‘Strange and Stranger’ by Blake Bell

Strange and Stranger

The World of Steve Ditko

Blake Bell

Fantagraphics: 216 pp., $39.99

Two weeks ago, at a cafe in San Francisco, I found myself across a table from Frank Miller, the most important comic book artist of the last 25 years. I was there to interview him about his shift to Hollywood filmmaking, but the conversation was derailed when I mentioned I was reading Blake Bell’s “Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko.” A look of alarm and intrigue ran across Miller’s face. He put down his drink and leaned forward. “What does it say? Tell me!”

For students of comics history, there are few names that strike the ear and the imagination quite like Ditko’s. In a field defined by brilliant oddballs, embittered journeymen, penniless geniuses and colorful hacks, Ditko is the strident hermit king. He gave the world Spider-Man but then more or less bugged out, deciding in 1969 to stop doing interviews and making public appearances. Now 80, Ditko lives in New York City, and although you can track down his studio, nobody I know who’s done so has gotten past the front step. It’s not that Ditko is unfriendly -- he’s willing to talk, apparently (in one case, for more than an hour), but only while standing in his doorway, blocking any view into his home and his life.

If you’re a journalist, however, it’s a different story. Last year, the BBC aired a documentary, “In Search of Steve Ditko,” in which reporter Jonathan Ross, accompanied by Neil Gaiman, sought an audience with Ditko. He refused to speak on camera, which only reinforces the idea of him as the J.D. Salinger of super-hero comics. This, I suppose, makes Peter Parker a wall-crawling Holden Caulfield.

“Strange and Stranger” represents an attempt to get inside the Ditko mythos, to reckon with his life and work. The good news is that the book is an extremely satisfying archive of the artist’s work, both famous and obscure, and that it intensely documents the twists and turns of his career. The bad news is that Bell is better at framing questions than he is at answering them. When you’re writing about a recluse, reportage is the obvious challenge, and “Strange and Stranger” ends up giving us an intricate sketch of Ditko’s professional life while developing an unconvincing portrait of the man himself.

Bell devotes only 2 1/2 pages to Ditko’s first 22 years of life, from his birth in Johnstown, Pa., in 1927 to his career-pursuing move to New York in 1950. That’s 17 fleeting paragraphs, and while he does come up with some great details -- Ditko’s strapped family collected Sunday strips of Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” so that his mother, Anna, could bind them within a cloth cover as the Christmas gift for his carpenter father, Stephen -- in the end, they only make us hungry for more.

There are also some whiplash-inducing passages, such as this dash through Ditko’s teen and post-teen years: “Easily the best artist in his class, Steve used his skills to aid the Allied forces during World War II. He joined a club of teenagers who carved balsa wood into model planes to train airplane spotters in identifying enemy aircraft.

“Steve graduated from Johnstown High School in 1945. His time spent post-graduation as part of the constabulary forces stationed in Germany did not deter his desire to become a comic-book artist. He drew comics for the Army newspaper, and after his discharge he decided to wholeheartedly pursue his dream.”

For Bell, Ditko’s real life began in New York in 1953 with his creepy first work, a five-page story called “Stretching Things.” This is the saga of a sour man named Lawrence Dawson who has been “plagued since early childhood with brittle bones.” Thanks to an experimental medication called Muiclac (spell it backward), he finds himself not only cured but also turned into a stretching, malleable freak (à la Plastic Man). He becomes a killer and finishes his days as a puddle of flesh. It was an appropriately weird start.

Ditko grew up loving the art of Jerry Robinson and Will Eisner, but for much of his career, he had a spindly, off-kilter style that rubbed the heroic off the page and replaced it with an anxious ballet of the surreal and the grotesque. He was also a devotee of Ayn Rand, which is a cornerstone of the portrait Bell constructs. One line in “Strange and Stranger” sums up the biography’s “big” angle: “By immersing himself in Rand’s teachings, Ditko started down a path that, ironically, would lead him away from riches and fame.”

Well, no, not really. The path that truly took Ditko away from any hope of a mansion life was his decision to become a comic-book artist. The culprit wasn’t “The Fountainhead,” but the fountain pen.

Other than old-time R&B musicians and blues men, is there a pop-culture community that was so consistently strip-mined as that of comic-book artists? If the creators of “Batman” and “Superman” wound up in near penury during their twilight years, how exactly did strident Randian thought lead to Ditko’s missed paydays? If Jack Kirby’s heirs choke on popcorn each time they see the Hollywood grosses earned by his characters (Iron Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four), would Ditko have done any better had he been a student of Kant?

Bell does note that Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman got upset when Ditko’s politics started seeping into “Spider-Man.” In one issue, Peter Parker chides a group of campus protesters, who come off as callow and insincere. Considering that a 1965 Esquire poll of college students put Spider-Man with Che Guevera and Bob Dylan as revolutionary icons, Goodman may have been right to worry. In 1966, Ditko walked away from his most famous character.

After Marvel, Ditko’s adherence to Rand’s theory of objectivism became part of his art. Bell documents that in fascinating detail. It was especially powerful in Ditko’s character Mr. A, a fairly obscure 1960s creation named in honor of the “Atlas Shrugged” chapter “A Is A.” In one monologue, Mr. A declares: “I have no mercy or compassion for aggressors, only for their victims -- the innocent!”

That’s hardly stunning now, but Mr. A was letting criminals fall to their death from rooftops at a time when Batman was still defined by Adam West in tights -- five years before Dirty Harry was asking punks if they felt lucky on-screen.

Ditko’s life, like that of R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar, has enough obsessive oddity and outsider struggle to be a tale told wide. But Bell goes the opposite direction, getting as narrow as the lines Ditko used to restrain the action in the old Marvel and Charlton comics.

That means Frank Miller is still waiting for the truth about Ditko -- or at least the kind of truth that goes beyond the doorstep and reveals our hero’s secret identity. *

geoff.boucher@latimes.comGeoff Boucher is a Times staff writer.