Losing Steve Ditko

In one week we’ve lost Harlan Ellison and now, Steve Ditko. Both were uncompromising but whereas Ellison was vocal in defending his actions and work, Ditko was the exact opposite often to the detriment of his career.Ditko’s death hurts and I think the tributes pouring out for him are all so touching because although Jack Kirby was a genius who created a large part of the Marvel Universe, it was Ditko who created much of what Kirby didn’t.

Ditko was a reclusive to the point where the only pictures we have on him come mainly from one photo session in the early 1960’s. He spoke through his work and he did so in a way no creator working for Marvel or DC could today.

I wasn’t aware of Ditko as a kid. I was reading American imports of Spider-Man but this was the late John Romita, early Gil Kane run so it was through his DC work I was most familiar with him. Especially his creation, The Creeper who to this day I adore still.

It was though Marvel UK’s reprints I got to lap up Ditko’s Spider-Man and then his Hulk and Doctor Strange which blew my tiny little mind.

But it’ll be Spider-Man he’ll be remembered for and I’ll always remember his splash pages from Amazing Spider-Man annual #1.

It wasn’t til the 80’s that I became aware of how some fans as well as large chunks of the media were pushing the line that Stan Lee had created Spider-Man by himself, something Ditko addressed in his self-published comics.

Ditko never compromised. He could have but if you’ve read any of Ditko’s work you’d realise Ditko wasn’t about compromise. A is A. Ditko’s political beliefs would never let him sell out and it’s Ditko’s politics married with his visuals that made him unique. As a Guardian reading lefty, I should be repulsed by Ditko’s often hard right Ayn Randian philosophies but I’m fascinated by them, and in what it inspired Ditko to create.

Indeed, his politics was essential in creating the idea of his Peter Parker as an outsider, which set him aside from others in the era of Vietnam War protests.

When Ditko left Marvel it was here that things get interesting. His work for me at DC and Charlton is incredible with the aforementioned Creeper, plus the Blue Beetle and The Question standing out.

I’d come across Ditko’s work in the 70’s and loved the weird oddness of it all. I especially loved Killjoy which ran as a back-up in Charlton’s E-Man.

Although Ditko returned to Marvel in the 1980’s he left to work alone on his own comics published by Robin Snyder, and again, he’s still not compromising.

Ditko has been with us drawing comics for over 60 years and he never stopped creating, or doing what he wanted to do. Now he’s gone and we’ll never get Ditko’s worldview of right and wrong, good and evil or just what he thinks will thrill or astound us anymore.

He’ll be missed. The unique always should be.

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Losing Harlan Ellison

I have a Harlan Ellison story. Lots and lots of people who’ve been in, or are fans of, comics, SF, fantasy or just fans of his writing have a story. I’ve told mine before but here it is again. In 1985 at a SF convention in Glasgow, Ellison was guest of honour and was having great fun pissing off and entertaining all the right people because even as a young lad somewhat awestruck at being even in the same city as one of his heroes, I could see that Ellison danced the line between genius and arsehole easily. One minute he’s be amiable and chatty, the next he’d be annoyed and angry but he’d never compromise himself. His comments about writers getting paid show this.

So back to the story. I was working a dealers table selling comics and Ellison came in to have a shufty at our stuff. He picked a few things up and much to everyone’s surprise knew more about British comics than I’d have suspected. I was wearing a Marvelman badge, and spinning off the conversation from Warrior, Ellison asked if we had any for sale which we didn’t. He then asked if he could have mine. I eventually gave him it because this was my hero and I didn’t want to disappoint.

Ellison later came over to me in the bar, offered to get a drink and we ended up chatting about how great Dreamscape was. Indeed, it still is.

Ellison then had to move on with his small entourage but I was a happy lad as he’d signed a copy of The Glass Teat which is one of the greatest books of criticism ever published.  That book is something that influenced why I started this blog, and in fact it wasn’t until Ellison’s death I realised how much he’d shaped me growing up.

See, that wee story I have is something I’ve pulled out often over the years because it is a great wee story. The part of the story I usually miss out is when Ellison talked about not compromising which is something I don’t think Ellison did once in his life which led him to do great things, not to mention some awful things.

But that idea that someone can’t compromise because once you do it then becomes a game as to how far you’ll go without fully compromising yourself. I can’t remember when I did start compromising and although my life was better in some ways, a wee part of me was dead.

I’ll miss Ellison not being around. I’ll miss not being able to see if there’s a new soundbite  that I can use to help me sum up current events, and with current events being horrible I think we’ve lost a guide at a bad time.We’ll still have his mountain of work but we’ve lost a voice who could be good or bad, arrogant and uncompromising but always had something worthwhile to say. There will never be another like him.

Goodbye and thanks for whatever small lessons you’ve given me. I’m going to watch Dreamscape later and wallow in the memories of 1985.

From Earthsea to Manchester

Yesterday saw the deaths of writer Ursula Le Guin and musician Mark E. Smith. Both were much, much more than just a writer and a musician and both were complicated people which has made some of the reactions to their deaths highlight just how polarised, and even simplistic some people can be.

Le Guin wrote science fiction and fantasy. She defended what she wrote as SF, and didn’t take the easy option of classing her work as something the middle class literati would accept without turning their nose up as something as ‘common’ as SF. She threw out SF stories which challenged you as a reader to think about ideas that were human and alien. Her fantasy tales of Earthsea were liberally ‘borrowed’ by writers lesser than her (I expect J.K Rowling’s cheque got lost in the post…) and she built utopia’s that seemed functional. I soundly recommend The Dispossessed as it is one of the finest books ever written and you need to search out her essay The Stalin in the Soul if you’ve ever slaved in a job wishing you’d quit to become an artist.

Had the left in the UK adopted her as much as the hippies in the 1970’s did, then things might be very different. Her vision of utopia, equality & sane, evidence driven policy mixed with frankly, a Punk aesthetic which brings me nicely to Mark E. Smith. Smith was The Fall; a post-Punk band which was more than a band. Drawing from a massive amount of influences Smith recreated himself as something we don’t do much anymore as he became an original. One of his big influences is H.PLovecraft (you can hear The Fall as a Lovecraftian band very easily) which brings me to this wonderful bit of telly as Smith reads Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space.

It will be the music & the thought behind it that Smith should be remembered for. My favourite period are the Brix Smith years. Partly because the material appeals more to my pop-punk sensibilities, but also because Smith seemed settled and at a creative, not to mention, commercial, high.

Even having a genuine hit and everything in the charts! This is also the video that made me fall for Brix Smith. Sigh…

And Smith even tried to sing.

But go back and listen to his early stuff. It is simply amazing to hear how mature it is in the sense that Smith had a clear vision of what he wanted to sound like.

And of course the English national anthem they never had.

The Fall live of course was a lottery. Some times like a gig in Leicester in the early 90’s, or at the Astoria in London in the late 90’s, or at Strathclyde Uni in the 80’s, they were astonishing. Sometimes like Reading Festival in 1999 they were a shambles. As for Smith he could be a prick. He was often someone who came over as dislikeable at times, but then he was also as good as gold. I once saw him hanging around after a gig in London chatting to folk. Fact is, he, like any of us, was a complex person.

Yesterday took from us two original thinkers and creators. Both were complex, often uncompromising human beings who always to be there it seemed. Both were amazingly prolific. Both seemed to be invulnerable. Both are gone and from Earthsea to Manchester we’re all a little bit diminished for their passing.

Peter Wyngarde has passed away

For people of a certain age, Peter Wyngarde was the face of the school holidays where you’d be glued to the telly watching repeats of Jason King or Department S. He later of course cut a wonderful baddie in Flash Gordon as Klytus.

Wyngarde was one of those actors who ended up inspiring a whole load of people from Mike Myers for his Austin Powers character, to Chris Claremont and John Byrne for their X Men run with the ‘Jason Wyngarde’ character.

He was so popular at one point he released a solo album titled imaginatively enough, Peter Wyngarde. It has a track called Rape.

Moving on, he also did a fantastic version of Neville Thumbcatch which just sums up that point in the early 70’s where the hippy dream hasn’t fully died yet, but we’re also falling into a cultural mess that ends up in Punk in 1976.

So cheerio to one of those characters we’ll never, ever have again…

The death of Sean Hughes is a massive loss to comedy

Comedian Sean Hughes died at the age of 51 of liver failure. Apart from the personal tragedy for friends and family, the world of comedy has lost someone unique, and we don’t see people like Hughes coming through the comedy circuit these days. Hughes wasn’t trained in comedy at university as many of today’s bland comics tend to be, but lived a life which many of us of the same age lived.

I saw Hughes live a few times either at comedy festivals or places like Reading Festival, but it was his Channel 4 programme Sean’s Show that defined him for me.

His slightly cynical, dark world-view was hidden by a sense of the absurd at times, but his view of the world mirrored so many of us. At that time in the 90’s the world was changing and Hughes’s comedy helped reflect upon a world we didn’t really understand at the time but we laughed at it with Hughes.

I also liked the fact he stuck with stand-up throughout his life. Yes, he did sitcoms, panel shows and other TV appearances, but he never used stand-up as a means to an end of becoming a ‘celebrity’. I’ll always respect him for sticking to his guns and that’s why I’ll miss him. I’ll miss the fact we’ll never have his view on life at a time when we need people like Hughes.

In celebration of Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton has passed away, and the acting world is a little bit lesser for it. Stanton was in my mind one of the finest actors of the last 50 years, and not as the BBC would have it, a ‘cult actor’. In fact it’s only when you look at his C.V. that you realise the man didn’t stop working for six decades so you can’t call someone who appeared in huge mainstream films and on massively popular TV series as a ‘cult’ actor. He was an actor who didn’t look like a leading man, but instead looked like ‘normal people’ and this was his attraction in a medium where people look extraordinary.

Like most people of my age I first noticed him in Alien. where he enjoys a great death scene.

Imagine Alien though without Stanton (or indeed any of the cast) and with traditional Hollywood actors and it wouldn’t work as well. In fact you only need to look at Alien: Covenant to see what that looks like. However as my education into film progressed it wasn’t hard to see Stanton seemingly everywhere from the glorious Cool Hand Luke to what’s still one of my favourite WW2 films, Kelly’s Heroes.

It is safe to say though that after Alien, Stanton became a higher profile actor and during the 1980’s carved himself a niche playing roles in some of the best (and in some cases vastly underrated) films of the decade. From The Rose, to Escape From New York, Stanton would appear in crucial roles but three films he appeared in during the 80’s also happen to be in my mind three of the best films ever made.

Death Watch is a SF film shot in a Glasgow still blacked by the industrial revolution and still dragging itself into the 20th century. It’s a fantastic backdrop for a story that seems prescient as reality TV vomited into the world a few decades later.

Repo Man is one of the few films that hits a perfect Punk attitude. The film shares some of its DNA with the comic Love and Rockets, and is wonderfully seedy in a way we never seem to get in film anymore.

Paris, Texas is one of the best films ever made.Stanton makes the film soar with one of the best openings you’ll ever see in a film.

In 1990 Stanton and director David Lynch finally linked up with Wild at Heart, then a few years later with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

He later worked with Lynch in a small, but crucial role in The Straight Story and Inland Empire, while seemingly never stopping working in films good, bad and just plain bloody awful or popping up in cameos in mega-blockbusters like The Avengers.

A few weeks ago the Twin Peaks return finished on a high with Stanton returning playing the same role as he did in Fire Walk With Me 25 years ago.

I could list more and more, but Harry Dean Stanton had a career like no other and will never be replaced because he’s a one-off who leaves us an amazing body of work. He’ll be missed.

RIP Len Wein

Writer, editor and comics creator Len Wein has passed away at the age of 69, which is far too soon. He leave behind a massive amount of not just important creations (Swamp Thing with Berni Wrightson and Wolverine with Herb Trimpe and John Romita Snr to name the two big ones) but some truly great comics work. For me, my first exposure to Wein was Justice League of America #100 and this great Nick Cardy cover.

Wein wrote the JLA from this issue to #114, and these remain some of my favourite superhero comics ever not just because they’re enormous fun, but for me, these were the first superhero comics I read that even had a hint of doing something more than just stringing together fight scenes. It remains a vastly underrated run.

His Marvel work in the 70’s helped entertain me massively, especially the joy filled fun that was Marvel Team-Up.

A nice fun run on Amazing Spider-Man,

And a long run on The Incredible Hulk which is where Wolverine first made his début.

It’s worth noting that if Wein hadn’t brought Wolverine into the new X-Men in Giant Size X-Men #1, the revamped X-Men might never have gotten off the ground and failed and Wolverine would be a minor character that once popped up in a few issues of the Hulk’s title.

Instead though, Wein made the masterstroke of sticking Wolverine into the X-Men and unleashed a massive fan-favourite for decades to come.

As an editor he’s responsible for helping Alan Moore and Gave Gibbons Watchmen into the world.

Overall Wein gave comics more than he’s probably appreciated for. Without him DC may never have hired Alan Moore in the first place and all that British talent DC mined from the 80’s to today. Wein changed the mainstream comics industry in the US and UK massively and his passing is a loss. Yes, we can dwell upon shite like Before Watchmen and later work, but let’s not dwell there and choose instead to remember his work for helping kids like me have some entertainment over the decades…