In the past three years or so, the indie comic book scene has grown exponentially. Evidence can be seen in the reception to independent creations by both established and up-and-coming talents. The brilliant, energetic work of Doug TenNapel raised nearly $200,000 for his fun Bigfoot Bill character, this despite multiple character assassination attempts on social media. Solidifying that it was not just a once-in-a-lifetime event, the impressive initial campaign was followed by an even more successful one for the second issue which brought in over $280,000.
Indiegogo, Kickstarter, and other crowd-funding platforms are pleasantly sprinkled with the work of numerous as-yet-unknown artists and writers. Lots of them are being fully funded. So the fans are speaking; the desire among comic fans to consume comics and other pop culture products that are not almost entirely agenda-driven is no longer latent. It’s a matter of record. Some may compare it to the start of Image, but this author believes this latest indie comic burst to be bigger and better. There are more participants and the reach is now global.
As this current indie comic boom and the quality of work it produces grow, it may be beneficial to look backwards to one of the pioneers of indie comics. The late, legendary Steve Ditko.
At the arguable peak of his notoriety from both his work on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, Ditko walked away. Stories regarding editorial interference of Ditko’s work at Marvel are legendary. Cover alterations (one example: Spider-Man #35), questionable, verbose, or unreasonable story / dialog additions, etc. also parts of the ingredients that encouraged Ditko to seek greener pastures (reference “The Ever Unwilling” essay in Robin Snyder’s “The Comics!” Vol 20, #3). Ditko pinpoints Stan Lee’s silence as the largest contributing factor in his essay “#45: Why I Quit S-M, Marvel”. (available in “The Four-Page Series”, edited by Robin Snyder here ). His leaving was not an admission of any sort of defeat, but a journey to bigger and better things; to a career arrangement that he would end up using for nearly six decades following.
Ditko left to become independent.
Ditko left Marvel in 1966 and began a short stint for Warren Publishing where his beautiful wash work is still seen as some of his best work by numerous fans today. After a brief stint at DC, Ditko was invited by friend and fellow artist Wally Wood to contribute to a new anthology called simply “witzend”. The hook Wood dangled was two-pronged: contributors were promised (1) the copyright to their stories and characters would belong to them; (2) they were free from any editorial interference.
For someone as creative and prolific as Ditko, this was certainly a welcomed invite.
It wasn’t until 1967 in Witzend #3 that Ditko contributed a full story. In it, he unleashed his most controversial character… Mr. A. That first story, “Fools Will Tell You that There Can Be No Honest Person!” is an amazingly illustrated one with Ditko’s distinct 9-panel (and more!) layout incorporated on nearly every page. The dialogue is lengthy and substantive and it ends like no other “superhero” or comic book story readers had likely ever read. (available in “Avenging World” edited by Robin Snyder here )
Space in this article is insufficient to discuss why some people found Mr. A. controversial. This author sees Mr. A. as a tremendous accomplishment of a creative powerhouse freed from editorial tinkering. Mr. A. is a watermark in Ditko’s career, yet also only the beginning of many great indie creations that he would go on to do. In the mid 80s, writer and editor Robin Snyder began collaborating with Ditko, publishing Ditko’s work with minimal editorial oversight. (available here) This collaboration lasted until Ditko’s death on June 29th, 2018 and actually continues to this day. (Robin Snyder just completed a massively successful Ditko Kickstarter campaign here.) In their over 30 years of collaborating, Ditko created characters that have yet to gain the widespread appeal that they deserve; characters like Static, The Missing Man, The Cape, and so many others. Additional great news is that the Ditko Estate is now actively developing many bits of Ditko merchandise, including a Mr. A. card set, T-shirts, and an upcoming Mr. A. compilation book with IDW.
So what can indie comic creators learn from Ditko?
Be unconquerably creative as he was. Love your part of the division of labor on the comic books you’re working as he did. Yet in all of your creating, don’t forget to be critical of your own work. Be your own best critic in light of the lack of editorial oversight. Ditko said it best himself in a private letter that was released online, saying:
“The best kind of constructive criticism can come from you. You have to look at what you’ve done – the strong and weak points and ask why they are so. Whatever errors or weaknesses discovered should be worked on. A continuous analysis, questions will provide a solid foundation and confidence that have to result in steady improvement.
What seems to be forgotten today in comics is that all imagination requires JUDGEMENT. Art isn’t ‘anything goes’. It’s amazing in today’s comics why human beings are held in so low regard. The world will always have its criminals and villains, the worst people but the comic world doesn’t even believe better people are possible or desirable.”
Ditko’s body of work ought to be a source of inspiration and a guide to indie comic creators. An individual armed with ideas is nothing. But if he / she uses their talents to express them sincerely (not at the dictates of an overbearing editor and a company with a political agenda and quotas) and if they themselves are committed to refining those skills, then now is a great time for you.
If you’re not an indie comic creator, but you enjoy the work of creators, remember that your money talks. Instead of that latest fluff from one of the Big Two, why not invest that money in an indie comic campaign or pop culture outlets like Bleeding Fool? Just take a look at our weekly Indie Comics Showcase column.
For US fans, a massive Ditko exhibit, Ditko Inspired Exhibit, is being held in Johnstown, PA from July 15th to September 11th. Rare photos, drawing tools, and other items meant to showcase Ditko the man, the brother, the uncle will be on display. The exhibit will also feature an auction of Ditko-inspired work, an exhibit-exclusive T-shirt, and even new Ditko merchandise from the Ditko Estate.
Check it out here: bottleworks.org/ditko-inspired-exhibit