease on life back in the early 1960s, head writer Stan Lee set about to create some popular superhero characters for the firm that had hitherto primarily trafficked in funny animal comics, romances, westerns, and horror stories, something of a decline from its golden age, when it introduced Captain America and Submariner to the world. When The Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk proved indeed to be popular, Lee (if I may offer a simplified version of the story) turned to staff artist Steve Ditko, a Pennsylvania mining town boy who came to the big city in 1953, to help him implement his latest idea, Spider-Man. They introduced the character in issue No. 15 of Amazing Fantasy in August of 1962, and the rest is history.
Except the early Spider-Man, as Mr. Ross's show makes clear, was somewhat different from the later version. Ditko had a falling out with Lee and left the company after Spider-Man No. 39, abandoning both Spider-Man and another character he developed, Doctor Strange. Various interview subjects in the show make it clear that the man who took over Spider-Man, John Romita, helped turn the comic into the force it is today, basically by prettying up the characters. Romita had been a specialist in romance comics, while Ditko kept Spider-Man in the quotidian world of a grungy city whose citizens scraped by on meager incomes and where injustice reigned in Peter Parker's school, job, and private life. Ditko's world was a hardcore one of darkened buildings and water towers at night, or refuse-ridden streets and loneliness and dashed dreams; Romita's was a world of hipster slang and toothpaste ad bright teeth.
First off, the most remarkable feature of Jonathan Ross's show is that it aired at all. It is the sort of program that is unimaginable on American television. Ross admits that he has a personal love of Ditko, and one sequence shows he and two other men browsing through his extensive and enviable comic book collection. Second, Ross manages to round up a succession of interview subjects who generally don't find themselves on TV, among them Romita and the equally reclusive Alan Moore, the British comic book writer who drew upon the Ditko oeuvre to create his masterpiece, Watchmen (that comic's Rorschach is a variation on the right-wing Ditko's later law-and-order character Mr. A, just one of many Ditko-esque facets to Watchmen). Finally, Ditko doesn't give interviews. At all. Ever. The Ayn Rand acolyte and occasional transmitter of angry bulletins to comic 'zines won't even let his photo be taken. Ross's search for Ditko could easily prove fruitless.
I won't spoil the surprise ending, when Ross and comic book writer Neil Gaiman find themselves outside Ditko's Manhattan office building (200 West 51st Street), but it is deeply satisfying.
Even if American television had strayed into the fascinating world of Steve Ditko, they would have messed it up some how. First, they would only have broadcast the piece if a corporation had something to sell, like a new Spider-Man movie. Second, it would be more fluffy and simpleminded and would have matched antagonists against each other for drama, though that approach might have been appropriate here, given the world view of law-and-order, black-and-white Ditko. Thus, while in Mr. Ross's show, Stan Lee is allowed to give a nuanced explanation for his role in the creation of Spider-Man, American TV would have emphasized the conflict between the two men. But the bottom line is that a full hour about Ditko on US broadcast is as unimaginable as a weekly TV series about an atheist.
I too am obsessed with Steve Ditko and all the early Marvel comics illustrators. I may not have the means of a Ross to indulge my obsession but it is of equal intensity. I grew up buying the early FFs, Hulks, Spider-Mans, Thors, and X-Mens as they were coming out, and the deepest sadness of my life is that I sold all my Marvels in 1971, and for the most flimsy of reasons, in order to "mature." My regret is not financial, though I did sell the comic books for peanuts. I actually enjoyed them, and re-read them frequently. If I had them today, they wouldn't be in plastic sheaths, but scattered around my bedstand for easy access.
In fact, I can still remember the day I bought Amazing Fantasy No. 15, at the end of summer in a little drugstore then located at NE 60th and Halsey, no longer in existence. It's two comic book spinner racks were just inside the double doors to the left, and those racks were a portal to a new world better than the one I was living in, of cruel schools, bullies, and divorce. I was immediately struck by the look of all the Marvels, which were individual and not "corporate" looking like their rival DC comics. Ditko's work, with his stiff-postured characters and his psychedelic backgrounds, was the most extreme of all the Marvel clan, which included individualists such as Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Joe Orlando, and Don Heck, among numerous others. I can also still recall walking out of that drug store, bearing with me Amazing Fantasy No. 15 and the second issue of the Hulk's comic, and into the August sun, with the sun blasting heat waves out of the asphalt streets, and feeling that all was right with the world.
Perhaps one of the best uses of the "blog" format comes from Professor Emeritus David Bordwell, at his website. On the general site, the retired professional keeps readers informed of his travels and his forthcoming books, and also offers up PDFs of hard-to-find essays. Professor Bordwell is bibliographing and archiving himself, and that is one of the best, but most under-utilized functions the 'net has to offer. In addition, Professor Bordwell has a blog, which he shares with his partner, the equally important film scholar Kristin Thompson, whose book Storytelling in the New Hollywood is one of the greatest film books ever published. In the blog, the duo pursue their various interests, in Ms. Thompson's case animation and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and in the case of Professor Bordwell, the application to contemporary releases of his particular film practice, which is, to riot in brevity, to scrutinize film narrative through the choices directors make within the overall dominant conventions of concurrent filmmaking. The latest film to receive his scrutiny is The Bourne Ultimatum.
What's interesting about this three-part blog entry series is that Professor Bordwell starts out not liking the film too much. After noting that Bourne has "about 3200 shots in 105 minutes, yielding an average of about 2 seconds per shot," Professor Bordwell continues by analyzing the historical background of the film's shaky camera work. Quoting a Hong Kong filmmaker who once said that the "handheld camera covers three mistakes: Bad acting, bad set design, and bad directing," Professor Bordwell goes on to add that it is "worth considering … what [director] Greengrass's style may serve to camouflage." In a long section in the second part, Professor Bordwell breaks down a sequence in which Bourne exits a train station after looking up an address in a telephone book. If I read Professor Bordwell correctly, he objects to the padding in Mr. Greengrass's directorial style. "A very simple piece of action has been broken into many shots, some of them restating what we've already seen." Professor Bordwell's analysis of the sequence is fascinating, but if I may dare criticize a writer and scholar much smarter than me, he doesn't take into account here composer John Powell's music, which I have supplied here.
However, by the third entry, where he tackles some of the narrative issues, Professor Bordwell has warmed up to the movie some, based on certain facets of the film pointed out to him by readers. The whole sequence of blog entries is a fascinating account of an interested and interesting film mind thinking out loud in public.