|In Search of Steve Ditko
Hosted by Jonathan Ross
THE HIGHEST AND MOST RELEVANT PRAISE that can likely be given to a documentary on an artist is that it makes you want to seek out their work. That can definitely be said of In Search of Steve Ditko, the recent BBC Four documentary on the reclusive artist and co-creator of Spider-Man.
Of course, in my case it’s less “seek out” than “actually read the books you already own” since I was already perfectly aware of Ditko but hadn’t had the necessary push to get me to investigate him the way I have his Marvel-era contemporary, Jack Kirby. Despite the fact that I own the first Essential Spider-Man and actually used the original Spider-Man story from Amazing Fantasy #15 in the high school comics class I teach, I’ve never read all the way through the book. After watching the documentary while flipping through it, I definitely will be.
The title of the documentary is a bit misleading, as it’s not really about trying to find someone who has skillfully vanished from sight (Ditko proves easily found), but is mostly a documentary on Ditko’s career. The commentary comes from host Jonathan Ross, Marvel editors like Ralph Macchio and Joe Quesada, artists that shared the Marvel Bullpen with Ditko like John Romita Sr., and high profile fans like Alan Moore (himself often labeled a recluse, but really just someone who’s happy to stay at home––he’s a warm interview subject here) and Neil Gaiman.
The title largely refers to the final segment, in which Ross and Gaiman arrive at Ditko’s office in New York There’s no particular reason to believe that this is the culmination of his research; it’s simply the sequence that comes last. After Ditko rebuffs Ross’ request for an interview by phone, the two head upstairs and visit him sans camera. When they return to the street, they gush together about the experience, and it’s charming and amusing to hear Gaiman excitedly say, “He gave us comics!”
However, though this structural premise is a little shaky, the bulk of the documentary is very informative. It gives enough background that viewers don’t have to be very familiar with comics to understand why Ditko is important to the field and what his impact on pop culture has been (as Ross points out, who hasn’t heard of Spider-Man?), with plenty of footage from the recent Spidey movies to underline the point. Certainly it provided enough to engage someone with relatively little knowledge of Ditko like myself from the start.
As for people who are already fairly familiar with Ditko’s work, there’s still plenty to see. Interviewees break down several Ditko pages, talking about how the imagery, panel choices and layouts work, focusing particularly on a sequence from a Ditko Spider-Man story called “The Final Chapter.” Amongst several insightful comments on Ditko’s style, Alan Moore also has a funny anecdote about Ditko’s reaction to Watchmen’s Rorschach. And the documentary is full of plenty of ‘60s Marvel gems. I had already heard the Marvel bullpen goofing around on the flexidisc record given to members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, but I hadn’t heard the MMMS’ theme song, which is also unearthed for the documentary.
Finally, there is the interview with Stan Lee. Lee comes off pretty well, truly believing that he deserves the credit for Spider-Man’s creation––with a defensible, if self-serving, rationale––but proving agreeable in his willingness to share the credit publicly. However, neither of these positions were what interested me the most. When asked if he thinks he deserves sole credit, Lee dodges the question, and says that’s the best answer he’ll give. But once pressed, his eagerness to please takes over. It’s the other side of Stan the showman, who will “take any credit that isn’t nailed down,” but who also can’t quite bring himself to disappoint someone by not answering a question fully, even against his better judgement. So he actually continues, giving a very candid answer that addresses both his desire to make Ditko happy and his own thoughts on the matter.
It’s a very satisfying hour, both light and informative. Jonathan Ross brings a dry humor and exuberance that it’s rare to see in historical documentaries in the US. There may not be a lot of new biographical information on Ditko, but it’s probably the first time that this much has been collected in one place on film, and the inclusion of many comics pros’ takes on Ditko, along with Stan Lee’s conflicted feelings about credit are more than enough to keep it interesting.
Mark Evanier has kindly compiled all of the segments of In Search Of Steve Ditko from YouTube on his website, so definitely watch it.