Even today I can remember the force with which my first sight of a Marvel superhero comic struck me. It was in May 1962, roughly, in a grocery store on 67th and NE Tillamook in Portland, Oregon, and the issue in question was Fantastic Four No. 4. Instantly I could tell that there was something different, spontaneous, uninhibited about this comic, though I was probably too young to articuate such febrile impessions. It was the issue in which the creators re-introduced a golden age character, here as a "villain," called Namor the Sub-Mariner, though again I hadn't heard of him. The dynamism of the issue was all due to the artist, Jack Kirby, whose use of posture and foreshortening soon became world famous.
Soon I was a full fledged Marval fanatic, and since I was getting in on the ground floor it wasn't too hard to hunt down the few issues I missed, though I never found FF Nos. 2 or 3 in anything but reprint form. Fantastic Four was followed some months later by Amazing Fantasy No. 15, and though the cover was by Jack Kirby, the interior was by the ineffable Steve Ditko. Later, I realized what it was about the Marvels that distinguished them from the usual run of comic books: the artists were allowed a form of personal expression, that their individual styls were on high display, unlike in the Archie comics or the DCs. There was probably nothing like it since the old EC comics and the first run of Mad. This same sense of personal expression and signature style was also what the auteur critic were soon to point out about many previously unheralded American film directors.
Soon, DC comics, too bland, too science fictiony, were my nemesis. DC was pre-fab, repetitious, corporate (except for that loose cannon, Batman). If DC was the Republican party, Marvel was the Demorats; Marvel was the American League to DCs National League (though as an adult with a better sense of history I now see how fault lines in these dichotomies).
For me it came down to the individual artists and the seeming freedom they had at Marvel. Jack Kirby, with his muscular splash pages and eye for human posture was the masculine go-to guy, whose imaginaton was not contained even by the universe itself, much less the comic book page. He formed a fine, curious conrast with Ditko, whose cramped, urban worlds were perfect settings for his brooding, depressed characters. It was McCartney versus Lennon all over again. The glib expansive McCartney with his intuitive understanding of broad forms mirrored in Kirby's easy epical sweep, versus Ditko's "Lennon" (a comparison the artist would hate), dark, questioning, unsatisfied. Though numerous cartoonists would come along to further enhance Marvel's originality, from Bill Everett to Joe Orlando and Jim Steranko, Kirby and Ditko were the mainstays, paradoxically even after they soon left the publishing house over creative differences.
The broad contrasts between the two signature Marvel artists are highlighted in the coincidental publication of two book length studies. Kirby: King of Comics (Abrams, 224 pages, $40, ISBN 978-0810994478) by Mark Evanier, with an intro by Neil Gaiman, is a survey of the career of the late cartoonist by one who knew him, while Blake Bell's Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics Books, 220 pages, $39.99, ISBN 978-1560979210) is a sympathetic though not uncritical account of the still active if aged illustrator.
Evanier is a television writer but got his start in comics and was an assistant to Kirby, so he must have born witness to Kirby's frustrating lack of appreciation from the bigwigs at the various comic book publishing houses where he worked, including DC for a time. Kirby started out working for animator Max Fleischman before graduating to comic books in the 1930s, where he co-invented Captain America, also revived by Marvel in the 1960s. It's difficult to imagine the sheer number of pages that a journeyman cartoonist had to churn out in those days, and Kirby appears to be tireless, using numerous pseudonyms (including "Jack Kirby" since he was born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917) to fill the plenitude of comic books (64 pages!) and newspapers, some of the institutions he was working for turning out to be fly-by-night operations whose doors were shut when he came 'round to pick up his check. The Age of Kirby finally began, however, when Stan Lee, the editor of Marvel, was directed by his boss to come up with a Justice League of America style comic, which resulted in the Fantastic Four, a collaboration between Lee and Kirby that also lead to the invention of the X-Men, the Silver Surfer, and other heroes.
Flush with the exciting and unexpected success of the Fantastic Four, Lee turned to another cartoonist for another new comic, this time Ditko for Spider-Man. As Jonathan Ross made clear in his excellent documentary In Search of Steve Ditko, and as Bell here reiterates, Ditko was an entirely different style of collaborator. A disciple of Ayn Rand bearing extreme right wing views, Ditko clashed with Lee and, after establishing the Spider-Man template, eventually quit. Ditko was replaced with John Romita, whose romance comic style of drawing proved more appealing to the mass readers and only then did Spider-Man really take off. Ditko appears to have withdrawn from mainstream comics altogether, even doing an underground comic or 'zine or two in the '70s and '80s. Leaving Marvel also meant abandoning one of the most surrealistic comic characters of all times, Dr. Strange, whose phantasmagoric panoramas mirrored indulgences some readers made in psychotropic drugs. Even Ditko's splash panels, unlike Kirby's, have a claustrophobic, determined feel. Still a journeyman artist (whose office building location is revealed in Ross's documentary) Ditko has done a bit of everything in recent years, including some funny animal comics in the 1990s, which are hard to recognize as "Ditkoian."
Evanier's text is a breezier celebratory account of Kirby's life, while Bell's book is somewhat more detailed and investigative as befits a mysterious figure, with full notes at the end,including a fascinating, lengthy, and complex note that entails the history of the book itself. Bell seems to have tracked down everything Ditko has done and everyone who has ever met him (though I didn't detect any reference to the erotic cartoonist Bill Ward, with whom Ditko briefly shared a studio, and whose images of buxom bossy women Ditko would sometimes ink for Ward, who worked in pencil), worked with him, or tried to rip him off. Differences aside, both books are fine additions to the comic book completist's collection, Bell's especially for its forays into so much unknown territory.