The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
HOME E-MAIL JOE PRINT 2018 COLUMNS JOE'S ARCHIVES SEARCH LOG OUT
On the Passing of a Truth-Teller
Friday, July 6, 2018 -- We talk about a lot of things at JoeSentMe.com because so many things affect our lives on the road.
We talk planes and trains and automobiles and hotels and credit cards, of course, but also music and movies and sports and politics and food. But we never talk about comic books--and there's a reason for that.
I grew up reading comic books, from that time in 1961 when a fat 8-year-old kid redirected a dime from an egg cream to the purchase of Justice League of America. I published fanzines by the time I was 16. I have the dubious distinction of helping to launch the first professional magazine about comic books in America. And I was the first person ever paid to write about comics in the comic books. I had a column in the Warren magazines for five years that, honestly, wasn't all that different in tone and tenor and approach from The Brancatelli File.
When I walked away in 1980, however, I walked away. I only own one comic book now, a 1962 issue of Justice League of America that carried a very personal message for a fat 9-year-old: Be better than you think you can be. I have only written about comic books one time in the intervening 38 years.
I'm coming back to them now because Steve Ditko has died. He is best known as the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, tent poles of what they now call the Marvel Universe. He was a genius at his craft, of course, but you'll also hear and read stories about Ditko's odd political and social beliefs, his peculiar working habits and his mania for privacy.
Almost all of what you will read will be written by people who never met Steve, never talked to Steve, never worked with Steve. When you die at 90, as Steve did last week, and had cut yourself off from almost everyone you ever knew, that will happen.
What does that matter, though? Other people always write our obituaries, our epitaphs and our stories. In that respect, Steve Ditko is no different than you or me or anyone.
But I knew Steve Ditko, talked with him and worked with him. Because I walked away in 1980 and because Steve was the kind of guy he was, our last conversation a few years ago was brief. As always, his reply came by handwritten letter--and it was very little more than him explaining why we probably shouldn't have lunch since so many years had passed.
Yet I won't let Steve's death pass without saying something. He was important to me. And I don't think I can say anything better about Steve then what I wrote in 2012, the one time in the last four decades that I've broken my self-imposed comics silence.
Steve Ditko had a massive impact on a several generations of Americans. I was one of them. Here's my story. You should read it because it also helps explain why there's a JoeSentMe.com.
Truth Is The Answer to The Question
November, 2012, published in Robin Snyder's The Comics! -- Because Steve Ditko graciously contributed long, thoughtful letters to a fanzine I once published and because he once allowed me to help him publish a Mr. A comic book, some people believe that I have insight into Steve as an artist and social commentator.
I have no such knowledge. All I can tell you is what I know: Steve Ditko and his iconic creations, Mr. A and The Question, the Comics-Code-sanitized version of Mr. A, are what convinced me to become a journalist. Ditko and those creations gave me a purpose in life, a personal code of conduct and a zeal to shine a light on what I think is right.
I was never much of a Marvel Comics reader as a kid so I'd never seen Ditko's work on Spider-Man or Doctor Strange when I stumbled upon an issue of Charlton's Blue Beetle. Ditko's work on that character didn't look or read much like anything I'd seen in comics before and I liked it. A lot. But I was particularly intrigued by the back-up character, The Question.
I would have just been entering my teens then and The Question seemed to have all of my answers: His alter ego, Vic Sage, was a hard-charging investigative reporter and that seemed like a good and decent and honorable thing to be. By the time the one-shot Mysterious Suspense was published in 1968, Ditko might as well have been crafting my personal guide to adulthood.
Thanks to a fanzine called Comic Crusader, I found Mr. A, too. His alter-ego, Rex Graine, was also a reporter. Graine and Mr. A believed in things. Not in a comic-booky, fantasy way, but in genuine, real-life ways. Actions had consequences and reactions. Bad things and good things happened and, if you couldn't tell or wouldn't recognize the difference, there were severe and unavoidable repercussions.
In Mr. A and The Question, there were no magical hammers, no superpowers, no supervillians, no easy choices and no gimmicky happy endings. There was only real life and hard decisions. And always there was Steve Ditko, talking through that strange and unfamiliar lettering, hammering home a message. Ditko's commentaries weren't cuddly sermons or political pablum. They espoused a worldview that you could love or hate, but were compelled to respect and consider.
I inevitably drifted away from comics because my goal was to be Vic Sage or Rex Graine. I don't even have a copy of the Mr. A comic book Steve so unexpectedly allowed me to get to market for him decades ago. But I'll tell you a story that, I hope, will attest to Ditko's eternal influence on his readers.
A few years ago, I took over a flagging magazine called Frequent Flyer and gave it a radical overhaul. It took me two or three issues to get it into shape and I sent the first good one over to my closest friend in journalism.
What do you think? I scribbled on the note attached to the magazine.
There was a voicemail waiting the next day. You can tell it's a Brancatelli magazine, my friend said.
I called him and said, What do you mean? I didn't realize I had that recognizable a style.
Look at the cover, he said with a laugh. It's got the word 'truth' in the head[line]. Brancatelli magazines always have the word 'truth' on the cover, he claimed.
I don't know if that's true. But I'm honored that my friends think I stand for truth. And I know for sure where that conviction comes from. From Mr. A. And The Question. And Vic Sage and Rex Graine. And, of course, from Steve Ditko.
This column is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.