Saturday, September 15, 2007

In Search Of Steve Ditko

Outside of the UK, Jonathan Ross is probably best known to film ick readers for kissing Neil Gaiman, or being married to the co-screenwriter of the Stardust film. Here, however, he's probably the fourth biggest TV presenter - after Davina, Ant and Dec - and almost certainly the best. He's been running a variant on The Tonight Show for a couple of decades now, on and off, from The Last Resort in the 80s to the current Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. This later show is part of his phenomenally lucrative deal with the BBC, for whom he also presents a weekly radio show and occasional offshoots, such as Japanorama, his joyous, if indulgent, exploration of Japanese culture.

As part of the current BBC 4 comic-centric season, Ross has made a documentary with a fully self-explanatory title: In Search of Steve Ditko. It begins with a to-camera address by Ross in which he reveals just how much comic book illustrator and author Ditko means to him. Apparently, no other individual in any of the entertainment industries has ever brought Ross so much pleasure (and he gets a lot of pleasure from the entertainment industries, that much is clear).

Personally, I'm not too experienced in first hand Ditko. I know Spider-Man, of course, but I've already spent more time with the Sam Raimi incarnation than any paper version; I'd held some Dr. Strange in my hands, some Shade too, and I knew The Creeper and Mr. A by reputation. One hour with Ross and company later, and I'm not only much better informed about all of the above, I'm actively seeking some Ditko to get a better look. Any suggestions where to begin?

Before searching for Steve Ditko himself, Ross chases around Steve Ditko 'the legend', speaking to a number of his collaborators and colleagues. There's a couple of very suspenseful moments - when Ross has Stan Lee in his sights he gets him up against the ropes, on the verge of admitting for the first time ever that Ditko was in fact the co-creator of Spider-Man. I won't tell you if Ross delivers the knockout blow or not, but I promise, what happens is quite remarkable and will be quoted for years to come. I'm quite curious about Ross' attitude to Stan Lee overall - it's no doubt tempered by a nostalgia that I don't share, so maybe I'll never quite get my head around it.

One of the many interview subjects is Neil Gaiman who later joins Ross on the physical hunt for Ditko in person. It's a brief gallivant about the streets of New York culminating in another eminently quotable conclusion. I can't really spoil this either, but Ross' goal is to get Ditko to give a history-making first interview on camera and he at least sort-of succeeds.

It's great TV, and the sections on Ditko's politics are particularly engaging. Alan Moore appears throughout, which is probably enough to bolster ratings by 10% alone, and in one instance explains Ditko's influence on Watchmen - and not in terms of the artwork, but the moral dimensions (both of them) of one particular character.

As an interested, partly initiated layman this was great TV. Ross' shows about Asian cinema, for example, are much more my usual remit and play much more to my knowledge and specific focus, but this was perhaps even more interesting and every bit as entertaining.

If you're here in the UK, the show screens on Sunday 16th September at 9pm, repeated later at 12.50am, then on Thursday 20th at 12.30am (strictly Friday 21st, then, I suppose). After that, or in other locations, the LocateTV embed below will keep you informed of any time the show is going to screen again, with a fourteen day advance window.

Click to see LocateTV results for Jonathan Ross In Search of Steve Ditko. Always up to date, always relevant to you.


Mark said...

Where to begin? Well, Marvel have repackaged his work on Spidey and Dr Strange countless times. I'd recommend the ESSENTIAL volumes for Spider-Man (though there's an OMNIBUS with everything he ever did on the character, over-sized, in colour), but to get the full-on psychedelia of Dr Strange, get the MASTERWORKS volume, in lovely, garish, colour. To get a more complete overview of the time spent at Marvel, there's a MARVEL VISIONARIES book, which starts with his work there when they were called Atlas and pumped out monster comics, right up to the last great work he did there - the first appearance of Squirrel Girl. And I realise I may be in a minority of two in thinking that wacky-toned short is actually genius, but there ya go.

His Charlton work is being reprinted in hardback over at DC, in the ARCHIVE EDITIONS series marked "Action Heroes", with his work on Captain Atom, Blue Beetle and The Question, all proto-Watchmen. Unfortunately DC don't do editions like Marvel's artist-themed VISIONARIES editions, so I doubt if his work there in the seventies, on various titles that didn't last long enough to now support their own reprints (The Creeper, Shade The Changing Man, Starman, etc), will ever get decently anthologised.

Brendon said...

I didn't know Marvel did these Visionaries compilations. Who else have they covered?

Sounds like I can get a comics education more easily than I thought...

Mark said...

These things are never straight forward, due to the inconsistency of Marvel's collections over the years. In the past they've done editions with "Marvel Visionaries" in the trade dress, for characters and creators, seemingly willy-nilly. However, it is the oversized hardcovers with Chip Kidd-esque cover designs I'd steer you towards. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: it would definitely be worth getting the regular sized, softcovered, Steranko and Gil Kane editions with an awful trade dress, for example.

They've done a couple of volumes of Kirby, a Stan Lee, a John Buscema, a Roy Thomas and a John Romita. They've also done a couple of slightly more modern ones in the case of Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr. As a general rule, they're decent samplers, showing the breadth of work those creators have done, often over very long stretches of time.

But to get a cheap education in comics, it's hard to beat Marvel's ESSENTIALS and DC's SHOWCASE editions.

Anonymous said...

I watched this show on your ecommendation and it was awesome. I don't know anything much about comics either really, or at least not the old ones only a few I read when I was growing up in the 90's. I loved the Spiderman films though, like you obviously do, so I gave this a punt and guess what? I think I'll be watching the rest of the series. Great stuff and yes I agree about Ross too.

Not Ultros said...

Where does Louis Theroux fit in with the top BBC TV presenters, I wonder?

I always found The Question's evolution from a Ditko Randian character to O'Neil and Cowan(sp?)'s Buddhist buttkicker one of the great, believable transitions in comics. The Question could potentially be the best comic book movie ever.

RIP, Vic Sage.