21 May

Regards, Ditko by Jaison Chahwala.

Well, what an unexpectedly lovely book.

It reads a little like one of those documentaries where the director fails to get an interview with a famous person and instead makes the journey the subject of the story. (Not entirely unlike Jonathan Ross’s In Search of Steve Ditko, in fact.) The plot is simple and quietly tragic. As a young teenager Jaison Chahwala becomes obsessed with Spider-Man, and with Ditko in particular. As an adult, he writes letters to Steve Ditko, and Ditko sends him a series of elliptical, frustrating replies. As a general rule Ditko didn’t engage with comic fandom, but he evidently regarded Chahwala as worth talking to. Chahwala, at any rate, comes to regard Ditko as a kind of indirect friend. He travels to New York in August 2018, but Ditko dies in June at the age of 90. He probably missed meeting his famous pen-pal by only one month.

The book doesn’t, truthfully, shed a great deal of new light on the Ditko enigma. It quotes from and reproduces some of the letters. I assume there are copyright barriers to reproducing the whole correspondence. Ditko is very reluctant to talk directly about comic books, but the letters Chahwala quotes are full of ultra-conservative pedantry. When asked how he feels about the state of modern comics Ditko goes off on one about how he doesn’t feel but only thinks, that only rationality is valid, two plus two equals four and A equals A. Anyone familiar with the collected editorials of Dave Sim will recognize the tune only too well. Ditko believes very strongly that black is black and white is white and there is nothing in between. He concedes that grey things exist but only in so far as they are a mixture of black things and white things. Heroes should exemplify only the white. Comics are an essentially low-brow form of entertainment and fans ought to progress to better forms of literature. He denies that his books contain a message, and is very angry at the idea that a fan or a critic can presume to judge a work. He is still sore about the Comics Code Authority, and refuses to discuss Spider-Man at all.

But the book paints a lovely picture of American comic book fandom in the 1990s, and in the first decades of the new millennium. Chahwala’s encounter with comic books is quite different from mine. Where I bought black and white reprints for 5p in English newsagents and read them until they fell apart, Chahwalla experiences them from the beginning as valuable, esoteric commodities to be slipped into plastic bags and backed with cards. His local comic store is a slightly exclusive, rather seedy establishment where kids are not quite welcome. He has to bribe an older cooler kid with stolen beer to show him where it is. He is so excited by the cover of Amazing Spider-Man 33 that he tries to buy it, not realising that it is a valuable collectors item. (That comic was a decade old when I read it, and thirty years old when he read it, but it still retains its gut-level impact.) I do love the fact that regardless of your age, the years around your twelfth birthday were always a simpler and more innocent time.

Truth to tell I was a little uncomfortable with the commoditisation of comic books — and comic book creators — that Chahwalla describes. He feels a genuine personal connection to Steve Ditko, but the first thing he does with the letter is to back and bag it. I knew that modern conventions charged punters extra money if they want the guests to sign autographs for them; I didn’t realize that there were onsite witnesses who authenticated your autographed product, bagged it and dated it and posted it back to you. It is clear that nonagenarian Stan Lee was being exploited by his handlers; selling his signature to collectors who regarded it primarily as a financial investment; but Stan sure did love meeting his fans. Chahwalla manages to tell Lee that he is corresponding with Ditko (fans are not really allowed to speak to him during autograph sessions) and wonders if he might somehow have been a bridge or go-between for the two estranged creatives. This seems a little optimistic. I recall that, very near the end of his life, a comics journalist told Jack Kirby that everyone in the world wanted to see him shake hands with Stan Lee. “I shook hands with Stan just last week” said Kirby “It doesn’t make any difference”. Chahwalla spends pretty much an entire chapter telling how he plans for the convention, how he decides what T-shirt to wear, how he plans out what to say and what it feels like to wait in the queue. It’s not conventional journalism or scholarship, but as the story of a personal journey it works very well: by the end I felt almost as nervous and excited as he did!

Of course, Chahwalla doesn’t ask the questions I would have asked. Why did a Randian objectivist create a character that was so much about moral responsibility? Was the man-in-the-club always going to be the Green Goblin? Where would the story have gone if Stan Lee hadn’t insisted on adding a fantasy element to it after the first few issues? Was the Final Chapter supposed to be the final chapter? But Ditko wouldn’t have answered my questions either. John Romita and Steve’s nephew Mark won’t talk to Chahwalla, but he does have a chat with the doorman at Ditko’s office building. All dead ends and frustrations are meticulously described. I didn’t come out of this book feeling that I knew much more about Steve Ditko, but I did feel I had a pleasant time getting to know one of his more committed fans.

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