Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Frank Miller and the Friends of Abe

Not really about comics:

Finding through Sean Collins's blog (via) that Frank Miller was posting on the comments thread of Victor Davis Hanson's blog, I decided to look for more Miller posts at that site. Miller has apparently been sporadically posting over there for at least a year and a half, and I thought that a selection of his most noteworthy posts might be of interest, for a look at his thoughts about Hollywood, politics, and heroes.

Posted April 20, 2008:

Professor Hanson,

Your comments about movie-making and finding the right actor to portray a hero strike a loud chord with this director.

I was insistent, through the casting of my new movie, THE SPIRIT, to find a lesser known actor, so that the audience would, as they did with Richard Donner’s wonderful SUPERMAN and his perfect choice of then-unknown Christopher Reeve as the Man Of Steel, see the Spirit as the Spirit, not as a vehicle for an established star.

It wasn’t easy to find my hero. Dozens were auditioned. I learned that while Hollywood produces many skilled male actors, it produces very few men.

Gabriel Macht emerged as a matinee-idol dream of a hero, and he and I worked very closely for many months as he crafted his part.

So it was difficult to cast the part. But I still believe the fault lies not with the acting talent available, but rather with movie-makers’ intent. Look around: modern Bogarts like Bruce Willis crave good, heroic roles. Clive Owen brings back the verve of Sean Connery, adding his own Chandleresque twist to the job. Mickey Rourke is certainly a tragic presence–and an heroic one–worthy of the best comparisons with Jack Palance, in Rourke’s performance in my SIN CITY. And Gerry Butler in 300 would certainly put the great Charlton Heston to the test.

Add to that Matt Damon in the BOURNE series, and Brad Pitt whenever they let him show what he can do, and, though they are few, I argue that the talent is there.

To mangle the words of the Bard, the fault lies not in our stars, but in our studios.


Posted September 30, 2008:

Should Obama be elected, sad indeed though I will be, and horrible for my country this will be, I will remember my mother’s wise words: “We’ll still be America.”

This patriot takes some comfort in that.


A couple of months later he's more optimistic:

Posted November 19, 2008:

Call me crazy, call me irresponsible, but, though I opposed his candidacy, I suspect President Obama will turn out to be a rather moderate president. The Presidency is not a kingship, and it is informed by forces and events that are unexpected.

The anti-Obama hysteria is already smelling like the toxic waste thrown at George W.

Let’s see what the man does.


Posted November 22, 2008:


Please. McCarthy lost. The socialists won. That is so evident it is painful to behold.

Meanwhile, I challenge our correspondents to drop their fake names and stand for who they are. STATE YOUR REAL NAMES!

Or be branded, properly, as cowards.


(He goes on ranting against anonymous commenters for several more posts during that thread.)

And the latest post from a few days ago:

As usual, I concur with your sentiment, and share much of your taste (just watched ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA for the umpteenth time–what a tonic!), but I think that you’re unaware of the quiet struggle ongoing in entertainment.

The acting talent is there in abundance, though frequently misdirected, poorly scripted, and dismissed or downright condemned by critics. Given the proper opportunity, I’d put Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Daniel Craig, Gary Sinise, Matt Damon, Samuel Jackson, Harrison Ford and others up against the stars of old. I’d likewise mention two actors in particularly with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work: Gabriel Macht and Gerard Butler. No nasal, spoiled-by-spending-their-lives-sitting-by-the-swimming-pool spoiled-brat conceit there.

“He is the hero; he is everything,” wrote Raymond Chandler. In film, a hero is a construct in the best sense of the word. The heroic actor is, of course, the sine qua non of any such effort. But whatever his talents and inherent dramatic virtue, the heroic actor is hobbled by an anti-heroic script, director, or studio. Women? You probably haven’t heard of Carla Gugino, but should her talent be unleashed, she’d give Bettte Davis a run for her money. Take a good look at Hilary Swank in MILLION DOLLAR BABY, and see what she can do–if allowed.

Many in Hollywood still whine about “The McCarthy Era,” which is ironic, given that McCarthy lost and the Left won. So the pervading atmosphere is at direct odds with any attempt at heroic drama. In response, a fast-growing group called FRIENDS OF ABE has taken shape in hope of reclaiming heroism–and patriotism–to the screen. Then next time we’re both in LA, I’d love to take you to one of their lunches or dinners. I think you’d find it encouraging, if not inspiring.


The "Friends of Abe" group that Miller mentions at the end is (according to the Washington Times) a group of politically conservative Hollywood figures apparently trying to do something against what they perceive as a Hollywood bias in favor of liberalism (also described in the article as a support group for industry figures allegedly ostracized for espousing conversative values). Miller's participation in this group shouldn't come as a surprise, but it's still interesting to see.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Review: Two Steve Ditko Comics

I've known for some time that Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder have been publishing new Ditko comics over the past few years, but it became harder for me to buy these comics once they stopped being listed in the Diamond catalog. It seems the only way to get them now is through mail order or at one of the few comic-book stores that carry them.

So during a visit to New York a few months ago, one of the first things I did was to head over to Jim Hanley's Universe where I knew these comics would be stocked. I ended up buying four of them:

  • Steve Ditko's 32-Page Package ("Tsk! Tsk") (2000), a collection of illustrated essays.
  • The Avenging Mind (April 2008), a collection of (mostly) text pieces dealing with topics such as current Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, Martin Goodman, and examinations of what it means to "create" something (with special attention given to Stan Lee's various and contradictory accounts of his and Ditko's role in the creation of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange).
  • ...Ditko Continued... (January 2009)
  • Oh, No! Not Again, Ditko! (March 2009)

It's the last two I'm interested in reviewing here; both are 32-page black-and-white comics featuring mostly stories told in a traditional comics format, along with some illustrated editorials or examinations of the ideas that Ditko's traditionally been concerned with.

It makes sense to review these two together, Ditko has this odd habit of splitting stories between books, publishing for example the first four pages of a story in ...Ditko Continued... and then publishing the conclusion (pages 5 to 8) in Oh, No! Not Again, Ditko! (I don't find serialization by itself to be odd, it's the brevity of each installment that makes me wonder why couldn't each story be published complete in a single comic.) Also, some stories in ...Ditko Continued... are conclusions to stories apparently originally began in Ditko, etc..., a comic I didn't find at Jim Hanley's store.

Reading the comics, one thing that immediately stands out is the minimalistic approach to storytelling that Ditko uses. Each panel contains the minimal information needed to carry the story and explain the motivation for each character. One gets the impression that complete sentences are barely used here, the dialog frequently consists of only fragments of sentences or simple descriptions of actions (some examples of all the dialog featured in three single panels from different stories: "...try a long shot...", "...a drink, relax... count my earnings...", "that's it... hear voices..."). The artwork is also quite clear, some pages are elegantly designed, but there's little unnecessary detail in them.


It's as if Ditko at this point didn't feel the need to bother with all the trappings of a standard "good vs. evil" story (or in many cases, "evil hoist by its own petard" story); there are no captions, no unnecessary supporting characters, very few backgrounds, no effort (as in traditional superhero comics) at creating an unbelievable situation and then trying to convince us of its believability through repetition and the gradual accumulation of details. All that stuff would interfere with the message, with the point of the story.

In a similar fashion, characters either have no name, or just the briefest of names needed to identify them. Ditko's new hero is simply called "The Hero", another one is just called "The Cape" (and he consists of just that, a floating cape; no face, no body). Villains are called "The Fist" (he has a gigantic fist) or "Force" and "Violence". Heroic characters have only one facial expression, looking with serene detachment; "evil" or "corrupt" characters' faces on the other hand go through several contortions throughout the story: from happiness to worry to fear to incomprehension in some cases ("Why? I'm an honest man... doesn't make sense.. white ... grey ... black !?") or frustrated acceptance of their fate in others.

There are also a few one-pagers scattered throughout these comics, these can be similar to old-fashioned editorial cartoons (heavy on labels and simple symbolism), or diagrammatic examinations of ideas (one example shown below).


I admit I particularly enjoyed the sequences Ditko devotes to comic-book fans. Fans as shown here are arrogant, whiny, selfish, and parasitic; complaining when Ditko doesn't meet their expectations (which seems to be always). The thing is, Ditko's right. These fans exist and I've seen them in various message boards and mailing lists. One thing is to disagree with Ditko's philosophy, dismiss some of his ideas, or criticize his work, but there are many fans who go beyond that and seem to be offended by the very idea of someone not living in the way they'd like him to live: Why doesn't he give interviews? Why doesn't he try to claim the rights to Spider-Man? Why didn't he negotiate a better deal? Why is he challenging Stan Lee's version of history now and not fifteen years earlier?

Ditko is certainly an intriguing figure in comics, and it's very tempting to try to guess what his motivations are, what makes him tick, what makes him behave in the way he does. But many fans go beyond this, trying to convince themselves and others that "Ditko must be an unhappy man", "Ditko's moving through different publishers in the 1960's and 1970's must mean he's an unstable person", "Alan Moore says Ditko lives at the YMCA so it must be true", "Ditko must be penniless", etc (none of these examples are made up). Ditko seems to be aware of these fans and their deeply-held convictions (one page is simply titled "The Internet Nuts"), and there's a one-pager titled "I Don't Understand!?! I'm an Inquiring Guy" which is so eerily accurate that it makes me suspect Ditko must be reading a few mailing lists I'm aware of. (The phrase "Ditko won't perform for us" is also a great summation of fan thinking, see illustration below.)

Ditko won't perform for us

I love the idea of this 81 year-old man thumbing his nose at his detractors and not doing the slightest effort to accomodate them or justify his actions to them.

But of course, after criticizing and mocking other fans for their attempts at mind-reading Ditko, I can't help falling in the same trap myself, if only a little. (Though according to these comics, you can't be "a little" wrong or be guilty of a "minor" transgression, you're either behaving correctly and rationally or you aren't.) One can draw parallels between some elements of these stories and Ditko's own life, such as in page 3 of "The Partner" in which someone fixes a report only to have someone else take the credit for it ("...great report, yes, good work. Very good!")

Ditko backstabbing

And one story in particular, "Habitual Means to Ends" (sample page shown above), with its depiction of a backstabber who constantly excuses himself by saying he's sorry and that he will not do it again, reminds me of Ditko's account in Steve Ditko's 32-Page Package of how Stan Lee gladly takes complete credit in interviews for the creation of Spider-Man, then corrects his version and credits Ditko ("I write this to ensure that Steve Ditko receives the credit to which he is so justly entitled"), only to once again take complete credit for the character, and so on.

It's not much of a stretch to assume that this "I'll stab you / I'm sorry!" behavior could also be how Ditko sees his past relationships with certain publishers, fans, or associates; take for instance Blake Bell's account of his relationship with Ditko and the reasons why Ditko decided to stop his association with him. (And I'm aware of the irony that with this paragraph I've become one of the fans Ditko shows in "The Internet Nuts", saying things like "One might assume he figured / It also may have been.../ They look like they could have been...".)

All in all, I wasn't disappointed with these comics. They can be simplistic and repetitive at times, but they do contain some surprises, some good old-fashioned Ditko fighting scenes (pages 6, or 13-14 of Ditko's "Hero" story are fine examples), and they even show Ditko has a sense of humor (something that's almost always omitted in the usual accounts of Ditko as a recluse which doesn't give interviews). I'm glad he's still doing his eccentric comics for the very love of it, and I look forward to reading more of them as they become available.